Ceramic Workshop in Central America: The Rainforest and the Volcanoes
This past summer, my wife, three students and I traveled to Costa Rica and Nicaragua for a month-long studio arts course. I coordinated a class, Environmental and Cultural Workshop in Art, that involved the creation of work based on the abundant flora and fauna of the Costa Rican rainforest and the overwhelming beauty and mystery of the island of Ometepe in Lake Nicaragua. We also developed our art work through the study of Pre-Columbian culture, as well as the art and society of present day Central America. The environment was sometimes challenging, but always inspirational.
History of the Two Stations:
The workshop was part of the summer class schedule offered through the La Suerte and Ometepe Field Stations which are owned and operated by the Molina family. The Molinasâ involvement in the development of these two stations begins with a turbulent history that has evolved into a successful personal, ecological, and educational venture.
The story begins in Esteli, Nicaragua where the Molina patriarch, Rene Molina, and his family had several successful enterprises. In the late 1960's,
Cuban business entrepreneurs went to Nicaragua looking for a place to grow tobacco for the manufacturing of cigars. They chose land close to the Honduran border owned by the Molinas, and asked then Nicaraguan leader, Anastasio Samoza, to help them contact the owner of the property. Rene Molina gladly leased the land, and through this experience, developed a good relationship with Somoza. Eventually, he became a congressman from Esteli.
As the political climate changed in Nicaragua, and the Sandinistas rose to power, the familyâs ties to Somoza had strong consequences. "Things started to get ugly in Nicaragua, and in 1978, our house in Esteli was burnt down by a mob (Turbas)," according to Alvaro Molina, one of the sons and the Station Administrator. "The local priest (the famous Padre Julio) tipped off the family, and we evacuated my younger brothers and sisters to Jalapa, where my dad had the Tobacco farm with an airstrip. A few days later, we left for Managua, and then we flew the entire family to Miami. We asked for political asylum, and a few years later we got it. By 1990, most of us were American Citizens."
In the early 1980's, an uncle moved to Costa Rica and started a cattle ranch. Rene Molina also decided to begin his own cattle operation. The Molinas rented, and then bought Finca La Suerte (Lucky Farm) in 1987. Alvaro Molina began vacationing at his fatherâs ranch, and became interested in the possibility of using the rainforest as an educational tool. After a few failed attempts at recruiting students, Alvaro contacted Dr. Paul Garber, a Primatologist from the University of Illinois. After a visit to the station, Dr. Garber taught the first official class at La Suerte in Primate Behavior and Ecology.
The station in Ometepe, Nicaragua, came into being as a result of an optional ten day trip with students from La Suerte. Alvaro Molina went with them as a guide, and fell in love with the beautiful island.
"This was my first time ever on this island, and I got a guide to hike the Madera Volcano. When I got back, contacted Dr. Garber and told him that I had found paradise with lots of monkeys and asked him if he was interested in teaching there." After visiting Ometepe, Dr. Garber was enthralled with the wild monkey population, and offered to teach a class. The Molina family set out to find an area close to the Madera volcano. Because a new government was in Nicaragua, Rene Molina was free to travel again in the country, and had also become the Minister of Tourism. According to Renee Lucia Molina (note the extra "e" in the name), one of the Molina daughters and the stationâs Art and Administrator, "He started to claim land that had been confiscated by the Sandinistas. This land was occupied by government agencies, pinateros (land squatters supported by the sandinistas) or private agencies. The government gave him bonds for the land that was confiscated back in 1979 and that is how he was able to purchase the site of Ometepe BFS." They started construction on he new station in March of 1997 and finished on December 27th.
The development of arts courses can be attributed to Renee Molina, who has a Masters Degree in Architecture, and a strong visual arts background. As she explained: "Alvaro started bringing in mostly biology students to the station.
I realized how unfair it was that only biology students had the wonderful opportunity to visit the rainforest and study it. I thought artists would love to come here and experience its splendor and beauty as well. The rain forest needs promotion in its fight for conservation, why not allow art to become a voice?"
Renee designed several courses, including Mixed Media in the Rain Forest, which drew a larger and more diverse group of students eager to use the natural materials at hand. The latest addition in the arts program, Dance Choreography in the Rain Forest, offers students the opportunity to create in a living studio with a full sensory experience surrounding them.
