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 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)

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.

Jan 242019
 

While living in Ajijic in the early 1970s, Wendell Phillips Jr. and his good friend Ray Rigby co-wrote a screenplay, Ringer, that they subsequently sold to Hollywood.

Richard Wendell Phillips Jr., the son of a New York stage actor, Wendell K. Phillips (1907-1991), and his first wife, Odielein Pearce, was born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in 1929 and died on 2 October 2010. After graduating from Staunton Military Academy in Virginia in 1948, he planned to enter the U. S. Military academy at West Point. He later became an actor and played an uncredited part as a patient in Lilith (1964), written and directed by Robert Rossen.

By the early 1970s he was living in Ajijic. Announcements of his marriage to Mercedes Boon of Ajijic in 1972 described Phillips as “of Los Angeles and Ajijic.” The marriage ceremony was held in Chapala, and the newlyweds planned to divide their time between their homes in Mexico and Los Angeles.

Mercedes Boon came from a wealthy family in Cincinnati. She attended Hillsdale School in Cincinnati, graduated from Stephens College, studied photography in Los Angeles and briefly served the armed forces as an American Red Cross staff assistant in Europe before she first visited Ajijic in her early 20s, in about 1950. She subsequently became a resident of the village for almost 20 years and ran various businesses there, including a gift and handicrafts store called Decoraciones del Hogar on the main highway. Boon died on 7 February 1976, leaving her husband, mother (Mrs Dorothy Boon Early) and a cousin (Reni Rice).

Writer Jerry Murray, who was living in Ajijic in the 1970s, working for Earl Kemp and his Greenleaf Press, later recalled both Phillips and Mercedes Boon as belonging to the cast of colorful characters that helped enliven life in Ajijic. Other names appearing in Murray’s fond memoir of those lusty times, published many years later, included Pete Peterson, Trudy Campbell, Peggy Neal, Stogie, Jan [Dunlap], Margo [Thomas], Neill James, “Madame Zara”, [Don] Hogan and Susie Nissen.

Wendell Phillips Jr. was friends with British author Ray Rigby (then living in San Antonio Tlayacapan) and the two collaborated to write a TV script entitled Ringer. In 1973, the two men traveled to Universal Studios in Hollywood to complete the sale of their full length pilot TV film.

Phillips was also co-author of another work earlier that year. Working with Burton Brinckerhoff, Phillips copyrighted a screenplay entitled The red-roof odyssey in February 1973. Sadly, there is no evidence that either Ringer or The red-roof odyssey ever actually made it into production.

Sources

  • The Cincinnati Enquirer, 31 August 1943, 8; 21 Oct 1945, 18; 22 Dec 1950 13; 12 September 1972; 17; 12 February 1976.
  • Guadalajara Reporter, 14 Feb 1976.
  • The Kablegram, Staunton, Virginia, 28 May 1948, 4.
  • Jerry Murray. “The Devil’s Weed, Orgasmic Days, y Laguna Lust”, published in Earl Kemp’s Efanzine, Vol. 1 No. 3 (July 2002).

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

Dec 202018
 

After 1974, when Neill James, the Grande Dame of Ajijic, closed her store and retired, the wonderful gardens of her home – Quinta Tzintzuntzan – were no longer normally open to the public.

However, in 1977, James agreed to open her grounds every Sunday afternoon as an art garden (jardín del arte) for a new artists’ group, the Young Painters of Ajijic (Jovenes Pintores de Ajijic). Most of these young artists had started out by taking the free weekly classes at the children’s libraries James had started. Those classes were the very beginning of the very successful Children’s Art Program, now run by the Lake Chapala Society.

Pintores Jovenes de Ajijic. Credit: Dionicio Morales.

Pintores Jovenes de Ajijic. Standing (l to r): Javier Garabito Tovar, ?, ?, Dionicio Morales López, José Manuel Castañeda; seated: Félix Vargas. Credit: Dionicio Morales.

The members of Young Artists of Ajijic included organizer Dionicio Morales López, Antonio López Vega, Daniel Palma Pérez, Julián Pulido Pedrosa, José Manuel Castañeda, Alejandro Martínez and Victoria Corona.

The first show by the Young Painters of Ajijic was held from 11.30am to 4.30pm on Sunday 28 August 1977. The show included oils, acrylics, watercolors, charcoal drawings and prints, and the artists had combined sales totaling over $12,000 pesos ($550). Exhibitors at the event, besides those named above, included Antonio Cárdenas Perales and Victor Romero. Entertainment was provided by the Folkloric Dance Group of Ajijic and the wind music group of Luis López.

Poster for inaugural event [Handwritten year should be 1977]

Poster for inaugural event [Handwritten year should be ’77]

The Sunday “garden of art” shows were a regular weekly event for some time. The first non-Mexicans to exhibit with the group were Diana Powell and Sid Schwartzman.

The following year, in mid-March, the artists held what was billed as Ajijic’s “first annual cultural week” in the gardens, with art exhibits, guitar concerts and ballet recitals, among other attractions. On this occasion, the entertainment included the Folkloric Dance Group of the University of Guadalajara (directed by Rafael Zamarripa), concerts performed by the U. de G.’s School of Music and a group conducted by Javier Garabito Tovar (standing on the left of the photo), as well as a stage play – “El Demonio Azul” (The Blue Devil) – directed by Félix Vargas (seated in the wheelchair in the photo).

Despite hopes for a repeat event the following year, sadly the 1978 week-long show was the only “Ajijic cultural week” ever held.

The Young Artists Group was the forerunner of the Asociación de Artistas de Ajijic (AAA).

Acknowledgment

My sincere thanks to Dionicio Morales and Antonio López Vega for generously sharing their memories of the Ajijic Young Artists Group.

