Jul 112019
 

Lake Chapala – the lake itself – played an important bit part in the filming of the 1965 movie In Harm’s Way. The movie, an epic Panavision war film, was John Wayne’s last black-and-white film. The movie’s cast, besides John Wayne, included Kirk Douglas, Patricia Neal, Henry Fonda, Stanley Holloway and Larry Hagman, among many others.

The screenplay by Wendell Mayes and based on the 1962 novel Harm’s Way, by James Bassett, looks at the lives of several US Navy officers in Hawaii, and their wives and lovers, during the first year of U.S. involvement in the second world war.

In October 1964, the movie’s producer-director, Otto Preminger, and several members of the film crew visited Lake Chapala to film some special effects. They stayed at what was then the Holiday Inn in Chula Vista. A brief note about their stay, in the Guadalajara Reporter, claimed that the crew was “filming explosions in the lake for the movie” and that the explosions were of compressed air only and would reportedly would not harm local wildlife.

Among the youthful audience watching the crew filming of In Harm’s Way were the children of Marcella Crump, a keen amateur photographer. Dennis recently wrote about his memories of watching the filming in a catchily-titled piece, “The Time the U.S. Navy Came to Lake Chapala” published in El Ojo del Lago. He recalled “when a US Navy battleship, destroyer, and submarine appeared on Lake Chapala to engage in battles against the Japanese.” The vessels were “perfect scaled down Navy vessels… complete with their big guns firing heavy projectiles, destroyer firing its guns… and the submarine cruising in stealth mode.”

As Dennis explains, Lake Chapala was the perfect setting for small models to be filmed in a variety of wave heights. They could appear to be on the calmest of waters or fighting against the fierce waves of Pacific storms.

His brother, Raymond, remembers how about six replicas of PT (patrol torpedo) boats, each about 8 feet long and remote controlled, were “hand crafted right there on the beach under the umbrellas.” He vividly recalls the small explosions generated during the filming to simulate bombs hitting the water.

Sources:

  • Dennis Crump. 2019. “The Time the U.S. Navy Came to Lake Chapala.”. El Ojo del Lago, May 2019, 30.
  • Raymond Crump, personal communication.
  • Guadalajara Reporter, 22 October 1964

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 5:22 am  Tagged with:
May 302019
 

La invasión de los vampiros (1963) is a Mexican film in which a doctor and his assistant hunt down a vampire named Count Frankenhausen, who is terrorizing the local populace. Written and directed by Miguel Morayta, it starred Erna Martha Bauman, Rafael del Río and Tito Junco. The film was released two years later in an English version as The Invasion of the Vampires.

Kudos to historian and author Richard Grabman for suggesting to me that, “A good part of La invasión de los vampiros (1963) was filmed in Ajijic.” He added that the movie is “something of a classic in its genre, especially for its creepy atmosphere.” Unfortunately, he’s unsure where he picked up these interesting snippets of movie trivia.

The movie is, indeed, regarded as one of the finest horror films to emerge from Mexico and, after watching it, I have to agree that it’s entirely possible that parts of the movie were shot at Lake Chapala, though I have yet to find any supporting documentary evidence for this.

So, dear reader, if you can tell me any more about the connection between La invasión de los vampiros and Lake Chapala, please get in touch!

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 5:30 am  Tagged with:
May 232019
 

John Elbert Upton was born on 10 September 1917 and died aged 88, in Monterey, California, on 9 October 2005. He was a multi-talented individual who earned his living as a translator and teacher. Upton lived in Ajijic for over a decade, from 1949 to 1959, and then returned to live in the village several times (for varying lengths of time) from the 1960s through to the early 1990s.

Upton’s circle of friends in the Lake Chapala area included fellow translator Lysander Kemp, who lived in Jocotepec, and poet and literary figure Witter Bynner, who had a home in Chapala.

Upton majored in music and Spanish at college, becoming an extremely proficient classical guitarist. In 1966, he gained a Masters in Spanish Language and Literature from the University of Madrid in Spain.

John Upton, 1957. Photo credit: Leonard McCombe, Life Magazine

John Upton, 1957. Photo credit: Leonard McCombe, Life Magazine

During his early days living in Ajijic, in the 1950s, Upton wrote several colorful pieces about the area for the San Francisco Chronicle, but made his living not by writing but as a teacher to the children of expatriate families. These students included a young Katharine Goodridge Ingram, who went on to run a very successful art gallery in the village. She has particularly fond memories of Upton: “He was my tutor when I was a young girl. Truly a Renaissance man: played guitar, bass fiddle, brought solar-heated water to his Ajijic house, accompanied his wife as she sang hot old cabaret oldies, built a telescope, etc.”

This photo by Leonard McCombe shows a youthful and sartorially-elegant John Upton setting up a telescope he had built in his garden in Ajijic. It appeared in the 23 December 1957 Life Magazine article, “Yanks Who Don’t Go Home. Expatriates Settle Down to Live and Loaf in Mexico.”

Upton wrote a short piece, “Maya Today” (a linguistic study of the Mayan language Yucateco in Yucatán), published in the December 1962 issue of The Modern Language Journal, but was far better known as a Spanish-English translator. Upton’s fine translations introduced generations of English-speaking readers to the extraordinary diversity and creativity of Spanish-language literature.

Besides translations of poems by the likes of Pablo Neruda and Miguel de Unamuno, his published translations include:

  • Cumboto, by Ramón Díaz Sánchez (University of Texas Press, 1969);
  • Pueblo en vilo: Microhistoria de San José de Gracia (“San José de Gracía, Mexican Village in Transition”), by Luis González (University of Texas, Austin, 1974).
  • Jarano, by Ramón Beteta (University of Texas, Austin:, 1975);
  • In the Magic Land of Peyote, (Texas Pan American Series) by Fernando Benitez (University of Texas, Austin, 1975);
  • Polifemo, a narrative poem by Luis De Góngora (The Fireweed Press, 1977)
  • La feria (“The Fair”), by Juan José Arreola (University of Texas, Austin, 1977). This work is chock-full of local idioms, curses, etc., and, as Upton says in his translator’s note, “There are passages in “The Fair” that can confound even a well-informed Mexican”.

In the early 1990s, he worked as staff translator for the Metropolitan Museum of Art and for Latin American Art magazine. Selections of Upton’s translations were included in the book Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries, with an Introduction by Octavio Paz (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1990), and he translated some essays and catalog entries for The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Al-Andalus: The Art of Islamic Spain (1992). In 2004 he was a finalist in the Barnstone Translators’ Competition.

John Upton was one of the many extraordinarily gifted individuals who have shaped the long artistic and literary history of Lake Chapala. He will long be remembered for the supreme quality of his translations, whether of poems, literature or non-fiction.

Note: This post was first published 30 March 2015.

Related posts:

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 282019
 

Ven a cantar conmigo was filmed in Jalisco two years after the making of Verano en Guadalajara (1965). Both movies are musical romances that incorporate lots of tourist-alluring footage of markets, ancient buildings and cultural events in Guadalajara and at Lake Chapala. The two movies also share the same lead actor – Robert Conrad – but this is where the similarities end.

The storyline of Ven a cantar conmigo is much stronger than the uni-dimensional plot of its predecessor. The central romantic plot line in Ven a cantar conmigo is more nuanced and complex, giving viewers a much more satisfying experience. A splash of adventure in the middle of this film serves as a counterpoint to too much romantic gushiness. The central romance does not unfold without some melodrama towards the end.

Ven a cantar conmigo was produced by Miguel Zacarías and written and directed by Alfredo Zacarías. The company behind the movie was Producciones Zacarías S.A. The cinematography was by Raúl Martínez Solares. The film was first released in Mexico on 19 October 1967.

The three major stars in this movie are Robert Conrad, playing an American artist named Bob Seaman, Alicia Bonet playing Aurora, the nurse he falls in love with, and the talented young singer “Evita” (Eva Luisa Aguirre Muñíz), who was eleven years old at the time and plays the role of a precocious orphan, living at the Hospicio Cabañas, who is a show-stopping, not-to-be-ignored matchmaker. This was the Guadalajara-born youngster’s first movie. She subsequently enjoyed a stellar, though short-lived, career as a singer, actress and T.V. presenter before retiring from show business in her early twenties.

Given that the opening credits thank the Jalisco state governor, Francisco Medina Ascencio, for his support, it is not surprising that many of Guadalajara’s most important tourist attractions form the backdrop to scenes in the story. The photographs of the Hospicio Cabañas (now Instituto Cultural Cabañas) and its murals (explained by Evita to a visiting group of tourists) are among the highlights.

As a young, charismatic minx, Evita steals the early scenes of the movie. She is quite determined to find a suitable beau for her friend Aurora, a young nurse who grew up in the orphanage and works in a local hospital.

Evita and Aurora are shopping in the San Juan market for fruit and vegetables when they bump into a handsome American artist. A misunderstanding leads Aurora to believe that Bob is poor and hungry. In reality he drives a sports car, is staying at a top hotel and is clearly wealthy. He visited the market to purchase single vegetables to compose a still life. When he returns to his hotel to paint, he can’t help drawing a portrait of Aurora instead.

Minor misunderstandings continue as he seeks to get to know more about Aurora and to ask her on a date. The process includes, in true Tapatío fashion, Bob hiring mariachis to serenade her at dawn.

Before long, accompanied by Evita and one of Bob’s friends, they are all on their way to Lake Chapala for the afternoon. The short section of the movie shot at Chapala shows the beach, the Beer Garden restaurant, the main church and nearby Braniff mansion. The proceedings are enlivened by buying balloons and a game of hopscotch.

There are many worse ways to spend your time than watching Ven a cantar conmigo!

The entire 87-minute movie is available via Youtube, as is a clip of the short section showing Lake Chapala. Enjoy!

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 5:58 am  Tagged with:
Mar 142019
 

Wes Penn, a highly creative visual artist, lived in Ajijic from 1967 to his death in a vehicle accident three years later. Penn was the fourth husband of Jan Dunlap (“Big Mama”).

William Wesley Penn Jr. was born 11 February 1935 in Big Spring, Howard, Texas. He was the son of the Reverend and Mrs. William W. Penn. Reverend Penn (1913-1988) was a Methodist minister who served in the Navy and was the pastor for a time in Renner, Texas, where, coincidentally, Jan Dunlap spent most of her childhood.

Wes Penn. Mixed media abstract. Untitled. Undated. Collection: Rico Semple.

Wes Penn. Mixed media abstract. Untitled. Undated. (image courtesy of Rico Semple)

Penn attended high school in Commerce, Texas, and gained his first degree from East Texas State College (now known as Texas A&M University–Commerce) in 1959, and had married while living in El Paso, where he was studying for a Masters in Education at the University of El Paso. His younger brother, Paul, an engineer also studied at the University of El Paso. Paul later fell foul of the law in Mexico and was sentenced to a multi-year term in Puente Grande, the penitentiary just outside Guadalajara.

