Thursday, March 29, 2007

Padre Ernesto's Eden:
A visit to Solentiname

Painting by Silvia Arellano, 2007.

An archipelago of volcanic islands sticks up from Lake Nicaragua in the far south east of that huge body of fresh water. The island are collectively called Solentiname, a place known for Fr. Ernesto Cardenal's experiment in artistic experimentation and spiritual discovery that flourished there in the mid-1960s. The several thousand people who live there still dream of a more hopeful Nicaragua (perhaps based on eco-tourism) and continue to create folk art in the style of the painting above.

Though I had long seen reproductions of Solentiname paintings, I certainly never thought I'd get there. But on our recent trip, we did. This has never been an easy trip. An elderly nun of our acquaintance told us sitting stiffly on a chair on the deck of a cattle boat for fifteen hours in the old days. It is no longer that hard, but it is not yet simple either.

We flew from Managua in a 14-seat, single engine prop plane to the grassy landing field in San Carlos, a small town on the lake's edge...

then rode on a launch for an hour across the lake to reach our hotel, aptly named "El Paraiso." This simple place has about eight rooms and a warm and helpful family of hosts.

It was immediately evident why the painters of Solentiname choose their signature subjects: they paint what they see every day in this lovely place.

When you live on islands, boats are your life. The wooden launch pulled up on shore was under repair throughout our stay.

The islands are close enough together a dugout will serve to get around in calm weather. It is not the kind of place where people hurry much.

Of course some people do mundane work -- she is washing the morning's laundry.

Many people continue to make their living from producing crafts for sale. This fellow is carving balsa wood to make animal and bird shapes. Balsa is wonderfully soft and a sapling becomes a 30-foot tree in a couple of years in this tropical climate.

She is painting what he carved.

And here are some of their finished products.

Outside a house they advertise their wares.

More ambitious artists, the painters, have their own gallery, founded with help from a U.S. solidarity group.

This painting accurately portrays Fr. Ernesto's church and the monument to Solentiname residents who were killed in the Sandinista uprising against the Somoza dictatorship. Fr. Ernesto's influence is still felt. We spoke with painters, still working, who remembered how Cardenal had brought Roger Perez de la Rocha, a respected painter from Managua, to the islands.

The Managua artist didn't directly teach, but he did paint the island as he envisioned it, above. The painter who remembered him proudly told us that she knew she had her own, Solentiname-originated, way of seeing. And she still paints folkloric scenes.

The altar wall of Fr. Ernesto's church, now without a resident priest, features locals' own images of their islands.

A local fellow was kind enough to play for our group a few songs from the Misa Compesina-- the mass of the people, the peasants -- whose entrance song begins Vos Sos El Dios De Los Pobres -- you are the God of the poor.

Looking out from our hotel, it was not hard to understand how this place came to serve as an image of Eden for many influenced by the dream of liberation and the beauty of creation. Dreams are a gift of hope in a hard world.

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