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  • Writer's picturePura Vida Connections

My Tico Heart: Katya De Luisa, Emerging Artist

The divorce, loss of my street kid project, the nervous breakdown, and topping it off with the earthquake aftermath changed my mind about living in Limon. Coming out of any depression is like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon, and this newly emerging "Mariposa" wanted to fly.

My two younger boys and I moved into a cottage next to a creek in Escazu where we remained for several years while I built my new art career.

Most larger hotels in San Jose had art galleries and they hosted the opening receptions; my first was in the Corobici, now the Crown Plaza. With a chunk of the money remaining from my jeep sale, I framed twenty-five artworks, but I was so flabbergasted by the high cost, I learned to fame myself. Publicity expenses were even higher, but it was pretty easy to get free news coverage.

Most Costa Rican art usually depicted traditional landscapes with adobe houses and lots of cows. However, in the '90s, artists began to evolve as abstract, contemporary, surrealism, and experimental styles emerged. A New York gallery opened promoting Costa Rican art internationally. It was an exciting time of renaissance where visual arts, theater, music, and film transformed, and I became a part of it.

Most of the expositions I attended featured incredible art; however, inaugurations were stuffy and boring; at least till I had a few drinks. My inaugurations became "Happenings," which included the collaboration of performing artists following the exhibit's theme. "Remembering Limon" had live reggae music and dancers. “Eco-tourism in Camouflage” attendees dressed as flora and fauna; one couple wore actual bushes; I was a butterfly, of course.

I had a one-woman show every three months; each exhibit featured a new theme.

My son oldest Damon attended my show at the North American Cultural Center where I exhibited 35 pieces and had dancers performing modern dance depictions of several pieces. He and I had several challenges with our relationship at the time so when he said how proud he was of me, that became the highlight of all my work.

“Encounters with Art” was my crowning achievement.

Years ago, at a theater in the US, they projected a Van Gough painting on the screen while patrons waited for the movie to begin. I took this idea further. My on-screen exhibitions were five-minute slide shows with accompanying music that featured several artworks of an individual artist. We showcased 35 artists in most of the San Jose theaters, and it ran a year.

These events got a lot of press coverage, my new career was prospering, and my art sales supported us.

My son, Trevor, was now a star on his high school basketball team. Unfortunately, problems with Mauricio kept escalating; it seemed I was raising Cane and Able. Crack came to Costa Rica, and Mauricio made the wrong friends.

He dropped out of school, stole to buy drugs, and became violent. I periodically got him into rehab, but by fifteen, he was living on the streets. Two years later, he was sentenced to five years in prison for assault and robbery.

Visits were Saturdays, the lines took hours, and matrons had me strip to my underwear checking for drugs. Families visiting the inmates in the courtyard was a sad scenario; worse yet, I was also one of them.

While having a coffee on the patio of the Grand Hotel in the Plaza de la Cultura, a couple of street children were panhandling. I wouldn't just give them money, so I handed them paper and pencils and said I'd buy their drawings. Their joy in selling their art gave me an idea. If I couldn't help Mauricio, I'd help other kids like him. Every Sunday, I conducted a sidewalk art class for the children vendors in the Plaza next to the hotel.

Like my Limon project, it quickly expanded, and so did my ideas. The weekend artisan fair donated a booth so the kids could sell their art. I began exhibiting their framed paintings in galleries, embassies, and museums; they eventually got more press and had better curriculums than I did.

The Dutch embassy funded me to develop an arts program in the youth detention centers. I coordinated an exhibit at the Children’s Museum. "Expression of Liberty" featuring one hundred of their artworks. At the inauguration, politicians, ambassadors, and news media mingled among the guests. During the event, envelopes with names on them were distributed. I explained each contained the spirit of that young artist. At count three envelopes were simultaneously opened, and live butterflies took to the air. Butterflies are sleepy at night, and they landed on everyone. One ambassador with a butterfly perched on his nose laughingly exclaimed, "Carlos wants to go home with me."

Believe me, there was nothing stuffy about that inauguration!

Upon returning the next day, I was horrified to discover the entire exhibit had been removed. The Children's Museum had been initially the project of a former first lady. The director apologetically explained an anarchy sign in one of the paintings resulted in her ordering the whole exhibit to be taken down. Righteously infuriated, I threatened to inform every news media of how an ex-first lady had abused the rights of incarcerated children. I demanded the exhibit be returned in 24 hours; the next day, it was back as though it had never been gone.

A Dutch couple sponsored me to develop arts programs in a chain of Catholic orphanages throughout Central America. While in Guatemala, I met a group of Quakers. They invited me to return and work with their Indigenous children projects.

My kids were no longer living with me; Trevor in college, Mauricio in jail, and Damon in Florida. Although my career and projects were doing well, I developed a case of empty nest syndrome and struggled to find purpose.

I'd been experiencing heart arrhythmia and sleep apnea throughout the previous year; unaware these conditions were life-threatening. One evening I'd barely closed my eyes when suddenly I found myself flying through the proverbial tunnel. Glancing back at my dead body, I felt no fear; I was ready to leave. At the end of the tunnel, I came to a place shrouded in mist. I immediately had an elated sense of finally arriving home. Several figures floated towards me, and I became overwhelmed with intense feelings of love. It was so powerful any love I'd experienced during my lifetime seemed like a grain of sand on a beach in comparison. One figure came towards me, and billions of images flashed before me; it wasn't my life flashing before my eyes; it seemed more like a download. Then, just as suddenly as I had left my body, I found myself thrust back into it. Heartbroken at being back, I curled up in a ball and cried for two days.

After recovering from this near-death experience, the marketing of my art became intolerable; it felt like selling my soul. My creative spirit was lost, and I decided to burn everything.

“Phoenix Rising” was to be my final exposition where my remaining artworks would be cremated. It turns out an artist burning her art was a big deal, and I was offered TV interviews, and the event got full-page spreads in newspapers.

The burn happened in Escazu in an empty lot which is now Walmart. After stacking wood, I wrapped 60 artworks around the pyre and created a spiral path with luminaries. At sunset, we lit the fire and the luminaries. The attendees followed the spiral to the blaze and threw in what they wanted to release written on paper. Meanwhile, I was mesmerized by the colors melting into each other, and suddenly I felt something break free inside me. In that instant, I realized art was never about the end product; it was always about the creative process.

I've continued creating art throughout the years, but never again have I had any attachment to the end result.

After the event, my relationship with Costa Rica lost its luster, so I decided to head to Guatemala and work with the Quakers projects. I got rid of everything and packed my Volkswagen van with boxes of art supplies for my new endeavor, "Create," a mobile art school; however, there was a problem. My van had been donated, and it didn't have Tico plates, nor any license plate for that matter. It had a New York title, and a paper permit taped to the window allowing it to circulate for three months. That time had expired months previously.

I knew if I made it to the border without the traffic police confiscating the vehicle, I'd be able to get it out of the country. In the dead of night, I set off on the six-hour journey to the Nicaraguan border. But at 1 am outside Puntarenas, I got a flat tire and, to my dismay, discovered the spare was also flat.


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