Dunlap met Wes Penn when they were both studying at the University of Texas. They lived in El Paso and New Mexico before deciding to try their luck in Mexico where Penn had friends who lived at Lake Chapala. In the run-up to the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, language teachers were in demand and Dunlap, who had four young children in tow, and Penn hoped to support themselves by teaching English.

The family lived for a time in the Mill House at the western extremity of the village. It was difficult to make ends meet and, like many others living in Ajijic at the time, Penn and Dunlap decided to risk driving a stash of weed across the border in order to raise some much-needed funds. They made it back to Ajijic without incident but when Penn went to collect their dog from a friend’s house in Chapala, the timing turned out to be disastrous.

No sooner had he arrived than the police raided the house looking for drugs; everyone present, including Penn, was arrested and locked up overnight in the local jail. Dunlap, meanwhile, had sent son Ricardo to look for her husband. Ricardo returned saying he’s found Penn’s car and that it was still parked in Chapala.

When Dunlap went to collect her husband the following day, she was told that the federales had taken over the case and had moved Penn and the others to Guadalajara. It turned out that they were being held in the same jail as Penn’s brother. Dunlap called in a favor from a friend who had the ear of the state governor and was able to get Penn and the others released in exchange for a substantial contribution of pesos.

Wes Penn. 1966. Collection: Rico Semple.

Wes Penn. 1966. (image courtesy of Rico Semple)

Tragically, Penn was killed on 25 March 1970 when the car he was driving was hit by a bus on the Chapala-Guadalajara highway. Jan and her children remained in Ajijic where she ran a succession of restaurant-bars, boutiques and galleries during the 1970s and 1980s, one of which was named the Wes Penn Gallery in his honor.

Wes Penn worked in a variety of media. As a painter, he specialized in abstracts, many of which leaned towards surrealism.

Penn’s parents were not very appreciative or supportive of their son’s art. Dunlap told me how her father-in-law had once offered her husband $100 for a painting on the grounds that it represented the cost of the materials!

Fortunately, Penn’s fellow artists held him in much higher esteem. For example, his works were exhibited at least once in the renowned Udinotti Gallery in Scottsdale, Arizona, run by Greek-born poet and painter Agnese Udinotti.

Sources

I am deeply indebted to the late Jan Dunlap for sharing her knowledge and memories of Wes Penn, and to Rico Semple for sharing photos of examples of his work.

  • Big Spring Daily Herald, Big Spring, Texas, 13 February 1935, p8
  • Henrietta Clay County Leader, Henrietta, Texas – 11 June 1970

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

Mar 072019
 

Writer and illustrator Ellis Credle Townsend moved from Guadalajara to Ajijic in about 1974 and lived and worked at Lake Chapala for more than a decade. She was the author and illustrator of more than twenty children’s books over a long career.

Ellis Credle Townsend

Ellis Credle Townsend

Ellis Credle (she used her maiden name on all her books) was born and raised in North Carolina. Born in 1902, she studied at Louisberg College and taught high school in the Blue Ridge Mountains before moving in 1926 to New York City, where she studied interior design and took painting classes at the Art Students League. She worked as a governess for two children before landing a commission to draw reptiles for the American Museum of Natural History. While continuing to write in her spare time, she was also asked to paint a series of murals for the Brooklyn Children’s Museum.

She had several rejections from publishers before one finally accepted Down Down the Mountain (1934), the first ever illustrated children’s book set in the Blue Ridge country. Helped by her deep familiarity with the area’s folk tales and life styles, it was an immediate success and quickly became a classic; it sold more than 4 million copies.

Credle visited Mexico in the early 1930s and another of her early books, Pepe and the Parrot (1937), a story about a dog and a parrot, was set in a traditional Mexican village. Other books Credle published before moving to Mexico include Across the Cotton Patch (1935), based on her childhood days on a grandfather’s farm; Little Jeems Henry (1936); That Goat That Went to School (1940) and Janey’s Shoes (1944).

Credle married Charles de Kay Townsend; the couple had one son. Born in Rhode Island, her husband was a Harvard graduate and served in the Navy during the second world war. He was a photographic technologist with the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. for many years, and it was after he retired that the couple left for Mexico with their young son, Richard, in 1947. Her husband’s photographs were used in some of Credle’s later books.

Richard grew to love Mexico and became an eminent authority on pre-Columbian cultures. He gained a masters degree in anthropology form the University of the Americas and a doctorate from Harvard for work on the art of Tenochtitlán. He was curator of the Department of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas at The Art Institute of Chicago, and edited numerous exhibition catalogs including The Ancient Americas: Art from Sacred Landscapes and Ancient West Mexico (which has many close links to the Lake Chapala area).

The family arrived in Mexico planning to stay only six months so that Credle could write without distraction, perhaps to put the finishing touches to My Pet Peepelo (1948), a story set in Mexico. Here Comes the Showboat was published the following year. By then, the Townsends had settled in Zapopan, Guadalajara, where their stay kept being extended by other book commissions; Credle ended up living in Mexico for more than 40 years.

Even in so-called retirement, Credle continued to write and based several more stories in Mexico, though none ever received the same high praise as her tales of the Blue Ridge country. In 1964, she and her husband were commissioned by Nelson to write a school book about Mexico, aimed at young teenagers. This was published in 1968 as Mexico, land of hidden treasure in Nelson’s World neighbors series.

Following the death of her husband in 1974, she moved to La Floresta in Ajijic on Lake Chapala. Late in life she also wrote “Dog Ignacio Lives On“, a short piece published in El Ojo del Lago, November 1994.

Ellis Credle Townsend was often asked to lecture in the U.S. on account of her knowledge of authentic folklore and was a regular at the Ajijic Writers’ Group.

Interviewed for El Ojo del Lago late in her life, Credle said, “I have never regretted coming to Mexico. I have always felt happy, at home, and strangely safe here.” She did not travel very far apart from occasional trips to Chicago to visit her son. She was in Chicago at the time of her death on 21 February 1998.

Sources

  • Guadalajara Reporter: 2 April 1964: 1 Oct 1964.
  • Shep Lenchek. “Ellis Townsend —A Lakeside Literary Treasure.” El Ojo del Lago,
    1996; reproduced March 2015 issue.
  • Richard Walser. 1960. Entry for Ellis Credle in Picturebook of Tar Heel Authors. Raleigh, N.C.: State Department of Archives and History.

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.

Feb 282019
 

For a sense of what Guadalajara and Lake Chapala were like in the early 1960s, the movie Guadalajara en verano is a great starting point. To watch the 95-minute film, released in 1965, via Youtube, click the link.

Guadalajara en verano is an enjoyable mix of a simple, cross-cultural romantic storyline in the city of roses and a documentary highlighting some of Jalisco’s tourist sights and infrastructure.

Written by Adolfo Torres Portillo, and co-produced by José Luis Bueno and Xavier Torres Ladrón de Guevara, the movie was filmed in the summer of 1964 in Guadalajara, at Lake Chapala and at the Pacific coast beach town of Melaque.

The plot revolves around a group of students who arrive in Guadalajara to attend summer school classes. This allowed the producer to open the movie with shots illustrating Guadalajara’s excellent links to the outside world via buses, trains and its international airport, and its varied accommodation offerings, from a casa de huespedes to the Hotel Fenix and Camino Real. In those days, the city streets were not clogged with traffic, the roses bloomed in profusion and the parks were well-maintained gardens..

Having foreign students visit Guadalajara also provides the excuse, if one were needed, to film the city’s newly-opened Hilton hotel and follow the students around as they explore the city’s markets, parks and buildings, with time spent admiring some of the many murals that grace its public buildings, including the Hospicio Cabañas (then an orphanage, now the Cabañas Cultural Institute) and the Government Palace. The movie’s director, Julio Bracho, later made a film about the New York experiences of Jalisco muralist José Clemente Orozco: En busca de un muro (1974).

The part of Guadalajara en verano made at Lake Chapala includes footage of the highway, the Beer Garden in Chapala and a luxurious private residence.

Needless to say, the movie does not miss the opportunity to showcase a girls’ choir, mariachi singers and musicians, and the Ballet Folklórico de Jalisco (performing the Jarabe Tapatío) along the way.

The short Melaque section, near the end of the movie, served to underscore the tourist potential of the Jalisco coast and promote the then relatively unknown attractions of the Pacific coast of Jalisco, coincidentally at about the same time as Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor helped put Puerto Vallarta on the map.

Actors in Guadalajara en verano include Elizabeth Campbell, Xavier Loyá, Alicia Bonet, Claudio Brook, Emma Roldán and Andrea Palma. The movie’s main male protagonist, Robert Douglas, was played by U.S. singer and actor Dean Reed who went on to enjoy a stellar career in Latin America and Eastern Europe, regions where the audiences appreciated his lyrics, which protested U.S. foreign policy, war and nuclear tests.

It is a sobering thought that the movie was made at a time when the population of Guadalajara had barely reached one million (compared to around 5 million for the metropolitan area today). On the other hand, 1964 was the year when Walt Disney visited the city for the “De Pueblo a Pueblo” meeting, Bing Crosby promoted golf at Guadalajara Country Club, Tequila Sauza started sponsoring “Noches Tapatías” on national TV, and when the  Chapala Society officially  changed its name to become  The Lake Chapala Society.

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 5:46 am  Tagged with:
Feb 212019
 

Alice Janice (“Jan”) Dunlap, who lived in Ajijic from 1967-1998, was born on 15 June 1927 in Addison, Texas, and died in Los Angeles, California, on 19 October 2018. Jan was one of eleven children born to Clinton Adolphus Dunlap and his wife Janice Blackburn and was suitably thrilled later in life when she discovered that she was a descendant of an aide to U.S. President George Washington.

Jan studied to be sociologist and was a member of the American Association of University Women (AAUW). She had a son, Michael, from her first marriage (when only a teenager), and four children with Ramón Rivas Jr. from her third marriage. She met Rivas, from Puerto Rico, when both were studying at the Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Texas in the early 1950s. The couple lived for a decade in Puerto Rico, where on one occasion Jan met Fidel Castro.

Later, when Jan was studying at the University of Texas at El Paso, she met and married artist Wesley Penn. Penn had friends who lived at Lake Chapala and suggested that they live in Mexico. Jan quickly agreed when she learned that Mexico wanted more English teachers ahead of hosting the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.

The couple decamped to Ajijic, with Jan’s four children. Tragically, Penn was killed in 1970 when the car he was driving was hit by a bus on the Chapala-Guadalajara highway. Jan and her children remained in Ajijic where she became one of the village’s more colorful and warm-hearted characters of the 1970s and 1980s. Jan felt as though nobody was a stranger and believed that anyone in need was worthy of help and assistance.

