Our path leads along a searing beach, around and behind an estuary. We move through a dry forest and over into cattle-lands broadly strewn with giant Baobob and Guanacaste trees. Herons, egrets and ibis give way to rare trogons and tree-top orioles. A white-nosed coati, raccoon-like, scrabbles noisily in the corn-flake leaves of the forest floor. A still-water creek appears and disappears, its bristling edges host to thousands of hermit-crabs who wear a fashion-show of shells, their mobile homes.
A girl with a face like Cameron Diaz is curious and fresh from art school. “Down here for a while,” she says. She uses my satellite phone to call home from the sky. She loves art, art books, museums, Rothko, maybe someday she’ll teach. We’re talking goals.
If the goal is to sustain in your art, and let it feed you, the answer is to go to a solitary studio for a while — probably somewhere up north, she agrees. If the goal is to play, there’s plenty of that to be had. Nothing wrong with play. Capuchin monkeys demo branch-hanging and swinging and look down to see if we’re watching. Self-indulgent play may be the main future of human art. If the goal is artistic literacy, you need to be on the path, and down here is just fine. You have to work at it though. You have to shake the dust from the books. This is a dusty place, but it’s a place for thinking and dreaming. All in all, after school, life’s the main school. The art that is made here is natural, human and innocent, we note. Tree-roots are made into symbolic beings, colours shout like the birds’ colours, people are going Gauguin.
Our path leads deeper into a land not traveled. It’s easy to let time slip by. In this part of Costa Rica there’s a yellow flower called “mani” that stays open all night. In the morning it faces the sunrise. Remaining closed during the heat of the day it opens once more to face the sunset.
Education can be sand oozing between your toes, a closely watched snake, beach-children at play, a sunset Marguerita. “You have to choose your friends down here — like you choose your books,” she says. “There are people here who are still at the Motley Crue stage.”
PS: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin.” (St. Matthew 6:28)
Esoterica: As the days turn one into the other you realize that the art-life is made of facets. Study, experience and creative expression arrive in their own sweet time. There’s that enforced patience that’s also a good friend back in the home studio. Here, it’s what you have been able to get into your suitcase. Simplicity of means is fun for the vision. The mani are turning around this laptop as I write to you. I hope you’re having a good day.
(RG note) “Mani” may be the local Costa Rican name for the yellow flowered groundcover. This photo shows your twice-weekly letter in progress. The laptop directs the letter to that Globalstar satellite phone which bounces the stuff back to Andrew in my Canadian studio. He resends it to a dozen or so critical “letter reviewers” who check for errors. When its checked, Ken Hu receives it in his computer, puts it into his Groupmail program and sends it on to you. My better letters take me about half an hour to write. Most of them take me about three hours.
by Dawn Smith, Panama
I re-emerged as an artist in Costa Rica. We lived there for about 5 years, to experience life from a culture outside the United States. At first, I was inundated with the tropical colors and creatures. Coming from the gringo desert, I found the light quite different — softer and full of water. As I began to understand the culture, I was surprised at attitudes that came out in my work — different from my old perceptions and worldview. I found a lot of forgiveness for my pedantic blunders back into art. My old styles didn’t fit the post-children me, nor the culture, nor the colors — I had never seen a triple rainbow, till I lived in San Isidro de Heredia. They became a daily reward after withstanding a day full of wind and clouds in the rainy season. And I’ll swear they ended in the proverbial pot of gold, in the coffee finca next door. Costa Rica helped me formulate my goals, both what I wanted and didn’t want to achieve.
Specific list achieves goals
by Raynald Murphy, Montreal, QC, Canada
I am a retired schoolteacher now into a second career as a full-time artist. I often meet people who are near retirement. Some share their intended retirement goals. More often than not these are quite vague.
A few years before retirement I read an article in Readers’ Digest magazine that suggested that we write down in random order fifty things we want to do before we die. While writing this list I thought at the time that most of these goals were probably unattainable. Ten years later, the list has since yellowed but upon recent review I notice that I have crossed off nearly 20 items.
Goals in life as in art should be specific in order to hope to attain them. For example, it isn’t enough to say that you wish to learn to paint. Mention with what medium, what style attracts you and if you intend to take workshops, etc. to achieve this goal.
Speaking for myself, the act of writing down those fifty “things to do before I die” some ten years ago has, I am convinced, had a tangible influence in my achieving them. Try this exercise, you might benefit from it too!
by Zoltan Galos, Johannesburg, South Africa
On and off I love to ride this ebb of a quiet Sunday morning, where I practice conscious mutism, even for an hour or two, whatever comes naturally and wanted. I delve into the world of art with a book I find I left behind on the low table of our living room that carries all the books I wanted to read and did not manage. I have a place I prefer to sit. I can observe in between musings the doves and weaverbirds chasing each other for a place on the feeding tray to pick their life’s essential pulses.
Reflections, Musings and reviewing personal experiences through different angles of light — What is inside us is out there as well. I flee it at times and then there is a new city I do not know yet. I find a small elongated and cool room that gives to me a refuge. As the crumbled wall of a once sacred site, this is a sanctuary of contemporary life. The caesura to an ongoing process that any art requires from an artist. This continuous monologue that seeks to become a dialogue, where art itself is surfacing in those rare moments of a rushing pen, or brush between one’s fingers…
Perhaps something is waiting for me to tread across the threshold of everyday life and enter into unknown land of empty spaces, where I can unfold. Or into filled-up city streets and squares that are the same to me. Drifting sand in a desert that grazes my soul with every sand corn. Every person that is zipping past.