Sources

  • Guadalajara Reporter, 13 August 1977, 10 September 1977, 8 April 1978.

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.

Dec 062018
 

There was a wave of positive energy for the arts in Ajijic either side of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics and its related cultural activities in Mexico City and Guadalajara. Perhaps the largest single art fair held in Ajijic during these years was the Fiesta de Arte held at Calle 16 de Septiembre #33, the home and garden of art patrons Frances and Ned Windham.

Invitation card for Fiesta de Arte

Invitation card for 1971 Fiesta de Arte

The Fiesta de Arte was held on Saturday 15 May 1971. Planning for the show, originally called the “First Lakeside Artists Fair” was well underway by April. The organizers were John K. Peterson and Peter Huf, who enlisted the help of Beth Avery, Donald Hogan (who as murdered a few months later) and several other artists. They expected about 20 artists to take part.

A week before the show, the advance publicity in the Guadalajara Reporter named 29 artists whose work – paintings, photography, block prints, serigraphs and sculptures – would be on show and said that more than 500 people were expected to attend the one-day event.

Reports after the Fair show that the projected numbers were surpassed. While almost all the exhibitors were foreign artists, there was one especially interesting local artist: Fernando García, a self-taught carver.

García was an employee of Robert de Boton, husband of internationally-acclaimed painter Alice de Boton. When French-born Robert retired from biochemistry, the couple moved to Mexico where Robert began to dabble in carving and sculpture. When García expressed an interest in carving, Robert encouraged him to see what he could do. García worked by candlelight late into the night for several weeks and completed several “small primitives of extraordinary beauty and sensitivity”, all of which sold instantly.

The list of exhibitors at the Fiesta del Art included Daphne Aluta; Mario Aluta; Beth Avary; Charles Blodgett; Antonio Cárdenas; Alan Davoll; Alice de Boton; Robert de Boton; Tom Faloon; John Frost; Fernando García; Dorothy Goldner; Burt Hawley; Peter Huf; Eunice Hunt; Lona Isoard; Michael Heinichen; John Maybra Kilpatrick; Gail Michel; Bert Miller; Robert Neathery; John K. Peterson; Stuart Phillips; Hudson Rose; Mary Rose; Jesús Santana; Walt Shou; Frances Showalter; Sloane; Eleanor Smart; Robert Snodgrass; and Agustín Velarde.

Sources

  • Guadalajara Reporter: 3 April 1971; 24 April 1971; 8 May 1971; 22 May 1971; 5 June 1971.

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 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.

Sep 202018
 

The artist Sid Sklar exhibited at Lake Chapala in April 1989. The images show two very different works by this artist. I have been unable to pin down any biographical details about Sid Sklar, so I’m hoping that some alert reader will supply me with more clues about his  life and work.

Sklar’s 1989 exhibit was at the Art Studio Gallery in San Antonio Tlayacapan, a gallery run by Luisa Julian de Arechiga and her husband. The brief note about the exhibit suggests that Sklar lived in Guadalajara.

Sid Sklar. Undated. Untitled.

Sid Sklar. Undated. Untitled.

I have found only tiny snippets of information related to Sid (presumably Sidney) Sklar, though am unable to say whether or not they necessarily refer to the same person. There are three or four people in the U.S. who would have been about the right age at the time, living in several different states.

The most detailed account on line is of a visually-impaired artist named Sid Sklar who was one of the first people in the world to have a successful cornea transplant (in the early 1940s). It seems, though, that he only took up art (with watercolors) in the 1990s, following a terrible accident when he was hit at a toll booth by a hit-and-run driver. The extraordinary story of this Sid Sklar has been told by journalist Beverly Antel. Given the dates, this does not appear to be the correct Sid Sklar for the Chapala exhibition.

Sid Sklar. 1973. Untitled.

Sid Sklar. 1973. Untitled.

The first of the two Sidney Sklar references that may refer to the right person comes from Baltimore in 1976, where a review of a show of works by members of Artists Equity at the Turner Auditorium Gallery of the Johns Hopkins Medical School included “Midsummer”, in which “Sidney Sklar exhibits masterful control over batik.”

The second reference comes from Ottawa, Canada, in 1981. A display ad for a new collection of jewelry on sale at The Bay (Hudson’s Bay Company) in Ottawa lists a Sid Sklar among the designers of the “The Signature Collection by Universe International.”

If anyone can help identify the correct Sid Sklar or tell me any more about him, please get in touch via the comments section.

Acknowledgment

My thanks to Ricardo Santana for bringing Sid Sklar to my attention and for his kind permission to reproduce the images used in this post.

Sources

  • Beverly Antel. 2009. “Seeing Life With The Eyes Of A Child.” National Keratoconus Foundation, Feb 2009.
  • The Baltimore Sun (Baltimore, Maryland), 29 Apr 1976, 27.
  • The Ottawa Citizen (Canada) 17 Nov 1981, 53.

Other Art Mysteries:

Aug 302018
 

Mexican-born Virginia Downs (1914-2005) was the third wife of William (“Bill”) Colfax Miller. After their marriage in November 1969, the Millers lived in Cuernavaca, where they co-owned an art gallery, before moving first to the U.S. for a year and then, in about 1982, to Lake Chapala, where Virginia Miller was a prolific writer of articles about Mexico for local English-language publications.

Virginia Downs was born into a wealthy American family in Guadalajara on 11 March 1914 and died in that same city on 16 November 2005. Her grandfather, Alfred Ryder Downs, had been a successful miner in Alaska before moving to Mexico, where he built up a business empire as owner of the American Bank of Guadalajara, a Ford Agency and (allegedly) the first gas station in Guadalajara. He bought land on the then northern outskirts of the city that he subsequently developed at the start of the 20th century as Colonia Seattle. Modeled on an American garden city, this area initially had 57 homes and its own electric and water plants.

