In 1976 Sandinista poet-priest Ernesto Cardinal came to the remote Solentiname islands in southern Nicaragua. He found a naturally artistic people who weren’t  expressing their creativity, and a devout people who’d never thought Catholicism could speak directly to the conditions of their daily lives.

“Before he came,” said Esparanza Guevara, who showed me around the church on Mancarron Island, “we were Catholic, but we knew nothing of justice and injustice.” Cardinal preached a Sandinista-inflected Catholicism of the poor, a version of liberation theology, and in fact many of Solentiname’s young people caught the fever and left their island sanctuary to fight (and die) in Nicaragua’s Sandinista uprising.

Being an artist himself, Cardinal also encouraged in the islands’ inhabitants a populist creativity that took many forms: primary-color drawings on the walls of the island’s dirt floor church, wood carvings of birds and fish and caimans, and paintings of the beautiful islands themselves.

The paintings remind me both of Haitian naive art and the paintings from the Tigua region of the Ecuadorian Andes, made with car paint on stretched sheepskin. The paintings of Solentiname are oil on canvas.

I’d been hearing good things about Solentiname for years, and when we got there I wasn’t disappointed. I don’t often use the word magical, but this little-visited chain of islands in Lake Nicaragua felt that way to me.

The paintings you see here were on the walls of the islands’ artists cooperative. Many of the artists are women who have few options when it comes to earning a living. The painting were selling for about $100 for small ones to $800 for the larger (36 x 30 inches) ones.

All photos are by David Webster Smith.

Artists represented here: Fernando Altamirano, Solignia Arellana, Sylvia Arellano, Carmen Madrigal, Miriam Madrigal, Teresa Madrigal