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Jul 082020
 

Lysander Kemp (1920-1992) worked as a writer, professor, translator, and was head editor of the University of Texas Press from 1966 to 1975. During his tenure at UT Press, he collaborated with the Mexican writer Octavio Paz (1914-1998) on numerous translations, including the landmark book The Labyrinth of Solitude: Life and Thought in Mexico. Kemp also oversaw the publication of two collections of Paz’s essays and criticism, and translated the work of several other important Mexican writers such as Juan Rulfo.

Lysander Schaffer Kemp Jr. was born 13 November 1920 in Randolph, Vermont, and died in January 1992 in Harwich Port, Massachusetts. He graduated from Canton High School, Canton, Massachusetts in 1938, where he had been active in tennis, music, and on the stage, in addition to being literary editor of the school magazine The Echo.

He graduated from Bates College, Maine, in 1942 (where he was “class poet” in his final year) and then enlisted in the Army. He served three years in the Caribbean Defense Command, in Panama, Ecuador and Puerto Rico, from 1942-1945. After his discharge, more than 40 poems he had submitted in partial fulfillment of his M.A. (1946) from Boston University were published as The Northern Stranger (Random House, 77 pp). His academic English teaching career included a spell at the University of Buffalo, and publications such as “Understanding “Hamlet”” in College English (Oct., 1951).

Lysander Kemp (at rt) playing the alto sax in The Jocotepec Penguins, mid-1950s

Lysander Kemp (at rt) playing the alto sax in The Jocotepec Penguins, mid-1950s

From 1953-1965, Kemp moved to Mexico and lived for many years in Jocotepec, at the western end of Lake Chapala. His published poems and short articles about the Lake Chapala area include:

  • 1954. “The only beast: Reflections on Not Attending the Bullfights”, pp 46-56 of Discovery #4 (New York).
  • 1955. “Gods: Jocotepec, Mexico” [poem] The New Yorker. Vol 31 (Sept 10, 1955) p 114.
  • 1957. “The Penguins Gather.” Saturday Review v 40 (May 11, 1957) p. 38. This short article, with photo, describes a dance-band in Jocotepec. Kemp was the first saxophone.
  • 1957. “Perils of Paradise.” Travel piece in House and Garden vol. 111 (April 1957) pp 172-4, 177.
  • 1958. “Travel: Tricks in Buying Pre-Columbian Art.” House and Garden, 113, #2, February 1958, p 22-24, 26

Kemp also translated Juan the Chamula: An Ethnological Recreation of the Life of a Mexican Indian by Ricardo Pozas (University of California Press); Selected Poems of Ruben Dario (University of Texas Press); The Time of the Hero, by Llosa Mario Vargas (Farrar Straus & Giroux); Pedro Paramo: A Novel of Mexico, by Juan Rulfo. (Grove/Atlantic, 1959).

In his career, Kemp published several poems and articles not directly related to Mexico. These include the poems “The Last Rose of Summer : Cape Cod” (The New Yorker, 1954), “Are We Then So Serious?” (New Mexico Quarterly, 1954-1955), and “Cat” (The New Yorker, 1958), and a short piece entitled “Krispie News” (The New Yorker, 1955), in which he wrote that, “”In Mexico Kellogg’s Rice Krispies do not say “Snap, crackle, pop,” as they do here. They say “Pim, pum, pam.”

He also wrote four science fiction stories: “The Airborne Baserunner” (1954), “Boil One Cat” (1954), “The Universal Solvent” (1955) and “Silent Night” (1955).

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Note: This is an updated version of a post first published 8 July 2014.

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

Jul 022020
 

After visiting Ajijic in the mid-1940s, Irma René Koen spent the remaining three decades of her life living and painting in Mexico.

Koen, whose birth name was Irma Julia Köhn, was born in Rock Island, Illinois, on 8 October 1883. She graduated from Rock Island High School before briefly attending Augustana College. Despite being an accomplished cellist, she opted to enroll at the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) in 1903; she was a regular exhibitor in its exhibitions from 1907 to 1917.

Koen completed her studies at the Woodstock School of Landscape Painting, and also studied under C. F. Brown, W.L. Lathrop and John Johansen in Vermont before taking a trip to Europe in 1914, where she was studying with Henry B. Snell at St. Ives in England when the first world war erupted. Koen returned to the US After the war, Koen painted in southern France and North Africa.

Market scene (possibly Oaxaca) painted by Irma Koen

Market scene in Central America painted by Irma Koen

Koen, who never married, traveled very widely during her working life, studying and painting in numerous art colonies, including St. Ives, Cornwall, England (1914); Monterey/Carmel, California (1915); East Gloucester, Massachusetts (1917); New Hope, Pennsylvania (1928); Boothbay Harbor, Maine (1927, 1928); Taos, New Mexico (1929). She also visited Asia, including Nepal. Prior to 1923, she signed her paintings as “Irma Köhn.” Sometime after a trip to France and North Africa in 1923-24, she changed her professional name to “Irma René Koen”.

She was already an artist of considerable renown before visiting Mexico. For example, the Christian Science Monitor noted in 1927 that Koen was “often designated as America’s leading woman artist.”

Photo of Irma Koen from “The News,” Mexico D.F. , 1956

Photo of Koen from “The News,” Mexico D.F. , 1956

After the second world war, she spent the remainder of her life based in Mexico. Art historian and biographer Cynthia Wiedemann Empen writes that Koen traveled to Mexico in the early 1940s for two months, moved to San Miguel de Allende circa 1944, and resided briefly in Ajijic on Lake Chapala, Pátzcuaro and Mazatlán before establishing a permanent home and studio in Cuernavaca, in the central Mexican state of Morelos, near Mexico City.

Neill James, writing about Ajijic in 1945, described how a recent visitor “Irma René Koen, an impressionist painter from Chicago, found a rich source of material in the local landscape”, so presumably Koen most likely visited Ajijic in late 1944 or early in 1945.

A “Mrs Sam Shloss” of Des Moines visited Ajijic a few years later. Interviewed on her return home in February 1949, she reported how she had visited Neill James in “primitive Ajijic” and purchased “a blouse of Indian handiwork” from James’ small shop. Schloss claimed that the blouse had been designed by “Irma Rene Koen, whose work will be exhibited in March at the Des Moines Art Center” and that the blouses were “marketed by Miss James in an attempt to help the native Mexican women earn pesos with their embroidery.” (Sylvia Fein, the famous American surrealist artist who lived for several years in Ajijic in the mid-1940s, also contributed designs to Neill James, and helped market the blouses in Mexico City and beyond.)

According to a report in 1946 in The Dispatch, an Illinois daily, Koen had already spent two and a half years in Mexico, having spent “the first summer” in “the Indian village of Ajijic which is a mecca for artists and writers.” The report quoted Koen as explaining how she generally “stayed from 3 to 5 months in a town and then moved on.” At that time, Koen relied on her memory and impressions to complete all her paintings in her studio, having found that “painting on the scene was impossible as the natives would practically mob artists who attempted it.”

Her first major exhibition in Mexico was held in 1947 at the Circulo de Bellas Artes de México; this exhibit, of (25 oils and 18 watercolors) was later shown in Chicago. The following year, art critic Guillermo Rivas extolled the virtues of Koen for readers of Mexican Life, describing how her painting had “changed completely” since arriving in Mexico: “Her image of Mexico is that of people and landscape fused within a rhythmic movement of incandescent color…. Putting aside her brushes she works with a palette-knife, arranging her undiluted pigments over the canvas in heavy strokes…. It is very seldom indeed that a foreign painter working in Mexico does not yield to its influence and there are occasions when such influence is sufficiently powerful as to define a turning point in their creative course.”

Irma Rene Koen. c 1945. "Street in Ajijic."

Irma Rene Koen. c 1945. “Street in Ajijic.”

Koen sold almost all her paintings to collectors. The only image I have ever seen of any of her Lake Chapala paintings is of one entitled “Street in Ajijic,” which she presented to the Rock Island YMCA in 1948. (left) If you own, or have access to, any of her other Lake Chapala paintings, please get in touch!

