Early in his career, Mexican artist Diego Rivera copied the classical art of his European contemporaries. Wanting to capture the history of the pre-Hispanic people that were his ancestors, none of whom were reflected in traditional art, Rivera returned to an ancient form of art that dates back 30,000 years. He became a muralist.

(Originally published in Mango Musings, March 2, 2023)

When restaurant owner Gabriel Aguilar Arreola, opened the popular Iguanas Restaurant and Pizzeria in Atenas, he commissioned Leonel Méndez Pérez to create a mural to enhance the open air dining area. He said, “I needed a magical space that would provide a pleasant experience for our clients.”

From their first meeting, Aguilar and Méndez became good friends. Aguilar gave the artist absolute freedom, knowing he had the credentials to execute the painting. Aguilar suggested a natural landscape with symbolic animals. The result is a backdrop so delightful that children try to chase the still life animals and birds.

Méndez’s talents extend into music. He studied music at the Universidad Nacional de Costa Rica. His first instrument was the saxophone, and he excels in playing the guitar. Twenty-five years ago, he had a music school that is now closed. COVID shut down his art academy in Puriscal. Now, he teaches art online and recently returned from a teaching stint in Germany and Denmark. While in Denmark, he created a mural of Venice for an Italian restaurant that included a perfectly set table in a corner that is indistinguishable from the other tables.

Méndez’s mural has been damaged from the elements, so he has returned to restore his art. The painting that took 18 days to complete will require a full month to repair. Daily, Méndez climbs the scaffolding in the scorching sun to touch up the faded colors and give his masterpiece new life. This is dangerous work, particularly in the windy season. On several occasions, he has had to climb like a monkey on the scaffolding and retrieve his tools before they blow away.

When Méndez first envisioned the mural, he thought of incorporating local symbols of nature. Painting a canvas only requires the artist to stand in place and observe the progression of the piece. A mural, though, requires constant stepping back from the scaffolding to observe and make changes.

Atenas residents are familiar with the Sleeping Woman, a natural phenomenon that can be seen on Ruta 27 between Atenas and San José. The earliest indigenous inhabitants of Costa Rica noticed how the mountains formed the shape of a reclining woman, golden in her repose at sunrise. The Sleeping Lady perpetually rests atop the mural. Méndez cleverly has added a pillow of clouds for her to rest her head. She appears to be sleeping on a mattress of clouds.

The owner of Iguanas only made one request of the artist. Aguilar didn’t want too many animals because he didn’t want it to look like a zoo. The point is well taken since the eye travels down from the Sleeping Woman to the familiar flora and fauna of Costa Rica. An iguana with a brilliant orange head, a three-toed sloth and scarlet macaws flank the main panel. One can almost hear the squawking of the macaws who fly off to the side of their favorite almond tree.

The Sleeping Lady

 The grand scale of the mural makes it difficult to appreciate the details of each component. Méndez relied on his imagination to create a waterfall, but found that the animals and birds were impossible to recreate from his memory. He used actual photos to laboriously show the details of plumage and colors. The restoration requires a darker paint. “In art the best way to emphasize light is to use the opposite,” says Mendez. “The iguana stands out in its darker background.”

Méndez finds inspiration in nature that he finds easy to paint. He prefers animals as subject matter to humans, although he does paint portraits and still life. His repertoire includes landscapes, portraits and of course, murals. A number of residents have decorated their property with his work. So inspired is he by Atenas that he is contemplating moving to the town.

Aguilar is thrilled with the reaction of diners to the mural, saying, “It has created a real experience for our domestic and foreign customers.”

Beyond his mission of restoring the mural, Méndez slyly admits that he has a few surprises to add. Already he has enlarged the waterfall that he felt was dwarfed by the mountains in the first mural. In the future, diners at Iguanas can try to locate some additions to the mural while they sample the menu. Who knows? Maybe Méndez will paint himself sitting at a table observing the diners as they appreciate his art.

Mural of Venice in an Italian restaurant in Denmark

To contact Leo for online painting lessons or to commission a mural:
6254-9221 (WhatsApp and telephone)

Iguanas Restaurante y Pizzeria: Located next to the Clinical Laboratory Dr. Mercedes Alfaro, in front of the Catholic Church of San Rafael.
7036 5441

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