JAMESTOWN, R.I. — When Peace Dale resident John Kotula and his wife volunteered to join the Peace Corps in 2015 and were sent to Nicaragua, they soon found themselves falling in love with the beauty and culture of the Central American nation. So much so, in fact, that when Kotula’s two years were up, his wife took a job as a nurse with the Peace Corps to stay in the capital city of Managua longer.
However, rising political tensions and outbreaks of violence in 2018 forced Kotula back to Rhode Island sooner than he had hoped.
“We knew we weren’t expats, we knew that we were going to be coming back to the States eventually, but I had hoped to be there for a couple more years and then the political situation got very difficult,” Kotula said. “An opposition rose up and there was quite a bit of street violence and it began to feel unsafe and Peace Corps pulled the volunteers out of the country and my wife had a job where she didn’t have any work to do and we just decided that it was time to leave.”
Kotula said he and his wife left Nicaragua with a lot of things still up in the air and that it’s taken him the year since to process this abrupt departure and the unfinished business and people he cared about that are still in Managua.
As a lifelong artist, Kotula has been able to process and channel a lot of these feelings through his artwork, much of which will go on display Wednesday at the Out Of The Box Studio & Gallery in Jamestown in an exhibit titled “Leaving Nicaragua.” The exhibit opens with a reception Wednesday from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. and will stay open during gallery hours Monday through Friday 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and Saturdays from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. through March 6.
In addition to the regular gallery hours, there will also be an Artist Talk with Kotula on Feb. 12 at 6 p.m.
This is Kotula’s first time working with Out Of The Box Studio & Gallery, which is an art hub for Looking Upwards, a Middletown-based organization that supports people with disabilities to live fulfilling lives and provides inclusive services to people to participate in activities going on in the community. Over 40 artists from Looking Upwards participate in the program, make use of its studio space and are provided materials and equipment to express themselves through art and be presented with the opportunity to sell their pieces to the public as well through the program.
Since opening their new space last April, Out Of The Box regularly brings in community artists to work with their artists and show them different techniques or talk about their own work and process as a way to inspire the artists and their creativity. Kotula is the fourth and latest artist to work with Out Of The Box, and Kotula first became aware of the program his friendship and previous work with their Creative Arts Director, Casey Weibust.
“I’ve been working with John for a long time collaborating and I was really happy when he proposed to have a show with us because I’ve worked with him at (East Bay Medical Center) in art advisory for four years,” Weibust said. “I just (have) always loved his need and ability to work collaboratively in large groups with people and so when he proposed to have a show, it was the perfect match.”
Kotula has led two workshops at Out Of The Box, the most recent coming Thursday morning, and worked with the artists on painting t-shirts, several of which will feature in the show.
“It’s been great,” Kotula said of working with the Out Of The Box artists. “They’re all people with disabilities of one kind or another, but they’re also all used to doing art projects because they’ve had a lot of experience with that through Out of the Box, so they were very willing to try anything I asked them to try and I thought they brought some real creativity to it.”
For Weibust, seeing the artists from Out Of The Box build bonds with exhibiting artists and collaborate on projects is one of her favorite parts of the workshops.
“My favorite part about it is seeing how the artists interact with the material and also how... usually one or two from Out of the Box will really heavily relate to a process that one of the workshop exhibiting artists are working on and I like to see when they start to work together collaboratively,” Weibust said. “So in this case, John and an Out of the Box artist named Katherine Thompson, who participates in a lot of the workshops, they kind of built a bond throughout it was only maybe two or three hours of time, but they kind of built a connection and built a bond and they were working together collaboratively on the project and it was really fun to watch that process and see them brainstorming together and just kind of laughing and enjoying themselves and the kind of no rules and just enjoying the process and not having strict guidelines.”
In addition to the works of Kotula and the Out Of The Box artists, the exhibit’s opening night will also feature live music from Newport-based guitarist Julio Amaro. Weibust said she had been looking to incorporate music into an exhibit, and a chance encounter between Amaro, Kotula and herself at a Newport restaurant gave them the perfect opportunity.
“So John and I went out to dinner maybe three months before his set date just to kind of talk about what he might be doing with the artists and we went to Perro Salado in Newport,” Weibust said. “We were talking about how it would be fun to have a musician and how we loved the music that Julio Amaro was playing and how it kind of fit in with the culture around the idea of leaving Nicaragua and the whole theme of the show and so John and I got his business card and told him we had a show but we didn’t have a date yet and we would get in touch with him.”
Weibust then went about applying for an Arts and Cultural Award (ACA) from Newport County, which she received and which provided Out Of The Box with the funds to be able to build a stage for Amaro and other future musicians at the gallery.
“I think that it’ll be nice to have somebody playing Latin American music sort of related to the themes of the show,” Kotula said. “I’m not sure what he’s going to be doing, but we have talked about the possibility of him doing some Nicaraguan music and some other music that I think would relate to the show.”
When people come to see the exhibit, Kotula hopes that they come away with a new way of thinking and an appreciation for the beauty and culture of Nicaragua, a place that is still so dear to him.
“I’d like for them to go away with a smile on their face and an image stuck in their head and think “I never saw that presented that way before, that gives me something to think about,’” Kotula said.
Out Of The Box Studio & Gallery is located at 11 Clinton Ave. in Jamestown. For more information, check out their Facebook page or call (401) 423-1153.