Views of Panama

Gobernadora: Where Art and Tourism Meet

French artists Yves and Valérie Leblet are living on this island in the Panamanian Pacific and building a dream: an artists’ residence that will be a place for inspiration, creation, and above all, reconnecting with nature.

By: Jorge Ventocilla
Photos: Javier Pinzón


Dawn comes as a fresh and invigorating caress on this island in the Panamanian Pacific. It is still early and the sea, the organic orchard, and the garden surrounding the cabins exhale their scents, but Yves and Valerie Leblet are already up and about.

Concentrating on his task, Yves plaits vines to form a sphere that will be placed in the center of an enormous mobile of concentric circles, also made of lianas. Meanwhile, Valérie gathers her things for a trip into town to fine-tune the details of the next fair; there will be time for pottery-making later.

Many years ago, these two French artists traded city life for a home near the sea, seeking a lifestyle that would have the smallest possible ecological footprint. They spent eight years in Samaná (Dominican Republic), on one of the largest coconut plantations in the Caribbean, and for the past seven years they have been living on Gobernadora Island.

Has it been a hard life with many privations? In the beginning, yes. However, their clearly defined goal of creating an artists’ residence kept their spirits up. They envisioned a space where fellow artists, travelers, tourists, and those seeking something real could find the inspiration to create, and above all, reconnect with nature. The Leblets are making this dream a reality on Panama’s Gobernadora Island.

The approximately three square mile island sits in the Gulf of Montijo —a mostly protected wetland— in the province of Veraguas. Gobernadora is a small place about twenty-eight miles from the better-known Coiba, the largest of Panama’s islands. The journey to Gobernadora begins with a five-hour drive on the paved highway from Panama City to the coastal towns of Santa Catalina or Hicaco, where visitors board a boat for a twenty to thirty-minute ride. The island has just one town with a little over two hundred residents, many of whom bear the last name Castillo or Alfonso; the Castillos come largely from Río de Jesús on the mainland, while the Alfonsos arrived here from Colombia several generations ago.

“The difficult access is part of the nature of the ’rite of passage trip‘ we hope people find here,” Valérie tells me. A short stay at the Art Lodge that she and her husband built with native materials and marked with their artistic sensibilities could indeed be a transformational experience. “It has often happened that people have barely come through the garden and reached the lounge area before they are already asking if they can extend their stay,” adds Yves with a smile of satisfaction.

It has become a tradition to organize an annual exhibit in Panama City. In 2011, they mounted “Coconut-Bamboo Dialogue” at the Alliance Française; a previous exhibit was called “Coconut-Cacao Dialogue.” Starting in January 2013 “and forevermore,” as the catalogue notes, the exhibit “Coconut-Liana Dialogue: Art and Nature Beyond the Gallery” will be installed in the midst of the lodge’s bungalows, fruit trees, and organic crops,  and the stream and the forest that are part of the island’s lovely art space.

Valérie has definite goals for the Gallery: “We would like to create a place where ideas are born and creativity can emerge; we want people to cross the bridge [referring to one of the two Canal bridges, which are stepping-stones to inland Panama], cross the sea, and enter the Gallery, allowing their five senses to awaken.”

Art Lodge is suffused with the sensation of renewing communication with nature through art. It is not surprising that Peruvian artist Fernando de Szyszlo said that nature “is a dictionary in which painters seek words.” And Cuban poet José Martí put this feeling into verse: “Art is no more than nature created by humans.”

So far, six artists have accepted Valérie’s invitation to exhibit works as part of “Coconut-Liana Dialogue”: Christine Cartooch and Brooke Alfaro (painting), Régis Servan (film), Philippe Demarsan (photography), and André Boisvert, Sonia Robertson and Yves Leblet (Land Art). Their works will be shown at the Art Lodge Gallery, the first of its kind in the country; the Gallery will be roofed as needed, but the open-air site currently has neither doors nor windows.

The predominant art form will be Land Art —Yves’ main focus— a modern art trend that uses nature as a backdrop and features natural materials like wood sculpted by the ocean, earth, stones, sand, rocks, and fire, among other things. [Land Art has been described in Spanish as “arte de la construcción del paisaje” or “arte terrestre.”] Works are generally constructed outside, exposed to the elements, and subject to natural erosion. Some disappear, leaving only photographs as proof of their existence.

“The Land Art excursion will allow people to enjoy a tour where creativity and nature meld,” notes Valérie. “But there will also be interactions in the city, with photographs of the works and art installations in cultural venues in the capital.”

The theme of the exhibit is “Biodiversity, Humanity, and Art,” which expresses the vision of keeping the focus on people —starting with the local population. Yves and Valérie, with the help of the island’s artisans and an increasing number of outside companies, are planning the Gobernadora Handicrafts and Ecotourism Fair; they hope to make this an annual event. Artisans from the mainland will also participate, and there will be conferences and workshops on sustainable, responsible fishing and rural tourism. Dugout canoe races, folk dances, local cuisine, and more round out the event. Organizations like the Panama Tourism Authority, MarViva, and Ganexa Art University, among others, will be present as before.

The artists have been attracting other people to the island who share their sensibilities. In the not too distant future, a small community will form around Art Lodge and its values of protecting biodiversity, promoting art, and respecting humanity.

This island in the Panamanian Pacific is giving birth to something new, a unique, entrepreneurial tourist experience that makes it possible for visitors to reconnect with nature in a beautiful setting that includes the outdoors, the local population, and the innerscapes of the visitors themselves.

This is something new that awakens and recharges us, like the fresh, invigorating morning breeze that blows through Art Lodge on Panama’s Gobernadora Island.