Known to everyone in Ajijic as “Big Mama”, Jan ran a succession of restaurant-bars, boutiques and galleries, including El Tejabán, the Blackfoot Contessa Boutique, the Wes Penn Gallery, Big Mama’s (on 16 de Septiembre) and El Tapanco. Jan was especially proud of having arranged an exhibit of Ruth Anaya paintings in El Tejabán that got the gallery (and Ajijic) listed in Who’s Who in American Art. Jan was the “Grand Dame” of the “Rowdy Bunch” which contributed its positive energy to many Ajijic events.

Declining health forced Jan and her husband, Michael Shapiro, to move back to the States in 1998. Shortly afterwards, Jan founded Grandmothers Against Smoking, a campaign to help persuade young people not to smoke.

Jan finally realized one of her long-term dreams in 2017 when she published, shortly after her 90th birthday (and with a little help from me) her debut novel, Dilemma, an exciting tale about a drug-dealing cartel capo and a beautiful, youthful female DEA agent. The novel is loosely based on Ajijic gossip and her personal experiences in Mexico.

The novel, set mainly at Lake Chapala in Mexico, takes us back to the 1970s. Natalie, a beautiful young DEA agent, is sent to investigate an alleged king-pin in the drugs world who lives in Ajijic. Her life soon becomes far more complicated than she bargained for. The positive reviews on Amazon for this tale of international romance, drugs and intrigue speak for themselves.

The striking artwork used for the cover is by B.C.-based artist Oliver Rivas, one of Jan’s grandsons.

Jan also completed several other works including a novel entitled With Money Dances the Dog, and associated screenplay, based on an infamous series of murders in Ajijic in the mid-1970s.

Jan was predeceased by two of her five children: Janina Rivas died in Mexico following a dog bite in 1973; Ricardo Rivas died in 2015. She leaves behind her husband, Michael, and three sons – Michael, Ramón and Roberto – as well as many grandchildren, great grandchildren and great-great grandchildren.

Sources

  • Big Spring Daily Herald, Big Spring, Texas: 13 February 1935, 8.
  • Guadalajara Reporter: 13 Dec 1975; 17 Jan 1976; 31 Jan 1976; 28 Feb 1976; 10 Sep 1977, 19; 15 Oct 1983.
  • Henrietta Clay County Leader, Henrietta, Texas: 11 June 1970.

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

Feb 072019
 

Neill James’ book Dust on my Heart is many visitors’ first introduction to the extensive English-language literature related to Lake Chapala. In the book, the self-styled “Petticoat Vagabond” tells of her adventures in Mexico and of two terrible accidents she suffered, the first on Popocatepetl Volcano and the second at Paricutín Volcano.

Cover of Dust on my Heart (1946)

Cover of Dust on my Heart (1946) (Painting by Alejandro Rangel Hidalgo)

After two lengthy stays in hospital, James’ recuperation eventually brought her, in 1943, to the small village of Ajijic, which would be her home for the remainder of her long life. The final two chapters of Dust on my Heart describe her first impressions of Ajijic and of how she learned to appreciate the idiosyncrasies of pueblo life.

As with several other noteworthy Lake Chapala residents, separating fact from fiction in trying to sort out James’ story is tricky, and made more complex by hagiographic portrayals that simply repeat identical misinformation with no attempt to check sources or provide independent corroboration for claims made.

For example, we are led to believe that James was born on a cotton plantation in Grenada, Mississippi, a woman of means who graduated from the University of Chicago, met Amelia Earhart, was visited in Ajijic by D. H. Lawrence, Ernest Hemingway and George Bernard Shaw, and pioneered the looms industry in Ajijic, before founding the Lake Chapala Society.

Unfortunately, not a single one of these claims is true. James was born in Gore Springs, Mississippi. While Gore Springs is near Grenada, James was not born on any plantation and her family was far from wealthy. She never attended the University of Chicago and almost certainly never met Amelia Earhart. The claims about Lawrence, Hemingway and Shaw are especially ludicrous. D. H. Lawrence was long dead by the time James first visited Mexico. Neither Hemingway (whom James may conceivably have met in 1941 in Hong Kong) nor Shaw ever visited Ajijic. James did not pioneer the looms industry in Ajijic and was never a member of the Lake Chapala Society prior to being accorded Honorary Membership a few years before she died!

After studying stenography at the Industrial Institute and College for the Education of White Girls (later Mississippi State College for Women) in 1918 James became a secretary at the War Department in Washington, D.C. Over the next decade, she traveled widely: from Hawaii to Japan, China, Korea, India, Germany, France, Costa Rica and New Zealand. In 1931, she settled on Hawaii to work at the Institute of Pacific Relations. Three years later, she left to travel again in Asia, returning to the U.S. via the Trans-Siberian railroad and Europe.

She then began travel writing and joined the stable of writers managed by Maxwell Perkins (who edited Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Erskine Caldwell, among others) at leading New York publishers Charles Scribner’s Sons. Prior to visiting Mexico, James had published three travel books: Petticoat Vagabond: Up and Down the World, (1937); Petticoat Vagabond: Among the Nomads (1939) and Petticoat Vagabond in Ainu Land: Up and Down Eastern Asia (1942).

Her early travels in Mexico in 1942, including a few weeks spent with the indigenous Otomi people, are entertainingly told, in rich, keenly-observed detail, in Dust on my Heart. During her first few months, James traveled to many very different parts of the country, from the capital city to impoverished rural mountain villages, from Acapulco to Chiapas.

It was only after two serious accidents, the first on Popocatepetl Volcano, the 17,899-foot peak near Mexico City, and the second on the slopes of the brand-new Paricutin Volcano in Michoacán, both recounted in gory detail in her book, and both requiring months in a Mexico City hospital, that James decided to recuperate at Lake Chapala.

It was August 1943 when James first arrived at Ajijic. She eventually built her own house there. In order to complete the manuscript of her next Petticoat Vagabond book, James penned a couple of chapters about the village. This was the last book she ever wrote. As suddenly as she had started writing travel books, she stopped.

James had no independent wealth and needed to generate some income for herself. She began to buy plain white cotton blouses and pay local women piecemeal rates to embroider them. Many of the designs were created by American artist Sylvia Fein who was living in Ajijic at the time.

From the late 1940s on, James started three new tourist-related ventures – renting and flipping village homes; clothing (including weaving and silk production); and running her own tourist store – all of which remained active until well into the 1970s. Over the years, she also tried all manner of other potentially lucrative but ultimately short-lived ventures, ranging from keeping bees and selling honey to looking for buried treasure.

The short-term promise of her “revival” of embroidered blouses had fizzled out when marketing problems reduced its appeal. Meantime, Helen Goodridge, with her husband, Mort Carl, had started a commercial looms business in 1950 which was attracting attention. While James could not compete directly with their venture, she could, and did, begin to teach local women how to use smaller hand looms to weave small cotton and wool items such as women’s blouses and scarves. Whereas Goodridge employed only men as weavers (very much the tradition in this part of Mexico), James’s workforce was entirely female, in line with indigenous practice in southern Mexico.

Neill James' store label

Neill James’ store label

James also started a silk industry in Ajijic. She brought in hundreds of white mulberry trees, from Uruapan in Michoacán, and planted as many as she could in her own garden, offering others to families around the village. James also bought silkworm eggs and before long, Ajijic had a thriving silk production industry. James employed local women to weave the delicate silk thread into fine silk cloth. Precisely when James introduced the silk industry into Ajijic is unclear, though it was certainly in full flow by 1962.

The third strand of her business activity was to open a small store out of her own home, selling items made in Ajijic as well as handicrafts from elsewhere. The store closed in 1974, when James announced her retirement.

James is best remembered today for her many positive contributions to the health and education of her adopted community.

Having helped educate the children of her domestic helpers from the very beginning, James broadened her scope in about 1954 to open the area’s first public library (biblioteca pública), principally aimed at serving the needs of the local children.

The first library in Ajijic was a room, donated for the purpose, on Ocampo near Serna’s grocery store. James persuaded the municipio to part with funds for books and arranged for Angelita Aldana Padilla to oversee its activities. As their reward for reading and studying, students were offered the incentive of free art supplies and classes. This humble beginning led, after many twists and turns, to the justly-praised Children’s Art Program, now run by the Lake Chapala Society, that has helped nurture the talents of so many fine local artists.

At some point, a second library was opened, with its own supervisor, in a building James owned near Seis Esquinas, to help children living in the west end of the village. After the supervisor left, the running of La Colmena (The Beehive), as it was known, was turned over to some well-meaning teenagers. When the library was badly vandalized, the remaining books and supplies were moved to the original library, which James later moved to a building on her own property at Quinta Tzintzuntzan.

In 1977, James donated a property at Seis Esquinas (Ocampo #90) to be used as the village’s first Health Center (Centro de Salud).

Leonard McCombe. 1957. Neill James (hammock) and Zara in the gardens of Quinta Tzintzuntzan. (Life)

Neill James (hammock) and Zara (on horseback) in the gardens of Quinta Tzintzuntzan. Photo by Leonard McCombe for Life, 1957.

After her retirement in 1974, the wonderful gardens of Quinta Tzintzuntzan were no longer normally open to the public. However, in 1977, James agreed that the grounds could be open every Sunday afternoon as an art garden (jardín del arte) for a new artists’ group, the Young Painters of Ajijic (Jovenes Pintores de Ajijic).

In 1983, James offered to let the Lake Chapala Society use part of her Quinta Tzintzuntzan property rent-free for five years, provided it took over running the Ajijic children’s library located there. The Lake Chapala Society subsequently (1990) acquired legal title to the property in exchange for looking after Neill James in her final years. James died on Saturday 8 October 1994, only three months shy of her 100th birthday. Her ashes were interred at the base of a favorite tree in her beloved garden.

Given her early career as a travel writer, it is only fitting that the Mississippi University for Women now awards at least five Neill James Memorial Scholarships each year (worth up to $4000 each) to Creative Writing students. First offered in 2007, these scholarships are funded with the proceeds from a charitable trust established by her sister Jane.

It was James’ generosity that enabled the Lake Chapala Society to move from Chapala to Ajijic at a time when it was struggling and desperately needed new premises. Given her amazing accomplishments and legacy she left Lake Chapala, there is no possible need to embellish the story of Neill James, one of Lakeside’s most truly colorful, memorable and enterprising characters of all time.

Note

James was not the creator of the saying, “When once the dust of Mexico has settled upon your heart, you cannot then find peace in any other land.” What she actually wrote (on the first page of Dust on My Heart) was “There is a saying, “When once the dust of Mexico has settled upon your heart, you cannot then find peace in any other land.”” James was merely quoting an old saying; it was not her creation. An earlier version of the saying appears on the first page of Your Mexican Holiday: A Modern Guide, Anita Brenner’s book published in 1932.

