In Lush Nicaragua, Legacy of a Priest

March 4, 2012 12:00 am

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THE Solentiname Islands in Nicaragua are familiar to aficionados of primitivist art. Paintings by local artists depict the islands as a paradise of impossibly lush flora, exotic birds, distinctive hanging birds' nests and people happily going about their daily lives.

To visit the islands is to walk into one of those paintings.

The Solentiname (pronounced so-LEN-teh-NAH-me) archipelago is a cluster of 36 islands near the southern corner of sprawling Lake Nicaragua. The islands are close enough for kayakers to paddle from one to another, but they're far enough into the lake that a private motorboat or a public ferry is needed to reach them. Only four of the islands have full-time inhabitants, and the total population today is about 750. Yet, thanks in large part to the efforts of a Roman Catholic priest named Ernesto Cardenal, vivid art produced on the islands can be found all over Nicaragua and has been exhibited far beyond.

The islands were largely unknown before the mid-1960s, when Father Cardenal, a native of Granada, Nicaragua, arrived on Mancarrón, the largest of the Solentinames, to establish a parish church. He ended up nurturing not just a political consciousness but also a community of artists that is still thriving decades later.

"When Cardenal came to Solentiname, the people had nothing," said María Guevara Silva, who was 15 when he arrived and is now an innkeeper and a working artist. "We had no schools, no boats," she said, referring to motorboats. Most inhabitants were farmers struggling to coax crops out of the steep and rocky terrain. Father Cardenal, a sculptor as well as a serious poet, promptly set out to improve islanders' lives by encouraging them to express themselves through art.

"The first painters were me, my brother Alejandro and José Arana," Ms. Guevara Silva said of Father Cardenal's art project, which began in 1967. "He financed the materials and told us to paint what we wanted." Thus was born Solentiname's distinctive art style: highly detailed oil and acrylic paintings of idealized rain forests and watery scenes populated by white egrets, blue herons and oropendolas, the black birds whose unusual hanging nests are often seen in the paintings, too. "People discovered we could sell our paintings," she said, both to visitors as souvenirs of the islands and to collectors interested in primitivist or naïve art.

First Published 2012-03-03 23:01:00

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