Art Smiley used to be a photographer in the United States. He is now enjoying retirement in Escazú, west of San José, where he rides his motorcycle and makes witches.
Yes, from a little grotto attached to the side of his house, Art Smiley makes witches, each with a different background and personality.
“I don’t talk to them because I’m not a wacko,” he said, proudly showing off his Witch of the Month, Granny Ozz, a hand-painted, 9-inch-tall sculpture made from wood and resin.
“But I do know that Granny Ozz is a dear old soul and well-respected throughout the world of witchcraft,” Smiley continued. “She is a firm believer in the Wisdom of the Ancients, and she sits on the High Council of Covens. Not much gets past ol’ Granny Ozz.”
Smiley has been handcrafting witches for nearly two years now, and 55 of the ornaments fill the wall space of his grotto. Some are on motorcycles; others on broomsticks. Some are dressed in bathing suits, others in soccer attire. All are for sale.
Ol’ Granny Ozz, for example, goes for $485, including packaging and shipping. The figures are carved from coffee wood, a material witches are rumored to use for shelter in their natural habitat, high in the mountains of Escazú. Hands and heads are generally made separately and then fixed to the main body.
“Early witches used to have green faces and long pointy noses, but people don’t look the same, so why should witches? With time, I started putting more texture on their faces and giving them their own distinctive looks,” said Smiley.
But how exactly did an ex-portrait photographer from Cumberland, in the U.S. state of Maryland, become involved in crafting witches?
“I moved to Escazú, a place rich in culture and with a long history of witchcraft, and I realized that the history of witches has all but been forgotten. I like to think I am keeping alive a part of history, while at the same time keeping myself busy. I don’t go to bars; instead, I like to make my witches.”
The part of history Smiley hopes to preserve is one that dates back to the late 15th century, when European Jews fled the Spanish Inquisition and took refuge in Costa Rica’s Central Valley, where they were able to practice their religion without fear of persecution and death.
As was the religious tradition, the oldest woman of the family would welcome in the Sabbath by covering her head while lighting candles and chanting prayers, called brochas at the time. The old woman’s hands would move in a circular motion above the candles in order to feel the heat of the coming Sabbath.
These older women – with their covered heads, hand movements and strange incantations – were considered to be magical by people in the area who referred to them as brochas. That name eventually changed to the word brujas, the Spanish word for witches.
“Their origin and religious connection have all but been lost over the years,” Smiley said. “They are now seen as spooky old women who come out on Halloween Eve and make things go bump in the night.
There are, however, self-fashioned brujas who still exist in and around Escazú, and I’m sure they would prepare a potion or elixir for you, at a price …”
Ranging in price from $350 to $1,200, the sculptures are sold mainly to North Americans via Smiley’s Web site, which lists his Witch of the Month, a catalogue of witches for sale and a page on the history and legend of Escazú’s witches. A tour of his grotto also is available.
But what does Mrs. Smiley think of her husband’s hobby?
“Well, my wife is a Tica who has never really been exposed to any real art, so she thinks it’s fascinating,” said Smiley.
Smiley’s website is www.witchesbrujas.com.