During her thirty years in Mexico, Koen traveled and painted throughout the country, with extensive trips also to Central America (Guatemala), Spain, Japan, Hong Kong, Kashmir, Nepal, and Iran.

Her vivid oil paintings, watercolors and plein-air landscape scenes were widely exhibited during her lifetime, at galleries and museums in San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., as well as in Paris (1923) and Mexico.

Koen was a prolific exhibitor throughout her life. In addition to dozens of shows in the US, her paintings were displayed in the Galeria de Arte Mexicano (Gallery of Mexican Art) in Mexico City in 1956, and, in 1968, a selection of her Mexican landscapes and markets was hung at the Galeria de Edith Quijano, also in Mexico City. The following year, an exhibit of her oil paintings was held in the Palacio de Cortés, the main museum in her adopted home of Cuernavaca.

Koen died in Cuernavaca in 1975.

A major retrospective of her work, entitled “Irma René Koen: An Artist Rediscovered,” was held in 2017 at the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, Iowa.

Note: This is an updated and expanded version of a post originally published on 14 July 2014.

Main sources:

 Posted by at 6:35 am  Tagged with:
Jun 252020
 

When enthusiastic British traveler William English Carson visited Chapala in 1908–1909, he liked what he found. His book about Mexico—Mexico, the Wonderland of the South—was based on four months’ residence in the country and published just before the start of the Mexican Revolution,

Carson arrived in Guadalajara in November 1908 and stayed over the New Year before staying at the Hotel Arzapalo in the village of Chapala for a few days. His description of a noxious weed infestation at Lake Chapala is one of the earliest detailed descriptions of its kind:

“All along the shores of the lake, and in the Lerma River which runs into it, hundreds of peons are employed in gathering and burning yellow water-lily which has invaded the waters. A few years ago, some imbecile planted a quantity of the lily in the river, thinking it would look pretty. In an incredibly short time it spread like wildfire; some of the streams were completely choked with it, and when I visited Chapala the river was covered in places with green masses of the plant. It had spread all along the lake when the Mexican government took the matter in hand and appropriated a large sum of money for its destruction. At night, fires can be seen blazing along the shores of the lake where the peons have collected and are burning large piles of the noxious weed.”

Either Carson’s sense of color was flawed or his description of the “yellow water-lily” was not intended to refer to the violet-flowered water hyacinth described at about the same time in Terry’s Mexico Handbook. More than a century later, the water hyacinth is still periodically a problem.

Commenting that “very few Americans have ever heard of Lake Chapala”, Carson described how “a number of pretty villas are dotted along the lake’s edge, embowered in bougainvillea and hibiscus, palms and orange trees. ” The popularity of the village had led to some land speculation:

“On a hill a short distance from the shore some land has been divided into building lots for villas, with the idea of starting a model American summer village; but the price of the ground is so high—about $1000 per lot—that very few purchasers had been found.”

After an eloquent description of the tourist life at Chapala, and the lake’s potential for fishing and hunting, Carson wrote that,

“A short distance along the shore, within sight of the beautiful electric-lighted villas, there is another of those queer contrasts so often met with in Mexico. Here is a little village of Indian fishermen who live in huts or wigwams of rushes and adobe, some of the fishing houses being built on piles in the lake like those of the prehistoric lake-dwellers in Switzerland…. To visit this place when the sun is setting, and see the weird figures flitting about beneath the semitropical foliage, conversing in low tones in their ancient dialect, living the most primitive of lives, makes it almost impossible to realize that hardly a mile away are comfortable hotels, a railway, Pullman cars and other adjuncts of latter-day civilization.”

Elsewhere in the book, many of his views about Mexicans will strike modern readers as stereotypical. For example, in an otherwise fascinating chapter about “The Mexican Woman”, he makes several outrageous over-generalizations, including:

—  “As a rule, the Mexican women are not beautiful”

—  “no foreigner, unless he be associated with diplomacy, is likely to have any chance of studying and judging the Mexican women

— “the Mexican girl has but two things in life to occupy her, love and religion”

According to Carson, “fevers and malaria are certain to result from exposure to the rains or the intense heat of the midday sun.” He attributed the progress (as evidenced by the bustling city and high costs of living) in Mexico City and elsewhere to American influence. Carson thought that “Americanization” was such a positive impact that Mexico might one day become “peacefully annexed to the United States.” (!)

Very little is known about his early life, but journalist and author William English Carson (1870-1940), apparently toured the Outer Hebrides in 1897 in the company of future tabloid pioneer Alfred Harmsworth (later Lord Northcliffe). Carson later made his home in New York and became a naturalized American citizen. He also wrote The marriage revolt; a study of marriage and divorce (Hearst’s International Library Co., 1915) and Northcliffe, Britain’s Man of Power (Dodge Publishing Co., 1918).

[This is a lightly edited excerpt from chapter 52 of my Lake Chapala through the ages: an anthology of travelers’ tales.]

Source

  • William English Carson. 1909 Mexico: the wonderland of the south. New York:
    Macmillan.

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.

Jun 182020
 

Even my best efforts sometimes fail to turn up anything of note about certain artists that I know lived and worked at Lake Chapala.

Joe Vines is a case in point. Even though several artists I have interviewed in the past decade have mentioned him—and recall his work—I have managed to find out virtually nothing about this elusive artist who lived in the late 1960s in Jocotepec.

Vines-Joe-GR-1968-13-July-sJoe Vines, mistakenly spelled as either Jo Vines or Joe Vine in some contemporary news reports, was a male artist who signed his work “Jovines.” He held a solo show in March 1968 at the “Galería Ajijic Bellas Artes,” administered by Hudson and Mary Rose, that was located at Marcos Castellanos #15 (at the intersection with Constitución) in Ajijic. Reviewing the show, Allyn Hunt described his work as “sparkling, colorful silkscreen prints.”

Vines’ work was also included in a “collective fine crafts show” at the same gallery in May 1968, alongside examples of work by Mary Rose, Hudson Rose, Peter Huf and his wife, Eunice Hunt, Ben Crabbe, Gail Michel, Joe Rowe and Beverly Hunt. On that occasion, Vines, who was described as “an excellent serigrapher” contributed “several unpretentious sculptures.”

According to Peter Huf, Vines exhibited only rarely. Muralist Tom Brudenell, who lived in Jocotepec at the time, recalled that Vines was an older artist and “a long-time painter in oils”, who used his sound technique to produce commercial ‘pot boilers,’ shown by Marilyn Hodge in the Galería 8 de Julio in Guadalajara.

Reviewing another Vines exhibit in July 1968, where the artist showed “arabesque style” paintings and silkscreens, including “Wailing Wall”, “Birds in a Bush” and “Jocotepec Dancers,” Allyn Hunt wrote that Vines had studied at Pratt, in Boston, and with west coast artists Sueo Serisawa and Rico Lebrun.

If you can add to this all-too-brief account of Joe Vines, supply any biographical details, or have examples of his work, please get in touch!

Sources

  • Guadalajara Reporter 27 April 1968; 25 May 1968; 13 July 1968

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.

Jun 112020
 

Arthur St. Hill, an English traveler about whom very little is known, arrived in Mexico in 1883. He was an observant and enthusiastic visitor. In the preface to his book Through The Land of the Aztecs (published in 1892 using the pen name ‘A Gringo’), St. Hill states that his object “is simply to give a plain account of several years experience in the country, to show its recent progress and to enable the reader to judge the future,” based on “prolonged periods of travel over the greater part of its territory, by rail, stagecoach and steamer, on horseback and in canoes [which] have afforded me exceptional facilities for studying the country and all classes of the people.”

One contemporary review called the work an “interesting little book descriptive of life and travel in Mexico from 1883 until a recent date,” and congratulated the author “on the felicitous manner in which he has performed his task.” The reviewer found that the book was “a pleasantly written handbook” though it lacked a map, an omission that “is really unpardonable.”

Arthur St. Hill’s visit to Chapala definitely took place prior to 1889, though he did not publish anything about it until a few years later. He starts by summarizing his trip to Chapala, which would have taken close to 12 hours:

“Taking a carriage, which ran weekly between Guadalajara and Chapala, a town on the border of the lake of that name, I set forth one morning, and, after climbing a hill, from which a grand view of the city and surrounding countryside was obtained, I reached Chapala.”