Virginia was only nine days old when her family fled Guadalajara for the U.S., fearing for their lives as the Mexican Revolution engulfed the city and most Americans were forced to flee. Grandfather Downs returned a few years later and resumed his business interests. Virginia’s family also returned, and she attended school in Guadalajara before completing her high school education at Grey Castle (which later became San Diego High School) in California, after which she majored in foreign languages at the University of California Los Angeles.

After graduating, Downs worked in the U.S. Civil Service. She worked 5 years in Hawaii, two years in Japan and a year in Frankfurt before spending 15 years in Paris, where she worked as a researcher and writer for the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff European Command. When NATO personnel were ordered out of France in 1967 by President Charles de Gaulle, she returned to the U.S.

Failing to find suitable work in Los Angeles, she moved back to Mexico, living first in Oaxaca, then San Miguel de Allende (where she took art classes), and then to the Cortés house in Cuernavaca. It was in Cuernavaca that she met and married Bill Miller.

During their time in Cuernavaca, Virginia was a columnist for the local daily El Diario de Morelos and the couple opened the Akari Art Gallery, the city’s first major art gallery. The couple were friends of many famous Mexican artists, including Alfaro David Siqueiros who gave them a personally-inscribed heliographic copy of a drawing entitled “La Niña Madre”. This drawing was used by Excelsior, the national daily, during its campaign to get Mother’s Day officially celebrated in Mexico.

The Atari Gallery was one of the venues for a group show by Clique Ajijic in February 1976. The Clique Ajijic was comprised of eight Ajijic artists: Tom FaloonHubert Harmon, Todd (“Rocky”) Karns, Gail Michaels, John Peterson, Synnove (Shaffer) PettersenAdolfo Riestra and Sidney Schwartzman.

Among the other “Ajijicans” attending the opening in Cuernavaca were Peggy Koll, Margo Thomas, and Bruce and Patricia Wightman.

In Ajijic, in addition to her regular contributions to El Ojo del Lago (The Eye of the Lake) and other local publications, Virginia Miller self-published South of Yesterday (2001), a family history, subsequently translated into Spanish as Al Sur del Ayer (2004). She described the book as “the story of my mother’s life as a bride coming to a strange land. The book flows through the charmed life of an American living in Guadalajara in the early nineteen hundreds into the violence of the Revolution, escape from and return to a much-beloved Mexico.”

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.

May 022018
 

Painter, jeweler, and accessory designer Hubert Pickering Harmon Jr. (1913-2004) was born into a wealthy family in Evanston, Illinois, on 23 October 1913. The family home was in the Highland Park district and the whole family spent time in Europe even during Harmon’s childhood.

After high school, Harmon chose to study design at the Parsons School of Design in Paris. He lived in Europe, with regular holiday trips back to New York, from 1934 to about 1939, when he returned to the US before the outbreak of World War II.

On 2 January 1940, Harmon married a fellow artist, Louise Katharine (De Mocher) Frazier, who was eleven years his senior, in Greenwich, Connecticut. The marriage to Louise, a divorcée, appears to have been largely one of convenience, given that, according to those who knew him, Harmon was openly gay. Louise was born in 1901 and graduated from East High School in Rochester, New York, in the class of 1919, before attending Columbia University, where, part of her yearbook entry read,

“The boys think “Weezie” is a dear;
She does, too, don’t you fear!”

The newly weds made their home at 51 East 51st Street in New York City, but planned to return to Paris after the war. They regularly traveled overseas. Within weeks of marrying, they traveled to the Caribbean, they returned to New York in May 1940 for a quick visit before heading for Hawaii, where they stayed several months.

Edgar Rice Burroughs, in a letter from Hawaii in January 1941, wrote:

“Have met a young couple at the Niumalu who drop in for Contract [Bridge] or conversation quite often – Louise and Hubert Harmon. He has spent much of his life in France and England and consorted with royalty, nobility, and aristocracy; so he is very interesting. He is so well connected that he had the entree to the palaces, castles, and chateaux of many interesting people.”

Late in 1941 or early the following year, Harmon and his wife moved to Mexico to pursue their artistic careers. Harmon and his high-society wife breezed into Taxco in 1942, with more than two dozen items of luggage and accompanied by their two brown standard poodles.

Harmon worked briefly in jewelry design in Taxco before moving to Mexico City, following an incident involving a gun in a bar. He continued to visit Taxco regularly for several years in order to oversee his designs, mostly of silver jewelry but also of copper or brass accessories. His silver designs are often described as “whimsical” and are much sought after by collectors. His silver pieces include feet, angels and dogs (especially poodles) as well as stars, mermaids and dolphins. Harmon is recognized today as one of the several outstanding designers who contributed to the popularity (and success) of Mexican silverworking.

Synnove (Shaffer) Petterson and Hubert Harmon at Galeria OM in Guadalajara in November 1975

Synnove (Shaffer) Pettersen and Hubert Harmon at Galeria OM in Guadalajara in October 1975

Harmon’s designs were worn not only by his wife but also by such illustrious stars as Hollywood glamor icon Dolores del Rio (whose Great Dane sported matching Harmon-designed accessories).

In the early 1950s Harmon and his wife enjoyed a playboy lifestyle jetting between Europe and North America. Harmon established design studios in various cities as his wanderlust carried him in search of artistic inspiration. Despite leaving New York in January 1949 with the avowed intention of planning to stay abroad indefinitely, Harmon and Louise returned to the US from a spell in Cannes twenty months later in October 1950. They left again in 1953, planning to spend the next two years abroad.

