Jan 172019
 

Sir Peter Smithers (1913-2006), a real-life James Bond, was the British Acting naval attache for Mexico, Central America and Panama from 1942 to 1946. He spent much of this time in Mexico. An avid amateur photographer (among many other things) he took thousands of transparencies (slides) of Mexico. In 1999, several years before he died, he donated more than 3,000 transparencies taken with his trusty Leica cameras to Mexico’s National Photo Library (Fototeca Nacional).

Smithers’ photos of Mexico include some great shots of Paricutín Volcano during its early eruptions (it first burst into life in 1943) and many archaeological and historical sites. They also include a handful of interesting early color photos of Ajijic and Chapala.

Sir Peter Henry Berry Otway Smithers was born in England on 9 December 1913. He attended Harrow and was awarded a Masters degree from Magdalen College, Oxford in 1937. He was a barrister in London for several years and an officer in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve from 1937 to 1958. In the early part of the second world war he was interviewed for a position in the Naval Intelligence Division by none other than Commander Ian Fleming. The two men became close friends and it was Fleming who later recommended Smithers to his friends in the diplomatic corps.

Smithers is one of several real-life spies alleged to have been the inspiration for Fleming’s James Bond. Fleming gave Smithers a pistol disguised as a pen and used Smithers’s wife’s gold typewriter in Goldfinger.

Peter Smithers. Ajijic. ca 1945. Credit: INAH/Fototeca

Peter Smithers. Ajijic. ca 1944. Credit: INAH/Fototeca Nacional.

In 1940, Smithers was appointed to the British Embassy in Washington D.C. where his tasks including liaising with the U.S. Navy Department and spreading disinformation via the cocktail circuit.

In 1942 he was made the British Acting naval attache for Mexico, Central America and Panama. Smithers spent much of his time as naval attache in Mexico, where in 1943 he met Dojean Sayman, originally from St. Louis, Missouri; the couple married a few weeks later and had two daughters.

While in Mexico, Smithers pursued another of his lifelong passions – gardening – to create his own garden in Cuernavaca. He was a respected botanist and collected numerous plant specimens in Mexico for British Museum herbarium. He massed a collection of some 2,000 species of cactus at his home in Winchester, England and they accompanied him when he moved to Strasbourg.

Peter Smithers. Ajijic. ca 1945. Credit: INAH/Fototeca

Peter Smithers. Ajijic. ca 1944. Credit: INAH/Fototeca Nacional.

His interest in photography began as a means of documenting plants but quickly expanded into other subjects. He was encouraged by Claudine Laabs, a leading bird photographer, to exhibit his photos of plants and Smithers held numerous one-person shows of his work in the U.S. and elsewhere. He won many photo awards and was the recipient of the Royal Horticultural Society’s Gold Medal for his plant photography.

These two photos of Ajijic were taken in about 1944, well before the village spread into the surrounding hills.

Later in life Smithers made series of TV programs on foreign affairs for the BBC, gained a doctorate in history from Oxford (1954) and a doctorate in jurisprudence from the University of Zurich (1970). He was a British parliamentarian for many years and served as Secretary General on the Council of Europe in Strasbourg from 1964 to 1969.

Smithers lived the latter part of his life in Switzerland and died on 8 June 2006 in Vico Morcote, Ticino, at the age of 92.

Sources

Comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios are welcomed. Please email us or use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts.

Jan 102019
 

The most elegant prose related to Lake Chapala ever written is almost certainly that by Sybille Bedford (1911-2006) in her first published work, A Sudden View, a book that New Yorker journalist Joan Acocella quite rightly thought should be read by everyone, whether or not they planned to visit Mexico.

Sybille (she disliked being called “Bedford”) was a dedicated if not especially prolific author. By the time of her death, at the age of 94 in 2006, she had completed several semi-autobiographical novels and a handful of non-fiction works including a landmark biography of her early mentor and good friend Aldous Huxley.

A Sudden View was first published in 1953 and later re-issued as A Visit to Don Otavio, the title by which it is now generally known. The book was based on a trip to Mexico in 1946-47. The book opens in New York as the author and her traveling companion, Esther Murphy Arthur (“E” in the book), start their train journey south. After exploring Mexico City and its environs, they then traveled to Guadalajara via Lake Pátzcuaro and Morelia. The remainder of the book is set almost entirely at Lake Chapala, with several relatively short and adventurous forays to other parts of the country.

Sybille was born on 16 March 1911 in Charlottenburg, near Berlin, Germany. Her German father and English mother named her Freiin Sybille Aleid Elsa von Schoenebeck. Sybille had a peripatetic childhood that precluded formal schooling, though she did pick up several languages. After her father died, she lived with her mother in Sanary-sur-mer in southern France. In the 1930s, Sanary was a magnet for a wave of intellectuals fleeing from other parts of Europe, particularly from Germany. These cerebral refugees, many of them fun-loving bohemians, included Bertolt Brecht, Thomas Mann, Lion Feuchtwanger, and – most importantly for Sybille – Aldous and Maria Huxley who became her mentors and inspiration. Occasional visitors also included D.H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda.

Sybille spent the war years in the United States where she met (and fell in love with) Esther Murphy Arthur, her traveling companion in Mexico.

A Visit to Don Otavio is best characterized as a “fictionalized travelogue.” There is no doubting the essential authenticity of Sybille’s descriptions of many of the places she and Esther visited in Mexico during their trip. Her accounts of Mexico City, Cuernavaca, Morelia, Mazatlán, Guanajuato, Querétaro, Acapulco, Taxco, Oaxaca and Puebla are convincing.

However, Sybille’s descriptions of the various villages at Lake Chapala are as much fantasy as fact. For example, the name of the fictional village San Pedro Tlayacán (where Don Otavio’s hacienda is located) may have been derived from the real-life villages of San Pedro Tesistán and San Antonio Tlayacapan.

When I first read A Visit to Don Otavio, more years ago than I care to remember, I thought that Sybille must have stayed at the Hacienda San Martín, located at the western end of the lake, near Jocotepec, but I now accept that her fictional hacienda was based on the Villa Montecarlo in Chapala.

On their first visit to Don Otavio’s hacienda, Sybille and Esther had to abandon their borrowed car when the road beyond Chapala gave way to a “rutted trail” that passed “some stucco villas decaying behind tall enclosures. Sixty years ago, during the heydays of the dictatorship, Chapala had been a modish resort.” The trail “consisted of two not always parallel ruts of varying depth and gauge, caked hard, strewn with boulders, cut by holes and traversed by ditches.” [107-108] This is a very similar description to that given by Ross Parmenter when he drove from Chapala to Ajijic in March 1946.

Sybille Bedford moves her locations and characters around to suit her purposes. Several of the characters said to be living in Jocotepec in the book were people who actually lived in Ajijic. The novel’s Richard Middleton and his much younger wife, Blanche, for example, were based on an English couple, Herbert and Georgette Johnson.

Val Biro. Illustration for A Visit to Don Otavio, Folio Society edition, 1990.

Val Biro. Illustration for A Visit to Don Otavio, Folio Society edition, 1990.

The lake itself is the ever-present backdrop to A Visit to Don Otavio. Sybille found the views across it and its changes of color enthralling. Early in her stay with Don Otavio, she remarks how “In the late afternoon it is smooth like gelatine and shot through with unexpected reverberated colours, ruby and amethyst, cornelian and reseda.” [117] Some weeks later, it is dark by the time they return from Mazatlán but the lake is equally beautiful: “On the lake, the night was very clear, and filled with shooting stars. The mild water sparkled, phosphorescent, around our prow. Fish leaped, shone, and fell again. The shore lay softly, half-divined.” [179]

By spring 1947, Sybille and Esther were readying themselves to return north. Looking back in her memoirs (Quicksands), Sybille reflected that leaving Mexico was something of a wrench: “Foreigners are apt to get stuck – oh those Anglo-American enclaves: it’s the climate, the cheapness of living, the throngs of servants (rumour had got through about people now doing their own washing-up in England).” [Quicksands, 12-13]

By the summer of 1947, Sybille was back in Europe where she began writing her Mexico book in July 1949 while living in Rome. When A Visit to Don Otavio was published in 1953 it was a revelation and established Sybille as a serious writer with an individual style and viewpoint. In many ways it is a stunningly insightful work, penetrating the psyche of Mexicans of diverse backgrounds in a manner that is essentially timeless.

A Visit to Don Otavio marked the beginning of an impressive career, in which periods of self-doubt and introspection were punctuated by lengthy stints of powerful writing. A Visit to Don Otavio was followed in 1956 by Sybille’s best-known novel, A Legacy, and a series of other books before she reached her peak with her brilliant work, Jigsaw, which was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1989.

Acknowledgment

My sincere thanks to Fernando Partida-Rocha for helping explain the links between Sybille Bedford and the Villa Montecarlo via an exchange of emails.

Sources

  • Joan Acocella. 2005. “Piecework: The writings of Sybille Bedford.” New Yorker, 18 April 2005.
  • Sybille Bedford. 1953. A Sudden View (London: Victor Gollancz); reissued as A Visit to Don Otavio (William Collins, 1960). Page numbers for quotations are from the Folio Society edition, 1990.
  • Selina Hastings. Undated. “Sybille Bedford remembered.” The Royal Society of Literature website.  [30 December 2018]
  • Fernando Partida-Rocha. 2017. “Sybille Bedford, genial autora de “A visit to Don Otavio””. El Informador, 19 June 2017.

Comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios are welcomed. Please email us or use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts.

Nov 222018
 

Ajijic author (or as she preferred “authoress”) Neill James included several paragraphs about artists in her article “I Live in Ajijic”, first published in October 1945.

These names were a useful starting point for me when I began researching the artists and authors associated with Lake Chapala. Over the past decade, I have looked into the lives and works of all of the artists named by James and have now published short profiles of all but one of them.

The standout, and noteworthy exception, is “Lillian Bruner.” The reason I haven’t yet written about her is very simple: despite intensive searches, and trying a variety of alternative spellings, I have turned up absolutely nothing of value about her or her art!

James’ description of her is engagingly brief:

  • “Pretty blonde Lillian Bruner, a Greek muralist, tarried for a brief visit.”

Your help is needed, please. I’ve had a soft spot for pretty blondes ~ and have been hoping to find this particular pretty blonde – for a long time. Can anyone offer any clues as to the real identity, life or work of “Lillian Bruner”?

Source

  • Neill James. 1945. “I Live in Ajijic.” Modern Mexico (Washington D.C.), Vol. 18 #5 (October 1945), 26-27.

Other Art Mysteries

Comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios are welcome. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

Nov 152018
 

The charismatic writer and artist Mort Carl, no doubt wearing his accustomed bandana tied in front of his neck, first arrived in Ajijic in the mid-1940s. Not long afterwards he married Helen Kirtland Goodridge; together they established the first weaving business in Ajijic, an enterprise that became known as Telares Ajijic.

Mortimer R. Carl was born into a Jewish family in Cleveland, Ohio, on 26 June 1905. His father, Benjamin Edward Carl (1877-1930), had been born in Ohio and (in 1910) owned or managed a brass company. Mort Carl’s mother, Minnie Rosenblum (1884-1965) had been born in Austro-Hungary and taken by her family to the U.S. as an infant.

The family was presumably fairly well-off since Mort and his mother spent the summer of 1908 in the country. Mort’s brother Norman was born in about 1915.

Little is known about Mort’s early life as a writer and artist except that he spent time in Woodstock, New York. He started his creative career as an artist and then tried his hand at writing, before rededicating himself to painting and sculpture.