Our experience began with a two- week stay in a rainforest in northeastern Costa Rica. We stayed in rustic cabins along the Rio La Suerte (Lucky River) and experienced an overwhelming presence of nature all around us. Besides the lush, dense greenery, there were a multitude of insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. Every morning we would awake to the calls of howler monkeys, and would occasionally see a Toucan fly by as we headed for breakfast.
Our first projects involved getting acclimated to our new surroundings. We ventured into the rainforest with our drawing pads, covered head-to-toe in mosquito repellent. We saw green poison dart frogs as we entered under the canopy. As the forest grew thicker, we found strawberry poison dart frogs; Smaller creatures with bright red and blue markings. We were able to draw in the environment despite the fact that our paper was usually wet in the damp environment. Some students took to using watercolors on the pre-moistened surface.
One of our drawing projects involved the dance class. We hiked out to a clearing and drew expressionist, gesture based works as they danced among the twisted roots of a huge tree. As we worked, a group of howler monkeys journeyed across the canopy, moving effortlessly from tree to tree.
These drawings became studies for a later mural project based on our impressions of the environment. My group, students from other classes, and several local people from the neighboring town of Primavera combined stylized images of the wildlife and jungle into a large mural that covered one whole side of our studio. We began the work by collecting natural pigments from the rainforest and the station. Our goal was to only use materials that came from the subject we depicted and to not use binders so the work would eventually return to the earth. We used boiled hibiscus flowers for blue, canario flowers for yellow, moss for green, poke berries for purple, coal and wood ash for black and white, and a variety of local clays for reds, tans, and browns. The end result was a swirling myriad of shapes that moved around and through each other, representing the dynamic energy of the rainforest and its inhabitants.
As we drew and painted, we continually worked on small ceramic sculptures and vessels using different slips for surface color and design. Our studio was very simple, with two tables and a kick wheel based on a Nicaraguan design that positions the thrower at a slant with the wheel-head off to the left-hand side of his/her body. The studio was also a little dark, so we occasionally worked outside on folding tables. As we sculpted, weâd be visited twice a day by a group of white-face capuchin monkeys and one lone spider monkey.
One of the drawbacks to our surroundings was that the rainforest is continually wet, and our pieces refused to dry. We ended up having to load a kiln full of damp ware, and lost a couple of pieces to cracking and steam-explosion.
Our wood-fired kiln was based on a Nicaraguan bread-oven design that is intended for low-fire ware. The entire structure, starting from the bottom, is built over a shallow pit (approx. 30" in circumference). Then, a small (approx. 16" high) dome of brick and refactory cement is built over the pit with a large hole (approx. 10"in circumference) at itsâ crown and the side facing the stoke-hole. A double row of red brick is built up (approx. 60" in circumference) around this dome, allowing for an opening in the front for loading/unloading, and an opening at the base to push in coals. Clay tiles are laid to make up the floor, then an inner dome is built (a brickâs length in). The gap between the walls is packed with dirt or clay for insulation, and the structure is sealed with refractory cement. More detailed plans for these kilns/ovens can be found at www.pyromasse.ca.
We began the firing with the door partially unbricked. A small fire was built at the entrance to the stoke-hole. When the wood became glowing coals, we piled more wood on top. Slowly, we began pushing the coals into the innermost dome and eventually built up a bed that was hot enough to ignite wood instantly
as it was tossed in. My students and I cut up planks of wood from an old demolished shed with machetes to feed the fire. As we worked, struggling to split the boards, two women from Primavera watched me with amusement. One of them took my machete, and in two strokes, split the wood easily. The firing took twelve hours in all, and the work was fired to a low-bisque consistency.
At the end of our stay at La Suerte, we had suffered mosquito bites, lived with a myriad of exotic bugs, and walked carefully about at night looking for poisonous snakes. We also came away with a collection of great work and experiences-- and a variety of artistic inspirations we could take back with us.
After the rainforest, my students and I were ready to create in a new environment. The next section of our class was held on Ometepe, a 276 square kilometer island that is home to two volcanoes in the middle of Lake Nicaragua.
Ometepe(a Nahuatl word that means "land of two volcanoes") is the largest Volcanic island in the world in a fresh-water lake. The two volcanoes that dominate its vista, Madera and Concepci—n, rise straight up over a thousand feet. The population of over 30,000 people are mostly decedents of the Niquirano Indians that regarded the island as a holy place. Petroglyphs can be found all over the island, and more are discovered every year. There are also unique examples of stone statuary and burial urns that can be studied up close without having to look through a glass case.
