When asked what he thinks of Costa Rica’s art scene, painter Juan Carlos Ruiz’s palms turn up, the corners of his mouth curl down and his shoulders give a shrug.
“The problem with Costa Rica is that when it comes to art… there’s no art culture,” he says, sitting in front of a half-painted canvas in his art-studio-cum-coffee-shop on the shore of Lake Arenal, in north-central Costa Rica.
Behind him hang his paintings, in which nature and technology meet – as they tend to do around Arenal. Here,man’s resource-tapping dams and windmills have become part of the landscape, laid out in front of java sippers like a feast for the eyes from Ruiz’s lakeside coffee shop.
A fan of Spanish painters such as surrealist Joan Miró and Catalan Antoni Tàpies, Ruiz says there just isn’t much of a market for art in Costa Rica, especially in San José.
“The reason it works for me here is because most of my clients are tourists,” he says, grinning through his glasses. “All kinds of people come through here.”
A sort of extended community, connected by proximity to the lake, has developed around Arenal. Here, as in other areas of the country, tourism growth has brought with it a budding market for art.
Monica Krauskopf, the German owner of the hotel and restaurant Caballo Negro, in north Arenal, came to the region more than a decade ago, when “it was all cow shit and cows here,” she says, explaining that along with development has come a growing market for art in the area.
“It never was artsy before. There are more and more little places coming up, which makes it interesting,” says Krauskopf, who works closely with the Costa Rican artists whose paintings and crafts she sells.
Ruiz transformed his old family restaurant into an art studio and café, and opened Casa Delagua this spring. He says he has plans to expand the second-story café with a lookout over the lake into a larger studio with live music.
Ruiz says that as an art student he couldn’t sell anything in San José, where “the market is small and saturated.” After getting his degree at the University of Costa Rica, he headed back to the shores of Arenal, where a drive around the lake is cause for inspiration: breathtaking vistas, windsurfers and smoking volcano included.
“One day I saw a kite surfer’s kite flapping in the wind, and I thought, ‘That’s crazy –that looks just like a dragon,’” he says, explaining the inspiration for his painting of an orange flying beast towing a kite surfer along blue waters.
This time of year, things are slow in Arenal, but the high season is just around the corner, and Ruiz expects a high turnout for his shop’s first full tourism season.
But the artist doesn’t seem impatient for the arrival of the high season.While conversing with employees and visitors, he occasionally picks up his brush, turns to his canvas and gives it a few strokes.