The colonists, 15 years later
CIUDAD COLÓN, San José – The Colony isn’t easy to find. Ask any cashier in Ciudad Colón about “la colonia,” and you will probably get blank stares. Ask the workers at the Los Ángeles gas station, and they’ll point you to the right road, even if they’re not sure what the Colony is. Only when you’ve walked a ways down that winding lane may you meet an elder hippie, who says she lives next door but has never seen the Colony firsthand.
“I’ve been meaning to get up there,” she told me. “It’s just down the road, on the left. You can’t miss it.”
Up a steep hill and round a bend, the forest pauses to reveal the Colony’s entrance – a wide doorway with concrete walls. On one of the walls, its full name is elegantly hand-painted: The Julia and David White Artists’ Colony. Beyond, a driveway crosses a bridge, passes through jungle, and climbs a steep hill, its fine brick pavement accented with grass. Whitewashed buildings emerge, along with little terraces and even a swimming pool. Halfway up the hill, you can see Ciudad Colón over the rooftops, looking as pastoral as a Swiss hamlet. The place is astonishingly quiet; during my visit, I saw no artists at all, only some groundskeepers and some geckos. The predominant sound was birds chirping in the trees.
The president of the 17-acre property is Francisco Sánchez, who lives in an enormous house that overlooks the Colony grounds. Sánchez has the rugged visage of a born campesino, a man who grew up in the countryside and has never forgotten his roots. We met in his voluminous living room and talked about how the Colony has been going, ever since the death of its founder, Dr. William White, in 2005.
As we talked, a humble man brought us coffee and a jar of sugar. He bowed and smiled and said little.
“This man is very poor,” said Sánchez in English, so the man wouldn’t understand him. “He has no work. So I bring him here.”
Giving a poor man odd jobs to make ends meet seemed remarkably thoughtful, but perhaps this was Sánchez’s way of balancing karma: It was precisely this kind of random generosity that brought Sánchez to the Colony in the first place, and changed his life forever.
Costa Rica is replete with artists, native and expat, but the Julia and David White Artists’ Colony has an exceptional pedigree. Root around on the Internet for writers’ retreats in Costa Rica – or in Latin America, or even the world – and the Colony quickly pops up. Similar retreats exist all over the place, but instead of a repurposed farm or famous writer’s estate, the Colony occupies a steep hill in the rain forest, and it’s open year-round. There is an application process to ensure that artists are serious about their work, but approved guests may stay as long as they like. (Lofts and studios can be rented for $575 for two weeks, or $800 per month). At the same time, there is no fellowship program. If you can pay, you can stay.
The Colony’s name derives from David and Julia White, a pair of siblings who each suffered a dramatic death. Julia was an astrophysicist, poet and playwright who had long struggled with severe depression; she ultimately threw herself from a 22-story building in 1994. David was a composer and woodwind player, and his life was cut short by a drug overdose in 1996. They were both lauded as talented and promising artists.
In the wake of these deaths, their father, Dr. White, decided to found an artists’ colony in their name. The Colony opened officially in 1998, and Dr. White devoted himself to its operation for the next seven years. He lived in the same house that Sánchez now occupies and filled its rooms with original artwork.
Everyone remembers Dr. White – or “Bill” – as an incorrigible bon vivant. The Colony attracted artists from all over the world, and Dr. White would use any excuse for a party: residents celebrated the arrivals and departures of visiting artists, as well as birthdays and special occasions.
“Bill would tell the dirtiest jokes,” said Avery Patterson, a U.S. expat who retired in Costa Rica 16 years ago. He added: “Even to women.”
Patterson is like the Colony’s soothsayer, an older man with white hair and a gentlemanly Georgian accent. A longtime resident of Atlanta, Patterson spent years as a salesman for the U.S. railroad, but after a series of shrewd investments, he secured the money to retire in Costa Rica, a country he had visited on vacation and loved. “Never wanted anything so bad in my life,” he said. He has lived on the Colony since its earliest years. “I guess you could say I’m the oldest one here.”
Unlike the artists who come and go, Patterson is one of a handful of permanent residents. His house is spacious with high ceilings, and the walls are decorated with the paintings of past artists (one portrait depicts Patterson himself). Patterson has watched the Colony evolve since the end of the last millennium, through good times and bad. He remembers when the Costa Rican National Symphony would perform at the Colony on Sundays. He has watched the Colony’s roving dog, Forrest, grow old. Patterson has seen the Colony fight through money problems, especially in the wake of Dr. White’s death.