He provides only the briefest of descriptions of the village of Chapala, commenting on the inn where he stayed and the moonlight on the lake:

Chapala lies at the foot of a hill, overlooking the lake, the waters of which lapped the little garden of the inn where I put up. After a supper, with the agreeable addition of a bottle of lager beer, I spent the evening chatting with the pleasant old people who kept the inn, and enjoying the still night as I watched the moonbeams playing on the lake, on which loomed the black shape of the paddle steamer that was to take me tomorrow across its waters.”

Arthur St. Hill gives us a rare description of taking a trip aboard the Libertad (“Freedom”) paddle steamer around the lake to the various lakeshore villages. The San Francisco-built Libertad had been brought to Lake Chapala in 1868 by the Compañía de Navegación por Vapor en el Lago de Chapala (Lake Chapala Steamboat Company), whose managing director was a transplanted Scotsman, Mr. Duncan Cameron.

“It was a wonderful old tub, evidently built in the days when shipbuilding was “in its infancy, judging from its uncouth shape and old timbers, that creaked at every movement of the paddles. Our voyage took in several villages round the lake. At each stopping place we would land on the little mud jetties to suck a piece of sugar-cane or quaff a festive glass of tequila. At one of the villages a sad accident has since occurred; the crazy old steamer toppled over with her living freight of over two hundred passengers just as she reached the landing-stage, nearly all being drowned… One heroic American, employed on the Central Railroad, who was on board at the time, succeeded in saving the lives of sixteen by his pluck and great swimming powers.”

The tragic accident referred to by St. Hill occurred on Sunday 24 March 1889 when the steamship capsized at Ocotlán. Even though this took place only six meters from the shore, 28 people were drowned. The American referred to by St. Hill was the Railway Superintendent, Mr. C. E. Halbert.

Arthur St. Hill also noted that efforts had been made to exploit an underwater petroleum deposit at Lake Chapala:

“At one place the captain called my attention to a spot where the water was bubbling, and told me that at the bottom of the lake there was a petroleum well. Although efforts had been made to utilize it, they had hitherto been unsuccessful.”

Arthur St. Hill disembarked from the Libertad at La Barca, from where he continued his wanderings around Mexico.

If anyone can supply any biographical details about Arthur St. Hill, please get in touch!

[This is a lightly edited excerpt from chapter 35 of my Lake Chapala through the ages: an anthology of travelers’ tales.]

Source

  • Arthur St. Hill (writing as “A Gringo”). 1892. Through The Land of the Aztecs Or Life and Travel In Mexico. London: Sampson, Low, Marston & Company.

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.

Jun 042020
 

German-Mexican artist Hans Otto Butterlin (born Cologne, Germany, 26 December 1900) was only six years of age when the family emigrated from Europe to Mexico, living first in Mexico City and then Guadalajara.

During the Mexican Revolution, Otto and his younger brother, Friedrich, were sent back to live with relatives in Germany. Otto attended high school (Gymnasium) in Siegburg, but left school in about 1916 (mid-way through World War I) to join the German military as a one-year volunteer. After military service, Otto entered the University of Bonn in 1919 to study chemistry. The following year he continued his studies at Marburg University, before transferring to the University of Munich, where he was able to develop his passion for art.

Otto studied briefly at the prestigious Academy of Fine Arts in Munich in 1920 before moving to Berlin, where he was a member of the group of artists mentored by George Grosz, an influential artist and art educator, best known for his caricatures of Berlin life in the 1920s.

Otto returned to Mexico at the end of 1921 and began a career as an industrial chemist, working at several sugar mills in Jalisco, Sinaloa and the US. In about 1934, Otto moved to Mexico City, and joined the Mexican subsidiary of the German chemical company Bayer AG. While living in Mexico City, Otto was able to indulge his creative passion—painting—which led to him becoming close friends with a number of prominent Mexico City artists.

Otto Butterlin. Untitled, undated. Reproduced by kind permission of Monica Señoret.

Otto Butterlin. Untitled, undated. Reproduced by kind permission of Monique Señoret.

Otto and his family made their home in Mexico City in a second floor studio built by Mexican architect-artist Juan O’Gorman in the San Ángel Inn area, next door to the studio-home of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. This connection to such dedicated and talented artists undoubtedly fueled Otto’s desire to take his own art more seriously.

In Mexico City, Otto developed his skills in engraving and the production of woodblocks. He also taught art. From 1944 to 1949, Otto taught courses on the materials and techniques of painting at the San Carlos National Academy of Fine Arts, where his students included José Chávez Morado, Luis Nishizawa, Ricardo Martínez and Gunther Gerzso. He also taught techniques of restoration and conservation at the National School of Anthropology and History (Escuela Nacional de Antropología e Historia, ENAH).

Otto Butterlin. Untitled, undated. Reproduced by kind permission of Monica Señoret.

Otto Butterlin. Untitled, undated. Reproduced by kind permission of Monique Señoret.

The first major article drawing public attention to Otto’s art appeared in 1939 on the eve of World War II in Mexican Life, where Albert Helman outlined Otto’s background and critiqued his portraits of indigenous women. Helman rightly concluded that Otto had “become a Mexican not only in nationality but also in his way of thinking and feeling,” and was “the one painter among us to mainly preoccupy himself with the depiction of Mexican folk-types and to pursue in such a depiction a deeper, a psychological as well as physical characterization of the native Indian face.”

Otto held three major solo shows in Mexico City—at the Galería de Arte Mexicano in November 1942, November 1946 and January 1951— all of which were widely praised by critics. A review of the first show called it a “transcendent exhibition” by an artist who had assimilated “all the magical expressionist thrust of modern German art…. makes his own colors, like any conscientious European, and then applies them, with feverish creative passion and haste, on his splendid canvases.” (Mada Ontañón in Hoy). An anonymous reviewer of the third show told readers that “The specialized technique of Butterlin, a king of impressionism with a tremendous strength… is absolutely unmistakable.”

Otto Butterlin. Untitled, 1930. Reproduced by kind permission of Tom Thompson; photo by Xill Fessenden.

Otto Butterlin. Untitled, 1930. Reproduced by kind permission of Tom Thompson; photo by Xill Fessenden.

Otto and his family lived in Mexico City until the mid-1940s when they moved to Ajijic on Lake Chapala. At that time Ajijic had no art supplies, no galleries, limited electricity, and only one phone line; it was as easy to reach by boat as by road.

Otto died in Ajijic on 2 April 1956, at the age of 55.

Otto’s legacy

Binational and bicultural, Otto Butterlin had a significant influence on Mexican art in the mid-20th century. Yet his life and work have been largely ignored by art historians. German by birth, he became Mexican by choice. Though he lived most of his adult life in Mexico, Mexican writers have ignored his achievements because he was not native-born; Germans have forgotten him because Butterlin, after training as an artist in Germany, left that country in his mid-twenties and never returned.

Otto’s significant contributions to the development of modern Mexican art have been undervalued. For example, his series of powerful portraits—several of them intimate—of indigenous girls and women reveal how Otto was at the forefront of the post-Revolution art movement, one that was finally concerning itself with the nation’s indigenous peoples, landscapes and cultural traditions. This movement, which spawned new artistic techniques and styles, while often linking back to ancient pre-Columbian motifs and designs, also revived modern muralism, which made Mexico world famous as a cradle of artistic creativity.

Otto Butterlin showed a generation of Mexican artists how old-world artistic styles could be applied to new-world subject matter, and how a deep knowledge of chemical processes, paints and materials enhanced an artist’s ability to portray ideas and emotions. Otto’s own art focused more on feelings and emotions than on calculated representational portrayals. His influence helped nudge Mexican art away from realism and towards abstract expressionism.

Otto was generous and perceptive, more interested in art for art’s sake than for remuneration, profit or fame. He worked alongside—and his work was admired by—the greatest artists of his time. Artist, chemist and much more besides, Otto Butterlin left Mexico an extraordinary artistic legacy, one to be treasured, admired and enjoyed.

