San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

National Gallery Showcases U.S. Artists

Outstanding natural beauty, diversity, warm and friendly people – all these things draw visitors to Costa Rica year after year.

However, it is not ju st tourists who arelured to the country. Exactly that combination brought U.S. artists Anita Wetzel of New York and Frances Valesco of California to the country in March 2007 to take up residencies at the Julia and David White Artists’ Colony in Ciudad Colón, southwest of the capital. A year later, the fruits of their labors are on display at San José’s National Gallery.

Wetzel, 58, whose exhibition is titled “Forward and Reverse,” was certainly inspired.

“I was so moved by the natural surroundings and so comfortable that I just flipped out,” she told The Tico Times at the exhibition’s inauguration.

Wetzel uses the insides of boxes, food cartons and cigarette packs as alternative “canvases” for her work. In her own words, she is “putting to use the detritus of our productoriented society.”

“On the ‘hidden face’ of this canvas, now the ‘public face,’ I combine drawn, painted and found elements using mixed media, collage and photograph fragments,” she explains in her artist’s statement.

The resulting pieces throw up some innovative and thought-provoking juxtapositions, which are given added effect by their hanging away from the wall, creating shadows and plays of light that subtly contribute to each work.

The piece “Al Cruce” (“At the Crossroads”), for example, offers an acute observation on the war in Iraq. The originally blank side of the flattened box carries blackand-white images of war, including a photograph clipped from a newspaper showing the image of a coalition soldier on patrol, reflected in a puddle.

The shape of the canvas is a cross, which in conceptual form automatically evokes the sense of a crossroads. The original product sold inside the box was an oriental tea, which according to the inverted text on the other side “has surfaced among the more advanced cultures of the day as a solution to the angst of daily life.”

“I feel the people of the United States and the people of Iraq are at a crossroads,” Wetzel said. “I do not believe the United States should have invaded Iraq … however, I believe the dilemmas created by that action have become a responsibility for our government.”

This questioning of the direction of global society is a theme throughout the exhibit, and is summed up by the exhibition’s title.

“‘Forward and Reverse’ is this idea of ‘Are we going forward or not, in terms of politics and society?’” Wetzel said. “But it is not meant in a heavy way. I was thinking like in a car when you put the clutch out – you jump backwards instead of forwards. I was hoping that it had a sense of humor.”

On the other hand, Frances Valesco’s show, “Peine de Mono y Otra Flora” (“Monkey’s Comb and Other Flora”) focuses more on the natural world, with plant seeds and water two particular inspirations.

“At the residency, I became enamored with the swimming pool,” said Valesco, 66. “Water is so magical as it is solid, but you can see under the surface.

“What inspired me about water is that you can see clearly to the bottom but also what is on top – at the surface. I guess people are always looking for that clarity.”

The rationale behind the seeds, however, is more artistic than conceptual.

“I would walk around the colony and just pick up things,” Valesco said. “With the seeds, the aesthetic appealed to me – it is folded like origami.”

Asked how her stay in the country has affected her, Valesco said, “Here I feel more exposed to more influences. There is a good exchange of ideas and a dialogue – and I think artists really need that.

“San José is a really interesting city. It has a great artistic scene.”

Both exhibitions, as well as another by Pennsylvania-born artist Janet Culbertson (see box), are on display until April 29 at the National Gallery in San José’s Children’s Museum, 100 meters north of the intersection between Avenida 9 and Calle 4. The gallery is open Monday to Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and weekends, 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Entrance to the gallery is free. For information, call 2258-4929.

‘The Sacred Earth: Past, Present and Future’

In addition to Anita Wetzel and Frances Valesco, a third U.S. artist, Janet Culbertson, is also displaying works at the National Gallery until April 29.

Inaugurated March 2, Culbertson’s exhibition is titled “La Tierra Sagrada: Pasado, Presente y Futuro” (“The Sacred Earth: Past, Present and Future”) and offers a haunting, nightmarish vision of a future world and a commentary on the damage and degradation caused by unsustainable industrial practices.

“I am fascinated by our complex love yet exploitation of nature,” said Culbertson, 76. “For me, painting is an affirmation of my concern and sense of awe for my subject, the natural world and its creatures.”

The Pennsylvania-born artist, who was originally a landscape painter, has long been conscious of this precarious balance in her native United States. Over the course of four separate periods of residency at the Julia and David White Artists’ Colony, she noticed a similar phenomenon in this country.

“One of the problems, which is also the country’s main resource, is tourism,” Culbertson said. “It is a two-edged situation: On the one hand it is good for the economy, but on the other hand so much tourism is causing some ecological problems.”

The contrast was reinforced by comparison with the “very, very beautiful” setting of the artists’ colony, she added.

Culbertson feels that the strong relevance of her theme has encouraged a positive reaction to her work.

“I think that I had a message that really dealt with some of the situations of the country that was very timely,” she said.

Although concerned about the ecological future of Costa Rica, Culbertson is, by contrast, highly enthusiastic about the country’s artistic scene.

“I took a couple of tours to artists’ studios and I found that the work was very strong,” she said. “And I really enjoyed meeting the artists.”

Culbertson feels particularly privileged to be able to exhibit in the unique space of the National Gallery.

“I love it,” she said. “How many museums have art galleries that permit and even encourage visiting artists? I think that is terrific.

“I have been doing this work for a long, long time. I am just so glad to be able to have it seen.”


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