When Carl first arrived in Ajijic in 1946, he initially stayed, like so many before him, at the small lakeside inn belonging to the Heuer siblings. This is also when he met Helen Kirtland for the first time.

Carl Mort. ca 1981. Antiphon.

Carl Mort. ca 1981. Antiphon.

After marrying Helen Kirtland, Carl set up his art studio in the family home (today the Mi México store) but continued to rent a “small two-room house with a patio and kitchen area” as a writing studio a couple of blocks away, at the intersection of Calle Constitución and Ramón Corona. From about 1950 to 1952, that building was the always-hopping Club Alacrán (Scorpion Club), run by adventurous Black American artist Ernest Alexander and his Canadian partner Dorothy (“Dolly”) Whelan.

Soon after their marriage, Kirtland and Carl saw an opportunity to start a weaving business. Kirtland (who had changed her name to Helen Carl) had studied fashion and worked as a dress designer in New York prior to moving to Mexico. She provided the creative genius behind the project. The Carls found some small dusty handlooms sitting in a forgotten corner of the Posada Ajijic and bought them from the inn’s owner, Josefina Ramirez.

The weaving business quickly became a success story, so much so that poor imitations of several of Helen’s original designs are still being made in Ajijic today!

Carl Mort in 1955 (Credit: El Informador)

Carl Mort in 1955 (Credit: El Informador)

In 1955 Mort Carl held an exhibition of his latest artwork in Guadalajara. The two-week exhibit of twenty modernist abstracts opened at the Instituto Cultural Mexicano-Norteamericano de Jalisco (Galeana 158, Guadalajara) on 20 October. The works had such uninspiring names as “Construcción en negro y blanco”, “Construcción vertical” and “Composición en color.” The artist was quoted as claiming that his paintings needed to be seen and felt, not understood. Carl had previously (March 1954) held a show of his paintings at Galeria San Angel (Dr. Galvez #23) in Mexico City.

Unfortunately, life in Ajijic was not all a bed of roses for Mort and Helen Carl. When their marriage broke down, Mort left Ajijic and moved to Mexico City, where he set up a new weaving business.

He subsequently remarried and lived for some time in San Francisco before settling in Chester, New Jersey.

Paintings by Mort Carl were exhibited alongside woodblocks by Blance Small at the Lucien Labaudt Gallery in San Francisco from February to May 1973.

In New Jersey, Carl became a moderately successful artist, specializing in large metal sculptures. The example in the image, which comes from the Smithsonian Art Inventories Catalog, is entitled Antiphon. The 2-meter high sculpture was acquired and installed in about 1981 by Chester Public Library in New Jersey.

Mort Carl died in New Jersey in November 1985 and left his body to Columbia University Medical Center.

Acknowledgment

My heartfelt thanks to Katie Goodridge Ingram for sharing her personal knowledge and memories of Mort Carl.

Sources

  • El Informador: 19 October 1955, 7; 20 October 1955; 22 October 1955.
  • Katie Goodridge Ingram. 2011. “Helen Kirtland Goodridge”, chapter in Alexandra Bateman and Nancy Bollenbach (compilers). 2011. Ajijic: 500 years of adventurers. Mexico: Thomas Paine Chapter NSDAR, 91-100.
  • Kingston Daily Freeman (Kingston, New York): 12 September 1947; 8 October 1952, p 15
  • Oakland Tribune, 25 Feb 1973, 128.
  • Smithsonian Institution. Smithsonian Art Inventories Catalog.

Comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios are welcomed. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

Oct 182018
 

The full-length Mexican movie El ametralladora (“The Machine Gun”)  was released in September 1943. The film, written and directed by Aurelio Robles Castillo, was shot at several locations in Jalisco, including Lake Chapala.

The all-star cast of El ametralladora included the legendary actor and singer Pedro Infante, Margarita Mora, Ángel Garasa and Víctor Manuel Mendoza. The music was provided by Mariachi Vargas and Las Tres Morenas.

The 98-minute film, produced by Jalisco Films, S.A., was released in Mexico on 28 September 1943 and in Madrid, Spain on 18 August 1947.

In addition to Chapala, parts of the film were shot in Atotonilco, Guadalajara and Tepatitlán.

The cinematographer was American-born Jack Draper (1892-1962), who spent most of his career in Mexico and worked on an incredible number of movies between 1925 and 1962.

Source

Comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios are welcomed. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

 Posted by at 5:44 am  Tagged with:
Sep 132018
 

Everyone knows that Lake Chapala has attracted hosts of famous writers over the years – after all, without them, this blog would have been a bit pointless! However, as I suggested in “Did Somerset Maugham ever visit Lake Chapala?“, some famous writers have been associated with the lake despite never visiting it. Is this also the case for the Nobel Prize-winning author Ernest Hemingway? Did he ever actually visit or work at Lake Chapala?

Señor Google turns up several articles and websites claiming Hemingway-Lake Chapala links. One in particular, entitled “Neill James—Ajijic’s Woman of the Century!” and first published in the 19 February 2012 edition of the USA Today’s weekend feature, La Voz de Mexico, makes some strong claims about Ajijic and Hemingway.

Ernest Hemingway and his trusty Underwood typewriter

Ernest Hemingway and his trusty Underwood typewriter [See Sources for image credit]

The article’s subject, author Neill James, first settled in Ajijic in the mid-1940s. James, the “Petticoat Vagabond”, had written several books prior to visiting Mexico and completed her final book – Dust on My Heart, which includes several chapters related to Ajijic – during her recuperation in the village following two dreadful accidents.

To quote the article:

“Her publisher was Scribner’s, who at the time was also publishing Thomas Wolfe, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway—three of the most legendary writers of the 20th century.

Neill’s five books introduced and drew flocks of writers to Lakeside to share in her wealth of information. As the desire to travel began to subside and she settled in Ajijic, Ernest Hemingway, D.H. Lawrence, George Bernard Shaw, plus the editor of Life Magazine, came to visit her.”

The first sentence is fine: Neill James was indeed published by Scribner’s as were the other authors named, and it is perfectly conceivable (though by no means proven) that she met one or more of the other authors when visiting Maxwell Perkins at his offices in New York. It is even possible, as Laura Bateman wrote in Ajijic: 500 Years of Adventures, that, “Once, while waiting in Perkins’ outer office, Neill witnessed the notorious fist fight between Ernest Hemingway and Max Eastman.” That event occurred in August 1937.

The second sentence has some elements of truth about it, but the third – about Ernest Hemingway, D.H. Lawrence, George Bernard Shaw, and the editor of Life magazine visiting James – is wishful thinking and completely unsupported by the available evidence.

D. H. Lawrence was long dead before Neill James ever arrived in Ajijic, so that claim is clearly bunkum. (Lawrence, who died on 2 March 1930, lived in Chapala from May to July 1923.)

There is no evidence that George Bernard Shaw ever visited Lake Chapala, though it is remotely possible that the great English philosopher met Miss James somewhere else. Note that, by the time James settled in Ajijic, Shaw was already 88 years old. I do have lots of sympathy for the idea that Shaw can be linked to Mexico since he apparently once said that, “The two most beautiful things in the world are the Taj Mahal and Dolores del Rio”! (Dolores del Río was a stunningly beautiful Mexican actress from Mexico’s golden age of cinema).

I have never found any evidence that any serving editor of Life magazine visited Chapala to call on James or anyone else, though three photographs of Neill James in Ajijic do appear in Leonard McCombe’s photo essay for Life magazine, published in 1957.

The Hemingway-Chapala claim, which has since been repeated in International Living, seems equally inaccurate. Hemingway’s life has been painstakingly analyzed by a small army of biographers, but Lake Chapala never makes an appearance.

So far as I am aware, the only significant time Hemingway ventured into Mexico was a visit to Mexico City (from Cuba) in March 1942, which later came to the attention of the FBI because he apparently checked into the Reforma Hotel under an assumed name and met Gustav Regler, a friend from his time in Spain during the Spanish Civil War.

While I’d love to be proved wrong, the idea that Hemingway ever visited or lived at Lake Chapala is just one more literary myth.

Sources

  • Laura Bateman. 2011. “Neill James”, a chapter in Alexandra Bateman and Nancy Bollenbach (compilers). 2011. Ajijic: 500 years of adventurers (Thomas Paine Chapter NSDAR), p 79-84
  • Mary Dearborn. 2017. Ernest Hemingway – A Biography. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.
  • Tod Jonson. 2012. “Neill James—Ajijic’s Woman of the Century!”, in USA Today’s weekend feature La Voz de Mexico, 19 February 2012 edition; reprinted in El Ojo del Lago, September 2012.
  • Leonard McCombe. 1957. “Yanks Who Don’t Go Home. Expatriates Settle Down to Live and Loaf in Mexico.” Life, 23 December 1957.
  • David Ramón. 1997. Dolores del Río. Editorial Clío.
  • Matt Reimann. 2015. “When Ernest Hemingway Fought Max Eastman“, at bookstellyouwhy.com, 8 June 2015.
  • Nicholas Reynolds. 2012. “A Spy Who Made His Own Way. Ernest Hemingway, Wartime Spy”, in Studies in Intelligence, Vol. 56, No. 2 (Extracts, June 2012).
  • Image credit: https://player.watch.aetnd.com/player.html?tpid=572995835 [13 Sep 2018]

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

Jul 192018
 

The second strand of the pen name Dane Chandos, and indeed the originator of the name, was Peter Lilley. How, when and where Lilley first met Nigel Millett is currently unknown but they became literary collaborators and good friends during their time in Ajijic…

Peter Lilley is not known to have published anything under his own name, or any nom de plume, prior to the books about Ajijic.

The name Dane Chandos was conjured up by Lilley himself, since it combined his nickname at Stowe – “Dane”, on account of his blond hair and square, Danish-looking jaw – with Chandos, the name of one of the school’s boarding houses. Interestingly, though, Lilley had actually spent his own school years in a different house, Grafton.

Village in the Sun tells the story of building a house (located in real life in San Antonio Tlayacapan). The house was Peter Lilley’s home in Mexico. In House in the Sun the author has added extra rooms for guests and taken on the role of amateur hotelier, “held hostage by maddening servants and equally unpredictable and maddening guests.”

The two books share many of the same characters.

The final Dane Chandos book

Leslie Chater and his wife, Moreen, long-time friends of Lilley, eventually became the new owners of the house in San Antonio Tlayacapan.

A chance find there in a desk drawer by Moreen Chater caused her to revive the Dane Chandos brand in 1997, long after all three original Dane Chandos authors had died. Chater stumbled across a “scruffy folder” containing a manuscript of recipes “faintly typed and badly eaten by mice.” Providentially, these proved to be Candelaria’s original recipes, with notes and anecdotes added by Lilley. Chater used them to compile Candelaria’s Cookbook, an unusual bilingual book of more than forty recipes (and related stories) sold as a fund-raiser to support projects benefiting children in San Antonio Tlayacapan.

References

  • Dane Chandos. 1945. Village in the Sun. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.
  • Dane Chandos. 1949. House in the Sun. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.
  • Sophie Annan Jensen. 1999. “Candelaria’s Cookbook” (review) on MexConnect.com –
    [25 May 2018]

Comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios are welcomed. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

Jun 072018
 

In the 1940s, two superbly written books introduced readers in the U.S. and U.K. to life in the village of Ajijic. Both have remained perennial favorites on the must-read lists of anyone interested in Lake Chapala. Village in the Sun and House in the Sun were both written by “Dane Chandos”, who later wrote several travel books.

