San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Great gift ideas: The fair-trade art of Verdes y Colores

Consider this mask: It looks demonic, with its cruel eyes, curved fangs, flared nostrils and warped outline. If you took a quick glance, you’d think it was part of an arty Halloween costume. You might admire its grotesque workmanship and move on. You would have no idea that the Boruca people once carved these mascaras de los diablitos out of balsa wood to frighten invading Spaniards. You wouldn’t know that the tradition lives on, after hundreds of years.

You wouldn’t know, that is, unless you visited Verdes y Colores, a self-described souvenir museum just north of downtown Alajuela. But Verdes y Colores contains more than just souvenirs, and unlike a traditional museum, every item on display is for sale. The purpose of Verdes y Colores is to showcase authentic Costa Rican crafts and explain their complex provenance.

“When people come to the door,” says co-owner Juan José Bolaños, pointing to the cozy front porch, “they are welcomed by [our staff]. Everyone who comes here gets a free tour. We want them to know the story behind the work.”

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This “devil’s mask” is a contemporary take on an old anti-colonial tradition – indigenous people trying to frighten Catholic Spaniards with demonic faces.

Robert Isenberg

Bolaños can describe any object in the one-room store in intimate detail. He can tell you about the patterns on Chorotega pottery, the stitching in Guaymí dolls, and the special wood used for Boruca bows and arrows. According to Bolaño, some artisans find a particular kind of mollusk in the ocean, frighten it, and use the creature’s secreted ink for pigments. Letting the mollusk go free, shaken but unharmed, is a centuries-old tradition.

Located on an upscale stretch of road in the Alajuela suburbs, Verdes y Colores began as a student project, created by co-owner Melissa Jiménez, at the University of Costa Rica. Bolaño knew Jiménez from high school, and after studying Agricultural Engineering at EARTH University, he decided to collaborate. After all, both Bolaño and Jiménez shared an interest in sustainable products. Verdes y Colores was officially established in 2008, and the pair joined forces with Karla Aguilar, a designer from Veritas University. Together, the trio has operated Verdes y Colores as a social enterprise, roughly equivalent to a U.S. nonprofit.

“We were young when we started,” says Bolaños, who is now 25. “We wanted to do something with values.”

The values he describes include fair-trade products from nameable artists, who currently represent 45 distinct communities across Costa Rica. These products show endless variety, from replicas of pre-Colombian artifacts to hammocks hand-woven from cotton yarn. (Each hammock takes about five hours to make). The store sells organic, fair-trade coffee, as well as contemporary wooden bowls and ceramic pigs and T-shirts made entirely from bamboo fibers. They are cultivating a brand, “Auténtico,” that helps unite disparate crafters.

Even the music that plays from the store’s speakers was composed and recorded by Costa Ricans. (During my visit, we heard piano solos by Manuel Obregón, who also happens to be the nation’s culture minister).

Those values extend to environmental husbandry and new technology: The store has no air conditioning, every light source uses LED fixtures, and the building uses large windows to full advantage. Meanwhile, they hope to open an online store, which will connect Verdes y Colores and its participating artists to a global marketplace.

For artists, enrolling with Verdes y Colores may seem like a dream gig, but it isn’t easy. Artists must be natives of Costa Rica, and they must sign a sworn declaration that have complete control over their materials and creative processes – few factory-made components, no foreign labor or imports. Bolaños says the artists earn about 50 percent of the final profits. If the quality drops, Bolaños and his colleagues notice. “It happens,” he says. “Not frequently. But sometimes we have to tell them to improve their process. We want them to have a dignified life, so that they grow with us.”

In the world of souvenirs, the store’s commitment to native craftspeople is rare. Across the country, innumerable stores sell Tico art, from mass-produced wood sculptures to foreign-made lighters and wallets. While Bolaños does not make any accusations, he theorizes that the bulk of these products are imported, and distant companies profit the most.

“We want to say, ‘You are taking something from Costa Rica, not just a T-shirt of a frog in a hammock or a beer logo,’” Bolaño says. When he sees a generic souvenir stall, he feels indignant. “It is shocking, because people are so detached from what Costa Rican artists are doing. All these stores are giving a bad impression of what is being done here. All the things [in Verdes y Colores] are unique.”

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Co-owner Juan José Bolaños and Store Supervisor María José Murillo stand in the corner of their store. The lamp behind them is made from repurposed circuit board casings.

Robert Isenberg

When store manager María José Murillo shows off some wooden sculptures – mostly bowls and wine-holders – she notes that such objects can be found anywhere, but these particular pieces have holes, jagged edges, and unusual contours. They are part of the store’s “Rescued Wood” series. Artists use only fallen trees or scraps from others’ studios. Their rugged appearance is part of their unique aesthetic.

“There is no way you will find a perfectly round tree,” Murillo says. “But the artist uses those imperfections in his art.”

“That is how you know when something is real,” Bolaño addds. “Because it has imperfections.”

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