Harmon was definitely painting during much of this time, as shown by plans for a December 1951 showing of his paintings of poodles in a New York City gallery, and an account of him spending six months painting every day in Rome “on his way back to America.” (Arizona Republic (Phoenix), 11 Dec 1957, 28)

In the 1950s, a Mexico City jewelry firm, Casa Maya, produced less expensive copies for the tourist market of many of Harmon’s original designs, using brass and copper in place of silver and precious stones.

After his wife died in 1970, Harmon moved to Ajijic. By the early 1970s, he was a bright light on the Ajijic social scene and active in the local art community. He was a founding member of the Clique Ajijic art group that arranged group exhibitions in several cities in Mexico for 3 or 4 years in the mid 1970s. The group also included Tom Faloon, Synnove (Shaffer) Pettersen, Todd (“Rocky”) Karns, Gail Michaels, Sidney (“Sid”) Schwartzman, John K. Peterson and Adolfo Riestra.

A Clique Ajijic exhibition in Guadalajara at the Galería OM was reviewed by Martha Fregoso, who described Harmon as having gained international fame as a designer of fashion, jewelry, and paintings, by working with fashion designers such as Christian Dior, Shiaparelli and Tina Lessa, and designing jewelry for Paul Flato and Bronzini. The list of those who had acquired Harmon’s works included King Carol of Rumania, Dolores del Rio and Edgar Rice Burroughs. According to Fregoso, his paintings showed some influence from the classes he had taken with Diego Rivera and Rodriguez Lozana.

A decade later, Harmon was one of a number of Lakeside artists whose work was included in a group exhibit at Club Campestre La Hacienda (km 30, Guadalajara-Chapala highway). Other artists in the “Pintores de la Ribera” exhibition, which opened on 4 May 1985, included Laura Goeglein; Carla W. Manger; Jo Kreig; Donald Demerest; B.R. Kline; Daphne Aluta; De Nyse Turner Pinkerton; Eugenia Bolduc; Emily Meeker; Eleanor Smart; Jean Caragonne; Tiu Pessa; Sydney Moehlman; and Xavier Pérez.

Some of Harmon’s paintings in the early 1970s were overtly homoerotic; others were amusing, revealing a keen sense of humor and fun. Synnove Pettersen, a fellow member of Clique Ajijic, remembers Harmon as a “very sensitive, somewhat flamboyant” man who was an elegant dresser and loved to have parties.

Tragically, in the 1990s a fraudster tricked Harmon out of his valuable personal collection of silver and he lived the last few years of his life in extreme poverty in an old folks’ home in Chapala. Harmon died destitute on 1 February 2004 at the age of 90.

[Note: This is an updated and expanded version of an article originally published on 22 March 2012.]

Acknowledgments

  • My thanks to Tom Thomson of Ajijic for sharing some of the details of Harmon’s later life, and to Alan Bowers, the late Tom Faloon, Synnove Pettersen and Enrique Velázquez for sharing their memories of Harmon.

Sources / references

  • Arizona Republic (Phoenix), 11 Dec 1957, 28.
  • Chicago Tribune: 3 Aug 1936, 19; 27 Nov 1936, 19; 06 Jan 1940, 13.
  • Edgar Rice Burroughs. 1941. Letter to his daughter, dated 27 January 1941, published at ERBZine (Collated by Bill Hillman)
  • Martha Fregoso. 1975. “La Galeria OM y el Buen Gusto en Exposiciones, Esta Vez Ocho Pintores de Ajijic.” El Diario de Guadalajara, 24 Oct 1975.
  • El Informador (Guadalajara): 4 May 1985
  • Kingston Gleaner (Kingston, Jamaica): 25 January 1940
  • Penny C. Morrill. 1997. “Hubert Harmon -Whimsy and Humor in Mexican Silver”, in Jewelry (Journal of the American Society of Jewelry Historians.) 1 (1996-97): 64-77.
  • Penny C. Morrill and Carole A. Berk. 2001. Mexican Silver, 20th Century. Handwrought Jewelry & Metalwork. Revised 3rd edition. Schiffer Publishing Ltd.
  • Maggie Savoy. “Designer Chooses Valley for Wintertime Working,” Arizona Republic (Phoenix), 11 Dec 1957, 28.

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 262018
 

The talented visual artist Sidney Schwartzman was born in New York City on 2 June 1917 and lived almost thirty years in Ajijic from about 1973 until his death there, at the age of 84, on 27 March 2002.

Schwartzman, the son of two Russian-born immigrants, grew up in New York and was a member of the honor society, Arista, at a public high school (the Thomas Jefferson High School, according to The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, though he told his son he attended the Dewitt Clinton High School).

In an interview late in life, Schwartzman recounted how especially proud he was that, at age 8, one of his paintings (of a circus) had been chosen for a school art exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

He initially wanted to be a writer but thought the school’s writer’s club snobbish, so joined the art club instead. He later took drawing and paintings private lessons and decided to dedicate himself to his art. He painted his first nude while in high school and took art classes at the New York Adult Evening School of Art and the Art Students League with American illustrator and painter Churchill Ettinger (1903-1984). While living in New York, Schwartzman also taught children and the physically challenged under the auspices of the Works Progress/Projects Administration.

Schwartzman, a conscientious objector, was imprisoned for about a year during World War II for declining to serve in the military. He had married Elizabeth Mary Murphy and Schwartzman was released on parole shortly after the birth of their son, David, in June 1944.

Sidney Schwartzman. 2001. Study in Color. Reproduced by kind permission of David Schwartzman.