Dane Chandos was not a real person but a pen name of two distinct writing duos. Peter Lilley and Stansbury (later Nigel) Millett wrote the early Dane Chandos books. After Millett’s death, Lilley’s partner for later Dane Chandos works was Anthony Stansfeld. All three men were well-educated Englishmen with an excellent ear for languages.

Stansbury Girtin Millett was born in London, England, on 23 October 1904.. .

Owing to the unauthorized and uncredited use of material from this post on a third-party website, this article has been removed from public view.

If you have a genuine interest in the subject matter, please contact us via the comments section and we can discuss terms and conditions.

Cover artist

The cover art has a tiny signature (below). If anyone knows who this cover artist is, or anything more about them, please get in touch!

Signature of cover artist, Village in the Sun.

Signature of cover artist, Village in the Sun.

References

  • Dane Chandos. 1945. Village in the Sun. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. Published in London, U.K., with same title by Michael Joseph in 1948. Reissued in London by Country Book Club in 1953. Reissued in Mexico (Tlayacapan Press) in 1998.
  • Dane Chandos. 1949. House in the Sun. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. U.K. edition in 1950 by Michael Joseph. Reissued in Mexico (Tlayacapan Press) in 1999.

Comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios are welcomed. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

Mar 292018
 

Gayle Jemison Hoskins was born into an American military family in Ancón in the Canal Zone of Panama on 28 July 1920 and died in Henrico, Virginia, on 6 January 2010. Jemison Hoskins, as he was usually known, attended the Robert E. Lee High School in Jacksonville, Florida, and served in the U.S. Navy between 7 December 1942 and 8 May 1946.

Shortly after his military service, Hoskins was “a guest instructor with the Mexican Art Workshop in Ajijic and Taxco”. This means he was in Ajijic for one of the summers between 1947 and 1949 inclusive.

Jemison Hoskins. 1976. Hand-tinted line drawing of Congregation Mickve Israel in Savannah.. Digital image copyright 2012, The College of Charleston Libraries. Reproduced with permission.

Jemison Hoskins. 1976. Hand-tinted line drawing of Congregation Mickve Israel in Savannah.. Digital image copyright 2012, The College of Charleston Libraries. Reproduced with permission.

Unfortunately, I have failed to find any details relating to his time at Lake Chapala, or examples of his work there. If you can help, please get in touch!

He studied in New York City at the Art Students League, gained a bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida, and a Masters in Fine Art from the University of North Carolina. He subsequently taught visual arts at Maryville College (Maryille, Tennessee), St. Andrews College (Laurinburg, North Carolina), Louisiana Tech (Rustin, Louisiana), and, beginning in 1967, was Assistant Professor of Art at the Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia, where he remained at least until 1971.

He retained links to Florida, where he grew up. In 1967, for instance, Hoskins gave a six weeks summer art course for teenagers at the Norton School of Art in West Palm Beach.

Records exist for several art exhibits featuring Hoskins’s own work. Venues for these include Laurinburg, North Carolina (September 1961 and March 1962), at the Louisiana Tech (March 1967) and the Gallery 209 in Savannah, Georgia (1992),

Gayle Jemison Hoskins also wrote a book, Criteria for a Painter Today, published by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1959.

Sources

  • Anon. Bulletin of Wesleyan College, Macon, Georgia. Catalogues, 1968-1969 and 1970-71.
  • The Lance (St. Andrews, Laurinburg, North Carolina), 20 March 1962, 1.
  • The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Florida), 19 June 1967, 23.
  • The Robesonian (Lumberton, North Carolina), 19 September 1961, 12.
  • The Times (Shreveport, Louisiana), 22 February 1967, 42.

Comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios are welcomed. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

 Posted by at 5:54 am  Tagged with:
Feb 152018
 

Newcomers to the village of Ajijic will not necessarily have heard of Zara Alexeyewa, (known popularly as “La Rusa” – “The Russian”), one of the village’s most distinguished long-term foreign residents, and one still remembered affectionately by the entire community, Mexican and non-Mexican. Everyone who knew her has their favorite anecdote about this iron-willed lady who would gallop her horse through the narrow streets, hooves clattering on the cobblestones, cloak billowing in the wind.

When La Nueva Posada opened in 1990, its dining room was named “La Rusa” in honor of Zara, who had passed away the previous year at the age of 92. Zara’s incomparable contribution to Ajijic life over more than sixty years was focused on the welfare of children and the conservation of Lake Chapala.

Zara Alexeyewa Khyva St. Albans (her formal name in Mexico) lived out a very full and dramatic life – from the moment she set foot on the stage on Broadway as a teenager, until her eventual death in Ajijic in 1989. Objectivity was not, however, always one of her strong points, and piecing together the truth behind the legend can be difficult. In her enthralling autobiographical book, Quilocho and the Dancing Stars, which certainly contains fiction alongside fact, Zara weaves some wonderful tales about her ballet career interspersed with an account of the life of a Mexican friend and supporter, Enrique Retolaza, who (according to the book) had been the youngest officer of Pancho Villa.

In reality, Zara was no more Russian than most native New Yorkers, having been born in that city in 1896. After making an early impression as an actress on the New York stage, twice being featured on the cover of the Dramatic Mirror, and playing lead roles in several Shakespearean productions (as Juliet, Portia, and Ophelia among others), she decided, in the wake of the Great War, to go to Europe. She had attended dancing classes from age six, and in Europe she began a new career as a ballerina. She performed her own ballet, “The Red Terror”, based on a poem by Leonid Andreyev, with a musical arrangement which had been worked on by her mother, organist Charlotte Welles.

"Khyva St. Albans". White Studios. 1915.

“Khyva St. Albans”. White Studios. 1915.

While in Europe, Zara met a young Danish dancer, Holger Mehner, and the two remained inseparable dancing partners until his untimely death in Guadalajara in 1944. Zara and Holger gave numerous performances of “The Red Terror” around the world, playing to packed houses in Europe, South America, the U.S., and in Mexico.

In 1926-27, they were engaged by the Philadelphia Opera Company as directors of ballet, and presented an unusual Egyptian ballet, called AIDA. They also choreographed and performed “The Black Swan and the White Lilly”.

While contemporary newspaper accounts speak of “the two geniuses of Dance of the ex-Court of Russia”, “dancers of the imperial court of Nicolas II and of King Constantine of Greece”, and the like, it is probable that the nearest either dancer got to those places was Budapest in Hungary, where they gave one of their many standing-room-only performances.

They first performed in the Degollado Theatre in Guadalajara in January 1925, by which time they had decided to take a prolonged vacation at Lake Chapala, living initially at the Villa Reynera in Chapala. In about 1940, they moved to Ajijic.

Degollado Theater program, 1936.

Zara and Holger. Degollado Theater program, 1936.

Zara seems always to have had the knack of leaving indelible first impressions on people she met.

The American artist Everett Gee Jackson, who resided in Chapala for several years in the 1920s, in Burros and Paintbrushes, his entertaining account of his time in Mexico wrote that, when he and his friend Lowelito first arrived in Chapala, they “did not see any other Americans. The two Russians who lived in the house with the bats were the only other non-Mexicans in the village, as far as we knew.” These two “Russians” were, of course, Zara and Holger.

Not long afterwards, Jackson had a much closer encounter with Zara:

“I set up my easel… because the place was… mysterious and magical… with the lazy hogs asleep in the shadows. I was lost in what I was doing, but, suddenly, to my surprise, all the hogs began to shuffle to their feet and move off the road… grunting ferociously. Then I heard a sound like thunder behind me. But it was not thunder. It was that Russian woman riding at full gallop on a dark horse, and she was coming right at me. She knocked my easel over but missed me… She never slowed down but kept galloping at full speed down the road.”

Another of Ajijic’s marvelous characters, Iona Kupiec, who lived for decades in the village, also remembered her first meeting with Zara. Iona was staying in the Posada Ajijic in 1962, having only just arrived in the village. The next morning, she met Zara:

“While I was standing there entranced with the loveliness of everything, what should I see suddenly appearing in front of me from around a bend in the road but a beautiful woman wearing a big red velvet, gold-embroidered charro sombrero with a red, satin, high-necked Russian blouse with a gold dragon embroidered on it from the belt up to the collar, black culottes, with red leather boots, riding a black satin horse which reared up on its hind legs when she suddenly tightened the reins. I was stunned!”

Iona agreed to rent a cottage from Zara. In order to sign the contract, she followed Zara (still on her horse) “through more than a thousand square feet of garden, with glorious eucalyptus trees standing like stately monarchs, countless other fruit and flowering trees, and vast blooms from all kinds of bushes and shrubs – so much color and beauty, and even cool perfumed air!”

Zara’s house was full of mementos from her theater and ballet days, full length oils portraying her and her “brother”, Holger, in their dancing costumes, gilded-framed portraits from her New York theater appearances, photographs, figurines, books, “a veritable art museum in one, very large, elegantly furnished, parlor”.

Zara’s energies were undiminished as she approached her eighties and she insisted on reviving her ballet career for several performances, including a memorable farewell show in the Degollado Theater in Guadalajara.

She also continued to ride daily until well into her eighties, and was a popular and much-loved figure as, astride her horse, she rode through the streets of Ajijic. This remarkable woman, perhaps the only person ever to reach stardom as an actress under one name (Khyva St. Albans) and as a dancer under another (Ayenara Zara Alexeyewa) is one of the more extraordinary characters ever to have lived in Ajijic.

Note:

This is a lightly edited version of my first article about Zara, originally published in The Chapala Riviera Guide in 1990. It is not a coincidence that a photo of the Villa Reynera, where Zara first stayed in 1924, appears on the front cover of my Lake Chapala through the Ages, an anthology of travelers’ tales.

Acknowledgment:

This article could never have been written (back in 1990) without the help of long-time Ajijic residents Laura Bateman and Iona Kupiec, both of whom have since passed on to a higher world.

Feb 082018
 

In a previous post, we offered an outline biography of Canadian writer Ross Parmenter, who first visited Mexico in 1946 and subsequently wrote several books related to Mexico.

One of these book, Stages in a Journey (1983), includes accounts of two trips from Chapala to Ajijic – the first by car, the second by boat – made on two consecutive days in March 1946. The following extracts come from chapter 3 of Stages in a Journey:

The author was traveling with Miss Thyrza Cohen (“T”), a spirited, retired school teacher who owned “Aggie”, their vehicle. They met up with Miss Nadeyne Montgomery (aka The General), who lived in Guadalajara; Mrs Kay Beyer, who lived in Chapala; and two tourists: Mrs. Lola Kirkland and her traveling companion, Mary Alice Naden.

On 22 March 1946, the party returned to Ajijic, this time by boat, to collect a hat left the day before at Neill James’ home. They collected the hat, walked around the village, and then returned to the pier to set off back to Chapala. Part way back,

as Colombina rounded a point we saw a little fishing settlement in the bay beyond. We asked the boatman if he could take us near the shore for a closer look. Without a word, he turned the prow towards the land.

Near the water’s edge there were many small willows, with feathery showers of foliage and contorted trunks. Fishing nets, stretched to dry on posts, made diaphanous tents a little way back. A man was standing knee-deep in the water casting a circular net. And as we drew closer we saw other men were drawing water to irrigate the fields.

– – –

The water near the shore was shallow, but the fishermen had created artificial spits of land by setting out stones that made little walls to separate fishing areas. By bringing the bow to one of these the boatman apparently thought it would be possible for the women to cross to land without getting their feet wet. But a rasping sound before we reached the stones showed his miscalculation. But the ladies didn’t mind. Thyrza was in her seventies and Mrs. K. in her fifties, but wading was nothing in their young lives. So off came their shoes and stockings and they paddled to shore.