Acknowledgment

  • My sincere thanks to Otto Butterlin’s granddaughter, Monique Señoret, for her hospitality and for giving me the opportunity to see her extensive private collection of his original works.

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.

 Posted by at 5:25 am  Tagged with:
May 282020
 

The Canadian playwright and novelist George Ryga (1932-1987) lived and wrote in the village of San Antonio Tlayacapan, mid-way between Chapala and Ajijic, from November, 1972 to March 1973.

Ryga was sufficiently immersed in local life during his few months at Lake Chapala that it inspired him to write A Portrait of Angelica, a play set in Ajijic, that rings just as true today as it did when it was first written.

This is not some lighthearted romantic comedy, though Ryga does employ humor to good effect in examining the interaction, from a Canadian perspective, between a group of tourists and the Mexican townsfolk, who have “a culture that, unlike our own, ‘has withstood a thousand hurricanes.'”

Ryga introduces the play (in the published version) with the text of a talk he gave during a series of workshops of populist theatre in Thunder Bay in 1982. In the introduction, entitled “An Artist in Resistance,” Ryga proves to be a staunch advocate for the contribution that populist theatre can play to help audiences understand a world that is globalizing so rapidly—via changes in technology and communications—that it inevitably leads to conflicts and contradictions that expose widespread racism and inequalities. The themes of A Portrait of Angelica are no less serious.

My first surprise in reading the play was to discover that Angelica was the name of the small town (Santa Angelica) where the play is set, and not a person!

The basic plot is centered around frustrated lives and loves mixed with tales of lust, violence and drunkenness. The three principal characters are Danny, Jose and Elena. Danny is a well-educated young Canadian, who wants to parlay his masters degree in history and English into a writing career. He sits at a table on the town square writing letters to his mother—letters which, for one reason or another, never get sent. Jose is a local policeman, standing nearby, outside the town’s delegación. Elena is a “town girl”, an independent thinker, high spirited, sensuous and flirtatious.

The dialogue between these three and a host of minor characters (tourists, local residents, fishermen) varies from seemingly mundane conversations about daily life to quick-witted teasing, taunting and wisecracking about past and current events, occasionally interspersed by drinking and dancing. For the most part the dialogue is unfailingly entertaining, incisive and perceptive.

Here is Danny casting lighthearted aspersions on the newcomers who arrive with no Spanish:

Danny: I came to write a book in a town the new arrivals from Texas, Alabama and New York call Se Vende for a week or so. There are no markings on the highway to announce the entrance to Angelica, only “Se Vende” signs on fields, sheds, housing, shops and even refuse heaps now overgrown with banana palms sheltering scorpions who know nothing of inter-American economics… or the meaning of “For Sale” signs. [31]

Moments later, Padre Edwardo explains to Danny and Jose his own fears about how the town is changing:

You are both young… it is easy to impress you! You know nothing of this culture! Two thousand years of heritage sells for twenty pesos a square metre this very hour on the edge of town. I have a dream the people sold my church from underneath my feet for a parking lot… and I was reduced in my old age to herding goats upon the mountain for the milk and cheese consortium! When the price of land is high, history and culture is a dying calf with three legs! [31]

At one point Jose loses his patience with Danny and tells him what he thinks of the foreigners who have settled in the town:

They’ve all come here to die, or write a book! The taverns overflow with rotting poets and biographers who waste empty paper on their empty lives! Climb a mountain, or screw up a storm, amigo!… It will be better for your system than sitting at a table all day long! [33]

In a later part of the play, Danny and Jose continue to debate the relative merits of Canada and Mexico, Canadians and Mexicans:

Danny: In my homeland, we struggle six months of the year to keep ourselves from freezing during winter. Our children are well fed… the old have a living pension. You are as wealthy in resource as we, yet to boil soup takes a woman and two men!

Jose: But the soup gets made, even though we had to lose Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California to get to this!…” [36]

As the discussion proceeds, Jose is particularly anxious to impress on Danny that foreign visitors need to treat Mexicans as their equals:

Jose: . . No one, amigo, not a fool nor enemy of our people, will be allowed to starve or die forgotten in this country!

Danny: I understand that.

Jose: But do you understand that once you’ve taken of feeling that we have… you must accept us and our country as your equals… and not curiosities in your winter travels? [38]

The opening lines of Act 2 reiterate the long and rich history of Mexico by including this keenly observed reference to las cabañuelas:

Jose: In the month of January, we predict the temperatures and rainfall of each month within the coming year… what crops to plant and when… what water we shall have… according to a Mayan calendar of observations that has never failed us… and never will. [47]

Despite the play being set in Ajijic, there is only a single direct reference to Lake Chapala in the entire script, in this evocative description of a rider galloping along the shore:

Danny: A spray of sand and flecks of foam fly as Diablo and his rider become one – teeth bared, bent into the wind like arrows flying. Galloping over pale sands of Lake Chapala. Disappearing into eucalyptus groves and then reappearing. Galloping in water now… grey water beaten to a mist… by Diablo’s iron hooves. [55]

Elsewhere, Danny notes how:

Fishermen, silhouetted in the dying light, haul nets into boats designed ten thousand years ago. The women gather laundry left drying on the stones, their dusky faces and their eyes haunted by memories of long ago… of kings who rode this valley, their glowing helmets ablaze with quetzal plumes gathered from the places of the dead. [59]

One revealing exchange between Danny and Jose focuses on some of Santa Angelica’s other characters:

Danny: . . Mercedes Perez, doctora who invites an illness with her languid eyes, delicious thighs and septic hands… legendary healer of small dark children with dysentery… and white gentlemen with clap…

Jose: Antonio, the fixer… a hot lunch and four hundred pesos buys anything from Antonio – a two-year visa… marriage license… death certificate.

Danny: Blind Santo, who plays one note on his harmonica beside your open window until he’s paid to go away. Over coffee he listens for the addresses of all newcomers to the town, so he can serenade them at a later time.

Jose: The pimp, Augustino… hustling disease and brightly coloured woven shawls of finest mountain wool.

Danny: The solider, Gus… ancient remnant of an ancient war. [55]

Some of these minor characters are so timeless they have reappeared on numerous occasions scattered through Ajijic’s history.

This interesting and thought-provoking play was first performed at the Banff School of Fine Arts in Canada in summer 1973, with a cast of students, directed by Tom Peacocke. Somewhat surprisingly, it has never been performed at Lake Chapala.

Sources

  • George Ryga. 1982. “An Artist in Resistance,” Canadian Theatre Review, No 33 (Winter 1982).
  • George Ryga. 1984. A portrait of Angelica. A Letter to My Son. (Two plays) Winnipeg: Turnstone Press.

Note

The published version of the play could use some light editing. It is quite irritating (for any Spanish-speaking reader) to encounter such monstrosities as “el gatto” for “el gato” and “Como esta, senors?” for “Comó están, señores?” While the absence of accents is excusable in an English-language play, the absence of the letter ñ from words that require it is not. And as for “Padre Edwardo” [sic], he should definitely be Padre Eduardo, given that w is used in Spanish only in words of foreign origin.

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

May 212020
 

Eleanor Margarite Glover, who became an acclaimed portrait painter, and lived in Ajijic 1961-1963, was born on 1 October 1919 in Big Horn, Wyoming, to a Methodist minister, shortly before the family moved to Compton, Los Angeles, California. Eleanor was the second of five children in the family.

Her father nicknamed her “Tink” at an early age because she was always tinkering with things. Her son Loy recalls that his mother, “had an uncontrollable compulsion to touch things she found interesting. She and I were actually asked to leave the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena once because she couldn’t keep her hands off the Rodin.”

Tink Strother in her Ajijic studio, ca 1962

Tink Strother in her Ajijic studio, ca 1962

After graduating from Compton Junior College, Strother spent two years studying commercial art at Frank Wiggins Trade School.

She married Vane Strother in June 1942, shortly before he was posted overseas. In his absence, Strother worked as a draftsman for Douglas Aircraft. She began to add cheery, fun illustrations to the envelopes she used to mail letters to her husband. Her envelope art was first sketched in pencil, then carefully covered with ink or watercolor.