“People look up to Francisco,” Patterson said. Still, Sánchez has fought an uphill battle since 2005. By some estimates, the Colony is valued at $8 million, and Sánchez must run the place shrewdly. Many critics wondered why the Colony was left to a trust, why Sánchez should be its sole inheritor. To understand Dr. White’s decision is to understand their long and familial relationship.
“This is an interesting story,” Sánchez told me wistfully, and he leaned back in his chair, finger to lips, lost in memory.
It seems that Francisco Sánchez and Dr. White met by accident. Sánchez grew up in the small town of Guápiles, near the Caribbean. He was young, athletic and had many friends. A skilled soccer player, he imagined playing as a full-time professional. He was accustomed to working with his hands, and he had considered going to university.
When Dr. White visited Costa Rica in 1990, he had some car trouble, and Sánchez helped him out. The two men exchanged numbers, and later Dr. White’s attorney invited Sánchez to a meeting. This was more than a social call: Dr. White was interested in investing in Costa Rican real estate, and he required an intermediary – someone who spoke Spanish and knew the culture well. He saw that Sánchez was resourceful and trustworthy, and soon Sánchez became White’s right-hand man. Within a short time, they were close friends and collaborators. It was Sánchez who helped secure the 17 acres in Ciudad Colón in order to build the Colony.
Those first few years now sound dream-like, filled with itinerant artists and late-night celebrations in The Nine Muses, the Colony’s former communal house. White took particular pride in Costa Rica’s achievements – no military, no capital punishment and environmental stewardship – and he encouraged artists to showcase their work, either as readings or gallery shows.
When Dr. White experienced signs of health problems in the early 2000s, he kept quiet about it. Doctors discovered numerous malignant growths in White’s body, and he faced complex and expensive surgery. Treatments were unsuccessful, and Dr. White passed away in 2005.
White was well loved in the community, and his death was met with widespread mourning. When the shock subsided, friends of Dr. White’s expected the Colony to be controlled by a trust. Instead, Dr. White bequeathed the property to Sánchez, who took the role of both president and proprietor.
Sánchez and Patterson are matter-of-fact on this point. The decision to give Sánchez the Colony seems deliberate and carefully considered, though many critics objected to the move. (“Some people wanted to see Francisco fail,” Patterson told me). But it is easy to imagine that Dr. White, who had lost his own children years earlier, had felt a familial kinship with Sánchez.
Since 2005, Sánchez has encountered an alarming number of naysayers – Patterson described a longstanding feud with the University for Peace, among others. Raising money is a recurring challenge. Still, the Colony perseveres, and Sánchez receives a great deal of community support. “People look up to us,” Sánchez said, echoing Patterson’s sentiment. “I think these difficulties are good. They are a part of life. They help me open my eyes.”
In conversation, Sánchez alternates between measured Spanish and thickly accented English; he often relies on Patterson to edit his English emails. But he is a passionate and persuasive speaker, and Patterson asserts that it is this trait that has helped the Colony survive.
The lesson Sánchez has learned over the past eight years is that running an artists’ colony is difficult business, and for Sánchez, business is the operative word. Sánchez and Patterson speak at length about money, land rights, legal hassles and past debts. He has learned through trial-and-error how to keep the Colony afloat. Today, the Colony’s busiest months are November through January, but Sánchez is solvent enough to weather the quieter months. He does not need to rent every unit year-round in order to balance his budget. The Colony has attracted about 50 artists every year since it opened.
When I asked Sánchez whether he was an artist, he shook his head and said only, “No.” Sánchez’s desire to maintain the Colony seems largely driven by his devotion to Dr. White’s vision. To this end, some visitors fail to appreciate the Colony’s purpose.
“We’ve had to turn people away,” Patterson said, “because they think this is a hotel.”
“‘The water is too hot, too cold,’” Sánchez said, imitating the occasional spoiled guest. “‘I can’t use the Internet. I don’t like all the animals.’ Four times I have had to say, ‘ciao.’”
Despite the difficulties, Sánchez seems incredibly grateful for the opportunity. He waxes poetic about walking in the Colony’s garden, about the contemplative quiet that reigns day and night. Although he lives in White’s former house, Sánchez has done little to remodel; aside from modifying the open-air balcony into an enclosed extension of the living room, the place has hardly changed.
“I don’t know what I would have done if we had never met,” Sánchez said of his friendship with Dr. White. His expression was dumbfounded, as if boggled by the road not taken. “I might have studied at the university. But I don’t know. Bill made my life what it is.”
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