First we watched the fisherman casting his net. Its outer edges were weighted so that the net spread like a disk as it flew through the air. A cord was attached to the center of the net like the stem to the leaf of a waterlily, and as the disk plopped on the water the man let the cord fall slack. When the net had settled, he started to draw it slowly towards him. The cord pulled the net to a peak and one would have thought he was dragging a sack to the shore.

Once the weights were drawn together to close the bottom of the net, he lifted the whole thing up and emptied a slew of minnows into a round basket.

The tiny fish were silver with eyes like black buttons on disks of bright aluminum. Each fresh lot was lively as it was dumped into the basket. But mass activity soon ceased and then a few would flop a bit and some shivered before lying still.

Because of her fondness for fish, T was particularly fascinated by the minnows. Having seen their counterparts dried and piled on fibre mats in the market of Chapala, she asked the fisherman what they were called.

Her question, being in English, was incomprehensible to him. But I could help, because trying to find out about other things had led me to learn that nombre was the word for name..

El nombre?” I asked, pointing to the minnows.

Charales,” the man replied.

One of the reasons T liked our hotel in Chapala so well was because every lunch and dinner it served delicious pescado blanco. The fish were always cooked the same way, presenting a similar flat appearance with the structural outlines obscured by the batter in which they were fried a delicate brown. Having the attention of a man who knew something about the fish of the lake, she asked him if he had any pescado blanco.

He understood and went over to some moist sacking. Lifting back a flap, he exposed some small, but plump fish of conventional shape. T was surprised. Not realizing the hotel split them open to cook them, she had expected a sort of flounder.

Ross Parmenter: Canoa. . . [When the engine failed] I looked back on the shore. Being a short way out, we could see a wider stretch than when we had been right on the land. In addition to the people we had seen close up — the fisherman throwing his net, the woman cooking and the men working the hoist — we could see others on either side. At one little point there were women on their knees washing clothes. In the age-old grace of their activity, they were beautifully grouped and the bright garments they had laundered were lying around drying ¡n the sun. Near the women were brown children playing on a narrow beach and dashing calf-deep into the water from time to time. Further along some fishermen were pushing out one of their high-peaked canoas to fish where the water was deeper.

The animals were picturesque too. At the mouth of the inlet a chestnut horse and a gray burro were drinking, their muzzles almost touching. Different species though they were, they suggested a father and son. A black and white cow had waded right into the water to do her drinking. A few small ducks swam near her, tame as could be. On the shore a piglet rooted around near the woman with the charcoal fire. Some puppies frisked about and chickens were pecking.

Source:

  • Ross Parmenter. 1983. Stages in a Journey. New York: Profile Press.

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please email us or use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts.

Jan 112018
 

Edythe Wallach (1909-2001) lived and painted for most of 1944 in Chapala and Ajijic. Her Lake Chapala paintings were exhibited in both Chapala and in New York. About a year after her return to the U.S. she married a fellow artist, Hari Kidd.

Edythe (“Edie”) Gertrude Wallach (later Wallach Kidd) was born in New Rochelle, New York, on 10 August 1909 to Dr. William Wallach and his wife Anne Rosenthal. Edythe grew up in New Rochelle which appears to have remained her home at least until the death of her father in 1937. The family, which was Jewish, was clearly well-to-do since the parents were able to spend summer in Europe (with one or both children) every few years, notably in 1926, 1929 and 1933.

It is unclear where Edythe acquired her education or art training.

Edythe Wallach’s mother died in January 1944. Shortly after that, Edythe left for Lake Chapala, where she lived first in Ajijic for several months and then in Chapala. Wallach was one of several artists mentioned by Neill James in her article “I live in Ajijic”, first published in 1945.

By November 1944, Wallach had completed enough paintings to warrant an exhibition at the Villa Montecarlo in Chapala. The local El Informador newspaper in Guadalajara described this as “one of the most brilliant artistic and social events of the Fall”, saying that guests from Ajijic, Guadalajara and Chapala responded warmly to the bright color and lively designs of the paintings which were being transferred later for exhibition in New York.

Postcard of The Villa Montecarlo, Chapala, ca 1940

Postcard of The Villa Montecarlo, Chapala, ca 1940

The opening on 12 November 1944 attracted many noteworthy guests, including Mr and Mrs Jack Bennett; Nigel Stansbury Millett and his father; Neill James; Pablo García Hernández (representative of Teatro Mexicano del Arte); Otto Butterlin and his daughter Rita; Witter Bynner, the famous American poet; Charles Stigel; Dr and Mrs Charles Halmos; Ann Medalie; and Herbert and Georgette Johnson.

Shortly after this exhibition closed, Wallach took her paintings back to New York. Her New York art show opened at the Bonestell Galleries at 18 East 37th Street in November 1945. It was favorably reviewed as “Mexican in theme but not in manner” with one anonymous reviewer writing that

Miss Edythe Wallach… has just returned from a year’s travel in Mexico where she has been painting….

Walter Pach, eminent art critic, in speaking of Miss Wallach’s work, says, “Your report on Mexico is far beyond what I had hoped for when you went to that country. You have seen its light, you have seen its beauty, and your painting speaks of all these things. What impresses me in your work is that you have retained your central idiom, your own vision and, even when looking at a place so impressive (and so Mexican) as Chapala, you have not even been tempted to imitate, but have told of your impressions with complete freedom to work in a way that is personal with you.”

While it remains unclear how, when or where Edythe first met Hari Kidd, their paths must surely have crossed in Chapala in 1944 since Edythe had a solo show at Villa Montecarlo in November while Hari was in a group exhibition there the following month. It is entirely possible that their romance began in Chapala under the soft moonlight reflecting off the serenely beautiful lake!

In March 1946, Edythe Wallach and Hari Kidd married in Key West, Florida. Kidd was already a well-known artist and one account of the wedding says that, “The bride, herself an artist of note, recently held her first exhibition of Mexican oils in New York, and is planning a new group of paintings for a forthcoming show.” A similar comment about a forthcoming show appears in The Miami News in September 1946 which says that Edith Wallach, wife of Hari Kidd, “fresh from a painting sojourn in Mexico” is “preparing for a second show in New York of her Mexican interpretations in oils.” I have been unable to confirm whether or not Wallach (presumably with Hari) returned to Mexico in the summer of 1946 (as this piece suggests) or, indeed, to find any further reference to this second U.S. show.

Untitled. Date unknown. Credit: Stephanie Wallach.

Edythe Wallach Kidd. Untitled. Date unknown. Credit: Stephanie Wallach.

Both Edythe and Hari Kidd were in a three-person show at the Miami Beach Art Center which opened in January 1948. The third artist was Eugenie Schein of New York. Edythe exhibited oil paintings “favoring Mexican themes” while Hari showed both oils and watercolors. According to the press notice, “Both artists have spent a number of years in Mexico and Spain and their work reflects this influence.” They also participated, with Elvira Reilly, in another three-person show at the Martello Towers Gallery in Key West in January 1954.

The couple lived in Key West from about the time they married in 1946 to 1964. Due to Hari’s declining health, they then moved to Tucson in summer 1964, where he died in hospital barely four months later.

Edythe remained in Arizona for several years and attended the inauguration of a retrospective of her husband’s art at the El Paso Museum in October 1967.

In late 1968 or early 1969, she returned to live once again in Key West, Florida, where she held a show of her work at DePoo’s Island Gallery in 1969. Several years later, one of her paintings was chosen for the juried 13th Annual Major Florida Artists Show which opened in January 1976 at the Harmon Gallery in Naples, Florida. At that time, the artist was listed as “Edythe Wallach (Key West)” but Edythe later moved to Lake Worth, where she passed away on 17 December 2001.

Acknowledgment

My sincere thanks to Edythe Wallach Kidd’s niece, Stephanie Wallach, for helping clarify details of the artist’s life and for kindly supplying the photograph of one of her paintings.

Note: This post was significantly updated on 20 October 2018.

Sources:

  • The Burlington Free Press (Burlington, Vermont), 19 October 1945, pp 16, 20.
  • El Paso Herald Post, Monday, 18 March 1946, p 6; 14 Oct 1967, Showtime, p14; 12 April 1969.
  • El Informador (Guadalajara): 18 November 1944; 3 December 1944, p 11.
  • Neill James. 1945. “I live in Ajijic”, in Modern Mexico, October 1945.
  • The Miami News : 7 September 1946; 25 January 1948, p 59; 31 January 1954, p 24.
  • The Naples Daily News (Naples, Florida), 11 January 1976, p 58.
  • The New Yorker : 10 November 1945.
  • Tucson Daily Citizen (Tucson, Arizona), 19 November 1964, p 7.

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

 Posted by at 5:51 am  Tagged with:
Dec 142017
 

The American poet Witter Bynner, who first visited Chapala in the company of D.H. Lawrence in 1923, purchased a house in the town in 1940. The original address of the house, close to the plaza on the main street down to the pier, was 411 Galeana, but the current name of the street is Francisco I. Madero.

Bynner’s home had previously belonged to the famed Mexican architect Luis Barragán (1902-1988). It had apparently belonged to the Barragán family since the end of the 19th century and had been remodeled – by Luis Barragán himself, with the assistance of Juan Palomar – in 1931-32. (We will consider Barragán’s connections to Lake Chapala in a future post).

The Bynner House, Chapala, 2016. Photo: Tony Burton.

The Witter Bynner House, Chapala, 2016. Photo: Tony Burton.

Bynner and his companion Robert “Bob” Hunt became regular visitors to Chapala for several decades. Their mutual friend, artist John Liggett Meigs, is quoted as saying that, “Bynner’s house was on the town’s plaza, a short distance from the lake. Hunt restored the home and, in 1943, added an extensive rooftop terrace, which had clear views of Lake Chapala and nearby mountains. It became Bynner and Hunt’s winter home.” (Mark S. Fuller, Never a Dull Moment: The Life of John Liggett Meigs, 2015). It is worth noting that, while the house was on the plaza when Bynner bought it, the center was remodeled (and the plaza moved) in the 1950s (see comment by Juan Palomar below) so that the house is now a short distance south of the plaza, though it is very close.

According to some sources, Bynner lent his home in Chapala to the then almost-unknown playwright Tennessee Williams in the summer of 1945. During his time at Lake Chapala, Williams wrote the first draft of A Street Car Named Desire.

At some point after Hunt’s death in 1964 and Bynner’s serious stroke in 1965, or upon Bynner’s death in 1968, the house in Chapala (and its contents) was purchased, jointly, by Meigs and another well-known artist Peter Hurd.

Meigs was particularly taken with the fact that the house had once been belonged to Barragán, whose architectural work had been an inspiration for his own architectural designs. Mark Fuller writes that,

“the house had two floors, the rooftop terrace that Hunt had added, and a “tower” overlooking Lake Chapala. The other buildings on the block included a “wonderful cantina“, which became a supermarket; another two-story house next door, with a high wall between that house and Bynner’s courtyard; and a two-story hotel on the corner. However, after John [Meigs] and Hurd bought Bynner’s house, they discovered that the owners of the hotel had sold the airspace over the hotel, and, one time, when John arrived, he discovered a twenty foot by forty foot “Presidente Brandy” [sic] advertisement sign on top of the hotel, blocking his view of the lake. John said that that was when he and Hurd decided to sell the place. While he had use of it, though, he very much enjoyed it.”

