Piece by Piece: Quilting in Costa Rica Grows
“You’ll see their heart in their work; other groups may have more experience and more opportunities and higher education, but with these women the difference comes from inside,” said Carolyn Underwood, co-founder of Quilt-Ticas, Costa Rica’s first national quilt guild, of the guild members’ colorful, intricate work.
The year-old organization already has about 50 quilters – a long stretch from the handful of women with which it began in 2003, in Rancho Redondo de Goicoechea, a misty mountain community in the hills north of Guadalupe, northeast of San José.
Admiring the intricate feather detail and complex, stained-glass-like backgrounds, it’s hard to believe these quilts have been made by a group of women whose most experienced member started just four years ago.
Even more unbelievable is that most of these 21-to-60-year-olds were reluctant to start the craft, doubting their artistic and creative abilities.
Now, with moral support, generous donations and a number of exhibitions under its belt, the group has grown in size and creative expression, and, in collaboration with the Costa Rican-North American Cultural Center (CCCN), will feature three quilting exhibits this year.
On display through April 23 at the cultural center’s La Sabana branch in western San José, “Samples of Siouxland” is a spread of different sizes and patterns of quilts designed by a group of quilters from the U.S. state of Iowa.
Aside from being pioneers in the art form brought from England in the 18th century, this group of women from Iowa is one of the reasons quilting now has a foothold in Costa Rica. It all started in 2004.
Quilting as an art form was introduced in Costa Rica in 2003 with an exhibit entitled “A Través de Quilt” at the CCCN, featuring more than 300 quilts from around the world that had been made within two weeks of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City. The event drew droves of Costa Ricans, tallying record-breaking attendance for the cultural center, according to Underwood, 63, a native Texan who has lived in Costa Rica for 15 years and was formerly a teacher at the MarianBakerSchool in San Ramón de Tres Ríos, east of San José.
The quilts returned to the CCCN the following year for a second exhibit that also featured some of the first pieces by Costa Rican quilters. Noting growing interest in the art form, Underwood teamed up with fellow U.S. artist Carolyn Lee Vehslage in 2004 to found the first quilting project at Underwood’s residence in Rancho Redondo, where she’s lived for 14 years.
Around this time, back in Iowa, quilter Tomme Fent posted a request on a quilting Web site, seeking exhibitions from Latin American quilters. Vehslage saw the posting and immediately put Fent in touch with Underwood. Their communication sprouted the formation of seven quilting groups from San José and environs, who agreed enthusiastically to give their budding work more exposure in the United States.
However, the group had one large barrier to overcome.
“Unfortunately, it’s a terribly expensive hobby,”Underwood told The Tico Times on a recent visit to her home in Rancho Redondo.
The Costa Rican quilters, most of whom have little or no outside income, didn’t have the funds to pay for the machines, fabric, cutting boards and needles required for such a large project.
Upon hearing of this dearth of resources, Fent and her fellow Iowa quilters responded with empathy and vigor, organizing a “quilt drive” by which they collected and shipped to Costa Rica more than 500 pounds of quilting supplies, which were divided among the seven groups.
With these gifts, Tica quilters from areas including Rancho Redondo, Escazú and Santa Ana, west of San José, and Alajuela, northwest of the capital, created, by hand and machine, images that spoke of their individual styles and imaginations. With desire transcending experience, the groups, inspired by the bold, tropical colors and wide array of plant and animal life here, produced a collection of art of a kind never before seen in the country.
The exhibit “Shapes and Colors of Costa Rica” (see samples at http://costaricaquilts.com/iowa.html), displayed at the CCCN, featured the intricate needlework of 59 quilters.
Despite having no set theme, all 59 women “expressed how they feel, what they see, and how they love Costa Rica” in their quilts, Underwood said (TT July 8, 2005).
Riding a wave of success, a small group proudly accompanied the exhibit north to Sioux City, Iowa, where it was met with dropped jaws, as the U.S. women gazed upon images they had previously seen only on vacations and postcards.
With newfound inspiration and substantial interest, the group returned to Costa Rica and established Quilt-Ticas in January 2006, which now boasts 50 active quilters.
Despite inauspicious beginnings with just a few used sewing machines and sparse amounts of fabric, quilting now boasts a small but dedicated following in Costa Rica and looks to plant more seeds for growth.
This year, the craft will have ample time in the limelight, with the CCCN sponsoring three full-scale exhibits at different branches.
Following “Samples of Siouxland,” a national exhibit entitled “Grano de Oro,” featuring the work of Rancho Redondo and other quilters, is planned for May and June at the center’s branch in Alajuela, northwest of San José (207-7583). In July and August, quilts by Hawaiian artisans will be displayed in “Two Tropics, One Quilt” at the center’s main facility in the eastern San José neighborhood of Barrio Dent (207-7554).
The quilts, which sell for approximately $350, are made in various sizes, most commonly bed-size, about three meters square.
But because of the demand for smaller pieces to decorate walls, the women have begun making quilts of six, eight and 11 inches squared, which have been bought up by tourists seeking unique souvenirs that won’t bulge their suitcases.
“The money isn’t the bottom line, thank goodness,” Underwood said. “(But with it) these women have been able to buy good fabric, cutters … plus they’ve been able to buy things for their children.”
The Rancho Redondo group meets three times a week at the community’s church.
The dozen or so women gather around long tables, spread out their materials and work for several hours at a time. On Fridays, they discuss each other’s projects and upcoming events. Afterward, they tap into their imaginations, chat lightly and mostly enjoy the humming of their machines and the peace of their art.
“Samples of Siouxland” is on display through April 23 at the CCCN in La Sabana (207-7501). Note: the center will be closed April 2-8 for Semana Santa, or Easter Holy Week. For information about Quilt-Ticas, call 267-7521 (Jennifer Tucker, guild president) or e-mail email@example.com.