Wartime envelope decorated by Tink Strother

Wartime envelope decorated by Tink Strother

The New Yorker eventually ran a story about similar envelopes, coincidentally at the same time as a selection of Strother’s own wartime envelopes went on display in a highly successful exhibit at the Santa Paula Society of the Arts. When asked why she had started decorating envelopes, Strother replied, “Just to entertain the guys overseas fighting in the war; I put pretty girls on most of them, some movie stars. We were young and had just gotten married”

At the end of the war, Strother, a fiery, talkative red-head with a larger than life personality, started working as a commercial artist. She took the advice of a gallery owner and enrolled in portraiture classes at Orange Coast College.

Strother first visited Ajijic in 1960, by which time her marriage was in trouble. The following June she left her husband in California and settled with her two children in the lakeside village, renting what her son remembers as, “an incredible place with a guest house,  gardens and fountains, the kitchen was a separate building with a cook, a maid and a gardener for $110 a month.” The children stayed only a year, but Strother remained in Ajijic for the next two years, returning to California in 1964.

In 1962, an exhibition of Tink Strother’s paintings was held at the Alfredo Santos gallery in Guadalajara. (Other artists showing in that exhibition included Carlos López Ruíz, Ernesto Butterlin, Filipino artist Romeo Tabuena, American artist Peter Matosian,  French artist Diane Lane Root, and Mexican artists Jorge González Camarena and A. Galvez Suarez.)

In Ajijic, Tink worked as a portrait artist and taught art. Her son remembers that she,

always had a gaggle of ladies around her (and some serious art students) with their easels trudging around the fields doing landscapes in their sun hats, or in the studio learning portraiture,

While in Ajijic, she met a Colombian artist Carlos López Ruíz (1912-1972). Their relationship continued and he accompanied her to California, where they opened a joint studio and gallery, first in Pico Rivera and then in Whittier. Strother also taught adult education art courses. Her son Loy frequently watched her teach, and describes her as a “a virtuoso teacher of painting”. He recalls her particular “party piece”:

“Tink did many demonstrations of portrait painting to classes and groups”, in which “she would take the same subject she had just done a portrait of, and draw him/her as a baby, and then age the portrait in stages to the age of about 90. People would gasp and say my God that is exactly what she looked like at that age!… And Tink talking nonstop the entire time explaining every move.”

Tink Strother was also an enthusiastic fund-raiser and offered her services as a sketch artist and caricaturist to hundreds of charity events. She would draw rapid charcoal sketches at $15 a head, sign them “Tink”, and donate all the proceeds to the charity. Loy Strother watched in awe:

“She attracted a crowd very time. It was like watching a magic act as Tink produced perfect likenesses with a few masterful strokes holding nothing in her hand but a chunk of charcoal. It would appear as if she was just waving her hand at the easel and an ethereal likeness of the subject would seem to emerge from the blank white paper.”

strother-tinkWhile portrait painting was her great love, Strother also did copper enamel jewelry, sculpture, serigraphs and graphic designs.

When her relationship with Carlos broke down (in about 1968), Strother moved to Europe where she continued to enjoy moderate success, completing a prolific number of fine portraits, living mostly in Rome, Italy.

In 1976 (several years after Carlos’ death) Strother returned to California and became deeply involved in the Santa Paula Society of the Arts and an art columnist for the Santa Paula Times. Strother lived the last few years of her life with her daughter in Barcelona, Spain, and died there on 1 January 2007.

Peggy Kelly, who wrote Strother’s obituary for the Santa Paula News praised her portraits, saying that they reflected “not only the physical likeness of the subject but also their personality and soul.”

Note This post was first published 24 December 2014.

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

May 142020
 

Thomas Philip Terry (1864-1945) was born in Georgetown, Kentucky. Terry first visited Mexico in his early twenties and spent 5 years working for The Mexican Financier, a Mexico City weekly, while writing a series of short stories and news reports for U.S. newspapers and completing a popular Spanish-English phrase book. Terry then lived briefly in New York before moving to Japan for a decade.

He had a flair for languages and this inveterate traveler and reporter witnessed first-hand the China-Japanese War, the Boxer outbreak, the Russo-Japanese war, and the Spanish-American war in the Philippines. He returned to Mexico, with his wife and their two young sons, in 1905 as manager (administrator) of the Sonora News Company, a position he held until 1910.

The Sonora News Company was a prominent publishing house, founded in Nogales, Arizona, in about 1884 by W. F. Layer. Layer established the company in order to control the news business along the Sonora railroad which ran from Guaymas to Nogales. In 1888, not long after the company opened a Mexico City office, it won the contract for supplying periodicals and other items on the Mexican National Railway (linking Mexico City to Nuevo Laredo), and for running news agents on its trains. As more and more railroad lines were built, the company continued to expand; by 1891 it had contracts with the Sonora, Central, International, National, Monterrey, and Mexican Gulf railroads.

In addition to its regular news gathering and disseminating activities, the Sonora News Company published two seminal guide books about Mexico. The first was Campbell’s new revised complete guide and descriptive book of Mexico, by Reau Campbell, published in 1899, and the second was Terry’s Mexico handbook for travellers, first published in 1909. This encyclopedic guide, thoroughly good reading, covers lots of ground that was, and still is, hard to find elsewhere.

Terry-map-Chapala

This map in Terry’s handbook, which helped persuade D. H. Lawrence to visit Chapala, shows the lake larger than it really was in 1909—the eastern swamps had been drained and reclaimed as farmland by that time.

Terry’s Mexico handbook was so well-received by President Díaz and his cabinet members that they ordered copies to be sent to every Mexican embassy, legation and trade office across the world. The guide quickly became the travel bible for Thomas Cook and Sons and other travel agencies and tourist organizations, and remained the tourist “bible” for decades.

Its description of Chapala is credited with convincing the English novelist D. H. Lawrence that he simply had to see the town and its eponymous lake for himself. During his residence at Lake Chapala, Lawrence wrote the first draft of The Plumed Serpent, using local settings and characters for inspiration.

Terry’s research was meticulous and his informative guide delves into the details of everything from history to hotels, and from shopping to excursions. It was expanded in numerous subsequent editions as Terry’s Guide to Mexico, with later editions revised by James Norman.

In 1914, Terry produced a second book on Mexico: Mexico: an outline sketch of the country, its people and their history from the earliest times to the present.

Thomas Philip Terry died in Hingham, Massachusetts in 1945.

In a curious twist of fate, Terry also has a much more recent connection to Lake Chapala in that Robert C. Terry (his grandson) retired with his wife, Judith, to Ajijic in 2007.

For more about Terry and his description of Lake Chapala, see chapter 53 of my Lake Chapala Through the Ages, an anthology of travelers’ tales.

Sources include

  • Reau Campbell. 1899. Campbell’s new revised complete guide and descriptive book of Mexico. Mexico City: Sonora News Company, 1899.
  • The Jalisco Times, 22 August 1908.
  • The Mexican Herald, 31 March 1910, 3.
  • The Rock Island Argus (Rock Island, Illinois), 26 Mar 1910, 4.
  • Thomas Philip Terry. 1909. Terry’s Mexico Handbook for Travellers. México City: Sonora News Company and Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.
  • James Tipton. 2011. “Peace Corps couple retire to their Mexico paradise.” Article on MexConnect.com
  • The Two Republics, 2 Sep 1888, 4; 2 Nov 1888, 4.

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

May 072020
 

The talented painter and musician Gustavo Sendis divided his time for much of his life between Guadalajara, where he was born in 1941, and his family’s second home in Ajijic.

Born on 8 July 1941, Sendis became interested in art at an early age and studied drawing with Juan Navarro and Ernesto Butterlin in 1958 and 1959. His father was a scientist and university lecturer who founded several important projects in the Guadalajara Hospital Civil and Sanatorio Guadalajara. Despite some parental pressure to pursue a conventional career (see comments), Gustavo chose to marry young and went to live in Europe. His father apparently supported this decision and his mother helped provide valuable contacts in regards to concerts and exhibitions.

