Jan Betts: Expat Visionary Artist Thriving and Painting in the Tropical Wilderness of Costa Rica
This is an interview with Jan Betts, a fine artist living in the jungles of Costa Rica. I first met Jan in June of 1974, while searching for a place to spend the coming rainy season. After driving south from Dominical for maybe an hour, I came to where a landslide had closed the trail for the season, and I had to stop. By coincidence, this was where Jan and her friends were making their home in the jungle. My wife, daughter, and I were invited to join them on their finca, and thus we got to know each other and formed a friendship that we have nurtured to this day, sometimes with 18 years between physical visits.
J.D.: Tell us a little about your place of origin and early life as an artist.
J.B.: I was raised in Washington D.C. USA. After high school, I went on to get a university degree, graduating with a Bachelor in Fine Arts, which landed me a job with an international greeting card company as an illustrator. I got married and then divorced, all the while getting a whiff of the late 60’s, which drew me to freedom and adventure.
J.D.: How did you act on your desires?
J.B.: I quit my job and moved to San Francisco, where I freelanced for the same greeting card company and began a new life, fueled by a desire to seek and experience a journey that would remove me from the realms of my previous life experiences and realities. It was during this time when I met two people who would play an important part in my future life, a life that commenced with a life-changing experience in a Marin County forest. I was subsequently invited to join these friends in a newly forming group that was seeking fresh spiritual and metaphysical adventures, and to actually work with a man reputed to be advanced in these spiritual journeys.
The first gathering of our minds and spirits took place in Hollywood, California, and later, the group moved to Costa Rica. My companion and I left this group, purchased a Dodge Camper Van, and headed south. We chose Costa Rica for several reasons: I had always dreamed of living in the tropics, as had he; one could make a dollar go much further there than in the USA; the country had no army, having abolished it in 1948; it offered the opportunity to live a free life in a romantic environment.
J.D.: So that was in the very early 70’s. What were some of your first impressions of Costa Rica?
J.B.: Costa Rica at that time was a peaceful little piece of paradise, with a socialist/democratic government, that while working fine enough, was nonetheless rife with the infamous Latin American corruption, which back then as now has always been part of the equation in third world governments.
Entering Costa Rica was like stepping into another world: It had a feeling to it that was unlike any of the other countries we traversed on our journey south.
J.D.: How did you find the place you eventually settled with your group?
J.B.: After arriving, we explored the entire country while living in our Camper Van, looking for the place that would fulfill our dreams. We fell in love with a very remote region on the Southern Pacific coast, named Dominical, and shortly thereafter acquired a spectacular piece of land along the coast, complete with waterfalls, virgin jungle, beachfront and dreams in the making! The property was located a few miles south of Dominical, on a “road” that was only barely passable during the dry season, and then only with 4-wheel-drive vehicles.
We contracted for the construction of five small A-frame thatched cabinas and a larger main building for cooking, eating, and gathering. Soon the rest of the group followed, and a new life in Costa Rica began to take shape. Everyone was settling into their new homes and started to enjoy this way of life, which was so different than what our upbringings had given us. We began adjusting to our new existence in this wild and magical place, and one by one we were getting to know the local Ticos, as the inhabitants of the country are known. These campesinos that were born and raised in our surroundings had so much to teach is, and they willingly shared their knowledge and experience with us, as their own inborn curiosity was satisfied by spending time with us on our Finca.
J.D.: What were your interactions with the local Ticos like?
J.B.: Developing friendships with them was very meaningful and important to me, and many of these friendships last to this day, almost four decades later. While living in what my culture considered to be poverty conditions, they demonstrated a “wealth” and generosity, humility and a harmony with this amazing environment, loving and sweet, not thinking of what we could do for them, or about our money, but what they could do for us! That was to change as more and more foreigners arrived in subsequent years and the entire region was to be infiltrated with foreigners, here to corrupt this purity that we were so privileged to experience with real estate speculation and the introduction and insistence on doing things “their way.”
Ticos would often show up to visit us around lunchtime, so we would cook vats of food to offer them to join us. Anything we needed they would rush to provide! Once we told one person that we wanted to buy some horses. The next Sunday we were amazed as dozens of people with horses for sale converged on our place. It was a carnival as each showed off their horse, its training, the prices, etc!
J.D.: Give us an idea of what life was like for you in the wilds of Costa Rica.
J.B.: Our life was hard in comparison to anything we knew… but I loved it. There would be shopping trips to San Isidro once every week or two. We would get up in the dark, saddle two horses, and ride on jungle roads that in some places were covered by muddy landslides from tropical downpours for about ten miles to where the San Isidro bus was to be waiting. Once there we would take the horses to a pasture, unsaddle them, go to the bus, and then endure a 2 ½ hour bumpy ride to town. Once there we bought food, tools and building supplies, etc. We would put it all in feed sacks, get on the afternoon bus, and ride back to Dominical by the end of the day in a bus packed to overflowing with people and their feed sacks of supplies, chickens, babies… all in great humor and animation.
Upon our return to Dominical, we then had to unload the sacks, go get and saddle the horses, put the sacks on both of them, and walk the ten miles back, mostly in the dark, leading loaded horses, sometimes in the rain, with a flashlight, navigating more mud and tricky passages, returning to our home exhausted but invigorated by this rustic lifestyle.
J.D.: How did your artistic life evolve?