Sidney Schwartzman. 2001. Study in Color. Reproduced by kind permission of David Schwartzman.

In about 1946, Schwartzman moved to Washington D.C. where he worked as a night janitor (and sometimes watchman) at the Corcoran School of Art while taking classes there under the Hungarian-born artist Eugen Weisz (1890-1954). Schwartzman was encouraged to experiment with different styles and his vibrantly-colored landscapes and nudes began to sell. He also held his first solo exhibition at about this time either in Bethesda or Arlington, Virginia (the family records are unclear on this point).

From 1948 to 1959 Schwartzman lived in Woodstock, Vermont. Each time he moved he left behind most or all of his completed paintings and started a new phase in his artistic career. This has made it very difficult to document his lifetime’s work, though each phase stimulated fresh artistic exploration and discovery.

In 1957, he was lucky to survive a single vehicle accident in Woodstock, in which his brother-in-law Stanley Murphy was killed instantly. Schwartzman, who had been driving, was devastated by this loss.

Two years later, in August 1959, Schwartzman was one of a very large number of artists exhibiting at the annual Cracker Barrel Bazaar art show in the village of Newbury, Vermont, alongside such distinguished painters and illustrators as Norman Rockwell and Maxfield Parrish.

In 1959, Schwartzman moved to Los Angeles, California, where he lived and worked for about a decade. He had a job with TV Fanfare Publications and appears to have lost interest in painting (for the only time in his life) for a few years. He then took a small studio in Hollywood where he painted ten major, large paintings many of which are still in the family, before moving to Sunset Boulevard in Echo Park where he later opened (with son David as partner) the Woodstock Gallery .

Work from this time formed the basis for the joint show he held at this gallery in 1972, with friend Tom Darro, entitled “Life Drawings”.  The exhibition was later repeated at the Livingstone Evans Gallery, on North La Cienega Boulevard in the same city. The gallery was not a financial success and Schwartzman decided to abandon Los Angeles and visit Mexico. His mother-in-law had lived for a short time in Ajijic in the 1950s, so Schwartzman headed for Lake Chapala.

Sid Schwartzman. Reproduced by kind permission of Synnove Pettersen.

Sid Schwartzman. Untitled. Reproduced by kind permission of Synnove Pettersen.

Productive years in Ajijic

Schwartzman, whose eyesight was failing, arrived in Ajijic in about 1973, after living for a few months in Jocotepec. In Ajijic he shared the “Mill House”, at the foot of Flores Magón street near the lake, with fellow artists John K. Peterson and Ernesto Butterlin. After successful cataract surgery, the mustachioed, bushy-haired Schwartzman became artistically active again, producing numerous pencil sketches and paintings of nudes. He made fairly frequent trips back to Los Angeles, and brought some of his American work back with him to Ajijic. These trips also enabled him to renew his Mexican tourist papers every six months.

He shared a studio from about 1974 with Daniel Palma at Constitución #45A, Ajijic. He also had a studio for a time in the building that is now the office of the Lake Chapala Society. Initially, Schwartzman was not a frequent exhibitor, concerned that his prolific output of nudes might antagonize some viewers.

Schwartzman held an auction of his paintings and sketches at El Tejaban (Zaragoza #1) in Ajijic, on 17 November 1974. The pieces included “figurative sketches, mixed media and oils”, with reserve prices ranging from 250 to 9000 pesos.

The following month, he participated in another art auction, this time at the home of Frank and Rowene Kirkpatrick in San Antonio Tlayacapan, with the proceeds going to local charities. Other artists whose work was auctioned on that occasion included Rowene Kirkpatrick; Rocky Karns and Antonio Santibañez.

Portrait of Sidney Schwartzman. Reproduced by kind permission of David Schwartzman.

Portrait of Sidney Schwartzman. Reproduced by kind permission of David Schwartzman.

Schwartzman was a member of Clique Ajijic, a grouping of eight artists that held several group shows in 1975 and 1976: in Ajijic, Chapala, Guadalajara, Manzanillo and Cuernavaca. The other members of this very talented Mexican Group of Eight were  Tom Faloon, Hubert Harmon,  Todd (“Rocky”) Karns, Gail Michaels, John K. Peterson, Synnove (Shaffer) Pettersen, and Adolfo Riestra. Pettersen, the youngest of the group, credits Schwartzman, whom she recalls as easy-going but serious about art, with being very encouraging of her own artistic efforts.

According to a review of a group show in Guadalajara in 1975, Schwartzman had also exhibited his mixed media works in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington D.C. and Boston. Fregoso added that his canvasses, influenced by Schwartzman’s time in Vermont, had “an incomparable beauty” that invited refection.

Schwartzman was especially encouraging to several young Ajijic-born artists, including Efrén González, Antonio López Vega, Jesús López Vega, Dionicio Morales, Daniel Palma and the late Julian Pulido, all of whom became successful artists or art teachers. Schwartzman’s legacy lives on through their efforts.

In the early 1980s he shared a studio at the intersection of Zaragoza and Colón, first with Julian Pulido and later with Dionicio Morales.

In the late 1980s, with the help of local art patron Sally Sellars, who purchased several of his works, Schwartzman opened his own gallery in Ajijic where several noteworthy shows were held. Among those whose work was exhibited at the gallery were American CIA agent Mitch Marr Jr., local Ajijic-born artist Efren González, the talented mixed media and textile artist Hey Frey, and the former Hollywood star Todd (“Rocky”) Karns. The Karns exhibit opened on 10 December 1988.

The Sellars-Schwartzman Galería, at Felipe Angeles #12 in Ajijic, held annual auctions to benefit Oak Hill School (Ajijic’s only bilingual school at the time) and the galley remained the artist’s main working space until shortly before his death.