In 1968, Hurd rented the house out to another artist Everett Gee Jackson. By a strange coincidence, Jackson had rented D.H. Lawrence‘s former residence in Chapala way back in 1923, immediately after the great English author left the town!

For a time, the Barragán-Bynner-Hurt/Meigs house was temporarily converted into warehouse space for a local supermarket, but is now once again a private residence.

Sources:

  • Mark S. Fuller. 2015. Never a Dull Moment: The Life of John Liggett Meigs. Sunstone Press.

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

Dec 072017
 

Famous Swedish painter Nils Dardel (1888-1943) visited Chapala towards the end of his life at a time when he was mainly painting fine watercolor portraits. Does anyone have additional knowledge about his visit (or visits) or recognize a friend or family member in any of the following paintings?

All of the paintings are believed to date from about 1940-1942.

Nils Dardel. 1936. Mexican girl with braided hair.

Nils Dardel. ca 1940. Mexican girl with braided hair.

Nils Dardel. ca 1940. Mexican girl.

Nils Dardel. ca 1940. Mexican girl.

Nils Dardel. ca 1940. Mexican girl (2).

Nils Dardel. ca 1940. Mexican girl (2).

Nils Dardel. ca 1940. Mexican man.

Nils Dardel. ca 1940. Mexican man.

Nils Dardel. ca 1940. Mexican woman.

Nils Dardel. ca 1940. Mexican woman.

Nils Dardel. ca 1940. Mexican boy.

Nils Dardel. ca 1940. Mexican boy.

Nils Dardel. ca 1940. Mexican boy. (2)

Nils Dardel. ca 1940. Mexican boy. (2)

Nils Dardel. ca 1940. Elderly Mexican lady.

Nils Dardel. ca 1940. Elderly Mexican lady.

Nils Dardel. ca 1940. Mexican lady.

Nils Dardel. ca 1940. Mexican lady.

Nils Dardel. ca 1940. Mexican lady.

Nils Dardel. ca 1940. Mexican lady.

Dardel was traveling with Swedish writer Edita Morris, the love of his life, and the couple also visited Central America including Guatemala.

Nils Elias Kristofer von Dardel, who took to calling himself simply Nils Dardel, was born on 25 October 1888 in Bettna, Sweden, and died of a heart attack in New York on 25 May 1943.

Dardel studied at the Stockholm Royal Academy of Arts from 1908 to 1910 and then spent many years living in Paris, working as a set designer for the Ballets Suédois and painting surrealist fantasies. In 1921, Dardel married a fellow Swedish artist: Baroness Thora Klinkowström. However, in the late 1930s Dardel fell in love with Edita Toll Morris, a beautiful, married, Swedish-born author. The new couple soon moved to New York and over the course of the next two or three years they traveled to Central America and Mexico. Attempts to reconstruct their precise itinerary are hampered by the fact that, following Nils’ death in 1943, Edita asked their friends to destroy all correspondence (a not uncommon request at that time).

Mona Lang and her colleague Kurt Skoog at dynamofilm.com in Sweden, who are working on a documentary of Nils Dardel’s life and work, believe that Nils and Edita were in Mexico and Guatemala from 1940 onwards. The couple was living in Chapala in May 1941 and probably remained there until Christmas, with short visits elsewhere including to the Pacific coast resort of Acapulco. Nils was in poor health (he had heart problems from an early age) and one letter makes it clear that he found the local Chapala climate “perfect” for him.

In Chapala, Nils and Edita rented the Villa Monte Carlo and were especially pleased by the extensive grounds, writing that their garden was the largest and most beautiful in all of Chapala. Their cook was apparently a local women named Magdalena. While in Chapala, Dardel worked on paintings based on sketches he had made in Guatemala and elsewhere and is presumed to have also completed paintings of some individuals living in Chapala.

Not long after spending the summer of 1942 in the Hotel Belmar in Mazatlán, Dardel and Edita returned to New York where an exhibition of his Mexican and Guatemalan paintings was held at The Architectural League of New York, prior to being sent on tour to various U.S. cities. Even after Nils died in New York (on 25 May 1943 at the artist hotel The Beaux Arts on 44th Street), the tour continued, though it was now referred to as a Memorial Exhibition.

A reviewer in Philadelphia, where the exhibit opened in October at the American Swedish Historical Museum, wrote that,

“Here are some of the fruits of the artist’s recent two year stay in Mexico and Central America, and water-color specialists will discover in his large paintings of native Latin-American types an amazing skill in execution and a deep knowledge of the medium’s use, especially in covering large areas.

The artist’s fantasies in oil however indicate more potently his inventive and imaginative powers. In these he has utilized certain Peruvian and Ecuadorian decorative themes in the presentation of such episodes as David and Goliath and the Biblical swine possessed by devils; “The Fishermen,” “Head-Hunters’ Breakfast,” and “Head-Hunters’ Afternoon”….

Card-players will take special delight in his treatment of “The Heart Family and “Queen of Diamonds” while “Adoration,” with its humorous skeletons of men and animals will set beholders to wondering about the alliance of subject matter and title. All these fantasies present something enchanting and decidedly refreshing in art…”

After the exhibition tour of U.S. cities was complete, Dardel’s paintings were returned to Sweden and went on show in Stockholm. There, his art met with a lukewarm reception from most art critics but was adored by the Swedish public. In 1946-1947, the exhibition traveled all over Sweden, always attracting big crowds. Reproductions of his portraits were produced for many years and sold well. They can regularly be found on Ebay and similar online auction sites.

Nils Dardel’s wonderful original paintings can be seen in museums in several European cities, including Stockholm, Göteborg, Malmö, Oslo and Hamburg. His surrealist works command very high prices and his painting entitled “Waterfall”, which sold in 2012 for $3.7 million, was the record price ever paid at auction for a work by a Swedish artist.

To see more of Dardel’s work, including examples of his surrealist paintings, see Nils Dardel page on dardel.info.com.

Acknowledgments

  • My sincere thanks to Mona Lang for first bringing Dardel’s connection to Chapala to my attention, and to Annabel Florman (see comments) for providing the last two images.

Sources

  • Folke Holmér. 1946. Nils Dardel I Mexico och Guatemala. (Stockholm: Nationalmuseum).
  • The Philadelphia Inquirer: 27 October 1943, p 27; 7 November 1943, p 48.
  • Moderna Museet (Sweden). “Nils Dardel and the Modern Age”. (2014 Exhibit)

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

Jul 312017
 

Watercolorist, etcher and illustrator Elbridge Gerry Peirce Jr., more usually known simply as Gerry Peirce, was born in Jamestown, New York on 3 June 1900 and died in Tucson, Arizona, on 16 March 1969.

Peirce visited Ajijic in the mid-1940s, and may have been there more than once since he is known to have made several trips to Mexico. His visit to Ajijic, believed to be in 1945, was recorded by American author Neill James who had settled in the village a year or two previously: “Gary Pierce [sic], director of an art school in New Mexico, visited our village and executed many delicate water colors and engravings.” (Modern Mexico, October 1945). Despite the misspelling, and the fact that the art school that he directed was actually in Arizona, there is absolutely no doubt that James was writing about Gerry Peirce. Sadly, the whereabouts of his paintings and engravings of Ajijic remain a mystery.

Peirce graduated from the Cleveland School of Art (now the Cleveland Institute of Art) in 1925, and also studied at the Art Student’s League in New York City. He married his childhood sweetheart, Priscilla, and the couple moved to Nova Scotia, Canada, where Peirce began to execute etchings and engravings.

Gerry Peirce. Desert Rock. Undated.

Gerry Peirce. Desert Rock. Undated.

After Canada, Peirce and his wife lived and worked in New Orleans. His time in New Orleans is particularly noteworthy because he was one of the co-organizers and charter members of the New Orleans Art League in December 1929. The other organizers were Harry Armstrong Nolan (1891-1929), Gideon Townsend Stanton (1885-1964), William Weeks Hall (1895-1958) and Henry Costello. By coincidence, Gideon Townsend Stanton also had close family links to Chapala: his maternal grandparents had a holiday home there for several years at the very end of the nineteenth century.

This early dry point, The Cat, is one of several dry points gifted by Peirce to the Cleveland Museum of Art in 1934:

Gerry Peirce. The Cat. 1932. Credit: Cleveland Museum of Art.

Gerry Peirce. The Cat. 1932. Credit: Cleveland Museum of Art.

In the early 1930s, during the Great Depression, Peirce and his wife lived in various places, including Florida, Cuba, Washington D.C., New York City and Philadelphia, where Peirce established a commercial art studio, producing cards for Cartier and Tiffany & Co. Later, the Peirces moved to Colorado and began to spend winters in Arizona, eventually making their home in Tucson, Arizona, in the mid-1930s. Peirce opened an atelier (“The Print Room”) in Tucson in 1934 and continued to produce wonderful dry point engravings. He also turned his hand to books.

Writing as “Percival Stutters”, Peirce wrote and illustrated at least two children’s books: How Percival Caught the Tiger (1936) and How Percival Caught the Python (1937), both published by Holiday House. Peirce also drew the black and white illustrations for Plants of Sun and Sand: The Desert Growth of Arizona, which had short texts by Stanford Stevens and was published by The Print Room, Tucson, in 1939. The original edition of that particular book is highly distinctive since it had a plywood cover.

Gerry Peirce. Untitled watercolor. Unknown date.

Gerry Peirce. Untitled watercolor. Unknown date.

At about this time, a sketching trip with Stevens turned out to have a momentous impact on Peirce’s subsequent art career. As Peirce later recalled:

One day I was looking at a scene Stan was doing and wondered why he had picked out that particular spot. Why paint that I asked? His reply, “Because it has such a beautiful color,” jolted me right out of everything I’d been doing for the past twelve years. I realized that I was no longer seeing a landscape with its colors, but in terms of the black and white of etchings. I saw that even my etchings were becoming flat no longer suggesting the color of things.”

Though he never stopped producing his exquisite engravings, after Peirce picked up a brush and watercolors, he never looked back. He soon gained recognition as one of the country’s leading watercolorists. He was also a fine teacher and his studio-classroom attracted students from all across the country. In 1947, the Tucson Watercolor Guild was organized to provide a permanent studio and classroom space for Peirce to continue his work. His teaching career was curtailed by a heart attach in 1967.

In later life, Peirce wrote two non-fiction works: Creative You (The Print Room, 1954) and Painting the southwest landscape in watercolor (Reinhold Pub. Corp., 1961).

Peirce’s timeless portrayals of the Arizona desert and his tireless efforts to help others see the beauty he saw helped shape Tucson into the artistic center of Arizona.

From Arizona, Peirce made several sorties into Mexico. The wonderful collection of prints, published by The Print Room in 1969 as The drawings of Mexico, included images of San Miguel de Allende; Marfil and La Valenciana (both in Guanajuato); and of Tzintzuntzan (Michoacán). By this time, Peirce was no longer completing watercolors en plein air but was making quick pencil sketches or rapid watercolor impressions in the field to serve as memory aids for his final paintings done back in the studio.

A contemporary reviewer described the collection as “a portfolio of reproductions of pencil drawings made by Gerry Peirce in Mexico, a country he visits frequently and understands. This understanding and his affection for the country and its people are reflected in every sensitive line and shading of these outstanding drawings.”

Gerry Peirce. Nogales hillside. Undated.

Gerry Peirce. Nogales hillside. Undated.