Acknowledgments

I am greatly indebted to Stephen Preston Banks, author of Kokio (a fictional biography of James), and to Michael Eager and Judy King for sharing with me their insights into Neill James’ life and contributions to Ajijic.

Sources

  • Anon. 1945. “Neill James in Mexico.” Modern Mexico (New York: Mexican Chamber of Commerce of the United States), Vol. 18 #5 (October 1945), 23, 28.
  • Stephen Preston Banks. 2016. Kokio: A novel based on the life of Neill James. Valley, Washington: Tellectual Press.
  • Guadalajara Reporter, 17 September 1983, 18.
  • Neill James. 1945. “I Live in Ajijic.” Modern Mexico (New York: Mexican Chamber of Commerce of the United States), Vol. 18 #5 (October 1945), 23-28. [Reprinted in El Ojo de Lago. Vol 17, #7 (March 1999].
  • Neill James. 1946. Dust on My Heart. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
  • Leonard McCombe (photos). “Yanks Who Don’t Go Home. Expatriates Settle Down to Live and Loaf in Mexico.” Life Magazine, 23 December 1957, 159-164.

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.

Jan 312019
 

From way back when, visiting artists such as surrealist painter Sylvia Fein in the 1940s offered students in Ajijic art materials and encouragement. In 1954, authoress Neill James, almost a decade after she had moved to Ajijic to recuperate from a serious climbing accident, started a tutoring program for local youngsters. Children who worked hard were given art materials to paint and draw. This was the beginning of Ajijic’s famous Children’s Art Program (CAP).

Early classes combined reading and writing with art. James became so committed to the project that the following year she opened a public library, donating the building to the village. She later opened a second library. She was sufficiently impressed by the efforts and creativity of several young artists that she arranged for them to continue their art education by attending classes in San Miguel de Allende.

To its eternal credit, the Children’s Art Program provided (and continues to provide) one of the stronger bridges between the expatriate “colony” and the local community. Almost all families in Ajijic have benefited from the program at one time or another. As the program expanded, greater organizational skills were required and the Lake Chapala Society stepped in to offer its support to help run the libraries and the art classes.

Javier Zaragoza and Jesús López Vega. 2012. Children's Art Program mural, Lake Chapala Society.

Javier Zaragoza and Jesús López Vega. 2012. Children’s Art Program mural, Lake Chapala Society.

For most of the first three decades of the Children’s Art Program, James was ably assisted by Angelita Aldana Padilla. One of Aldana’s nephews, Florentino Padilla (who lived from about 1943 to 2010) was one of the first students to be given a scholarship by James to study in San Miguel de Allende from 1960 to 1962.

On his return to Ajijic, Padilla gave back by teaching the next generation of CAP students. He helped promote the sale of the children’s “bright, charming paintings” to raise funds for materials and supplies. In 1964, for example, Padilla and Paul Carson (the then president of the Lake Chapala Society) arranged an exhibition-sale at the Instituto Cultural Mexicano-NorteAmericano in Guadalajara of over 50 paintings by youngsters who had been taught at the Biblioteca. Nearly all the paintings sold. Padilla’s niece, Lucia Padilla Gutierrez, is also a gifted artist who attended CAP classes, and her own son became the third generation of this particular family to benefit from the program.

Many other later CAP alumni, including Javier Zaragoza and Jesús López Vega, have also given back to the program by teaching classes.

Every time CAP artwork was sold, a healthy percentage went to the individual student artist, as it still does today. In the 1970s, regular shows of CAP art were held in Ajijic. For example, in 1973, an exhibition of student work was held at the Tejabán Restaurant in Ajijic (then run by Jan Dunlap and Manuel Urzua). The acclaimed American photographer Sylvia Salmi (who had retired to Ajijic a decade earlier) and Peggy Duffield helped promote and organize the show.

The following year, Betty Lou and John Rip, who were frequent visitors to Lake Chapala, purchased CAP paintings to decorate all 44 rooms of their Mayan Motor Inn in Laredo, Texas.

For a variety of reasons, including Neill James’ advancing age and ill health, the CAP ran out of steam in the late 1970s and there were no regular art classes for children from 1979 to 1984. Classes were revived – initially during summer vacation and shortly thereafter year-round – thanks to the joint efforts of the Lake Chapala Society and the Ajijic Society of the Arts and the tireless endeavors of Mildred Boyd, an American writer and volunteer, who stepped forward at just the right time. Boyd, who died in 2010, dedicated thousands of hours of selfless service to the cause of CAP.

When Boyd came across a stash of long-forgotten works done by students who had been in the program decades earlier, she (with the help of one of her daughters, Judy) assembled a heritage exhibition that included early works by several children who had gone on to become successful professional artists.

The Legacy Art Collection (paintings and other works, some dating back to the 1950s, by children in the Children’s Art Program), the patrimony of all the people of Ajijic, is now in the care of the Lake Chapala Society. The collection is being catalogued and around 400 individual items can be viewed online via this online database.

Boyd’s two daughters are supporting LCS attempts to digitize, catalog and preserve hundreds of the better paintings and hope that regular exhibits in the future will showcase the extraordinary artistic talents of so many local families.

The first major retrospective, spanning more than 50 years of paintings from the program, was held at the Centro Cultural Ajijic in October 2014. The 60th Anniversary exhibit featured 130 works by CAP alumni. The “legacy artists” included José Abarca, Antonio Cardenas, Efren Gonzalez, Ricardo Gonzalez, Antonio Lopéz Vega, Jesús Lopéz Vega, Bruno Mariscal, Juan Navarro, Juan Olivarez, Lucia Padilla, Daniel Palma, Lucia Padilla, Javier Ramos, Victor Romero and Javier Zaragoza.

Frank Wise and Mildred Boyd with Children’s Art Program students. Credit: Lizz/Judy Boyd.

The Children’s Art Program is commemorated in a colorful mural at the Lake Chapala Society entitled “Six Decades of Children’s Art” (“Seis décadas de arte infantil.” The mural, financed by the Ajijic Society of the Arts (ASA) and painted by program alumni Jesús López Vega and Javier Zaragoza, was unveiled in March 2012 and pays special homage to the three remarkable women who ensured the program’s success: Neill James, Angelita Aldana Padilla and Mildred Boyd.

Today, between 50 and 70 local children participate each week in art classes given by CAP. Both CAP and the children’s library remain integral parts of the links between the Lake Chapala Society and the local community. Ironically, in spite of her contributions, and the fact that she gifted her own home to the Lake Chapala Society, Neill James was never a member of that organization, preferring to support Mexican causes rather than expatriate ones.

Artists of note who began their art careers by taking classes in the Children’s Art Program include José Abarca; Armando Aguilar; Luis Anselmo Avalos Rochín; Antonio Cardenas Perales; José Manuel Castañeda; Efren González; Ricardo Gonzalez; Antonio López Vega; Jesús López Vega; Bruno Mariscal; Luis Enrique Martínez Hernández; Dionicio Morales López; Juan Navarro; Juan Olivarez; Florentino Padilla; Lucia Padilla Gutierrez; Daniel Palma; Javier Ramos; Victor Romero; Javier Zaragoza.

The Children’s Art Program can always use additional help. To donate time, funds or resources, contact the organizers.

Sources

  • Mildred Boyd. 2001. “Children’s Art Alive and Well in Ajijic!”, El Ojo del Lago, Vol 17, #10 (June 2001).
  • Guadalajara Reporter: 24 Sep 1964, 10; 1 Oct 1964; 10 Nov 1973; 16 March 1974.

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.

Nov 082018
 

Garland Franklin Clifton was an American author who lived in the Chapala area in the 1960s. He wrote Wooden Leg John. Satire on Americans living in Mexico (apparently privately printed in Washington D.C., 1971). While the book is not set at Lake Chapala, it is highly probable that parts, or all of it, were written or conceived while Clifton was living there.

Wooden Leg John is written as a series of 20 letters dated from Christmas Day 1967 to Christmas Day 1968 from Bullard A. Loney (Bull A. Loney) to his “Uncle Sam”. “The “Bull” has deserted his wife and is living it up in Mexico and on the U.S.-Mexico border. The book includes many verses and lyrics.

Back cover art of Garland Clifton's Wooden Leg John, a satire on Americans living in Mexico.

Back cover art of Garland Clifton’s “Wooden Leg John, a satire on Americans living in Mexico”.

Clifton also wrote American meccas in Mexico: Guadalajara, Chapala-Ajijic, Manzanillo: a detailed discussion of these three vacation and retirement areas of Mexico, a 27-page booklet published in Laredo, Texas, in 1966.

Clifton was born 6 December 1922 in Yardelle, Arkansas, USA, and died 29 December 2013 in Gulfport, Mississippi. In the preface to Wooden Leg John, Clifton describes himself as a “Scotch-Irish native-born Arkansas Mountaineer and the tenth of 14 children.”

He joined the U.S. military in September 1940 and retired from military service in November 1960, having served overseas in New Guinea, the Philippines, Germany, Japan and Korea, by which time he had been awarded numerous decorations and ribbons and risen to be a U.S. Air Force master sergeant.

Not long afterwards, he married a Mexican girl, María. The couple had four children, and lived for some time in Chapala, before moving, in 1967, to Douglas, Arizona. By 1971, he was living in Washington D.C. with wife Maria (then aged 26), Manuel (8), Laura (7), Carmen (5) and Armando (1).

Clifton’s quirky, sometimes piquant, sense of humor enlivens Wooden Leg John. Satire on Americans living in Mexico. Judging by his writing, Clifton would have been a highly entertaining, if somewhat provocative, dinner party guest.

Note: This is an updated version of a post first published on 30 May 2014.

Sources:

  • Garland Franklin Clifton. 1971. Wooden Leg John. Satire on Americans living in Mexico. Privately printed in Washington D.C.
  • Ruby Woods-Robinson, M.S.L.S. “Garland Franklin Clifton” [accessed 4 May 2014]
Nov 012018
 

Josefa, the fashion designer credited with showcasing Mexican styles on the world haute couture stage, lived and worked for many years at Lake Chapala. She successfully melded indigenous Mexican colors and elements with functional design to produce elegant and original dresses and blouses. Josefa designs were never mass-produced but made by local women in small villages near Guadalajara.

Design by Josefa

Design by Josefa

Josefa Ibarra and her business partner, Ana Villa, founded a brand known as El Aguila Descalza (The Barefoot Eagle). Based in Tlaquepaque, The Barefoot Eagle opened retail stores in several major Mexican cities and one in Boston, while simultaneously supplying numerous high-end department and fashion stores in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Josefa followed her own intuition as regards fashion and her success resulted from a series of serendipitous encounters. She was living in Puerto Vallarta when she got her first lucky break, which involved Elizabeth Taylor, in 1963. Taylor’s lover, Richard Burton, was there at the time because John Huston had chosen Puerto Vallarta, then just a small village, for filming The Night of the Iguana (which co-starred Ava Gardner).

