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Artists Work to Boost Economy in Heredia, Costa Rica

Austin Sheppard in studio
Austin Sheppard works on a model for Bestia de Cargas.

The city of Heredia, Costa Rica, now is home to 11 pieces of original artwork, including one by local artist Austin Sheppard. A sculptor and lab technician in Davidson College's Katherine and Tom Belk Visual Arts Center, Sheppard was one of 10 artists worldwide selected to participate in the Stone, Wood, Iron International Sculpture Symposium (SWIISS), an event to encourage economic growth and sustainability in Heredia through the creation of public art.

Symposium organizer Stuart Kent, also a sculptor, said he chose Sheppard to participate in SWIISS because of his work ethic and his body of work. A figurative sculptor, Sheppard makes pieces that are self-reflective while exploring aspects of human experience, character, and ethos.

"Austin's artwork has a cultural context that a lot of people respond to," Kent said.

Sheppard's Heredia piece, Bestia de Cargas (Beast of Burdens), speaks to the adage coined by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: "That which does not kill us makes us stronger."

Assembled from 75 individual pieces, Sheppard's male figure crouches, carrying on his back a heavy, cumbersome object. Despite the burden, the man remains ready to move - head up, eyes ahead, not to be hindered by the item. Sheppard made the sculpture out of Cipress, a fast-growing, renewable wood native to Mexico and imported to Costa Rica in the 1970s to help with reforestation. And he charred the entire piece.

"Fire damages wood but also hardens it," Sheppard explained, so the experience of the sculpture represents literally the sort of human experience Nietzsche references. And its Costa Rica home - a third-world country that has faced and overcome numerous demographic, environmental, and economic challenges - adds even more context for the piece.

"It's dark, but not in a way that makes you run from it," Kent said. "It's dark in a way you want to engage."

Public Engagement

View of Bestia de Cargas, by Austin Sheppard
Bestia de Cargas, by Austin Sheppard

Despite its proximity to a major airport, Heredia struggles to attract tourism, Kent said. By installing works of public art around the city, he hopes the SWIISS project will make Heredia more of a tourist destination, and increase the quality of life for residents. 

A two-week artist residency, SWIISS brought together the sculptors under a tent in the middle of a busy square in Heredia to create pieces that now remain in the city as public artworks. The event was a sort of a "grand finale" to a year-long economic initiative Kent implemented as part of a Fulbright Core Scholarship, and was funded by the Universidad Nacional de Costa Rica (UNA) and the municipality of Heredia as well as some individual sponsors.

The artists' outdoor, centrally-located workspace created an "open studio" that invited interaction and aroused public interest. 

"At first it was a little zoo-like, but then I realized that people were genuinely interested in what we were doing, and wanted to engage with us in a meaningful way," Sheppard said.

That sort of interpersonal interaction was exactly what Sheppard hoped to find on site.

"My pieces are my way of talking to the world," he said. "I want to establish a dialogue with viewers through my work."

Public engagement also was a key component of the SWIISS mission. By drawing an estimated 20,000 people to the square to watch the works in progress, the event boosted sales at nearby businesses significantly, Kent said. The initiative also received regular news coverage, and schools bussed students to the site daily.

Sustainable results

Local children in Heredia check out Sheppard's progress on his sculpture
Local children in Heredia stop to check out Sheppard's progress on his sculpture.

Sheppard's Bestia de Cargas is now a part of the permanent collection at Heredia's cultural museum. Other pieces created at SWIISS have been installed in public parks, municipal buildings, and on the university campus. Kent hopes that the investment in public art will help Heredia continue to draw tourists and natives to the city.

"Public art affects people's mentality and improves their quality of life," Kent said. "When people are happier, they tend to work harder, create goals, and spend more time out in their communities."

Sheppard added that, in addition to affecting the locals and tourists, the SWIISS experience also bound the artists themselves to the community they helped to transform.

"I hated to leave Costa Rica," Sheppard said, "but with each piece I make I leave a piece of myself behind."