In 1980 Schwartzman married his Ajijic girlfriend Regina Galindo, taking on the responsibility of helping raise her four daughters, one of whom later married local Ajijic artist and muralist Efrén González. Schwartzman and Regina had two children of their own, both boys. [Born ca 1981 and 1984]

After 1990, the Casa de la Cultura in Ajijic held annual exhibitions of works by “invited members”. Schwartzman’s last showing of a painting in Ajijic was in one of these shows in November 1996. On display was Trapeze, an early “visual jazz” painting that collector Patrick Dudensing had given back to Schwartzman.

Dudensing had previously submitted Trapeze to a Special Collectors’ Show in 1994 at the South Shore Art Center in Cohasset, Massachusetts. Schwartzman was justly proud of the fact that his work had hung there alongside a Fernand Léger and not far from a Miró, a Picasso and a Chagall!

Schwartzman’s eldest son, David, arranged a posthumous show of his father’s works (paintings and drawings) at the Library in Woodstock, Vermont, in September 2013. In an interview at the time, David noted that his father “painted in an impressionistic – expressionistic style from the start of his professional career”, and that “He was infatuated with color theory and was considered a painter’s painter.”

Acknowledgments

I am greatly indebted to David Schwartzman, who is working on a book about his father, for sharing his knowledge and research. My sincere thanks, also, to Alan Bowers, Dionicio Morales and Synnove Pettersen for sharing with me their personal memories of Sidney Schwartzman.

Sources

  • The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 9 Apr 1930, 17.
  • The Burlington Free Press (Vermont), 9 Oct 1957, 1; 6 Jul 1959, 7.
  • Martha Fregoso. 1975. “La Galeria OM y el Buen Gusto en Exposiciones, Esta Vez Ocho Pintores de Ajijic.” El Diario de Guadalajara, 24 Oct 1975.
  • Guadalajara Reporter: 9 Nov 1974; 4 Jan 1975.
  • The Los Angeles Times: 24 Sep 1972, 481; 07 Jan 1973, 420.
  • El Ojo del Lago. 1986. “Portrait of the Artist.” El Ojo del Lago, January 1986.
  • Jackie Hodges. “Focus On Art: Sid Schwartzman“. El Ojo del Lago, ca 2000.

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 5:12 am  Tagged with:
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.

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.

 Posted by at 5:15 am  Tagged with:
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.

Mar 222018
 

Visual artist and architectural designer Tom (“Tomas”) Faloon first arrived in Ajijic in 1970 and lived and worked in the village for more than forty years.

John Thomas Faloon was born on 30 January 1943 in New York City. After graduating in 1960 from Oakwood Friends School, a Quaker college preparatory school in Poughkeepsie, New York, he enrolled in Rutgers University. He traveled to Florence, Italy, to study art the following year, returning with fluent Italian and a determination to pursue art as a career. In the summer of 1962, he took a summer course at the Douglass College campus of Rutgers with the renowned modern artist Roy Lichtenstein. Faloon transferred to the University of Mississippi, “where the faculty of the time was young and progressive”.

Tom Faloon, 1965 (Univ. of Mississippi Yearbook)

Tom Faloon, 1965 (Univ. of Mississippi Yearbook)

Faloon had only just arrived on the Mississippi campus when the Ole Miss race riot of 1962 erupted, following the enrollment of the university’s first black student, James Meredith, a military veteran with strong academic credentials. Faloon recalled becoming an active participant in the anti-racist movement, involved in preparing anti-racist posters and paintings.After he completed his degree in Fine Arts (Painting) in 1965, Faloon transferred to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.

On 30 July 1966, Faloon married Shannon Elizabeth Rodes in Melbourne, Florida. The couple had two young daughters. Faloon began working for his father’s agricultural chemical firm in Clarksville, Mississippi, but soon decided that the environmental impacts of agrochemicals often outweighed their benefits. He and his wife had first visited Ajijic over the winter of 1967/68 and, in 1970, Faloon gave up his position in the family business to live at Lake Chapala full-time, focus on his art and raise his children in a welcoming, friendly, eclectic community.

Roy Lichtenstein. 1962. (The Central New Jersey Home News)

(l to r): Tom Faloon, Mrs Everett Sherrill, Roy Lichtenstein. 1962. (The Central New Jersey Home News)

The family lived for a short time at La Villa Apartments (on Javier Mina) in Ajijic before purchasing a home on Donato Guerra. Described as “a serious 28-yr-old artist who studied in New York and Italy”, Tom “comes fully equipped: talent, a stunning Cherokee Indian-Irish wife named Shannon, two girl children and two dogs.” (Guadalajara Reporter, 6 March 1971.)

Faloon quickly made friends with his Mexican neighbors and became seamlessly integrated into local life, developing a particular love of Mexican handicrafts, folk traditions and design.

In May 1971, he was one of the large number of artists exhibiting in the “Fiesta of Art” group show held at the residence of Mr and Mrs E. D. Windham (Calle 16 de Septiembre #33). Other artists at that show included Daphne Aluta; Mario Aluta; Beth Avary; Charles Blodgett; Antonio Cárdenas; Alan Davoll; Alice de Boton; Robert de Boton; John Frost; Dorothy Goldner; Burt Hawley; Peter Huf; Eunice (Hunt) Huf; Lona Isoard; Michael Heinichen; John Maybra Kilpatrick; Gail Michael; Bert Miller; Robert Neathery; John K. Peterson; Stuart Phillips; Hudson Rose; Mary Rose; Jesús Santana; Walt Shou; Eleanor Smart; Robert Snodgrass; and Agustín Velarde.