One afternoon, in a break from filming, the cast and crew, accompanied by Taylor, were wandering around the village when, outside a typical small dwelling, they came across a selection of beautiful dresses hanging from the branches of a tree. The house belonged to Josefa, and the visitors bought every last one of her dresses. The famous actress subsequently added numerous Josefa designs to her wardrobe during repeated visits to Puerto Vallarta over the next decade.

Josefa’s second lucky break, shortly afterwards, was to meet Boston-born Ana Konstandin, when she was on vacation in Puerto Vallarta. (After Konstantin moved to Guadalajara to run The Barefoot Eagle, she married Edmondo Villa and changed her name to Ana Villa.)

Ana, who had graduated from the Academy Moderne of Fashion in Boston, had an eye for style and was a buyer for Filene’s Department Store in Boston. She also fell in love with Josefa’s designs and realized that this was a unique business opportunity. The two ladies got on really well together and had complementary skill sets. They founded El Aguila Descalza (The Barefoot Eagle), choosing Tlaquepaque for its headquarters. According to Chris Adams, who married Ana Villa’s sister and helped establish The Barefoot Eagle’s presence in Boston, this was in 1963.

The business grew rapidly and soon became Mexico’s leading producer of internationally famous high fashion women’s apparel. Adams provides a detailed case study of The Barefoot Eagle in his book, Up Your Sales in Any Economy. At its peak, the company employed several hundred women in three outlying villages to undertake all the embroidery and decoration, with everything done by hand to maintain the artesanal quality. Most of the cotton fabric used came from Mexico City; the steadfast dyes were imported.

Exhibition of designs by Josefa

Exhibition of Mexican textiles and designs by Josefa

The Barefoot Eagle opened its own retail stores in several major Mexican cities: Acapulco, Cancún, Manzanillo, Mexico City, Puerto Vallarta, Monterrey, San Miguel de Allende, Tijuana, and Zihuatanejo. It also opened one in Boston’s famous Faneuil Hall Marketplace. Overseas stores that stocked Josefa designs included Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Lord & Taylor and Macy’s, in addition to specialist boutiques in Denmark, England, the Netherlands and France.

The celebrity effect was contagious. Among those photographed wearing Josefa dresses or blouses were Elizabeth Taylor, Lady Bird Johnson (who was featured wearing a Josefa dress on the cover of Ladies Home Journal), Glenda Jackson (in Touch of Class), Sofia Loren, Diana Ross, Loretta Young, Princess Grace of Monaco, Nancy Reagan, Deborah Kerr and Farah Diba, the wife of the former Shah of Iran.

According to journalist Sheryl Kornman, Josefa was just “as exciting, as articulate, as vivid as the costumes she designs.” Kornman described Josefa as casually dressed, wearing a “flimsy blue and red short shift” with her “long brown hair in a braid tossed forward over one shoulder,” and sandals on her feet. The designer said she had started by making jewelry in Puerto Vallarta a little more than a decade earlier before beginning to sew her own clothes and making some for friends. She then taught her “house girl” and others how to sew, and began to produce designs inspired by indigenous Huichol and Oaxacan handicrafts and art.

By 1970, Josefa and her husband were living in Santa Fe, New Mexico, from where she returned to Guadalajara at least twice a year, timing the visits to prepare for a summer line released in April and a fall/winter line released a few months later.

Josefa was the first Mexican dress designer to have her work grace the cover of Vogue Paris. Models showing off her designs also featured on several covers of Vogue and McCalls. Interestingly, not long afterwards, another designer – Gail Michel de Guzmán – who lived at Lake Chapala at the same time as Josefa, had her own work featured in Vogue Paris.

According to Adams, Josefa considered it a compliment that she was the most copied designer in Mexico. Adams played a part in the commercialization of The Barefoot Eagle brand, producing a factsheet and sales pointers for all the salespeople in the various retail stores. Among other things, salespeople were instructed to ensure that prospective clients understood that even if they thought the items were pricey, they were definitely worth every centavo because they were hand-embroidered designer creations and works of art.

Label in Josefa blouse

Label in Josefa blouse

The company continued to grow. Josefa was one of the first designers in Mexico to establish and supply a large-scale export market. Several earlier designers, such as Jim and Rita Tillet, had successfully established smaller operations and exported Mexican fashions, though they never succeeded in scaling up production to the levels reached by The Barefoot Eagle. Others, such as American Charmin Schlossman, who lived in Ajijic in the 1940s, took their creativity back home and established successful firms north of the border.

The Barefoot Eagle filed a U.S. federal trademark registration in 1982 for its “clothing products,” described as “Belts, Blouses, Caftans, Dresses, Hats, Jackets, Pants, Ponchos, Shirts, Shoes, Skirts and Vests.”

The extraordinary export success of Josefa was recognized by Mexico’s federal government which awarded her company a National Export Prize seven years in a row.

The extraordinary quality of Josefa’s designs and workmanship has led to her work being included in several important exhibitions. The largest single exhibition (250 designs) was held at the Museo de la Indumentaria Luis Marquez Romay in Mexico City in 2004. This stunning exhibit of Josefa’s manta kaftans in distinctive Mexican textures and colors (turquoise, green, fuchsia, rose and yellow), decorated with embroidered flowers, designs influenced by Mexico’s indigenous peoples, butterflies and geometric patterns, together with silk threads and sequins, was a kaleidoscope of color.

Exhibition of designs by Josefa

Exhibition of Mexican textiles and designs by Josefa

In 2009, another exhibition, “México de autor, historia en color” showcased Josefa’s designs alongside indigenous textile items from the Mapelli collection of the Mexico City Popular Art Museum (Museo de Arte Popular de la Ciudad de México). Curated by Mario Méndez, that show ran from January through March. The juxtaposition of fashion designs with indigenous textiles emphasized what they had in common and how one influenced the other. Josefa’s “Mexicanized” designs, celebrating bright colors, owed much to, and simultaneously increased the appeal of indigenous textile patterns and clothing.

Born cerca 1924?

Relatively little is known for sure about her life story outside fashion. Adams described Josefa as Mexican born and residing in Tlaquepaque and the state of Oregon. According to a 2004 news piece, Josefa claimed to have been born in Chihuahua more than 80 years ago, while friends claimed she had arrived in Puerto Vallarta 30 years ago from the state of Oregon.

Josefa lived at Lake Chapala for many years in the 1970s and 1980s. Her home (with a room converted for a design studio) was in El Limón, just west of San Juan Cosalá. The en-suite in her imaginatively decorated residence featured a special hand-made foot bath, probably the work of her friend Jorge Wilmot, and likely much used given that Josefa was accustomed to going barefoot most of the day.

After becoming successful, Josefa traveled widely, but in retirement, she experienced both health and financial problems. While she felt forced out of retirement by her financial situation, she was unable to resume her fashion design work on account of her health issues. She enlisted the help of a nephew in the U.S. but he chose to sell her property and put his famous designer aunt into a nursing home.

In 2008, a fashion fund raiser was held to help pay for her medical treatment.

Josefa Ibarra, artist, entrepreneur and mother of Mexican fashion, died in about 2010. Her decision to develop folkloric “Neo-Mexican” designs and her insistence on incorporating artesanal workmanship prodded Mexican fashion design into a direction still evident today.

There is continued international interest in Josefa’s designs. For example, her work was showcased north of the border in a December 2016 exhibit, “La Familia”, at Friends of Georgetown History (6206 Carleton Ave S) in Seattle, Washington. The show was of selected pieces from the collection of Allan Phillips, a grandson of Josefa’s sister, Olivia.

In 2017, Mexico was the featured country at the VII Congreso Bienal Latinoamericano de Moda in Cartagena, Colombia. An accompanying exhibit took a retrospective look at the history of Mexico’s fashion industry, and highlighted the role of Josefa – “an icon of national fashion design” – in setting what was then a nascent industry on the path to global success. The exhibit included contemporary work by students from the Universidad de Guadalajara that echoed the path laid down by Josefa.

Josefa’s legacy lives on. Her story has been shared with succeeding generations of fashion students in Mexico and she is often referred to as “the mother of Mexican fashion” or as “Mexico’s Coco Chanel”. Students are taught that it is perfectly possible (indeed fashionably current) – and profitable – to integrate indigenous, local design into the global fashion scene.

Please contact me if you can supply biographical details about Josefa.

Acknowledgment

  • My sincere thanks to Sherry Hudson for her assistance with compiling this profile.

Sources

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.

Aug 092018
 

Chapala-born Jorge Seimandi Ramírez was a highly-respected art educator at the University of Guadalajara for more than 40 years. He was not interested in the commercial side of art and his own work was rarely sold or exhibited.

Seimandi was born in Chapala on 2 February 1929, the son of Italian-born businessman Juan Seimandi and his wife, Refugio Ramírez, a local Chapala girl. Jorge Seimandi studied art at the Escuela de Bellas Artes in Guadalajara from 1947 to 1950. His teachers included Ixca Farías, Leopoldo Bancalari and Rubén Mora Gálvez.

Recognized for his proficiency in both oils and watercolors, Seimandi painted still lifes, figurative studies, portraits and landscapes, some of which were exhibited in the 1950s.

Jorge Seimandi. Undated still life. Photo credit: A. Hinojosa/Informador.

Jorge Seimandi. Undated still life. Photo credit: A. Hinojosa/Informador.

His work was exhibited at the Exhibition of the School of Fine Arts (Exposición Anual de la Escuela de Bellas Artes) in Guadalajara in 1949 (where he won a “diploma of recognition”); in two shows at the city’s Galerías Degollado, in 1957 and 1958;and at at the Mexican-North American Cultural Institute (Instituto Cultural Mexicano Norteamericano de Jalisco). Seimandi  held solo shows at the Escuela de Artes Plásticas (1970; 1994) and at the Galería Jorge Martínez (1998).

Along with Alfonso de Lara Gallardo, Jorge Navarro Hernández and others, Seimandi was an active member of Grupo Integración, a loose collective of modernistic artists founded in 1966.

Seimandi was never a full-time professional painter but pursued art in his spare time while earning a qualification in law. He was appointed head of the Jalisco State Tourism Office in 1957. He taught art and art history at the University of Guadalajara’s Escuela de Bellas Artes (Fine Arts School) from 1953 to 1981, where he inspired the next generation of artists. He directed the school from 1978-1981. He was also appointed Professor of Drawing for the Jalisco State Primary Schools, a position that enabled him to research basic education in drawing.

Following his death in Guadalajara on 2 October 2013, at the age of 84, his family announced their intention to compile a complete catalog his works, many of which he gave to friends, and to arrange a retrospective exhibition at the University of Guadalajara’s Museo de las Artes. If they are successful, this will be a show worth seeing!