His love of guitar music and painting took him first to the U.S., where he studied with Jack Buckingham at the University of California, Berkeley (where he lived with the family of Jim Byers), and then to Spain, where he studied with Alvaro Company (taught by Segovia) in Malaga, and with Emilio Pujol (1886-1980), the preeminent Spanish classical guitarist and composer.

Emilio Pujol (left) and Gustavo Sendis, 1965

Emilio Pujol (left) and Gustavo Sendis, 1965

On his return to Guadalajara, Sendis brought back a heartfelt open letter from Pujol, dated 1965, to “Mexican guitarists”, and began to exhibit his paintings and give public guitar recitals. In 1967 he gave a guitar recital and exhibited about 20 abstract works (painted during his time in Europe) at the Sociedad de Amigos de la Guitarra de Guadalajara on Calle Francia in Colonia Moderna. Sendis’s first formal exhibition was at the Casa de la Cultura Jalisciense in Guadalajara in (1968).

Gustavo Sendis: Untitled. Credit: Galería Vértice.

Gustavo Sendis: Untitled. Credit: Galería Vértice.

During a second trip to Europe, he continued to exhibit his work and give guitar concerts. Practically self-taught as a painter, Sendis exhibited in several European countries, including Sociedad Cultural Ebusus in Ibiza, Spain (1970); 1970 Palacio Fox, Lisbon, Portugal (1970); University of Paris, France (1970); the Ibiza Bienal (1971); Galeria Varia, Berne, Switzerland (1974); Galeira Barsotti, Viareggion, Italy (1975); Galeria 18 de Septiembre, Prato, Italy (1976); 1977 Palacio de la Exposición, Milan, Italy (1977) and Galeria Monserrato, Monserrat Cagliari, Cerdeña, Italy (1977). He returned to Spain for a show in Málaga (1977) of paintings related to music, with titles like “Notes on the Flute”.

On his return to Mexico, Sendis lived for many years in Ajijic prior to moving first to Taxco, Guerrero (where he gave a concert in the city’s Santa Prisca church) and then to Tepoztlán, Morelos, where he suffered a fatal heart attack on 25 May 1989, while he was still in his 40s.

Gustavo Sendis: Volcán. Credit: Galería Vértice.

Gustavo Sendis: Volcán. Credit: Galería Vértice.

Throughout his life, Sendis entertained people with his sensitive guitar playing. For example in June 1972 he was performing nightly in Ajijic at the El Tejaban restaurant-gallery (then run by Jan Dunlap and Manuel Urzua). The following month, he had a month-long solo show at the gallery of paintings that had been shown previously in “Paris, Madrid, Lisbon and several other cities in Europe”.

Sendis recorded one record, Tras la huella de Sendis, and there is also a cassette tape, entitled Homenaje a Emilio Pujol, of a recital by Sendis in August 1987 in the Santa María church in Tepoztlan, Morelos, made by Victor Rapoport from an original recording belonging to Alice Mickelli. The cassette, released by the family in 1995, includes two pieces by Francisco Tárrega (1852-1909), one by Dionisio Aguado (1784-1849) and two composed by the guitarist himself: “Danza Nahuatl” and “Paisajes”.

Gustavo Sendis. Untitled, undated. Reproduced by kind permission of Jan Dunlap.

Gustavo Sendis. Untitled, undated. Reproduced by kind permission of Jan Dunlap.

In March 1974, he showed several paintings alongside works by his mother, Alicia Sendis, and Sheryl Stokes at  La Galeria del Lago in Ajijic. The inspiration for many of his paintings came from Jalisco scenes that he knew as a child. In fellow artist Tom Faloon’s words, Sendis “did some wonderful paintings, and pretty much lived in his own world.” In addition to conventional paintings on flat surfaces, Sendis is also known to have painted scenes on stoneware plates.

He continued to exhibit frequently into the early 1980s, showing works at the Salón de Octubre, Casa de la Cultura, Guadalajara (1978, 1979, 1980); Ex-convento del Carmen, Guadalajara (1980); Plástica Jalisco ’81, Casa de la Cultura, Guadalajara (1981); Galeria Atelier, Guadalajara (1981); Galería Uno, Puerto Vallarta (1982) and Collage, Galería de Arte, Monterrey, Nuevo León (1982).

Though the details remain a mystery, a selection of his works was exhibited at Malaspina College (now Vancouver Island University) in Nanaimo, B.C., Canada in July 1980, in a joint show with Zbigniew Olak and Aquatic Exotic.

In June 1984 Sendis exhibited at the Centro de Investigación y Difusión del Arte Exedra in Zapopan, Guadalajara (Paseo del Prado #387, Lomas del Valle).

Gustavo Sendis. Untitled, undated. Reproduced by kind permission of Jan Dunlap.

Gustavo Sendis. Untitled, undated. Reproduced by kind permission of Jan Dunlap.

In 2010 a major “Winter Collective” exhibition in Guadalajara at Galería Vértice included a Sendis painting, alongside originals by such renowned artists as Rufino Tamayo, Gustavo Aceves, José Clemente Orozco, Rafael Coronel, Gunther Gerzso, Leonora Carrington and Juan Soriano. Sendis’s work was also included in a similar exhibition the following year, alongside works by Georg Rauch, Jose Luis Cuevas, Juan Soriano and Francisco Toledo.

Sendis is included, deservedly, in Guillermo Ramírez Godoy’s book Cuatro Siglos de Pintura Jalisciense (“Four Centuries of Jaliscan Painting”).

When the Guadalajara newspaper El Informador reached its centenary in 2017, the paper’s director, Carlos Álvarez del Castillo, selected 100 pieces of art from the “Fundación J. Álvarez del Castillo” collection of horse-related paintings and sculptures to be displayed at the Cabañas Cultural Institute in Guadalajara. The exhibit, entitled “Equinos 100”, includes the very first painting acquired for the collection – a painting by Gustavo Sendis.

This is an updated version of a profile originally published on 26 February 2015 (and reprinted with additional material on 2 October 2017).

Acknowledgments

My sincere thanks to Katie Goodridge Ingram, Jan Dunlap and the late Tom Faloon for sharing with me their memories of Gustavo Sendis, and for the valuable additions and clarifications by Gustavo’s niece Isabel Cristina de Sendis and by Adriana Rodríguez (see comments section). Special thanks are also due to Hilda Mendoza of Ajijic for her generous and treasured gift of the cassette tape, Homenaje a Emilio Pujol.

Sources:

  • Anon. 1979. “Madrona exposition centre – 1980 schedule of shows”. Staff Bulletin (Malaspina College, Nanaimo, B.C.), 21 December 1979 (Vol 1 #13).
  • Guadalajara Reporter: 3 June 1972; 10 June 1972; 1 July 1972; 16 March 1974
  • Ramon Macias Mora. 2001. Las seis cuerdas de la guitarra (Editorial Conexión Gráfica).
  • Guillermo Ramírez Godoy. 2003. “La dualidad artística del pintor y guitarrista Gustavo Sendis”. El Informador (Guadalajara), 26 Oct 2003.
  • Guillermo Ramírez Godoy and Arturo Camacho Becerra. 1996. Cuatro Siglos de Pintura Jalisciense (Cámara Nacional de Comercio de Guadalajara).
  • Ramiro Torreblanco. 1981. “Pintor de Profundid”, El Informador, 14 June 1981.

Note: Galería Vértice catalogs were at http://www.verticegaleria.com/esp/antes_exp.asp?cve_exp=82

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.

Apr 302020
 

Given its underlying theme, it seems eerily appropriate—given the current Covid-19 lockdown at Lake Chapala—to take a quick look at William S. Stone’s short story entitled “La Soñadora” (“The Dreamer), published in Mexican Life in 1947.

Stone-story

The illustration is by Valentín Vidaurreta, better known as one of the greatest silver designers in 20th century Mexico

The protagonist is a young doctor who has arrived with a group of American miners looking for gold in the hills behind the village:

It was in the year 1918 that a group of Americans came to the Mexican village of Ajijic to mine gold in the mountains a bare two kilometers away. A truly white face had rarely before been seen and now, all at once, there was a score of them. It came nearer to stirring the village from its apathy than any other event of the last half century. But, after a brief period of mutely staring inspection, the foreigners would have been forgotten, would have aroused no more interest that the lizards which swarmed the adobe walls or the porkers wandering the muddy lanes, had it not been for the young doctor who came with them.