Peirce was a frequent exhibitor wherever he lived and a member of the Society of American Etchers, the Chicago Society of Etchers, and the California Print Makers. Note that the oft-repeated claim in contemporary newspaper accounts that Peirce had been awarded an honorary doctorate in art by “St. Andrews University College in London” can not be substantiated since there is no record of any institution of that name, though it is possible that Peirce was granted an honorary degree by St. Andrew’s University in Scotland.

Peirce’s work is in numerous museums including The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Harvard’s Fogg Museum; the Boston Museum of Fine Art; the Library of Congress; Joslyn Museum, Omaha, Nebraska; the J.P. Speed Memorial Museum (now Speed Art Museum) in Louisville, Kentucky; Denver Art Museum; Arizona Museum of Art; Tucson Museum of Art; the Mobile Museum of Art; Cleveland Museum of Art; University of Arizona Art Museum; and the New Mexico Museum of Art.

In 1980, more than a decade after Peirce’s death, a retrospective exhibition of his watercolors and etchings was held at the Kay Bonfoey Studio and Gallery in Tucson. Bonfoey, one of his former students, had purchased the adobe-and-redwood building that had formerly been Peirce’s studio and classroom space after his death to run her own gallery, and to continue the legacy of the Tucson Watercolor Guild. Interviewed at the time, Bonfoey said that Peirce was:

… a unique human being. He wasn’t just a teacher of art, he was a philosopher, a thinker. No two classes were ever the same, the explorations were always different, always … well, awesome. He constantly looked into the relationship between nature and art. Nature was the base for everything he saw in his paintings, in other people’s work, in life around him.”

A fitting tribute to one of America’s great twentieth-century watercolorists.

Sources:

  • Arizona Highways Magazine. 1945. “Gerry Peirce”. Volume 21, 1945.
  • Art Life magazine. “Biography of Gerry Peirce”. Art Life magazine.
  • Arnold Elliott. 1951. Tucson Festival of the Arts, Exhibition Catalogue, March 25-April 8, 1951.
  • Judith H. Bonner. 2011. “New Orleans Art League.” Article dated 23 May 2011 in Encyclopedia of Louisiana, edited by David Johnson. (Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities).
  • Peter H. Falk (ed). 1985. Who was who in American art, 1564-1975.
  • Neill James. 1945. “I live in Ajijic”, in Modern Mexico, October 1945.
  • John Peck. 1980. “Late artist Peirce comes home.” Arizona Daily Star (Tucson), 11 May 1980, p 75.
  • Peggy and Harold Samuels. 1985. Encyclopedia of Artists of The American West. Castle Books.
  • Tucson Daily Citizen (Tucson, Arizona). 15 October 1960, p 12; 1 September 1965, p 15; 13 August 1966, p 29; 17 March 1969, p 22 (obituary).
  • Warren Times Mirror (Warren, Pennsylvania), 11 December 1934, p 5; 11 March 1939, p 2; 1 August 1939, p 8; 16 March 1949, p 4.

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

Jul 272017
 

Dr. George Carpenter Barker (1912-1958) was an anthropologist, author, editor and translator.

What makes Barker a worthy inclusion in our series of mini-biographies of artists and authors associated with Lake Chapala is his editing and translation of a performance of a nativity play or pastorela in the village churchyard that he saw on Christmas morning 1948.

Barker was visiting Chapala in the company of Hugh S. Lowther, Professor Emeritus of Classical Languages at Occidental College, Los Angeles, and his wife, María López de Lowther, Assistant Professor of Spanish, Emeritus, at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The trio of academics witnessed the play which was performed outdoors, with no platform, stage or curtain and lasted about two and a half hours. The cast of about twenty performers, mostly teenage boys and girls, was “surrounded by a crowd of spectators, all but a handful of whom were Mexican people. Some of the men in the audience sat or stood on top of a high wall enclosing the churchyard, and small boys perched on branches of a tree overlooking the performers. Several women stood throughout the performance with infants strapped to their backs. To prevent the audience from pressing in too close upon the cast, the hermit periodically patrolled the circle with his flagelot poised to swat any overbold onlooker.”

The shepherds and shepherdesses “were beautifully dressed in flowing white robes and carried long staves or crooks brilliantly festooned with ribbons, bells, and paper flowers.”

Excluding short choral interludes, “the only break in the performance occurred when the bells in the church towers directly overhead pealed out the call to High Mass. The noise was so deafening that even the chorus could not be heard. To fill the gap, the hermit improvised a clever pantomime, alternately stopping his ears and shaking his fists at the bells, much to the delight of the audience.”

After the performance, Barker was able to obtain “the old copybook containing the long-hand Spanish text… from the play’s ensayador, or rehearser, Aristeo Flores, who also played the part of Lucifer in the production. Flores was a shopkeeper about forty-five years of age who lived in the neighboring village of El Salto. He told Mrs. Lowther and me that he had transcribed the text [in about 1914] when he was a schoolboy in the village of Ocotlán, Jalisco. He said he was aided by his schoolmaster and by old people in the village in writing down the lines of the play.”

Barker’s 167-page translation and analysis was published as The shepherds’ play of the prodigal son: A folk drama of Old Mexico (University of California Publications: Folklore Studies, No. 2, Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. California Press, 1953).

This work was described in a review by Frank Goodwyn in Western Folklore (1954, p 220):

This is an unusually full and well-written version of the nativity play traditionally given on Christmas morning in Spanish-speaking countries…. Barker has made a close translation of the play and presented it in parallel text, thus making it intelligible to the English-speaking reader without losing the flavor of the original tongue. Barker concludes that “this version is more Mexican than Spanish”. “There is also a description of the play’s presentation on Christmas morning, 1948, at Chapala, Jalisco, Mexico, from the manuscript which Barker subsequently obtained and reproduced.”

Publicity material accompanying the book’s release described it as, “containing the text of an old Mexican folk drama”… [that] “belongs to class of religious folk dramas introduced into Mexico in the sixteenth century. They were patterned after the Miracle Plays produced in western Europe during the Middle Ages”.

Barker’s account of the nativity play at Chapala is far from the earliest reference to the peculiarities of Christmas festivities in Chapala. For example, celebrated anthropologist Frederick Starr, who visited Chapala several times, described what he termed a “Passion Play”, the Pastores (Shepherds), that he had witnessed in December 1895. Starr considered the performance to be “probably entirely foreign” compared to Tastoanes and Conquista which combined Indian and imported elements. According to Starr, “The play is fairly recent at Chapala. Only a few years ago a young fellow from the village saw it at some other town; he learned it by heart and trained his band of actors. This illustrates the way in which dramas travel – even in Mexico – from town to town.”

In 1947, the year before Barker visited Chapala, Norman Pelham Wright had published Mexican Kaleidoscope, in which he argued that the words of what he called the Chapala Christmas dance were “sheer gibberish”:

“The traditional dances themselves are in most cases hopelessly corrupt. The formal Spanish blank verse which is orated at the Chapala Christmas dance, for instance, is sheer gibberish, which has been passed on verbally from one generation to another, and never entrusted to writing; in the dance, Malinche is confused with the Virgin Mary, Moctezuma with Pontius Pilate, and Hernán Cortés with Christ, in a weird jumble of ideas relating both to the Conquest and to the life of our Lord. There is no reason to suppose that the music has not suffered similarly.”

carpenter-george-c

It is tempting to speculate that perhaps Barker wanted to judge the authenticity of the play in Chapala for himself after reading Wright’s words which surely would have made any anthropologist interested in Mexican traditions curious to learn more.

Barker concluded from his detailed textual analysis that the pastorela he had seen and analyzed incorporated numerous elements from Europe and was among the least corrupt of the thirteen pastorelas previously recorded from Mexico or the southwestern part of the U.S. Even so, it was “largely of Mexican origin”, as evidenced by references in the play to such things as pulque, tacos, baúles de colaciones (Christmas sweetmeats), coyote, tepejuage, birria and panela.

Barker’s parents were California artist and art teacher George Barker (1882-1965) and his wife Olive Carpenter. George Carpenter Barker gained a degree in history from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and an MS degree in journalism from Columbia University, before completing his masters and doctorate degrees in anthropology from the University of Chicago.

He received his PhD in 1947 and then worked as a research associate in the Department of Anthropology, at the University of Arizona from 1947 to 1948. From 1950, until his death, he was a research associate in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at UCLA.

At UCLA, his research focused on Mexican-American youths in the Los Angeles area, though he never lost his interests in folklore and the religious ceremonies of various Southwest Indian tribes, including the Yaqui Indians of Sonora, Mexico.

Barker was the author of a number of articles in scholarly journals, and of the short studies entitled Pachuco: An American-Spanish Argot and its Social Functions in Tucson, Arizona (Univ. of Arizona Social Science Bulletin (1950) and Social Functions of Language in a Mexican American Community (Univ. of Arizona Press, 1972).

He was a member of various professional societies in several fields, including the American Anthropological Association and the Asociación Española de Etnología y Folklore (Madrid).

The Papers of George C. Barker now reside in the Special Collections at the University of Arizona Libraries.

This is an update of a post first published on 27 July 2015.

Sources:

  • George C. Barker. 1953. The shepherds’ play of the prodigal son: A folk drama of Old Mexico (University of California Publications: Folklore Studies, No. 2, Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. California Press, 1953).
  • M. S. Edmonson. 1954. Review of “The Shepherd’s Play of the Prodigal Son: A Folk Drama of Old Mexico”, American Anthropologist, Volume 56, Issue 5, 1954, p 924-5.
  • Frederick Starr. 1896. “Celebrations in Mexico” The Journal of American Folklore, Vol 9 #34 (Jul-Sep 1896) pp 161-169.
  • University Bulletin: A Weekly Bulletin for the Staff of the University of California, Volume 2, University of California, 1954.
  • Norman Pelham Wright. 1947. Mexican Kaleidoscope (Heinemann).

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

Jul 102017
 

In Dust on my Heart (1946) Neill James relates several stories about “David Nixon, a New Orleans artist, and his wife June”, who were apparently seriously considering buying property at Lake Chapala until they were informed about various acts of violence that had been perpetrated there. The Nixons never did buy property in Ajijic and we know very little about their time at Lake Chapala, but David Nixon was a multi-talented musician and artist who deserves to be better-known.

David Sinclair Nixon was born 3 January 1904 in Bessemer, Alabama, and died in his long-time home of New Orleans in February 1973. His surname at birth was Burbage but became Nixon when his mother remarried.

Details of his early musical and artistic education remain a mystery though Nixon was apparently a former violin scholarship student of the Birmingham Music Club in Alabama.

nixon-nudes-dancing

David Sinclair Nixon: Nudes dancing

After Nixon married June Prudhomme (a wealthy Louisiana widow and 14 years his senior who had been living in New York City), the couple established their home in Paris where Nixon developed his interest in modern art and continued his concert career. Travel records show that the couple crossed the Atlantic several times in the 1930s between Europe and the U.S.

Nixon studied the violin in Europe for more than a decade, taking classes in Paris, Rome and Berlin, and gave concerts in five countries. Among his teachers was the renowned Czech violinist Otakar Ševčík (1852–1934).

A February 1933 newspaper piece records that the Nixons, “of Paris, France” had been touring America over the previous winter and were currently staying in the St. Charles hotel in New Orleans.