Sources:

  • El Informador: 25 April 1970; 26 June 1994; 25 Nov 1998; 28 Nov 1998.
  • Thamara Villaseñor. 2013. “Seimandi y su pasión por la pintura.” El Informador, 1 Dec 2013, 11-B.

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.

Aug 022018
 

Anthony Ralph Wolryche Stansfeld was born in Winchester, Hampshire, on 4 March 1913.

Cover of first edition (published by Michael Joseph)

Cover of first edition (published by Michael Joseph)

It is unclear how he and Peter Lilley first met, though they were very close in age.

Continuing the pen name Dane Chandos, the duo wrote two travelogues: Journey in the Sun (a trip from Mexico to Spain) and The Trade Wind Islands (which takes the reader from Mexico to several Caribbean islands).

The two men also created the huarache-wearing Mexican detective Don Pancho and wrote two well-constructed stories about his crime-solving exploits: Boiled Alive and Three Bad Nights, for which they used the pen name (or more accurately pen name of a pen name) Bruce Buckingham.

References

  • Bruce Buckingham. 1956. Three Bad Nights. London: Michael Joseph (Reissued as Penguin edition, 1961).
  • Bruce Buckingham. 1957. Boiled Alive. London: Michael Joseph (Reissued as Penguin edition, 1961).

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 282018
 

Everett Gee Jackson (1900-1995), the renowned American painter, illustrator and art educator, lived at Lake Chapala, apart from some short breaks, from 1923 to 1926 (and returned there in 1950 and 1968). Jackson loved Mexico and during his first visit to Chapala he became intimately acquainted with the artistic creativity of Mexico’s ancient pre-Columbian civilizations, later teaching and writing on the subject.

Unlike so many other early foreign visiting artists who have left very little trace of their presence, Jackson wrote entertaining accounts of his experiences in Chapala and Ajijic in his two memoirs —Burros and Paintbrushes, A Mexican Adventure (1985) and It’s a Long Road to Comondú (1987), both published by Texas A&M University Press. Both memoirs are informative and beautifully illustrated.

Given the wealth of available material on Jackson’s life and art, this post will focus on the personal and wider significance of his earliest extended trip to Lake Chapala.

Cover painting is "Street in Ajijic", ca 1924

Cover painting is “Street in Ajijic”, ca 1924

Jackson was born in Mexia, Texas, on 8 October 1900. He enrolled at Texas A&M to study architecture but was persuaded by one of his instructors that his true talents lay in art. In 1921 Jackson moved to Chicago to study at the Art Institute where impressionism was in vogue. At the end of the following year he eschewed another Chicago winter in favor of completing his art studies at the San Diego Academy of Art in sunnier California. He eventually completed a B.A. degree from San Diego State College (now San Diego State University) in 1929 and a Masters degree in art history from the University of Southern California in 1934.

As an educator, Jackson taught and directed the art department at San Diego State University (1930-1963) and was a visiting professor at the University of Costa Rica (1962).

Prior to his first visit to Chapala in 1923, Jackson had already undertaken a brief foray into Mexico, traveling just across the border from Texas into Coahuila with Lowell D. Houser (1902-1971), a friend from the Art Institute of Chicago. In summer 1923, the pair of artists decided to venture further into Mexico, to the city of Guadalajara. After a month in the city, they rented a house in Chapala and were among the earliest American artists to paint at Lake Chapala and Ajijic, though they were not the first, given that the Chicago artist Richard Robbins and Donald Cecil Totten (1903-1967), among others, had painted Lake Chapala much earlier, as had many artists of European origin.

Mexico, though, exerted a much more powerful influence over Houser’s and Jackson’s subsequent art than it did over any of these earlier visitors.

Jackson and Houser stayed in Chapala until the summer of 1925 when they decided to move to Guanajuato to experience a different side of Mexico. En route, they stopped off in Mexico City to view some of the famous Mexican murals, by Diego Rivera and others, that they had heard so much about.

After a few months in Guanajuato, the two young artists briefly parted ways when Jackson went back to El Paso to meet his girlfriend, Eileen Dwyer.

Everett Gee Jackson. ca 1923. Fisherman's Shacks, Chapala. (from Burros and Paintbrushes: A Mexican Adventure, 1985)

Everett Gee Jackson. ca 1923. Fisherman’s Shacks, Chapala. (from Burros and Paintbrushes: A Mexican Adventure, 1985)

Jackson returned to Mexico, newly engaged to Eileen, and discovered that Lowelito had decided to rent another house, not in Chapala but in the smaller, more isolated, village of Ajijic. Jackson is almost certainly correct in writing that they were the “first art students ever to live in Ajijic”, but there may be a hint of exaggeration in his claim that they were, “the only Americans living in Ajijic.”

After Jackson married Eileen in July 1926, the couple had an unconventional honeymoon, sharing a house in Chapala with Lowelito and a friend. In November the group moved to Mexico City, where they were welcomed by Anita Brenner and an elite circle of young artists and intellectuals that included Jean Charlot (1898–1979). They were also visited by the great muralist José Clemente Orozco (1883–1949). Early the following year, at Brenner’s insistence, Jackson and his wife visited the Zapotec Indian area of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec before returning home to San Diego.

Everett Gee Jackson. 1926. Lake Chapala. (Hirshl & Adler Galleries, New York)

Everett Gee Jackson. 1926. Lake Chapala. (Hirshl & Adler Galleries, New York)

Even before their return, fifty of Jackson’s Mexican paintings had been exhibited at the “The Little Gallery” in San Diego. The exhibit was warmly received by critics and art lovers and further showings of his “ultra-modern canvasses” were arranged for venues in Dallas and New York. Among the paintings that attracted most attention in The San Diego exhibition were “The Lake Village,” (Chapala), which had won first prize at the Texas State Fair in Dallas in October 1926, and “Straw Shacks in Chapala”.

There is no question that Jackson’s subsequent artistic trajectory owed much to his time in Chapala at the start of his career. His encounter with Mexican art — from pre-Columbian figurines to modern murals — transformed him from an impressionist to a post-impressionist painter. He was one of the first American artists to be so heavily influenced by Mexican modernism, with its stylized forms, blocks of color and hints of ancient motifs. Jackson’s work remained realist rather than abstract.

Jackson’s work was widely exhibited and won numerous awards. His major exhibitions included Art Institute of Chicago (1927); Corcoran Gallery (1928); Whitney Museum of American Art; School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (1928; 1946); Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (1929-30); San Francisco Art Association; San Diego Fine Arts Society; and the Laguna Beach Art Association (1934). Retrospectives of his work included a 1979 show at the Museo del Carmen in Mexico City, jointly organized by INBA (Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes and INAH (Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia); and an exhibit at San Diego Modern in 2007-2008.

Jackson’s wonderful illustrations enliven several books, including Max Miller’s Mexico Around Me (1937) and The Wonderful Adventures of Paul Bunyon (1945).

Everett Gee Jackson, Drying Nets, ca 1924., pen and ink. (from Burros and Paintbrushes: A Mexican Adventure, 1985)

Everett Gee Jackson, Drying Nets, ca 1924., pen and ink. (from Burros and Paintbrushes: A Mexican Adventure, 1985)

In addition to his two volumes of memoirs, Jackson also wrote and illustrated Goat tails and doodlebugs: a journey toward art (1993).

Jackson’s time in Mexico led to a lifelong interest in pre-Columbian art, as evidenced by his short paper, “The Pre-Columbian Figurines from Western Mexico”, published in 1941, and his book, Four Trips to Antiquity: Adventures of an Artist in Maya Ruined Cities (1991). In his 1941 paper, which included images of two figurines found at Lake Chapala, Jackson considered the varying degree of abstraction or expressionism in different figurines.

Everett Gee Jackson, author, pioneering artist, illustrator and much more besides, died in San Diego on 4 March 1995.

Acknowledgment

  • My thanks to Texas art historian James Baker for his interest in this project and for sharing his research about Everett Gee Jackson.

This is an outline profile. Contact us if you would like to learn more about this particular artist or have information to share.

Sources

  • Anon. 1927. “Talented Artist Of Mexia To Have Dallas Exhibition”, Corsicana Daily Sun, 29 Jan 1927, p 13.
  • Archives of American Art. 1964. Oral history interview (by Betty Hoag) with Everett Gee Jackson, 1964 July 31. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
  • D. Scott Atkinson. 2007. Everett Gee Jackson: San Diego Modern, 1920-1955. San Diego Museum of Art.
  • Everett Gee Jackson. 1941. “The Pre-Columbian Ceramic Figurines from Western Mexico”, in Parnassus, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Jan., 1941), pp. 17-20.
  • Everett Gee Jackson. 1985. Burros and Paintbrushes, A Mexican Adventure. Texas A&M University Press.
  • Everett Gee Jackson. 1987. It’s a Long Road to Comondú. Texas A&M University Press.
  • Jerry Williamson. 2000. Eileen: The Story Of Eileen Jackson As Told By Her Daughter. San Diego Historical Society.

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.

 

May 172018
 

Shortly after retiring from Hollywood, Sherman (“Sherm”) Harris and his wife, Jane, moved to Ajijic to run the Posada Ajijic. Harris, who had previously managed a 450-room hotel in Disneyland, ran the Posada from 1963 to 1968. He was a film editor and TV producer best known for the Lone Ranger movies and TV shows, and for more than 70 episodes in the long-running Lassie TV series.

Movie poster, 1958. (Producer: Sherman A. Harris)

Movie poster, 1958. (Producer: Sherman A. Harris)

Sherman Allison Harris was born in Minnesota on 8 Mar 1909. His parents were sufficiently well-do-do that they had a full-time live-in helper when their children were young. Still in his teens, Harris spent the summer of 1928 in Europe.

By the time of the 1930 U.S. Census, Harris was living in Los Angeles, where he apparently first worked for the Bank of Italy (now Bank of America). On 9 April 1932 he married Ninette Crawford (1912-1978) and the following year he began working in movies as a film editor (cutter). By 1940, the Harris household – “studio worker” Sherman, his picture extra” wife, Ninette, and their 3-year-old son, Sherman – was established in Van Nuys, North Hollywood.

As a film editor, Harris worked on It happened One Night (1934); Broadway Bill (1934); One Night of Love (1934) and Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939). In the succeeding decades, he was production manager for several movies and TV shows including Cheers for Miss Bishop (1941) and then, after World War II, for Rendezvous (1946); Dangerous Millions (1946); and Guilty of Treason (1950). He was producer of hundreds of television programs in series such as Stars over Hollywood (1951); Hollywood Opening Night (1951-52); The Loretta Young Show (1953); The Lone Ranger (1956-57); and Lassie (1958-1960).