This example of his work was published in A Cookbook with Color Reproductions by Artists from the Galería (1972).

Tom Faloon. ca 1972. "La Mujer"

Tom Faloon. ca 1972. “La Mujer”

Tomás, as he was known in Ajijic, remained in the village after he and Shannon separated in 1973. (They divorced in 1979.)

Faloon was an active member of the “Clique Ajijic” which existed for 3 or 4 years in the mid 1970s. This group held exhibitions in Ajijic, Chapala, Guadalajara, Manzanillo and Cuernavaca. The other members of this very talented Mexican Group of Eight were Hubert Harmon,  Todd (“Rocky”) Karns, Gail Michaels, John K. Peterson, Synnove (Shaffer) Pettersen, Adolfo Riestra, and Sidney Schwartzman.

Faloon’s paintings were mostly abstract or impressionist. He participated in several local exhibitions and one of his paintings was purchased for the permanent collection of a museum in Memphis, Tennessee.

Recognizing that art sales might not earn him sufficient income, in the 1980s Faloon began working on remodeling and redesigning traditional village homes. His own artwork took a back seat (though he continued to paint occasionally and complete mixed media works) as he quickly found he was in his element working on homes, undertaking projects that combined his interests in architecture, design and craftsmanship with his love of Mexican materials and handicrafts. Most of the many homes that Faloon lovingly transformed incorporated some whimsical elements: “las locuras de Tomás” as he called them.

Faloon, fluently bilingual, was a generous, kind and sensitive individual, and always wiling to help causes close to his heart, including those related to the environment and animal welfare. He was a great supporter of Mexican artisans and their colorful, creative folk art.

Faloon met his soul mate, Carlos Rodriguez Miranda, in the mid-1970s. Their partnership lasted until Faloon’s untimely passing on 5 August 2014 from complications following what should have been a routine surgery in a hospital in Guadalajara.

In her obituary for him, Dale Hoyt Palfrey was absolutely correct to call Tom Faloon an “icon of Ajijic’s expat community” and “one of the community’s most prominent and endearing long-time foreign residents.”

Acknowledgment

My sincere thanks to the late Tom Faloon for his encouragement with this project and for so generously sharing his knowledge and memories of the Ajijic art community with me in February 2014.

Sources

  • Clarion-Ledger (Jackson, Mississippi) 16 April 1965, 44.
  • La Galería del Lago de Chapala. 1972. A Cookbook with Color Reproductions by Artists from the Galería. 1972. (Ajijic, Mexico: La Galería del Lago de Chapala).
  • Guadalajara Reporter, 6 March 1971.
  • Lake Chapala Society, Oral History project: “Tom Faloon” (video).
  • Dale Hoyt Palfrey. 2014. “Remembering Tomás Faloon, icon of Ajijic’s expat community”, Guadalajara Reporter, 29 November 2014
  • Poughkeepsie Journal (Poughkeepsie, New York) 26 June 1960, 4B.

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 082018
 

Fun-loving journalist Kate Karns, who has written many entertaining columns and articles about Ajijic over the years, lived in the village from 1971 to 2013. Karns was the local correspondent for the Mexico City News for several years immediately after Katie Goodridge Ingram. She also ran an art gallery for a time on Calle Colón, the main north-south street leading to the pier.

Katherine Julia Flaten (her maiden name) was born in Hennepin, Minnesota, on 25 September 1921. Curiously, the record of her marriage in 1944 to actor Todd “Rocky” Karns, when both were serving in the U.S. military in New Mexico, spells her first name Catherine with a “C”! She was court-martialed and reassigned shortly after marriage, not because of any spelling error, but because she had had the temerity, while serving in the ranks, to marry an officer.

Heading of article by Kate Karns, El Ojo del Lago, Nov 2013

Heading of article by Kate Karns, El Ojo del Lago, Nov 2013

Prior to the war, Kate was well on her way to becoming a Hollywood actress. She performed in high school shows in Milwaukee, studied drama at the University of Minnesota and attended the Maria Ouspenskaya acting school in Hollywood. Tod Jonson, who also lived in Hollywood for years before moving to Ajijic, has said that “Katy Karns, a talent in her own right, had been under contract to Paramount Studios and was a member of the Golden Circle of Players on their studio lot.”

Unfortunately for Kate’s career, the war intervened. She returned home to Milwaukee where she later joined the Army and was trained to fix radios. After the war, Kate and Rocky started a family and lived in Hollywood where Rocky built his acting career, eventually retiring from movies and television to work for the North American Philips Corporation.

Following some prompting by Kate, a profile of her family was published in the September 1950 edition of the Ladies Home Journal in its series, “How America Lives”. Not long afterwards, the magazine published an article featuring Kate modeling some elegant clothing.

When Rocky retired in 1971, the couple moved to Ajijic. Kate had been working for a fabric weaving business in the village for some time before federal authorities realized she lacked any work permit and ordered her to leave the country. She was soon able to sort out her paperwork and return. Kate also worked for seven years in local real estate, found time to be President of Lakeside Little Theater (in 1983/4), and combined family life and all this with writing and being the local correspondent for the Mexico City News.

Kate’s writing is always well-observed and often humorous, with many references to her own experiences in adapting to life in Mexico and to the myriad of quirky characters that Ajijic seems to have attracted in the 1970s.

One of my all-time favorite lines from Kate Karns is her description of the small town of Jamay, on the north shore of the lake, mid-way between Ocotlán and La Barca, in 1988 as “like a running sore; its feet in mud and garbage, its head covered by torn corrugated tarpaper held up precariously by half-finished grey cement-block walls and disintegrating bricks.” Jamay is very different now, but in 1988, her words were only a slight exaggeration.