In Europe, the Nixons became good friends with the poet and critic Ezra Pound and his long-time companion, the concert violinist and musicologist Olga Rudge. In the late 1930s, Pound supported Olga’s efforts as she and David Nixon sought to revive interest in the music of Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi. Rudge had studied many of Vivaldi’s original scores in Turin in 1936 in preparation for a series of concerts featuring some of Vivaldi’s lesser-known works. Nixon was also very familiar with many of the pieces. Following Nixon’s performance at a concert in homage to Antonio Vivaldi in Venice in October 1937, Pound wrote that “Nixon [is] trying hard to play well-beautiful tone, no technique, no solfège, and no bluff-the same state she [Olga Rudge] wuz in 15 years ago, but don’t know if he has her toughness.” [quoted in Conover]

With Pound’s help, Rudge and Nixon attempted to organize a Vivaldi Society in Venice. Though that venture proved unsuccessful, Rudge subsequently co-founded the Center for Vivaldi Studies at the Accademia Musicale Chigiana and edited a catalog of more than 300 of Vivaldi’s manuscripts that was published by the Accademia just before the start of the second world war.

By that time the Nixons were already safely back in New Orleans. A 1938 newspaper piece confirms that, following “a tour of Europe” and recognizing that war was inevitable, the Nixons had left France to live full-time in New Orleans. In September 1938, they acquired two properties in the Vieux Carré (French Quarter) – 529 Madison Street and 532-534 Dumaine Street – which shared a common boundary and would serve as their home, studio space and exhibition and performance venue.

The Nixons quickly became respected members of the city’s artistic-literary circle. Among their near neighbors was Lyle Saxon, a noteworthy local writer who was also a reporter on the staff of The Times-Picayune.

Nixon’s wide-ranging artistic talents had enabled him to become an accomplished puppeteer. His comical puppet shows for children, put on in a converted warehouse next to his home, became legendary. Nixon designed and created the puppets and the sets, wrote the stories and dialogue and manipulated the puppets, but the star of the show was often his cat, Selassie, who, suitably “costumed and combed”, would make a grand appearance, perform acrobatics and steal the show.

As a painter, Nixon became known for his colorful, often abstract works, and one of his oil paintings was awarded first prize at the 1943 New Orleans Spring Fiesta. In the 1940s Nixon opened the Little Gallery on Royal Street to showcase not only his own work but also that of many other artists. He later opened the David S. Nixon Art Foundation and Gallery on the Madison Street property belonging to his wife.

nixon-david-maypole-1954

David Sinclair Nixon: Maypole. 1954.

The Nixons’ visit to Ajijic came towards the end of the second world war and is described by Neill James in both her article for Modern Mexico (October 1945) and in Dust on my Heart (1946). The article includes a photograph captioned, “Neill James gave a party to show paintings made in Ajijic by David Nixon, fellow southerner from New Orleans”. Sadly, apart from this, little is known about David Nixon’s time in Ajijic.

In 1946, Nixon was invited to give a violin concert in support of the restoration of New Harmony, the historic Indiana town where Welsh industrialist Robert Owen tried to establish a Utopian community in the 1820s. Jane Blaffer Owen, wife of Robert Owen’s great-great-grandson, was the driving force behind the revitalization of New Harmony. In New Harmony, Indiana: Like a River, Not a Lake: A Memoir, she writes that:

“I invited David Nixon, a violinist from New Orleans, to share his considerable talents with the community. I rented Murphy Auditorium for a concert on Thursday, June 20, 1946, when children would be out of school and around the time when out family would customarily transfer from Houston to New Harmony. David, a recovering alcoholic, was addicted to sweets, particularly chocolate ice cream sodas, and could be found each morning at our local Ramsey pharmacy, which, in the 1940s and ’50s, was the town’s social center, its ice cream parlor and its dispensary. In the evenings he would play his violin on the streets of New Harmony for whoever wished to listen. His audience kept increasing.”

Despite Nixon going against the wishes of his host and playing only Bach and other eighteenth century music, the concert was a huge success.

During the latter decades of his life, Nixon seems to have become more focused on his painting. In January 1947 he was in a two-person show with Ukranian immigrant artist Ben-Zion at the Arts and Crafts Club of New Orleans. A reviewer in the Times-Picayune wrote that Nixon’s style was the more primitive and that the artist “paints because it pleases him and his work is entertaining with gay color and instinctive spotting.”

In 1948, the Nixons returned to Paris to live. Almost immediately, David started “The Chamber Music Society in Paris”. A short interview with Nixon appeared in the 11 February 1949 issue of Le Guide du Concert which featured his portrait on its cover.

In addition, according to Irma Sompayrac Willard in her profile of Nixon for The Times Picayune in August 1949, the musician-artist had:

discovered a charming medieval village in Provence which the mayor promptly gave to him on his promise to restore the roofs. He’ll do it, too, just as he restored that Madison st. house with its lovely patio. Now he’s busy forming committees, getting estimates, and lining up first residents for his ancient French village. He talks of summer music festivals there, of puppet shows and exhibitions and maybe the possibility of getting New Orleans to adopt this unbelievably beautiful little town with its apple blossom and hilltop church.”

Just how much of this plan became reality is unknown!

nixon-david-show-flierBy the late 1950s, the Nixons were back in the U.S., where they lived for a time in Carmel, California. When asked about his one-man show of paintings at the Carmel Craft Studios in May 1957, Nixon said that the gallery was similar to the Arts and Crafts Gallery in New Orleans and added that his next major show was due to open in September at the Leveaugh Gallery in San Francisco. He and his wife planned to return to New Orleans in 1959 and would reopen their Madison Street art gallery. The Nixons did indeed return and reopened the gallery on premises that had been rented since 1951 by the Gallery Circle theater.

The building the theater moved to was destroyed by fire the following year. Theater organizers approached Nixon to see if he would allow them to rent their former home again but Nixon declined, saying that he and his wife were definitely home from Europe for good.

June Nixon passed away in about 1963. That same year David Nixon held another one-person show, at 542 Chartres in the French Quarter. A review of the show maintained that “to really appreciate it you need a certain elfish sense of humor”, and that it helped “to have ears that are tuned in to the pipes of Pan” since Nixon’s elongated nymphs “gambol, pipe and play through the paintings.”

During his lifetime Nixon exhibited his art in four countries – the U.S., Mexico, France and Italy – with noteworthy showings in Paris, Mexico City, Rome, and at the Galeria Neuf in New York. A major posthumous retrospective of Nixon’s work, “David Sinclair Nixon (1904-1973): A retrospective of one artist’s work” was held at Byrdie’s Gallery in New Orleans in October 2010.

Note:

  • The original version of this post was published on 17 September 2015.

Sources:

  • Anniston Star. 1943. “David Nixon Honored at New Orleans Fiesta.” Anniston Star (Anniston, Alabama), 30 May 1943, p 6.
  • Anne Conover. 2008. Olga Rudge & Ezra Pound. Yale University Press.
  • Neill James. 1945. “I live in Ajijic”, in Modern Mexico, October 1945.
  • Neill James. 1946. Dust on my Heart.
  • Jane Blaffer Owen. 2015. New Harmony, Indiana: Like a River, Not a Lake: A Memoir. Indiana University Press.
  • Olga A. Rudge. 1939. Vivaldi, note e documenti sulla vita e sulle opere. Siena: Academia Musicale Chigiana.
  • Irma Sompayrac Willard. 1949. “French Quarter to French Capital”, Times-Picayune 14 August 1949, p 154.
  • Times-Picayune – 26 Feb 1933, p 23; 9 October 1938, p 67; 6 January 1947, p 14; 19 May 1957, p 37; 22 November 1959, p 57; 4 August 1963, p 53.

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please email us or use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts.

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Jul 032017
 

Frieda Mathilda Hauswirth, also known after her second marriage as Frieda Mathilda Das, was an accomplished painter, writer, and illustrator, who is perhaps best remembered today for having painted one of the earliest portraits of Mahatma Gandhi.

Hauswirth visited Mexico from August 1944 to early in 1946. While it is unclear if this was her only visit, she definitely visited Ajijic on this trip: Neill James, in her account of Ajijic in 1945, described Hauswirth as “a naturalist from India”.

Actually, Frieda Mathilda Hauswirth was Swiss, but with very strong Indian connections. Hauswirth was born in Switzerland on 8 February 1886 and studied at the Universities of Bern and Zurich for two years before moving to California in about 1905 to attend Stanford University, from which she graduated with an A.B. in English in 1910.

Immediately after graduating she married a fellow Stanford student, Arthur Lee Munger, who later became a doctor. Their unconventional marriage ceremony on 7 August 1910 was held at the Temple Square in Palo Alto. The couple were “in street attire and unattended.” The ritual, “quite unlike that of any other church, in that it minimizes the religious and accentuates the philosophic and social side of marriage”, omitted any suggestion of “the inferiority and submission on the part of the bride”. Each “placed a ring on the fourth finger of the other in token of marriage, repeating the nuptial vows in unison”.

Hauswirth’s liberated approach to matters of the heart became apparent soon after marriage when she became infatuated with an Indian professor (and with India and its complex politics). A short-lived affair brought her marriage to an end and she and Munger divorced in 1916.

Frieda Mathilda Hauswirth

Frieda Mathilda Hauswirth. Illustration from Meine indische Ehe (1933)

While studying at Stanford, Hauswirth had become friends with a high-caste Indian student named Sarangadhar Das. Das had studied in Japan, funded by a wealthy patron in India, but turned his back on his patron (and his family) to continue his agricultural engineering studies at the University of California in Berkeley. After he graduated, he worked for several years in a sugar mill in Hawaii. Das and Hauswirth, who had now immersed herself in Indian literature and managed to get several articles published in the Modern Review of Calcutta, had always remained close friends. Hauswirth longed to visit and teach in India but wartime travel restrictions prevented her from realizing this plan. Das had proposed to Hauswirth several times over the years before she agreed to visit him in Hawaii, where they married in 1917.

The marriage made their migration status very complicated. Hauswirth lost her previously-acquired American citizenship even as Das was petitioning the court for his own naturalization. The legal situation was complex. The United States District Attorney opposed the petition “on the ground that the petitioner, being, a Hindu, is not eligible to ‘naturalization under Revised Statutes, section 2169, which limits naturalization to “free white persons” and those of African nativity and descent”, but local Hawaii Second Circuit Judge Edings eventually ruled that Das did indeed have the right to become a U.S. citizen.

Even the couple’s honeymoon was sensationally eventful: they were called as witnesses during the famous Hindu-German Conspiracy Trial in San Francisco where two men were killed in the courtroom.

Frieda and Das then lived in California for a short time, where Frieda took classes with Gottardo Piazzoni (1872–1945) at the California School of Fine Art (now San Francisco Art Institute) in San Francisco.

Artwork by Frieda Mathilda Hauswirth. Credit: askart.com

Artwork by Frieda Mathilda Hauswirth. Credit: askart.com

In 1920, following the death of Das’s father, the couple sailed for Calcutta, India, where Das tried to start a sugar factory in Orissa. The prejudices that were rife in the India of that time made life extremely difficult for Frieda. For instance, she was never able to meet her mother-in-law since if she had done so, the elder Mrs. Das would have “lost caste” and would have been reviled by friends and family alike. It also quickly became obvious to Frieda that her presence prevented potential investors from lending her husband the money needed to finance his sugar project. Not surprisingly, Frieda, a staunch feminist, found this situation intolerable and the couple agreed to live apart.

Sarangadhar Das went on to become a nationalist revolutionary who served in the Constituent Assembly of India that was responsible for framing the country’s independent constitution that took effect in 1950. He remained in politics until his death seven years later. A later account of his life and contribution to the Indian independence process, by Jatin Kumar Nayak, credits Hauswirth with having been instrumental in persuading Das that he should “return to India and make use of his expertise to improve the lot of his impoverished fellow Indians.”

