San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Costa Rican artist turns recycled paper into sculptures

For Gibran Tabash, yesterday’s newspapers are tomorrow’s art. The Costa Rican artist uses recycled paper, felled trees and discarded pieces of wood and iron to construct his unique pieces of art. 

Tabash, 35, has been interested in both art and environmental conservation since he was a young boy growing up in San José. He studied art, with a concentration in painting, at the National University. During one of his art courses, students were asked to carve pieces from “expensive wood,” he says. Tabash, who considers trees “godlike,” felt it was irresponsible and unnecessary in the 20th century to use wood when so many other materials are available. 

“For a country that wants to project to the world that they love nature, it’s contradictory to be using trees for unnecessary things,” Tabash says.

So, 10 years ago, Tabash set out to create sculptures from recycled paper. His goal was to demonstrate that environmentally friendly sculptures not only could be displayed outside and withstand the elements, but also could be aesthetically pleasing. There was just one complication: Tabash had no experience in this art medium. 

“The first five years I made a lot of mistakes,” he acknowledges.

Recycled Paper Sculpture

The finished product is weatherproof.

Dominique Farrell

Over time, Tabash developed a sustainable process that also works artistically. He begins each piece by fabricating a base and skeleton from recycled wood or iron. Then, using recycled paper, he begins the time-consuming task of building the sculpture layer by layer. The process is similar to papier-mâché, with one important difference: Papier-mâché is temporary, while Tabash’s sculptures are permanent. After the statue is constructed using paper, he allows it to dry and then paints a layer of cement over the entire piece. Tabash says this thin layer of cement not only protects the statue from the elements but also renders it practically unbreakable. Finally, he paints the sculpture to give it the desired look.

And his sculptures are impressive. Using different paint colors, Tabash has imitated bronze, gold and stone statues inexpensively, and without depleting those resources. Details like clothing wrinkles and facial features are all accomplished with the layering of paper.

For the past two years, Tabash has lived in San Isidro de El General, a crossroads city in the Southern Zone. 

“People in town think I’m a little crazy about paper because I’m always running around and grabbing paper off the street or from businesses that are throwing out stacks of it,” he says.

After struggling to eke out a living for several years by creating murals and paintings, Tabash is finally gaining recognition for his work. His “Monument to the Workers,” featuring statues of two farmers and two bulls, will be installed in the San Isidro de El General Central Park in February. The monument measures about 2.7 meters high and 8 meters wide and took Tabash two years to complete. He used a total of 50 kilograms of recycled paper in the process. 

“It will be the first monument made with recycled paper in Costa Rica,” he says.

Tabash also was recently commissioned to create a statue of a female surfer for a client in Jacó, on the central Pacific coast. It will be the fourth sculpture the artist has installed in that town. 

In the future, Tabash would like to create sculptures that deliver a message about the environment and recycling, he says. With all the paper he uses for his sculptures, he’s practically a one-man recycling machine. 

For more information on the artist, find Artista Gibran Tabash on Facebook.

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