When a wave of nostalgia hits, people respond in different ways. Some grab the nearest passerby or eyerolling teenager and tell stories from their youth. Some whip up childhood comfort food and haul out old photographs.
Others cover a bridge in toilet paper, turn their grandparents’ house into a community photo mural, and mix a batch of cement to capture the footprints of every cook and cowboy within reach.
At least, that’s what Karen Clachar did. Fueled by pleasant memories of her childhood in the northwestern province of Guanacaste, the accomplished artist is on a onewoman mission to preserve and promote the region’s rich cultural heritage.
According to Clachar, that culture is too often overlooked, not only by outsiders who value the province primarily for its tourism potential, but also by guanacastecos themselves.
The region, a once-independent territory whose inhabitants voted to annex to Costa Rica in 1824, is its own world of flat plains, dusty streets, wide beaches, traditional ranches and farms – and, these days, resorts and construction sites.
“Guanacaste isn’t just sun and sand,” Clachar says. “It has such cultural richness, and has given Costa Rica a great deal for which (the country) should be grateful.”
Clachar sat down with The Tico Times recently for an interview at her crowded, vibrant studio in the western San José suburb of Escazú – though she didn’t sit for long. Instead, she stood, knelt, and buzzed around the room, energetically displaying the photographs, masks and other elements that make up “Huellas de una Herencia” (“Footprints of Heritage”). Her plan for the year-long project, now near completion, is to display Guanacaste’s folk history in an exhibition sometime next year at the new museum in the provincial capital of Liberia.
Clachar, 40, grew up in Liberia, but moved to San José during high school. Her studies in the arts then took her to Boston, Los Angeles and Italy, and her subsequent career as an artist has kept her globe hopping. But last year, the artist, who now lives in Escazú with her husband and two sons, felt a strong desire to return to her Guanacaste roots.
“Huellas” was born.
“I felt this huge nostalgia for … what time was taking away,” she said. “All that’s left is a memory … The day that my father dies, all his stories would be lost.”
Though trained as a painter, Clachar felt the need to use other media for this project.
“I wanted my work to show something about Guanacaste, but I didn’t want to paint the scenery,” she explained.
So she approached the task from a variety of angles, part visual art, part anthropological record keeping. For starters, she made an open call to Liberia residents to lend her their old family or community photographs so she could place photocopies of them on the exterior walls of her grandparents’ house, where her parents now live. Over time, the white walls have filled from sidewalk to roof beam with the faces of guanacastecos past and present, and the house has become a draw for locals and tourists alike. She’s even watched old ladies pull up a chair and spend the whole afternoon sitting before the wall, taking in the photos and texts posted there.
“The house has become a university, a monument,” she said, adding that although friends warned her the mural would surely be defaced by vandals at night, it has remained untouched – except for neighbors who spontaneously arrive to maintain it when rain or sun damages the photocopies.
Clachar didn’t stop there. In the effort that gave the project its name and dominant visual image, she gathered the foot- and handprints of various people who have played a crucial role in Guanacaste’s history, particularly the sabaneros, or cowboys, who run the ranches and farms, and the cooks whose food fuels the province. Clachar says she was inspired in part by the Hollywood Walk of Fame, where stars leave their handprints, but she wanted to redefine the idea of celebrity.
“You can sit in a chair in Guanacaste, and someone walks by who made our history, and you never know,” she said.
Traditional uses of language in the province also found their way into the project.
She’s distributed thousands of simple white handkerchiefs, asking recipients to jot down on the cloth a bomba, a brief rhyming verse ubiquitous at fiestas in Guanacaste and often throughout the country. The collected handkerchiefs will eventually form a visual display at the exhibition.
Clachar also staged a street contest to see who could produce the best “grito sabanero,” a joyful yelping cowboy call, and recently displayed one of her mounted photographs of traditional Guanacaste ovens at an art show in Bogotá, Colombia.
In what was perhaps her most notorious undertaking, she staked out Liberia’s Puente Real (RoyalBridge), a centennial structure badly in need of maintenance, and covered it in biodegradable toilet paper. The idea was to get drivers and other residents to take notice of the usually overlooked bridge, she said. The event landed her in the national papers.
Her end goal? To present “Huellas” at the LiberiaMuseum sometime next year, and then as a traveling exhibition throughout the country. The project has received the support of the Jacob Karpio Gallery in San José, and earned a Declaration of Cultural Interest from President Oscar Arias and the Culture Ministry in March.
A conversation with Clachar leaves the distinct impression that once the exhibition is complete, her work with Guanacaste will be far from over. The diminutive artist, who says she’s often referred to by guanacastecos as “la machita” (little blondie), seems to have not only recorded Guanacaste’s culture, but also brought out a growing sense of pride and a desire for self-expression within the province.
She says her “grito sabanero” contest became a chaotic, joyful street party, far beyond her original expectations; and on one of her recent trips there, a man riding by on a horse spotted her, paused, and handed her a verse he’d written, wanting to share it with her. With such an outpouring of enthusiasm, she’s not sure where her work will take her next.
“I’ll have to see what the project wants to do with me,” she said.
For more information on Clachar and her work, visit www.karenclachar.com.