It is unclear when he divorced Ninette, but on 1 December 1960 Harris married Jane E. Goza (1916-1968) in San Diego. After retiring from the movie industry and directing a 450-room hotel in Disneyland, Harris and his new wife moved to Mexico in 1963. Harris had replied to a classified ad in the Los Angeles Times for someone willing to invest $5,000 “in a growing business”.

The growing business turned out to be the Posada Ajijic. Harris bought the business (not the property) from Vic Aldridge and spent several years building up the business, including improvements such as upscaling the restaurant and adding a swimming pool, bar and a new patio.

Sherm Harris sold his interest in the Posada Ajijic to Sue and Booth Waterbury in 1966. Harris and his wife continued to live at their lakeshore home of Morelos #33 in Ajijic, but Jane died, unexpectedly, in a Guadalajara hospital in 1968.

Within a couple of years, Sherm Harris remarried. His new bride was Adele Adams Harris. Sherman Harris died in Houston, Texas, on 20 August 1980 and donated his body to medical research.

Sources:

  • Guadalajara Reporter, 19 March 1964.
  • IMDB. Sherman A. Harris.
  • Jack McDonald. 1970. “Sherm Harris. Posada Ajijic’s former owner was top Hollywood Producer.” Guadalajara Reporter, 7 March 1970, 15-16.
  • Van Nuys, California, City Directory, 1939.

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.

 

Apr 122018
 

Gail Michel, as she was then known, arrived in Ajijic in 1961. Her talents as a businesswoman and dress designer, enabled her to start a store, El Ángel, close to the Posada Ajijic, that became so successful it was featured in the pages of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue Paris. Alongside her boutique, Gail continued to develop her own art and was a regular exhibitor in local group shows. Seventeen years and four children later, she moved back to the U.S.

Born Julia Gail Hayes on 3 March 1935 in the small South Dakota town of Wasta, her university education at Washington State University in Pullman, Washington, was interrupted by falling in love with a fellow student, Frank Clifford Michel, a psychology major. The young couple were married in Pullman on 12 December 1955 and had a son, David, but the relationship did not last. Gail, a competitive swimmer, gave swimming lessons to help finance university, completed her degree, obtained a divorce and, in 1961, after receiving a letter from a Colorado friend about the beauties of Ajijic, traveled to Mexico with David to start a new life.

Gail Hayes. 1955. (University Yearbook photo)

Gail Hayes. 1955. (University Yearbook photo)

In Ajijic, she quickly found employment at Los Telares, Helen Kirtland’s handlooms business which had begun operations in the late 1940s. She also soon made many very good friends and decided to stay in the village, starting a serious, long-term relationship with a local contractor, Marcos Guzman, with whom she had four children.

During her time in Mexico, Gail was usually known as Gail Michel or Gail Michael (sometimes Michaels) before she opted for Gail Michel de Guzmán.

Gail credits Jane and Sherm Harris, the then managers of the Posada Ajijic, with persuading her to branch out on her own in 1964 and open a store selling her embroidered, hand-loomed dresses, original jewelry, paintings, and select Mexican handicrafts. The Harrises even provided the fashion boutique’s first venue: a room in the Posada. Its name, El Ángel, was in honor of her oldest daughter, Angelina. (The title of Al Young‘s 1975 novel Who is Angelina?, set partly in Ajijic, is apparently purely coincidental.)

Periodic fashion shows ensured that the El Ángel boutique quickly outgrew its temporary residence in the Posada. In April 1966, it moved a short distance away to the building (occupied later by La Flor de la Laguna) at the south-west corner of the Morelos/Independencia intersection. The boutique’s opening was attended by more than 250 people, an impressive turn-out given the size of Ajijic at that time. The store remained in that property for more than a decade before returning to its roots in the Posada Ajijic shortly before Gail returned north.

Veteran journalist Jack McDonald opened his informative and enthusiastic profile of Gail Michel in 1968 for the Guadalajara Reporter by describing her as “One of most creative, versatile gals in all Ajijic.”

“Her enchanting place offers passing tourists and permanent residents a variety of items such as art works, jewelry, rugs, bright hand-woven mantas, colonial furniture and antiques in stone, wood and metal.

And dresses. As an outlet for her creative energies, which include her own paintings on rice paper with ink, she employs a dozen seamstresses and a staff of wood and stone carvers who cut anything from small figurines to water fountains.”

The El Ángel boutique, described later by long-time Ajijic resident Kate Karns as “the most beautiful of Ajijic’s three shops” at the time, was featured in Vogue Paris and recommended in the August 1970 issue of Harper’s Bazaar.

By December 1969, Gail, now described as “a well known expert on Mexican arts and crafts” was also managing the gift shop at the Villa Montecarlo in Chapala.

In 1974, Gail was one of only four “members of the Ajijic business community” invited to participate in a program for Guadalajara TV Channel 6 to celebrate the first anniversary of the state’s “Conozco Jalisco” (“Know Jalisco”) campaign. (The other invitees were Jan and Manuel Ursúa of the Tejabán Restaurant and Boutique, and Antonio Cardenas, the owner of La Canoa boutique.)

[Aside: Jan Ursúa, better known as Jan Dunlap, recently published her first novel, Dilemma, set in 1970s Ajijic.]

Everyone I’ve interviewed who knew Gail Michel de Guzmán in Ajijic has expressed their fond memories of her. Many have also shared favorite anecdotes. Eunice Huf, for example, recalled Gail as a young blonde girl with freckles who designed both jewelry and dresses with simple, elegant, lines. She chuckled as she told me how Gail had once dressed her up in a crocheted top that was so sexy it made even their fellow artist Abby Rubenstein jealous!

The late Tom Faloon openly expressed his admiration for Gail’s art, and then laughed as he remembered how on one occasion Gail, on learning that Marcos had a new girlfriend, had once deliberately driven her car into the girlfriend’s vehicle. The next day, a contrite Gail went to the police station to admit her wrong-doing but found, to her pleasant surprise, that the police had no interest whatsoever in this or any other “crime of passion”!

As an artist, Gail participated in numerous shows during her time in Ajijic. One of the earliest was the Posada Ajijic’s Easter exhibit in April 1966. Other artists on that occasion included Jack Rutherford; Carl Kerr; Sid Adler; Allyn Hunt; Franz Duyz; Margarite Tibo; Elva Dodge (wife of author David Dodge); Mr and Mrs Moriaty and Marigold Wandell.

In January 1968 Gail’s paintings were shown in an exhibition at El Palomar in Tlaquepaque, alongside works by Hector Navarro, Gustavo Aranguren, Coffeen Suhl, John K. Peterson, Don Shaw, Peter Huf, Rodolfo Lozano and Eunice Hunt. The following month, a group of Ajijic artists (Gail Michel and the members of “Grupo 68” – John K. Peterson, Eunice Hunt, Peter Huf, and Don Shaw) were reported to be exhibiting weekly, every Friday, at El Palomar, and also most Sunday afternoons at the Camino Real hotel in Guadalajara.

Gail Michaels. ca 1971. Photo by Beverly Johnson. (Reproduced by kind permission of Jill Maldonado)

Gail Michaels. ca 1971. Photo by Beverly Johnson. (Reproduced by kind permission of Jill Maldonado.)

An appliqued wall-hanging by Gail was shown in a collective fine crafts show at Galeria Ajijic (Marcos Castellanos #15) in May 1968. Among the other artists at that show were Mary Rose, Hudson Rose, Peter Huf and Eunice Hunt (with their miniature toy-like landscapes complete with tiny figures and accompanying easels), Ben Crabbe, Joe Rowe, Beverly Hunt and Joe Vine.

Not surprisingly, Gail’s art was included in the large group show, Fiesta de Arte, in May 1971 at the private home of Mr and Mrs E. D. Windham (Calle 16 de Septiembre #33, Ajijic), along with paintings and sculptures by Daphne Aluta; Mario Aluta; Beth Avary; Charles Blodgett; Antonio Cárdenas; Alan Davoll; Alice de Boton; Robert de Boton; Tom Faloon; John Frost; Dorothy Goldner; Burt Hawley; Peter Huf; Eunice (Hunt) Huf; Lona Isoard; Michael Heinichen; John Maybra Kilpatrick; Robert Neathery; John K. Peterson; Stuart Phillips; Hudson Rose; Mary Rose; Jesús Santana; Sloane; Eleanor Smart; Robert Snodgrass and Agustín Velarde.

In March 1975, three Ajijic painters – Gail Michel, Rocky Karns and Synnove (Shaffer) Pettersen – held a group show at the Villa Montecarlo in Chapala.

These three artists joined with Tom FaloonHubert Harmon, John K. Peterson, Adolfo Riestra, Sidney Schwartzman, to form a new group known as Clique Ajijic, a group of eight artists who formed a loosely-organized collective for three or four years in the mid-1970s. The group’s exhibitions included two in Ajijic – at the Galería del Lago (Colón #6, Ajijic) in August and at the Hotel Camino Real in September – as well as shows at Galeria OM in Guadalajara (October 1975); Club Santiago in Manzanillo (October 1975), the Akari Gallery in Cuernavaca (February 1976) and at the American Society of Jalisco in Guadalajara (also February 1976).

Gail’s first solo show of artwork was at Ajijic’s Galeria del Lago in April 1975. In February of the following year, the same gallery hosted an invitational group show – the so-called “Nude Show” – with works by Gail Michel, Guillermo Guzmán, John Frost, Jonathan Aparicio, Synnove (Shaffer) Pettersen, Dionicio Morales, John K. Peterson, Georg Rauch, Robert Neathery and others.

Gail’s work also formed part of a Jalisco state-sponsored show entitled “Arte-Artesania de la Ribera del Lago de Chapala” in October 1976 at the ex-Convento del Carmen. In addition to Gail, exhibitors on that occasion were Guillermo Gómez Vázquez; Conrado Contreras; Manuel Flores; John Frost; Dionicio Morales; Gustel Faust; Bert Miller; Antonio Cardenas; Antonio Lopez Vega; Georg Rauch; Gloria Marthai and Jim Marthai.

In December 1976, Gail also had work in a group show organized by Katie Goodridge Ingram for the Jalisco Department of Bellas Artes and Tourism, held at Plaza de la Hermandad (IMPI building) in Puerto Vallarta. The show ran from 4-21 December and also included works by Jean Caragonne; Conrado Contreras; Daniel de Simone; Gustel Foust; John Frost; Richard Frush; Hubert Harmon; Rocky Karns; Jim Marthai; Bob Neathery; David Olaf; John K. Peterson; Georg Rauch; and Sylvia Salmi.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and copies of Gail Michel de Guzmán’s original dress designs can still be found in some Ajijic stores.

