Terra: Sarchí, Costa Rica
Coffee pulses through the veins of every Tico, whether they choose to imbibe or not. It is the lifeblood of Costa Rica. Sarchí is a small town nestled among coffee plantations, a development center once focused on the singular task of processing and shipping red ripe beans to various mills along both coastlines.
However, over time, Sarchí became something much more than intended. Out of industrial necessity, the same craftsmen who repaired coffee-laden oxcarts turned their woodworking skills to furniture and other artisan works. Much like the tuners, lowriders, and drifters of our age, painted and adorned oxcarts became a status symbol of this proud community. The oxcart is a representation of hard, backbreaking work, subverted by the brilliant, engaging designs painted on every available surface.
As you follow the road to Sarchí from Alajuela, the number of workshops and factories rise proportionally to the proximity to the city center. It’s oddly reminiscent of rural North Carolina, once the thriving American heartland of hand-crafted furniture, now struggling to maintain its identity and relevance in a global economy. The numerous hand-made furniture shops reflect a historic shift from cart fabrication and repair to household goods. The craft must carry on, albeit evolved.
Once the truck replaced the oxcart, the symbol of industry and economic success turned into an even greater symbol of identity and aesthetics. Circular patterns on the wheels and handles hypnotize, and stroke by stroke the master painters carefully plot lines and color combinations for their next work. These painters often mimic nature, the master artist. Many designs resemble flower petals or feathers, and the tail of the Quetzal appears in more than one instance. Watching them paint is a privilege.
The designs permeate to the central plaza of Sarchí where concrete benches receive a fresh coat of protection against the elements. In an unusually large covered pavilion a gigantic oxcart stands as a testament to the past, present, and future of Sarchí’s inhabitants. It’s actually a little uncomfortable being brought to this obvious tourist draw in the middle of town. There’s a symbiotic relationship between tourism and the artists here, for obviously, without a steady stream of tourists to witness this massive sculpture it would serve little purpose in anything else. If art is not seen, what is the purpose of art?
And that is the feeling of Sarchí. Once providing the word with hard physical labor, it now fulfills an intellectual purpose. The colorful aesthetic brings joy to the people here. It’s an explosive manifestation of the pride in their community. There are few places where so many talented people, in wood, paint, sculpture, and more, can gather and express their individuality and their Costa Rican Heritage.
Michael Van Etten
The LEAF Project
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