J.B.: I had done a few paintings while living in Dominical, all reflecting the jungle romance and imbibed with spiritual idealisms that permeated my life. But after four years of living in the jungle, I got pregnant, and after the birth of my son, I was put back into a position where I had to consider commercial freelance illustration to make money to support the two of us.
I reluctantly left my beloved surroundings on the Pacific Coast and moved to the Central Valley, first to San Jose, and then more out into the country, near Santa Ana, but still relatively close to the capital. I was working out of my home, where I had a baby and then a toddler to care for, making a living with commercial art. But after a while of doing that, I became increasingly drawn to express my art in ways that reflected who I was as I traveled on the spiritual path.
So I took a chance, burning my commercial art portfolio when I was almost out of money, and I re-dedicated my art to pursuits that were more meaningful to me, praying to God for support in this.
J.D.: That took courage, and we know the outcome.
J.B.: That was when my art took on a magic of its own. To my own surprise, the new paintings sold almost immediately, one by one, affording me the money needed to support me and my little baby, albeit hand to mouth and somewhat meager, but enough… and I was free to paint from inspiration!! This was 33 years ago – and thus, I entered a new phase for my visionary art to flourish.
For the next eight years, we lived in different places, and I painted from the heart and I sold my artwork.
J.D.: So you stayed around the Central Valley. How did you manage to handle raising a growing boy, there?
J.B.: When my son was 10, after I had lived for thirteen years in Costa Rica, we moved back to the US, to Boulder and Nederland, Colorado, where he could attend school. I found a job illustrating for another international publishing company and my art became commercial again, as I was struggling to survive as a single mom in the States.
When my son was 19, we returned to Costa Rica. That was in 1994. We had been gone for nine years. My re-settling here brought new challenges, but I brought newly replenished resources as well as all the information and knowledge gathered from having lived in Costa Rica in the way that I had, along with improved Spanish. I bought about 3/4 acre of land on a creek with a waterfall in a mini forest, where I designed and built two simple houses, one for each of us.
J.D.: That is where you currently live, in San Isidro Del General?
J.B.: Yes. Once my little paradise was constructed, and I had my new Doberman puppy with me (I had learned that it was important to have a guard dog when living here, for protection from theft and prowlers, common to all third world countries), I was finally ready to begin my next journey. I did Yoga, I meditated, I opened my heart, I breathed in deeply the dense living energy of this beautiful place… and oh, what visions began to arrive for my art! It was truly glorious.
I lived alone, a bit of a hermit, and celibate by choice. It was a time of great beauty and peace for me, a spiritual reawakening, dedicated to finding out just who I was when I wasn’t busy with roles designed to provide for somebody else’s needs, or making art designed for someone else’s purposes, or even following the various belief systems (most of them lies) that had formed my own sense of identity. Both of my parents had recently passed away, I had quit my job of eight years, my son was grown, (living in his own house near mine but on his own), and my previous US love relationship had ended. I was freer than ever before and had built a little world where my spirit and art could flourish, in a culture that is very different from the one I grew up with.
J.D.: And this was the period when you started your next creative phase?
J.B.: Yes, I began paint.
I loved how I felt when I was painting. It was a profound, blissful meditation for me. And I loved the inspiration of my surroundings – the sounds of the river flowing and the songs of birds and singing of insects, frogs, etc, and the spectacular green realm of plants and trees.
My son eventually found a place of his own, I converted his house into an art studio and private gallery, and now I live between the two houses. I have six dogs and three kitties added to the sounds of the wildness surrounding me.
J.D.: I can see how you would be inspired by all this. How has your life developed during this period?
J.B.: After thirteen years living like this, I got involved with another deeply spiritual man, and my relationship with him further expanded my spirituality, as well as my depth of heart on this path of discovery. This too affected my art, and so it goes to this day. But the relationship ended when it was time, and my beloved solitude again blesses me and my art. I continue to paint as I go through the profound transformations, some of them difficult, of expanding, clearing, purifying, healing… peeling away veils of illusion.
Life, love, and creative exuberance, along with unending curiosity, continue to take me into the experience of drawing closer to the Universal Truth underlying all life.
J.D.: Do you have public viewing or exhibits of your work?
J.B.: I had not promoted my art or had exhibitions, because I just love the quiet of this life so much that I didn’t want the complications of all that. But just this year I have gone public with my art at my new website, Infusion: Visionary Art by Jan Betts. I am also learning to find words to go with my newest art, posted in my art blog, which is linked to my website. Please feel free to peruse the pages featuring my art in two galleries. The “Retrospective Gallery,” contains many paintings from past to present, and some of these are also featured in the 360° turning of the interactive “Virtual Forest Gallery” (a separate download, but worth the wait), with images taken in the same river and waterfall setting where I live.
J.D.: Thank you very much for taking the time to share your inspiring life with our readers.
I urge all my readers to have a look at Jan’s amazing work. In the almost 40 years she has been my friend, I have always been astonished at how she kept growing artistically, from visit to visit, sometimes not having seen each other in many years. Jan is truly an enlightened spirit who has spent her time on this earth sharing her creativity and spiritualism.
Support the arts! It is the highest expression of who we are as a species!
About the author: Jamie Douglas is an Adventurer, Writer and Photographer with an amazing array of Nikon equipment, and a lifetime of experience traveling and documenting. He currently enjoys the great weather and fine wines of Mendoza, Argentina, and edits Expat Daily News and Expat Daily News Latin America.