Dr Mason had a way of going into their hovels where he could not be entirely ignored. For that was the year of the plague. Dog-tired after ministering to those who were sick among his own party at the mine, he would stumble down the trail to the village. There, without being told, he seemed to know in which houses were the stricken and without a word he would stalk almost as though sleep-walking to the mat-side, with his medicine case in hand.

During the early days of the epidemic, before fatigue had dulled his faculties, he had been surprised and curious at the reception that his visit met. The circle of silent watchers about the afflicted one would part reluctantly. Eyes which had been fixed in sodden helplessness on the victim would turn upon him, burning dully with hostility. And, so he thought, with fear.”

As the epidemic rages around him, Mason continues trying to help the local people but becomes more and more pulled in to the villagers’ world of intrigue, sorcery, and witchcraft. Mason repeatedly overhears them repeating three names in particular:

Carlota, the bruja, the ancient village witch and healer. María, the young cantinera, the operator of a small saloon—she who was literate, her head raised nearly free above the others, but her feet still enmeshed in rank weeds of superstition. Finally Juan, the medico, the outsider who had laughed at witches’ spells and cured with white man’s magic.”

Before long, Mason is drawn back into events that happened eighteen years earlier, in 1900, and his imagination works overtime as the present becomes blurred with the past.

Stone had an enviable talent with words and wrote dozens of short stories and, in a lengthy career, several books, mostly set in Hawaii. These include Teri Taro from Bora Bora (1940); Thunder island (1942); Pépé was the saddest bird (1944); The ship of flame, a saga of the South seas (1945); Tahiti landfall (1948); Two came by sea (1953); Castles in the sand (1955); The coral tower (1959) and Idylls of the South Seas (1970).

William Standish Stone was born to Captain Arthur W. Stone, a US naval officer, and his wife in Santa Barbara, California, in 1905 and died in Hawaii on 13 January 1970.

While completing a liberal arts degree at Harvard, Stone became very familiar with Mexico, making numerous trips into the interior during vacations before living and traveling there for several years, learning Spanish and “nursing an ambition to write.” When he returned to the US, Stone settled in Tucson and completed a law degree at the University of Arizona. He continued his writing career alongside learning to fly and running a legal practice in Tucson for many years. Stone married Virginia Moss Haydon (1909-1972) in May 1931.

If you know more about William Standish Stone’s time in Mexico, please get in touch!

I’m sure that Dr. Mason’s dreamy spirit lives on in Ajijic and fully expect to see him sitting on his bench in the plaza next time I visit…

Sources

  • Arizona Daily Star, 24 Dec 1935.
  • Honolulu Advertiser, 16 Jan 1970, 49.
  • William S. Stone. “La Soñadora,” Mexican Life, March 1947, p 13-14, 74-84.
  • Vanity Fair, January 1936.

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.

Apr 232020
 

At first glance this may not seem to be the most exciting photograph of Lake Chapala ever used for a postcard. However, “Casa Abitia” – the card’s publisher – was the business name for one of Mexico’s most interesting, pioneering and remarkable photographers.

Casa Abitia: Chapala postcard

Casa Abitia. “Orillas del lago, Chapala, Jal.” ca 1920.

Jesús Hermenegildo Abitia Garcés, commonly known simply as Chucho Abitia, was born in Batuchic, Chihuahua, on 13 April 1881, spent his early years in Sonora, and died in Mexico City in 1960.

He took his first photographs at the age of 12, after spending his savings – all US$2.50 of them – on an American camera. In 1905, in his twenties, he set up a photography business in Hermosillo, Sonora, named Abitia Hermanos Fotógrafos, that specialized in the distribution of Eastman Kodak products and materials. He was also a pioneer of moving pictures in Mexico, shooting such reels as El mata mujeres (“He kills women”), Los amores de Novelty (“The loves of Novelty”), Los dos reclutas (“The two recruits”) and El robo del perico (“Theft of the parakeet”), all released in 1913.

During the Mexican Revolution, Abitia joined the Ejército del Noroeste (Constitutional Army of the Northwest) commanded by his former school friend, Álvaro Obregón. As a propaganda officer, Abitia recorded the advance of Obregón’s constitutionalist troops as they took control of Culiacán, Mazatlán and Guadalajara before entering Mexico City in August 1914. Obregón was joined in Mexico City a few days later by Venustiano Carranza who established a new government.

In about 1914, and in cooperation with other family members, he established a photographic business – Abitia Hermanos Fotógrafos – in Guadalajara. He was commissioned by then president, Venustiano Carranza, to travel throughout Mexico, shooting documentaries to be shown across Latin America as a means of promoting the country’s progress.

Abitia’s family photography business in Guadalajara continued to operate until 1926. The family store, operating initially as “Abitia Hnos y Cia” and later as “La Casa del Fotógrafo”, was located at Avenida 16 de Septiembre #160. It advertised its products – all sizes and formats of Kodak film “direct from the factory” – and services sporadically over the next few years, occasionally offering discounts such as “10% off all films, plates, papers and postcards”.

This mention of postcards strongly suggests that the Abitia view of Chapala, illustrating this post, dates from about this time. In 1921, a display advert in El Informador boasted that Casa Abitia offered “Tarjetas Postales de Guadalajara y Chapala. Hermosa colección, única en la ciudad.” (“Postcards of Guadalajara and Chapala. Beautiful collection. Unique in the city.”)

Abitia also continued to make movies and, in 1922, with a budget of $300,000 pesos, he founded the Estudios Chapultepec in Mexico City. The earliest Mexican movie with sound was Santa, filmed here in 1931.

At some point, Abitia acquired the Hacienda San Gaspar in Jiutepec, just outside the city of Cuernavaca in the state of Morelos. In the late 1940s, he built a trout farm on part of the property.

In addition to his career as a photographer, Abitia was an accomplished violinist and built several innovative stringed instruments. He first made string instruments in about 1900. His instruments were of high acoustic quality and craftsmanship and included a viola, a violeta (between a viola and a violin) and a violetín (a fifth sharper than a violin) as well as an ultrabajo (five tones below a doublebass). He collaborated with the notable Mexican musical inventor, Julián Carillo in the development and perfection of Sonido 13. (For more about this unusual musical system, see chapter 25 of my Mexican Kaleidoscope.)

For a sample of Abitia’s documentary work, this short silent documentary – “Los combates de Celaya (Abril 1915)” – is viewable on Youtube. Abitia filmed this in April 1915 as General Alvaro Obregón and his forces took the city of Celaya, Guanajuato. (The music accompanying the film on Youtube is by the Hermanos Záizar.)

Sources

  • Anon. 2018. “Jesús Hermenegildo Abitia Garcés“, post dated 17 April 2019 on Facebook page, Jesus H. Abitia (1881-1960).  [4 June 2019]
  • El Constitucionalista, Diario Oficial. 3 September 1914, 2.
  • El Informador: 23 Dec 1917, 2; 7 June 1918, 3; 21 February 1920, 8; 20 June 1920, 6; 4 August 1920; 8 January 1921, 7; 24 June 1922; 12 Feb 1923, 3; 14 March 1926, 8.
  • Angel Miguel. Undated. Jesús Hermenegildo Abitia Garcés: Biografía. Fundación Carmen Toscano, archivo histórico cinematográfico. [4 June 2019]
  • Periódico Oficial del Estado de Morelos. 18 June 1939, 1; 27 September 1942, 2; 26 Nov 1947, 1.
  • El Pueblo, 25 Feb 1918, 1.

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 162020
 

Ajijic first bloomed into a center for art and artists in the 1940s. By the end of that decade, the village boasted at least one gallery, and several entrepreneurial artists were involved in offering seasonal art classes, initially for summer visitors from the U.S.

During the 1950s, word-of-mouth gradually spread Ajijic’s “fame” as an artistic center. One of the many attractions offered by Ajijic for artists was that it was inexpensive, especially compared to prices north of the border.

Photo by Haig Shekerjian.