Frieda left India and returned to Switzerland to paint and write. She studied art in Paris and divided her time over the next decade between Europe and California, with occasional trips to India. Frieda’s book about her experiences in India, A Marriage to India, was published by Vanguard Press, New York, in 1930. It is a detailed, heartfelt account of her relationship with Das and the difficulties they encountered as an inter-racial couple in India in the 1920s. The book’s frontispiece is Hauswirth’s own 1927 sketch of Gandhi, who was a friend of her husband’s family.

In early 1938, she moved to California for six years. She sought to restore her American citizenship and announced that she was prepared to divorce Das if necessary in order to expedite the process.

In 1944, after building a cabin-studio at 11, El Portal Court in Berkeley, she decided to visit Mexico. The visit lasted from August 1944 to early 1946. As described by Hal Johnson, writing several years later about Hauswirth for the Berkeley Daily Gazette:

Then came the urge to paint in Mexico and to gather material there for a travel book. In August, 1944, she motored south of the border with “Lennie”, a cross between a German police dog and an Airedale, as her sole companion.

Mexican roads were like driving over washboard through which spikes stuck up. Tires were scarce in Mexico then as they were in the United States, but Frieda Hauswirth and her dog, “Lennie”, finally reached Ajijic Lake.

She made her headquarters in Chapala and did in oil some delightful paintings. Followed a sojourn in Mexico City and then a trip to Oaxaca, where she painted from the Zapotecs and Mixtecs, the most intelligent of Mexican Indians. She spent Christmas, 1945, in Monterrey, Mexico.”

There is an as-yet-unconfirmed report of an oil painting, labeled “Ajijic” on the back, by Hauswirth of a Mexican couple at a market which presumably dates back to this time.

Hauswirth flew back to Europe early in 1946 to live in Switzerland and study Italian. She revisited India in 1950, but eventually resettled in Berkeley, California, early in 1951. A contemporary newspaper account describes how she did not have wall space to hang “several of her earlier oil paintings which won prizes in Paris art shows. They are carefully packed away along with her more modern canvases painted in Mexico.”

Hauswirth became well known for the frescoes and portraits she painted. Her major art exhibits included shows at the Salon des Beaux Arts, Grand Salon, Paris (1926); in London; at the San Francisco Art Association (1920, 1925); in Boston; at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City (June 1931); and in Mysore, India.

Frieda Hauswirth wrote and illustrated several books including A Marriage to India (1930); Gandhi: a portrait from life (1931); Purdah, the Status of Indian Women (1932); Leap-Home and Gentlebrawn, A Tale of the Hanuman Monkeys (1932); Into the Sun (1933); Die Lotusbraut (1938); Allmutter Kaveri (1939).

This progressive woman, who had led and enjoyed an extraordinary life, died in Davis, California, in March 1974 at the age of 88.

Sources:

  • Russell Holmes Fletcher. 1943. Who’s who in California, Vol. I (1942-1943).
  • Frieda Hauswirth (Mrs Sarangadhar Das). 1930. A Marriage to India. New York: The Vanguard Press.
  • Edan Milton Hughes. 1986. Artists in California, 1786-1940. Hughes Pub. Co.
  • Neill James. 1945. “I live in Ajijic”, in Modern Mexico, October 1945.
  • Hal Johnson. “So We’re Told”. Berkeley Daily Gazette, 29 October 1951, p 9
  • Maui News. “Judge Edings Grants Citizenship to Das”. Maui News, 4 January 1918, p1.
  • Jatin Kumar Nayak. 2011. “Orissa Whispers – Unsung Hero: Sarangadhar Das is one of the makers of modern Orissa“. The Telegraph, India, 7 March 2011.
  • Oakland Tribune. “Berkeley Woman Balked, by Caste System of India”. Oakland Tribune (California), 30 March 30, p 13.
  • The Plattsmouth Journal. “Murray Department: Former Plattsmouth Young Man married at Palo Alto, California“. The Plattsmouth Journal (Nebraska), 25 August 1910, p 6.
  • The Stanford Daily. “Former Stanfordite To Divorce Hindu”. The Stanford Daily. Volume 93, Issue 26, 31 March 1938, p 1.

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

Jun 262017
 

In a previous post, we offered an outline biography of Canadian writer Ross Parmenter, who first visited Mexico in 1946 and subsequently wrote several books related to Mexico.

One of these book, Stages in a Journey (1983), includes accounts of two trips from Chapala to Ajijic – the first by car, the second by boat – made on two consecutive days in March 1946.

The author is traveling with Miss Thyrza Cohen (“T”), a spirited, retired school teacher who owned “Aggie”, their vehicle. They meet up with Miss Nadeyne Montgomery (aka The General), who lived in Guadalajara; Mrs Kay Beyer, who lived in Chapala; and two tourists: Mrs. Lola Kirkland and her traveling companion, Mary Alice Naden.

Ross Parmenter describes Ajijic and its church in 1946 in chapter 3 of Stages in a Journey:

At Ajijic the boatman brought us alongside the pier.
– – –

After getting the hat, Mary Alice and I took the time to do what had been impossible the day before. We looked around the town. We noticed that nearly all the low houses had corrugated tile roofs. Because of the wide, overhanging eaves, the roofs seemed to slope towards each other as if they wanted to meet over the narrow, cobbled streets. Most of the houses were whitewashed, but some were cream-colored and others showed the brown adobes of which they were built. The uncoated walls harmonized with the dirt roads, for the adobes were made of the same earth.

Occasionally we saw sprays of magenta bougainvillea toppling over expanses of flat, high walls. At one corner we saw fishing nets tacked for mending to the side of a house. Looking up the steeply sloping cross street, we saw high hills flanking the upper side of the town. Looking down, we got a glimpse of the lake, a silver-gray line drawn at the end of a vista of walls and sharply projecting eaves.

At the centre of the village, as we expected, we found a plaza with a church at one corner. The plaza was like an unfinished sketch. There was no sign of a municipal palace, but otherwise it had the usual elements. But nothing was complete. The bandstand, for instance, had railing posts, but no railing; and there was no sign of a roof. There were tiled walks radiating from the stand, but the more important outer walks were still unpaved. There were cement lamp posts, but they were used only as supports for electric cord that was strung between them with a few exposed bulbs hanging at irregular intervals. And the fountain had a circular stone basin all right, but its source of water, instead of being an ornamental centrepiece, was an ordinary kitchen faucet on one side.

Most of the iron benches were broken and the flower beds were unkempt and forlorn, Indeed, the whole square would have been dusty and dreary had it not been for the trees. The jacarandas were a mass of blue blossoms. And among the pale green foliage of the flat-topped flamboyants were so many red-orange flowers that I could see why they are called “flame trees.”

The church was at the back of a walled garden. Its steeple rose in four diminishing stories and was so elegant in effect that it suggested the work of a Georgian admirer of Sir Christopher Wren.
An arched gateway led into the garden. When we passed through its wrought iron gates we found the fine tower had raised false hopes. The rest of the church did not live up to it. It was small and crude, with all of the rough facade being whitewashed except the old doorway. In the gray stones of its lintel, cut in rough letters, was the information that the church had been built in 1749. By this time I had seen so many earlier dates that I felt blasé about anything so recent. After all, it was a mere twenty-six years before the American Revolution.

The low-ceilinged interior was not impressive, but it gave evidence of care. Defining the vestibule, was a new entrance screen of highly varnished wood and the floor of blue and white checked tile was as clean as a Dutch kitchen. The wooden reredos behind the altar looked as if it had been planned for a loftier church and then been cut off at the top to fit this one. It was painted white. A big picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe hung on the side wall. Another Virgin was a large, fresh-faced doll that resembled Deanna Durbin. With her white dress, blue cape and silver crown, she was decked out as if she were a princess in a Christmas pantomime.

In striking opposition was the church’s most interesting object: a primitive Jesus realistically nailed to a fanciful cross, which had rays suggesting a sunburst. The Saviour’s brightly gilded crown of thorns and his red velvet waist wrapper contrasted grotesquely with his gray, blood-streaked body.

As we turned to leave, a bell began ringing outside. It had a regular sound pattern: one long clang and two short ones. We also heard some pleasantly tinkling bells. And rounding the vestibule screen we almost caught our breath at what we saw. Framed by the trees of the garden and the high round arch of the gateway was a beautiful view of the cobbled street, and making his way up that street was a man in the white cotton clothes of a native driving three tan oxen, who were ringing the bells at their throats with the rhythmic bobbing of their heads.

The louder bell, that was ringing dash, dot, dot, was one of those in the steeple of the church. A boy was tolling it by pulling on an outside rope that reached the ground.” (pp 96-98)

Source:

  • Ross Parmenter. 1983. Stages in a Journey. New York: Profile Press.

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please email us or use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts.

May 292017
 

In a previous post, we offered an outline biography of Canadian writer Ross Parmenter, who first visited Mexico in 1946 and subsequently wrote several books related to Mexico.

One of these book, Stages in a Journey (1983), includes accounts of two trips from Chapala to Ajijic – the first by car, the second by boat – made on two consecutive days in March 1946. In chapter 3, Parmenter describes how local campesinos raised water from the lake to irrigate their fields on the shores of Lake Chapala in 1946:

[Later] we moved further ashore to watch the men bailing up water for the fields. At Mr. Johnson’s [in Ajijic] we had seen nothing of his irrigation system. I am sure, though, that it achieved greater results with less labor. But if more up-to-date, I doubt if it was more pictorial. The men’s system reminded me of slides I had seen as a boy at Sunday school, for these Mexicans were irrigating their fields in the same way as the Egyptians had watered theirs 2,000 years before the birth of Christ.

Ross Parmenter: Irrigation system, Lake Chapala

Ross Parmenter: Irrigation system, Lake Chapala

The system required three men. The first transported the water from a little inlet in five gallon gasoline cans which he carried, hanging like scales, from either end of a pole across his shoulders. The second man, on an improvised platform, operated the hoist. And the third one saw that the lifted water got into the sluice that drained to a field of squash.

Lacking the resources of a British engineer, the men had created their machinery from what was available. For the upright to support the hoisting lever they were using a willow, whose two main boughs forked about ten feet above the ground. The fulcrum consisted of a couple of lengths of rope braided and stretched taut across the arms of this natural Y. The lever itself was the peeled trunk of a slender tree, which was forced most of the way through the ropes. To compensate, for the excessive length of pole on one side of the fulcrum, the butt end was weighted with a big stone. This working beam set up in the treefork was controlled by a rope at its tip. From its tip, too, dangled a bucket.

When the operator hauled the beam down, the watercarrier would fill the lowered bucket from one of his cans. Then the operator would slacken his hold of the tug rope and the counterweight of the stone would lift the brimming pail. Brought level with the large funnel at the entrance of the sluice, the bucket would be tipped by the third man so the water spilled into a tin pipe. The pipe carried the water to a sloping channel, which, like almost everything else, was homemade. It consisted of boards placed together in a V and supported along their length by crotched sticks.

Like the fisherman we had seen casting his net, these men were wearing straw hats and had their pants rolled above the knees. They were unhurried and worked in easy rhythm, with the man at the hoist pulling on the rope as if he were ringing a church bell. There was little sound except the creaking of the cross-ropes as the beam was tilted back and forth, and that high-pitched creaking was not unlike the piping of the birds singing in the fields and trees. (100-102)

Source:

  • Ross Parmenter. 1983. Stages in a Journey. New York: Profile Press.

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please email us or use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts.

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