Acknowledgments

Sincere thanks to Gail Michel de Guzmán for her help compiling this profile of her time in Ajijic, and to Judy Eager, the late Tom Faloon, Katie Goodridge Ingram, Peter and Eunice Huf, and Enrique Velasquez for sharing with me their personal memories from that time.

Sources

  • Guadalajara Reporter: 2 Dec 1964; 2 April 1966; 13 Jan 1968; 3 Feb 1968; 25 May 1968; 22 Jun 1968; 6 Dec 1969; 12 Sep 1970; 24 April 1971; 15 May 1971; 18 May 1974; 20 July 1974; 14 Dec 1974; 15 Mar 1975; 12 Apr 1975; 12 Apr 1975; 31 Jan 1976.
  • El Informador (Guadalajara): 25 Oct 1976.
  • Kate Karns. 2010. “Old Ajijic”, Lake Chapala Review, Volume 12 #1, February 14, 2010.
  • Jack McDonald. 1968. “Ajijic Woman Carved out Business for Herself …” (a profile of Gail Michel), Guadalajara Reporter 22 June 1968, p 15.

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.

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Apr 052018
 

Frank Ward Kent (1912-1977) was a talented illustrator and painter who lived at Lake Chapala for much of the last decade of his life, from about 1968 to 1976.

Born in Salt Lake City, Utah, on 16 February 1912, Kent spent much of his youth riding and sketching in the Teton Mountains and is best known for his landscapes and scholarly portraits of Native Americans, including the Shoshone and Blackfoot Indians. He later turned some of the sketches into paintings. In the 1940s, Kent completed many social realism paintings depicting racial and social problems.

Frank Ward Kent. ca 1941. "They Shall be Free". (Decatur Daily Review)

Frank Ward Kent. ca 1941. “They Shall be Free”. (Decatur Daily Review)

Kent began his formal education at the University of Utah (1930) before studying art at the Chicago Art Institute (1931), the Art Students League in New York (1931-32), and privately in Paris, France (1934). At age 23, he married Helen Gladys Allred, 25, of American Falls, Idaho, in June 1935.

Frank Kent. ca 1973. Lake Chapala shoreline. Reproduced by kind permission of Katie Goodridge Ingram.

Frank Kent. ca 1975. Lake Chapala shoreline. Reproduced by kind permission of Katie Goodridge Ingram.

Kent completed a Bachelors degree in Fine Arts in 1937 and a Masters in Fine Arts in 1938, both from Syracuse University, New York. He worked as an illustrator for Wild West magazine in New York and also worked for many years as a specialist in identification, attribution, appraisal and cataloguing for various museums and colleges, including the Metropolitan Museum of Fine Art in New York. He was a Professor of Fine Arts at Bradley University in Illinois (1938-1944) and at Syracuse University in New York (1944-1958).

He was the Director of the Crocker Art Gallery in Sacramento, California for 11 years (1958-1968), after which he became a fine arts appraiser, researcher, and restorer for Hunter Gallery in San Francisco.

Kent had undertaken private study in Mexico in 1946 and 1952, and apparently also taught at the Mexican Art Workshop (organized by Irma Jonas) from 1949 to 1955. The 1949 workshop was based in Ajijic, with an “overflow” workshop in Taxco. In the succeeding years, the workshop was based entirely in Taxco.

Frank Kent. 1975. Untitled. Reproduced by kind permission of Richard Tingen.

Frank Ward Kent. 1975. Untitled. Reproduced by kind permission of Richard Tingen.

After he retired from his position at Crocker Art Gallery, Kent moved to Lake Chapala.

According to a brief note in the Guadalajara Reporter in 1975, “The well known California painter Frank W. Kent has settled into his Villa Formosa apartment and expects to be busy portraying the Lakeside beauty on canvas.”

A few months later, Katie Goodridge Ingram, who was director of La Galeria del Lago in Ajijic, announced an exhibition of 10 of his works. The artist, who had been painting in the area for eight years, gave a talk on opening night (in February 1976) about creativity and composition. Ingram said that “his work has an original and characteristic style reflected in the colorful breakdown of shapes and planes. His paintings of Mexican children reflect joy and movement, and his depictions of street musicians are marked by a real freshness of approach.”

Kent’s award-winning art was exhibited widely during his lifetime, including at the San Francisco Museum of Art (1934); Springville, Utah (1934-40); University of Utah (1935, 1936, 1939, 1940); the All-Illinois Exhibition (1940, 1942); Peoria Art League (1940-43); Syracuse Art Association (1945, 1946); Heyburn, Idaho (1934); Syracuse Museum of Fine Arts (1944-55); Rochester Memorial Art Gallery, Utica, New York; Pan-Am Union; New Georgetown Gallery, Washington, DC; and the Mexican Embassy, Washington, DC.

Examples of his work are included in the permanent collections of the Chicago Art Institute; Rochester Memorial Museum; Syracuse Museum of Fine Arts; Iowa State University; University of Utah; Crocker Art Gallery, Sacramento; and in many private collections.

Kent, who died in Sacramento, California, on 14 July 1977, also wrote two art-related books: A Search into the Unknown (1968) and Icons of the Community (1970).

Sources

  • Anon. Undated. “Profile of Frank W. Kent, M.F.A., A.S.A.”. Document that accompanied a painting purchased in 1980 and submitted to askart.com by Dr. Sherburne F. Cook, Jr. of Sherburne Antiques & Fine Art, Inc. in Olympia, Washington.
  • The Decatur Daily Review (Illinois), 2 December 1941, 24.
  • Guadalajara Reporter: 26 July 1975; 14 February 1976.
  • Frank W. Kent. 1964. Crocker Art Gallery – Catalogue of Collections. Sacramento: Crocker Art Gallery.
  • The Salt Lake Tribune (Salt Lake City, Utah): 26 June 1932, 25; 1 June 1935, 47; 2 Jun 1935, 92;
  • Richard Tingen. Personal communication, 27 Oct 2017.

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.

Feb 212018
 

Jean McCrum Caragonne was born in Bradford, Pennsylvania, on 21 February 1906 and studied at Allegheny College, Pennsylvania. After taking courses in fashion design at the Cleveland Museum School of Fine Art in Ohio in the mid-1920s she moved to Boston to become a fashion illustrator.

Jean Caragonne. Flower at window.

Jean Caragonne. Flower at window.

Her husband George (1891-1981), born in May 1891 was an accomplished portrait photographer. When the couple visited his family in Greece, Jean fell in love with the spectacular scenery and the colorful day-to-day life.

In 1948, the couple moved to Houston where George opened his own studio.

They made their first visit to Mexico in 1949, when they drove down to Mexico City. In between return visits to Greece, they returned for vacations in Mexico several times in the 1950s and 1960s.

Jean Caragonne. Quiet Hill.

Jean Caragonne. Quiet Hill.

At age 58, Jean started taking classes towards a Masters in English Literature, and also took painting classes under George Shackleford and Bernard Lammie.

In 1967, shortly after George retired, the Caragonnes planned another trip to Mexico, intending to visit San Miguel de Allende where Jean had enrolled in Instituto Allende, the city’s fine arts school. Their plans changed when they reached Guadalajara and found a motel near Plaza del Sol.

According to the Guadalajara Reporter, while George “fills his time touring in his Rolls Royce and giving lectures on photography… Mrs Caragonne teaches English…”

The Caragonnes rented a home on Avenida Madero in Chapala in 1968. The view from there towards Cerro San Miguel, the hill that overlooks the town center, was the subject of Jean Caragonne’s first painting in Chapala. The painting was used many years later (1986) for an Amigos de Salud fund-raising greetings card. In 1970, Jean Caragonne was working on quilts and tapestry, as well as “beautifully composed and well drawn” paintings. Caragonne also made embroidered evening skirts, jackets and bags.

Jean Caragonne. Market.

Jean Caragonne. Market.

In 1971, the Caragonnes moved to Ajijic where they rented a house for several years before purchasing a studio-home on Calle Hidalgo. Jean Caragonne held at least five one-person shows in Ajijic. (If you are reading this and can supply details of dates and venues, then please get in touch.)

Jean Caragonne. Lake Chapala. ca 1975. Reproduced by kind permission of Katie Goodridge Ingram.

Jean Caragonne. Ajijic, Lake Chapala. ca 1975. Reproduced by kind permission of Katie Goodridge Ingram.

In February 1974, Caragonne’s latest paintings were included in a group show at La Galeria in Ajijic, alongside works by Jane Porter, Violet Wilkes and Allen Foster (the Galería’s president).

Jean Caragonne. Tulips and ebony.

Jean Caragonne. Tulips and ebony.

By August 1974, the Galería had moved to a new home at Calle Colón #6 in Ajijic where they displayed works by Caragonne and numerous other local artists including Luz Luna; the late Ernesto Butterlin; Jerry Carr; Fernando Garcia; Jane Porter; José Olmedo; Odon Valencia; Mildred Elder; Robert Neathery; Jose Santonio Santibañez; Allen Foster; Vee Greno; Armando Galvez; Arthur Ganung; Virigina Ganung; Gloria Marthai; Dionicio Morales; Antonio López Vega; Priscilla Frazer; Eleanor Smart; Rowene Kirkpatrick and Sylvia Salmi.

In December 1976, Caragonne had work in a group show organized by Katie Goodridge Ingram for the Jalisco Department of Bellas Artes and Tourism, held at Plaza de la Hermandad (IMPI building) in Puerto Vallarta. The show ran from 4-21 December and also included works by Conrado Contreras; Daniel de Simone; John Frost; Richard Frush; Hubert Harmon; Rocky Karns; Jim Marthai; Gail Michel; Bob Neathery; David Olaf; John K. Peterson; Georg Rauch; and Sylvia Salmi.

In May 1985, Caragonne was one of the group known as “Pintores de la Ribera” who exhibited at the Club Campestre La Hacienda (located at km 30 of the Guadalajara-Chapala highway). Other artists at this show included Laura Goeglein; Carla W. Manger; Jo Kreig; Donald Demerest; B.R. Kline; Hubert Harmon; Daphne Aluta; De Nyse Turner Pinkerton; Eugenia Bolduc; Emily Meeker; Eleanor Smart; Tiu Pessa; Sydney Moehlman; Xavier Pérez.

When interviewed in the 1980s, Caragonne claimed that there was more color in Mexico but better light in Greece. With the exception of the Lake Chapala panting, all artwork illustrating this profile were all completed between 1982 and 1990.

Acknowledgment:

  • My sincere thanks to Penelope Caragonne, not only for fact-checking this profile, but also for sharing images of her mother’s artwork, and for permission to use them in this profile.

Sources:

  • Guadalajara Reporter: 2 May 1970; 2 Feb 1974; 31 August 1974; 31 May 1975.
  • El Ojo del Lago. Portrait of the artist: Jean Caragonne. El Ojo del Lago, December 1986.
  • El Informador: 4 May 1985.

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.

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.

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