Musings from the Jungle of Costa Rica
I recently spent a month in Costa Rica with my partner Dan and our twenty-four year old daughter. We were all artists in residence at Mauser Foundation Eco House. Sounds better than it really was but it was a creative and productive adventure.
The novelty of being in such an exotic place is a draw for visually oriented persons such as myself and my family. Costa Rica is very special. There is a huge variety of flora and fauna because of the tropical conditions here, where North and South America form a connecting land bridge. There is more diversity in the natural world here than in the neighbouring countries to the north and south. I wonder if I have the eyes to see what is here.
Discovery and picture taking….
It was a thrill to discover new things and to see the beauty and magnificence of nature. We had close encounters with hummingbirds, butterflies, monkeys and ocean waves.
Collecting and Preserving
Often an artist will collect natural objects, found in the places they visit. Here at the end of the road in a rural setting with not many people around, our focus is on the flora mostly and the extraordinary birds and insects that happen by.
Flowers catch our eyes as they punctuate the landscape with splashes of colour. We take pictures of course. Flowers are plants’ triumphant moment! It’s all about sex and reproduction, not dissimilar to our human culture. Naturally they are showy, in an effort to attract pollinators.
My project here in Costa Rica is the archaic process of Anthotypes, using flower petals to make a light sensitive emulsion, which fades when exposed to the sun. The process is similar in some ways to an old fashioned herbarium, where plants and flowers are collected, pressed, mounted and labeled. These prints are a marker of particular time in a particular place.
To make an anthotype I took the freshest flower blooms of the day, ground the petals into a paste, diluted that with water or alcohol and applied it to paper. The resulting emulsion renders the paper sensitive to light and it can then be exposed to sunlight to fade. I used leaves as a light resist to create mostly tone-on-tone images.
The prints are left to be exposed by the sun for a day or two or ten. The length of time of the exposure is an artistic decision as well as an experiment. This project has been a discovery of the plants of this particular place and of my time here. And like memory they will fade with the passing of time.
I think this work might be presented as a book project entitled “Costa Rican Jungle Book”, (working title). The book would be a collection of plants I found and which I preserved in this odd way, and would also function as a record of my explorations, discoveries and art-making in this place.
I initially thought the experimental phase would lead to the making of larger and more complex compositions but I found that the project has been more about the process and not so much about the end result.
I am undertaking this residency with my family. My partner Dan is making paintings, mostly abstract, but I can see the influence of this place creeping into his colours and forms. He uses a lot of green! Our daughter Willow is working on a project of natural fabric dyeing using plants and soil.
As I observe what Dan is working on, I am inspired to make a companion piece to one of his compositions. I notice that one of the anthotype emulsions I make is a similar green to a colour he is painting with. Then he starts to make fields of colour in a rectangular form that look just like the emulsions I paint on the paper I am working on. He remarks that I am really a painter!
I notice how Willow’s dye baths change with the various mordants she is using to set them and I try adding a little baking soda or vinegar to my emulsions to see if they will yield a different colour. Sometimes it works!
One of the other artists in residence tells a tale of how scientists only publish the successes of their experiments. This gives me something to think about and another way to view the “failures” in my project of anthotypes. If I exclude these failures because they look too dull, then am I being true to this place and to the process? How will anyone else learn from my mistakes if I edit out all my failures? This is something I struggle with as I am not a scientist, I am a visual artist and my decision making is visual and aesthetically driven.
In Costa Rica we have been to the beach, to a local waterfall, to the nature reserves and we even traveled to a different ecological zone to escape the relentless heat. Each of these little adventures becomes part of the background, part of the field of what an artist works from. Traveling is a way to know a place that is very different from our home.
For me it has been important to discover and have access to work with plants that are very different from my home place. I have made work that is very much about this place, even though I am not from here and don’t belong here.
I am very grateful to have been able to spend time in a place I have only ever dreamt of. Thank you Mauser Foundation for the opportunity to discover Costa Rica in a creative, intimate and artful way.