Costa Rican oxcarts, with their unique construction and colorful designs, are so closely associated with the country’s image that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has proclaimed them to be Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage, an international distinction intended to raise public awareness of the value of popular and traditional arts, crafts, rituals and mythologies.
Although oxcart factories were established, and still function, in other parts of the country, the coffee and craft town of Sarchí, west of San José, is best known for this tradition and is now a popular tourist stop where visitors can watch the artists at work and buy souvenir carts in sizes from little to large.
Lidilia Arias was born in Sarchí and has been interested in art and design since her school days. In high school, she took a workshop at one of the oxcart factories where she learned the method of Sarchí’s famous free-style painting. While continuing her studies in design and graphic arts at the University of Costa Rica (UCR), her major professor suggested she do her thesis on Sarchí’s traditional oxcart art. The result of her research into the history of Costa Rica’s carts and the evolution of the designs is “Las Carretas Decoradas en el Estilo Sarchí” (“Oxcarts Decorated in the Sarchí Style”), a book as delightful and colorful as the carts themselves.
More than 100 pages with photos, some going back to the 1890s, full-color drawings and diagrams show the changes over the years and by region. Carts from Cartago, east of San José, bear geometrical designs, while those from the mountain town of Puriscal, southwest of the capital, are covered with flowers. Carts from the western suburb of Escazú are similar to those from Sarchí, but less fluid. Even now we find changes in cart art as environmental themes with birds and orchids replace the curlicues.
“Soon the traditional designs will be lost,” Arias says. “I wanted to make a record of the designs for the future.”
Both the engineering and the designs are a product of the Central Valley’s coffee culture, according to Arias, who now works for the National Museum planning and setting up displays. Such carts were not painted or used in the northwestern province of Guanacaste or the Caribbean province of Limón.
“The wheel, with its 16 triangular pieces held in place with an iron rim, was invented (in the Central Valley),” the author says, adding that rugged terrain and the long drives hauling coffee to the Pacific port of Puntarenas wore out so many of the old wooden wheels that they were sometimes almost square.
Although the book suggests several possible origins for the designs, Arias says none have been proven, but the baroque influence may have come from the tile floors and rose windows of churches. Or it may have come from nature.
The tradition of decorating carts began around 1910. At that time, paint was used only on gates and doors, and color choices were few. The author describes the designs and colors as tropical, saying “you won’t find anything like them in Europe.”
With plentiful photos, most taken by the author, diagrams, drawing patterns and easy Spanish text, this is a book for all to enjoy. Published by UCR, it is sold at the UCR, Lehmann and Universal bookstores, and will be available in other bookstores soon. The price is ¢6,500 ($12.70).
“The Painted Oxcart: Heart of Costa Rican Culture,” takes an in-depth look at the history and art of traditional oxcarts in Costa Rica.
By Michael Sims, the portrait of the painted oxcart – or carreta pintada – features poems, stories, essays and legends about the traditional mode of transporting coffee. The colorful volume has photos and illustrations on nearly all of its 179 pages.
The book is bilingual, with English and Spanish text side by side and a useful glossary of Spanish terms.
An aficionado of decorative art, Sims decided to write the book after she was unable to find a volume with good illustrations of painted oxcarts, she said.
An artist, Sims was born in the U.S. state of California and has lived in Costa Rica since 1976. She currently teaches art at the European School in Heredia, north of San José.
Sims published “The Painted Oxcart” with funding from BAC San José bank. It is available at Universal and Lehmann bookstores, Café Britt souvenir stores and at 7th Street Books for about $37.