The process of drawing, painting and writing poetry is thus the outcome of this speed of today’s living we find ourselves thrown into at times. We do flee this realm, when we have exhausted our strength and curiosity. In the quaintness of a different and foreign place we can have the good fortune to be staying, we can thus let the experiences seep into our pens and brushes, pencils and crayons. Let the juices that are stirred into new life flow at this creative bloodletting of our artistic beings.
Art is creating us
by Angela Treat Lyon, Hawaii, USA
Regarding Tatjana’s letter Doesn’t like the smell: The bad smell only means you’re unfamiliar with what’s cooking. Let it simmer a bit, stir it and serve it. If you don’t like it, do it again. Painting is just like that.
Often in the midst of what used to be a piece I liked, it will go straight to hell. I’ve learned not to throw it out or paint over it, but simply let it guide me where it wants to go. I believe that we are not the creators of art, but that the art is creating us. It takes time, wonder, diligence, and more wonder to be able to watch and learn and appreciate.
by Vickie Turner, Parksville, BC, Canada
I enjoy the twice weekly letters — it’s a bit like going to the mailbox and finding a letter, hand-addressed, with an unusual stamp, and you can’t wait to open it. Although always interesting, this one was particularly thought provoking. The art-life, to me, is:
— no road rage
— swinging an axe to chop your own wood
— sitting in front of a fire you built to heat your home and stimulate your senses
— no anxiety
— reaching inside yourself and being at peace with what you find
— getting excited at a possibility
— crying, listening to Don McLean’s Starry, Starry Night because you, for the first time, understood Vincent Van Gogh
— a great adventure
— being the master of your own destiny
— growing from those same successes and failures
— sighing deeply as you watch the sky go from yellow-edged azure, to anthraquinone blue, to black
— laughing out loud and not caring who sees
— dancing in the studio, paintbrush between teeth
— quiet contemplation
— intense searching
— awe-inspiring insights
— an award in itself
— the fountain of youth
Painter’s block calls for a trip
by Darlyne Chauve, Key Biscayne, FL, USA
To leave your daily routine always opens up new ideas and inspirations. I have just returned myself from a long and much needed trip to Africa after spending 6 months going to my studio every day and nothing was coming. I had painter’s block very bad. I took this trip to Africa and now I have no idea where it is coming from, but there are not enough hours in the day, and inspiration has found me again. Perhaps when my next painter’s block happens, I will return to magical Costa Rica.
Trying to keep work alive
by Chris Carless, Toronto, ON, Canada
I have been painting for about ten years now and have been through dry spells now and then. Currently I have been working on a still life, rose petals and pears, which has been sitting on my easel for three months now. The pears are tough little things and do not rot too quickly. The rose buds and petals are a creamy shade of rose with magenta, and violet, and a number of other colors. I work away, and strive not to be bored or inattentive. Recently I used the end of an old palette to sketch an abstract and today I copied an Egon Schiele sketch as a warm up. Still hoping and working to keep my art alive.
No need to show work
by Janet Vanderhoof, Morgan Hill, CA, USA
Everyone says I should get my art out there. So far I have kept my art mostly to myself. I wish I didn’t have to feel guilty about doing art for a purpose such as showing to galleries and selling. I often wonder what would my art be like if I had no obligations and painted whatever I wanted. I would love to play and have no need to show my work or think about goals. Is that the chicken way out? Maybe. I don’t know.
Gut instincts differ
by Marina Morgan, Vancouver, BC, Canada
The book Blink was interesting, and reminded me of my first “academic” love — psychology. Needless to say, the frailties of ID witness testimony, differing memories and differing “gut instincts” on the part of police or witnesses in general are rather challenging to test in court.
Interesting that, in the book, art and archeological imposters were sussed by people experts who “felt” them to be “off,” just as you did with the fake Jackson. Also interesting that if too many jam choices were provided, people couldn’t decide anything at all — it had to be kept to a choice of around six, I think. The book synthesizes the ongoing maddening problems facing someone in the moment: to choose to rely on “instinct” or not.
On a much more mundane but humorous angle, the current comedy movie “Hitch” addresses in part the same issue.
by Susan Richardson, La Jolla, CA, USA
I want to ask about something you wrote the other day: “Self-indulgent play may be the main future of human art. If the goal is artistic literacy, you need to be on the path, and down here is just fine.” I interpreted that to mean that self-indulgent play was an undesirable thing and something very different from artistic literacy. Maybe I misunderstood. What I do feels like self-indulgent play, so I got a little nervous when I read that.
In my work I splash paint, collage in interesting elements that strike my fancy and write words that bubble up from my soul right on the piece in any direction or color that feels right. Each piece comes from my heart and soul and some great source outside of me. I’ve studied art and calligraphy for about 25 years. I’m always taking classes, reading books, studying and thinking about the work of other artists and, most importantly, critiquing my own work and striving to improve in every way possible. Still, when I create, I just feel like a big kid. It all seems like a blast, a fun-fest, self-indulgent play. In fact, what people say they like most about my work is its sense of joy, playfulness, and whimsy. Would love to explore this further. It’s something I think about a lot.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2005.
That includes Helena Tiainen who wrote, “Depending on your orientation is how you see anything. How wonderful! And yet how dreadful!”
And also Khaimraj Seepersad, Trinidad who wrote, “Just want to know what the mani looks like. This e-mail comes to you from yet another tropical paradise — Trinidad (just off the coast of Venezuela) — where it’s presently breezy and cool.”