Kate Karns, who has, with good reason, been critical of those in-comers who fail to learn any Spanish or make any real effort to integrate into the local community, continues to hold the highest regard for the people of Mexico in general, and of Ajijic in particular.

Her husband, Rocky Karns, passed away in February 2000. The couple had enjoyed 54 years of marriage. Kate continued to live in Ajijic until 2013 when she moved to Ellensburg in Washington state to be closer to her children and grandchildren.

The incomparable Kate Karns died on 11 December 2018, at the age of 97.

Sources:

  • Lakeside Little Theater (website). Undated. “LLT’s Beginnings… to Honor a Glorious Past” (interview with Tod Jonson).
  • Anon. 1950. “How America Lives: Meet the Karns of California – Todd and Katherine Karns”, Ladies Home Journal, September 1950.
  • Jeanne Chaussee. 2011. “Laguna Chapalac”, Guadalajara Reporter, 30 September 2011.
  • Kate Karns. 1988. “Kate Karns in Lake Chapala”, Mexico City News, 3 July 1988, p16.
  • Michael Warren. 2015. “Lakeside Little Theater 50th Jubilee Season!” El Ojo del Lago, March 2015.

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 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 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.

Jan 292018
 

Roscoe (“Rocky”) Karns lived in Ajijic with his wife (Kate Karns) and family from 1971 until his death on 5 February 2000. Karns had retired from careers in acting and sales and devoted himself in Ajijic to his painting and working as producer and director on shows at the Lakeside Little Theater.

Roscoe (“Rocky”) Todd Karns Jr., was born in Hollywood, California, on 15 January 1921, to character actor and comedian Roscoe Karns and his wife Mary Fraso.

Rocky Karns as Harry Bailey

Todd Karns as Harry Bailey

Karns’ movie career was interrupted by four years service in the Army during World War II.

After the war, when Rocky was assigned to work in Los Angeles as a military recruiter, he and his wife, Kate, established their home in Hollywood and Rocky began to build his acting career even as they started a family.

Rocky’s most significant movie role was as “Harry Bailey” in the classic Christmas holiday movie It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), starring Jimmy Stewart (playing Harry’s elder brother “George Bailey”) and Donna Reed.

The movie was nominated for five Academy Awards including best picture. Though it did not do terribly well when it was released, it has gained popularity in recent years and has now made the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 best American films ever made.

Todd Karns. Moulin Rouge. (sold 2012 at Capo Auction)

Todd Karns. Moulin Rouge. (sold at Capo Auction, 2012)

Karns had minor roles on several other films, including My Foolish Heart (1949), It’s a Small World (1950, Battle Zone (1952), Invaders from Mars (1953), China Venture (1953) and The Caine Mutiny (1954).

He also worked in television, co-starring with Helen Chapman in a sitcom entitled Jackson and Jill (1949). In 1950, he also worked alongside his father, the star of a popular cop series, Rocky King, Private Detective.

Karns retired from acting in about 1954 and began a 17-year career in sales and public relations for the North American Philips Corporation, eventually becoming its West Coast manager. In 1971, Karns retired from the company and moved to Ajijic. During his “retirement”, Karns focused on his painting, and on directing local theater shows.

Todd Karns. Circus. (sold 2012 at Capo Auction)

Todd Karns. Circus. (sold at Capo Auction, 2012)

Karns directed numerous plays at the Lakeside Little Theater (LLT) , beginning in 1973 with Barefoot In The Park and The Pleasure of his Company. Other plays directed by Karns at LLT included the comedies Sauce For The Goose, Squabbles, Marriage-Go-Round, Noel Coward In Two Keys, The Gin Game and Last Of The Red Hot Lovers, as well as the fantasy A Visit To A Small Planet, the thriller Wait Until Dark, and the drama On Golden Pond.

Karns’ art career in Ajijic enjoyed similar success. Karns had begun painting shortly after the end of World War II.

Todd Karns. 1971. Street scene. Reproduced by kind permission of Katie Cantu.

Todd Karns. 1971. Street scene. Reproduced by kind permission of Katie Cantu.

After moving to Ajijic, Karns soon began to exhibit and sell his art at local shows. In December 1974, for example, one of his paintings was auctioned in a charity fund-raiser organized at the San Antonio Tlayacapan home of Frank and Rowene Kirkpatrick, alongside works by Rowene Kirkpatrick, Sidney Schwartzman and Antonio Santibañez.

In March the following year Karns joined Gail Michaels and Synnove Shaffer (Pettersen) for a three-person show at the Villa Montecarlo in Chapala.

Karns was an active participant in the Clique Ajijic, a group of eight artists who formed a loosely-organized collective for three or four years in the mid-1970s. The other members of Clique Ajijic were Sidney Schwartzman, Adolfo Riestra, Gail Michaels, Hubert Harmon, Synnove (Shaffer) Pettersen, Tom Faloon and John K. Peterson (the only member of Clique Ajijic who had been a member of the earlier Grupo 68).

In 1989, Karns was accorded the honor of a solo show by Sidney Schwartzman, owner of the Schwartzman Galería in Ajijic. Karns was quite a prolific artist and his works, with their charming naiveté, do occasionally turn up in online auctions.

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

Sources:

  • El Ojo del Lago: March 1985; January 1989.
  • Guadalajara Reporter: 4 January 1975; 15 March 1975; 28 February 1976.
  • anta Cruz Sentinel. “Local Theatre Attractions”, Santa Cruz Sentinel (California), 9 March 1941, p 10.
  • Vincent Terrace. 2011. Encyclopedia of Television Shows, 1925 through 2010. McFarland & Company.

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.

error: Alert: Content is protected !!