By Susan Rife, Herald-Tribune / Centuries ago, Borucan Indians in the rainforest of Costa Rica carved “diablo” masks from native cedar trees to ward off the Spanish invaders.
The masks were effective, allowing the Borucans, whose village is in southwest Costa Rica, to retain their own culture. Today, artisans from the village carve and paint masks reflecting more ecological themes, capturing the brilliant colors of rainforest flora and fauna. And now they primarily use balsa wood, a fast-growing native tree that goes from seedling to harvestable in three years; each tree can yield as many as 30 masks.
For the past nine years, Selby Gardens has collaborated with the Borucan artists for an exhibit and sale of the masks. Collectors now jam the rooms of the mansion at the gardens on the opening night of the show, snapping up carvings by their favorites. At last week’s opening, volunteers were writing sales tickets as fast as they could; by the time Marilynn Shelley, manager of community classes and exhibits, gave a lecture on the masks and her trips to Costa Rica on Wednesday, red “sold” dots were everywhere in the exhibit. The masks range from about $225 to close to $1,000 each.
Among the avid collectors is Carl Keeler, gallery director at the Manatee County Cultural Alliance. Keeler taught biology at the then-Manatee Community College from 1964 to 2000.
But his first exposure to the Borucan masks was at an early exhibit at Selby.
“Oh boy, jaguars, parrots and macaws,” said Keeler, who has bought three masks at each of the past five exhibits.
Keeler collects by subject matter rather than artist, preferring the ecological style over the “diablitos” that depict fearsome fanged creatures. A third style combines the “diablito” images with the ecological.
“What impresses me is the detail, how they can take a tree trunk and kind of visualize what’s in it, visualize it in 3D and just carve it,” he said.
The exhibit showcases the work of 16 artists, some of whom have descended from generations of wood carvers. Brothers Pedro Rojas Morales and Francesco Rojas Morales, who have represented the village’s artisans at the gardens for several years, are fourth-generation artists.
The brothers began carving about a decade ago; Pedro limits himself to carving alone, while Francesco designs, carves and paints his masks.
Proceeds from sales of the masks benefits the gardens’ sustainability research and the artisans themselves. Pedro Rojas Morales said the money helps feed, educate and clothe the villagers.
The several hundred masks in the exhibit represent a year’s worth of work by the villagers, he said.