The Ometepe station felt somewhat like a resort. After a short boat ride across the lake, we walked out onto a private pier and walked up to our cabins. The red-tile roofed buildings are nestled under the huge presence of the inactive volcano, Madera, while on the other side you could look out across the lake that looked more like an ocean. Our studio was simply a table set up under the thatched communal space where all classes are taught in the open air.
Our first project involved designs based on petroglyphs. We went on a mountain bike ride across the dirt roads through the small town of San Ramon. Our guide, Rodolfo, took us on to a private property where dozens of petroglyphs could be seen. We hunted them out on the half-submerged rocks, and were told that during the winter (Nicaraguaâs winter is our summer) half of the ancient marking were hidden under water.
One of my goals while on Ometepe was to meet and work with some local potters. My group, and several other students, arranged a trip to Pul, a small community on the Concepci—n side of the island. We traveled by truck on the one road that circles the island, dodging potholes and the loose livestock and other domesticated animals that wandered freely throughout the island. We passed through many of the small, privately owned farms that are the livelihood of the inhabitants.
Our hour-long trip brought us to Altagracia, one of the two most important towns on the island. Right off of the town square, surounding a Catholic church, was one of the most impressive examples of Pre-Columbian statuary Iâve ever seen. Left out in the elements, these life-sized idols demonstrate the connection of Spanish and Indian ancestry as "pagan" and Christian symbols inhabit the most revered site in town.
From town, it was a two kilometer walk to the community of Pul. We visited the few remaining potters, and spent the day with them talking and learning about their work. Two years earlier, there had been a thriving community of potters in the area, but the ceramic trade didnât pay off for them, and one by one they left the collective theyâd formed to pursue farming full-time. One of the last hold-outs was Narciso Mena, his wife, and his nephew. Though Narciso told me he rarely had time to work in clay because of the necessity of feeding his family, it was still a duty of his to preserve this dying art in his community. His nephew, a young man with an amazing skill at hand-building stylized figures, expressed the same melancholy view (Note this is translated from Spanish): "I learned to work in clay from my mother. We used to have a lot of potters here, but now, theyâve lost hope. Iâve brought my work to Managua to sell it, but it costs money to take the ferry, and I donât always sell what I bring over. Iâve tried getting my friends to do work in clay, but they tell me Îwhatâs the point? Your just working in mud. How can I make a living out of this?â Iâll continue to work, but itâs very hard."
Narciso agreed to give us a demonstration on the wheel. I watched with respect as he centered and threw the black clay into a form on a wheel that was shifting with every kick of the fly-wheel. He told me: "A gringo, like you, taught me how to throw years ago. He then gave me the main parts for the wheel so I could build my own. I kept at it, and developed from what I knew." His work was eclectic and original. Trying to find a marketable product, he moved from style to style. From simple tourist ware with "Ometepe" written across the work, to anthropomorphic figures rising strangely from shallow bowls, Narcisoâs work held an unpretentious love of the medium that made the pots fun, funky, and individual.
With only a few days left on the island, we went to work on our final projects. We made a stabilized adobe statue based on the ones weâd seen in Altagracia. Making a mixture of clay we had dug, concrete, and coconut fiber, we packed it into a wooden box form. After a couple of hours, we removed the box and quickly went to work carving the form as it cured. The final piece was placed in a prominent spot on a large boulder in the stationâs center. We had also made a series of pots, figures, ocarinas, and beads to be fired.
To fire the work, we had to build our own kiln on the dock that jutted out into the lake. We found a stack of home-made red brick on the property and borrowed a few to make a very simple kiln. First, in a pre-dug fire pit set out of the wind, we laid a flat bed of brick, then brought up the sides into a crude box form. In the inside, we stacked up a few bricks to make a shelf. The firing was done by laying wood around the center shelf and feeding the fire slowly. After two hours, we fed the fire more rapidly and let the coals grow up all around the edge of the shelf. Then, we placed a sheet of corrugated tin over the top, and let it soak overnight. The color of the clay going in was a dirt brown, but the final firing color was a surprisingly bright terra-cotta.
Coming back to Ohio, I returned to my electric and gas kilns and Soldner mixer. Pre-cleaned, bagged clay and electric wheels. The experience at La Suerte and Ometepe revolves in my mind, edging me forward into new work. I hope my students on the trip feel as I do; Itâs good to get out and rattle the cage from outside.
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