SOUTHERN ZONE, Costa Rica — I’m staying in the blue room. It is my honeymoon and we have travelled four hours from the San José airport to a magnificent rainforest hideaway. Monte Azul dubs itself as an eco-lodge that combines culture and conservation. This ecolodge — which comprises four “casitas” for a total of eight guests, a restaurant, an art gallery, an artist studio, and miles of endless river and forest that is its preserve — was built with art as its primary driving force. But what do art and sustainability have in common?
It has been my experience that — aside from the exception of land art and earth works — creative practices are most commonly not overly concerned with the practical issues of sustainability. To date, addressing sustainability by subject alone is deemed sufficient, and the often-toxic materials of an artwork and the waste it can sometime produce remains largely unconsidered. In short, art is allowed to disintegrate, use materials that are unsustainably sourced, and pollute during the production process. The question arises: Can art be more interlinked with sustainable practices?
I tracked down Monte Azul owners Carlos Rojas and Randy Langendorfer. Rojas has worked at The Mexican Museum in San Francisco, curated exhibitions at the city’s airport, and also ran his own gallery. He explained that he loved the educational component of the airport exhibitions that made art accessible to the immediate public. Since moving back to his home country of Costa Rica in 2005 and starting Monte Azul he has made “making creative practice accessible to everyone” his mantra.
In addition to hosting exhibitions that invite community participation, he also curates each “casita” according to its allocated color with work by local artists. My blue room is hung with seven artworks, one of which is a painting by renowned Costa Rican artist Frederico Herrero. The work is also for sale, and Rojas proudly touts that selling the artwork on exhibition makes up most of their income, which is surprising considering their location is in the middle of the rainforest. This particular piece carries a handsome price tag of $8,500, which I learn is on par with the rest of Herrero’s work.
The other works in the room are by as-yet lesser-known artists and most are a result of artists spending time at Monte Azul’s invite-only artist residency. Despite being integrated into the surroundings, the art component of the ecolodge falls under its own formal title: Monte Azul Contemporary Art, or MACA for short. This ensures a professional platform for the production, exhibition, and sale of artworks so that participating artists have a means to sustain their artistic practice long term. I ask Rojas how their commitment to sustainable practices carries through the production of paintings, prints, photography and sculptures on display:
When artists come to make work, we don’t restrict their practice, but we do encourage them not to use materials such as oil paints and turpentine, so we look for more eco-friendly substitutes. Most importantly we hope for artists to engage with their surroundings. We believe that art is culture and not a result of it, so we see sustainability becoming more integrated into artistic practices as cultural practices adapt.
Rojas feels that being an art professional has taught him problem-solving and that creative practices — no matter how everyday they seem to be — allow for inspired thinking.
We offer a series of creative classes that include more formal art training such as mono-typing by our printmaking specialist Alvaro Gómez as well as soap- and cheese-making classes so everyone and anyone who visits can engage in creative processes. I think guests often surprise themselves with what they can make, and our aim is that they leave feeling capable and enthused.
Although the artworks on display are mostly by artists from Costa Rica, there is also an international presence adding to the collection’s diversity, and my room includes a photograph of a young, stern-looking Costa Rican boy taken by Hai Zhang during his residency stay at Monte Azul. The ecolodge has also attracted international artists as guests. Artist Jennifer Rubell visited Monte Azul to enjoy its culinary delights and write about its integration of art, food, and conservation. I’m curious to hear her take on art practice and sustainability, especially as her own practice invites transitory engagements with the medium of food.
I certainly can’t speak for artists in general, but for me, art is about the world while existing in a very privileged zone of the world where a whole range of concerns of the ‘real’ world don’t exist. People in museums are generally not allowed to touch art, while in the ‘real’ world, people touch almost anything, which means that something an artist has made into art will probably last a lot longer than it would if it were never determined to be, or created as, art.
Perhaps, art making is in itself a form of conservancy, as the artwork becomes revered in a place of conceptual posterity. No matter if the work is destroyed; its message remains safeguarded. Whether the privileged position of art as sacrosanct is enough justification to be creating waste or not, it is entirely admirable that Monte Azul has opted to integrate art, artists and creative processes as part of its guiding principles toward sustainability.
On my last day, while I sat stirring a large pot of slowly separating cheese curds with a neighboring farmer, it dawned on me that I too could use a little inspiration in my daily life and try applying myself to creating a more sustainable relationship with my surroundings. The handmade cheese, as was no surprise, was superbly delicious.