Portrait by Haig Shekerjian.

Among the couples attracted in part by Ajijic’s affordability were Regina de Cormier Shekerjian (1923-2000), a well-known poet, author, translator and illustrator of children’s books, and her husband, Haig Shekerjian (1922-2002), a photographer.

They first visited Ajijic when Haig took a sabbatical over the winter of 1950-51 and they spent several months living in the village. They returned frequently thereafter, including numerous times in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Regina contributed to boosting Ajijic’s popularity as an arts center by writing one of the earliest articles dedicated to extolling its virtues to the art-loving public north of the border. In 1952, when one U.S. dollar was worth 8.65 pesos, in an article entitled “You can Afford a Mexican Summer,” she explained why Ajijic was the ideal location for an inexpensive art-themed summer break:

Nine times out of ten, an artist pinches pennies. Nowhere in the world can a penny be pinched as hard as it can today in Mexico, a land intended for the artist.

Mexico is filled with color. Purples, pinks, red and orange. Color in a high key, layered through with dun-colored space and fingered with tall blue mountains. A checkerboard of tonal dissonance and silence. A strange land. Every era of civilization co-exists, side by side, Aztec temples, pyramids and medieval cities, beautifully preserved. Pre-Columbian idols can be unearthed along the lake shore or mud edge. Its rural villages are much as they were before the Conquest. Ancient superstitions tangle with Catholicism, producing a pageantry that begs to be painted.

– – –
Having lived on a strict peso budget for four months now in the tiny town of Ajijic (pronounced Ah-hee-heek) we have discovered it is possible for two people to live comfortably in a five-room-with-patio-and-garden house; buy food, ice, kerosene for the stove, gas for the car, art and photographic supplies, postage, cigarettes, have lunch once a week in Guadalajara (forty miles way) and even indulge in a bit of entertaining for about $70 a month! Ajijic, I must point out, is more expensive than many other small villages. It is perfectly possible to get both board and room for eight or twelve pesos a day. Many people do it, for there are many places still where the Mexican is as yet unaware of what the present ration means. Even the houses in Ajijic (big, cool, adobe houses with gardens of tropical flowers and all kinds of fruit trees) rent from six to twelve dollars a month. And a servant who will cook, clean, shop, and wash and iron your clothes (leaving you free to paint) can be had for the standard wage of $5 a month. We spend eight pesos a day – a trifle less than a dollar for food, ice and kerosene. And this includes meat everyday for three hearty appetites, ours and a big Airedale’s.

For companionship in our particular village you will find an assortment of writers, artists and musicians, that reminds you, naturally, of Greenwich Village. Some have been here two or three years, returning at the end of each six months to renew their tourist cards, then hurrying back to finish a project. Others are teachers on summer vacation.”

Source:

  • Regina Shekerjian. 1952. “You can Afford a Mexican Summer: Complete Details on how to Stretch your Dollars During an Art Trek South of the Border” in Design, Volume 53, 1952, Issue 8, pp 182-183, 197.

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

Apr 092020
 

Accompanied by his family, multilingual Polish-born artist and educator Harry Mintz (1907-2002) was a frequent visitor to Lake Chapala from the 1970s into the 1990s. His first recorded visit was in 1974, when the local paper reported that the family was spending the summer in Chula Vista and that it was a working vacation for Harry who “hopes to complete a series of water colors while in this lakeside community.” On that occasion, the family stayed about a month before returning to Chicago with plans to revisit Lake Chapala the following summer.

The family eventually based themselves in a house/studio on the western outskirts of Ajijic at Linda Vista #14 where Harry’s large, bright studio reverberated to the sound of classical music as he worked on his oil paintings and various series of prints. In later years, he produced a series of vivid abstracts, known by his family as Paint Pours.

While in Mexico, Harry Mintz became a good friend of talented photographer Bert Miller.
Mintz’s daughter, Sari, recalls how much her father loved Mexico:

My father found the country and culture to be alive and real and exciting and could hardly wait for my school teacher mother to finish teaching in June so they could load the car and drive to Lake Chapala. Dad loved the markets, the streets, the people, the colors, the trees, the villages. He couldn’t get enough.”

According to his U.S. naturalization papers (filed in 1941), Mintz was born in Ostrowiec, Poland, on 27 September 1904. He is thought to have studied at Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts before crossing the Atlantic to start a fellowship in Brazil. From Brazil Mintz moved to the U.S., arriving in New York aboard the SS Southern Cross on 12 May 1924. In the U.S., Mintz studied at the Chicago Art Institute and, during the 1930s, was a registered artist for the Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project.

Mintz was certainly living in Chicago by 1932 and was still living there when he applied for naturalization in 1941. His decision to seek naturalization appears to have been motivated by his marriage to Marjory Elizabeth Carter in Chicago the previous year, on 10 February 1940. That marriage lasted about a decade.

Mintz taught art at the Evanston Art Center (1940-1970), the North Shore Art League (1950-1959) and was on the faculty of the Art Institute of Chicago (1955-1970). He was also a visiting professor of art at Washington University, St. Louis (1954-1955). He took early retirement from his teaching positions to focus exclusively on his art, which became increasingly abstract.

Mintz was a regular visitor to Mexico from the 1940s onwards, spending time in a number of places but mostly in the city of Guanajuato and the art center of San Miguel de Allende. Mintz was teaching at the Bellas Artes school in San Miguel de Allende in 1958 when he met and fell in love with Rosabelle Vita Truglio, a visiting summer student. After the briefest of courtships, they married on 1 September 1958 and subsequently had two children. Their daughter, Sari Rachel Mintz, in an interview for a Chicago style magazine, summarized her father’s reaction on meeting his soulmate:

He looked like Picasso, spoke 12 languages, met my mother in Mexico when she was 23 and he was 57, swept her off her feet, convinced her to dump a fiancé back home and married her in a month. I have one brother, and both of our birth certificates say he was 57 when we were born, so we really never knew his age.”

The article (about Sari’s very stylish Chicago home) includes a photo of a Mintz Monotype (a single print from an original painted on glass) entitled “Tree in Ajijic, Mexico” painted in 1983.

Harry Mintz. Mexican street. 1952. (Auctioned by Hindman, Chicago, in 2007)

Harry Mintz. Mexican street. 1952. (Auctioned by Hindman, Chicago, in 2007)

Mintz held more than 40 one-man shows, mainly in the Chicago area. Venues included the Art Institute of Chicago; Evanston Arts Center and the Ruth Volid Gallery. He also had solo shows in Heller Gallery, New York City; John Heller Gallery, New York City; Feingarten Galleries, Chicago, and Beverly Hills, California (1961); the University of Judaism, Los Angeles and the Galeria Escondida in Taos, New Mexico.

Mintz’s curriculum also lists two solo shows in Mexico: at the Galería del Arte, Guadalajara (1987) and at ARTestudio in Ajijic (date unknown).

His works were also included in more than 300 group shows, including the New York World’s Fair (1940); Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City; Museum of Modern Art, New York City; Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts; Carnegie International, Pittsburgh; Venice Biennale in Italy; Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco; Corcoran Gallery of Art; Washington, D.C.; Museum of Cincinnati, Cincinnati; the Milwaukee Art Institute; and Denver Art Museum.

Mintz had a work selected for the 66th Annual Exhibition by Artists of Chicago and Vicinity in 1963. By coincidence, Stanley Sourelis, another artist with close connections to Chicago and the Lake Chapala area, also had a work in that show.

Examples of Mintz’s fine paintings can be found in the permanent collections of the Art Institute of Chicago; Whitney Museum; Warsaw Academy Fine Arts; Museum of Art in Tel-Aviv, Israel; Museum of Modern Art, Rio de Janeiro; Evansville (Indiana) Museum; Notre Dame University; Northwestern University; Columbus University (Ohio).

A large collection of documents and photographs relating to Mintz and his art are held in the Ryerson and Burnham Archives of The Art Institute of Chicago.

Acknowledgments

My sincere thanks to Sari Mintz, for her help in compiling this profile of her father, and to Jenni Mykrantz, who manages Mintz’s art estate.

Sources

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.

 Posted by at 5:40 am  Tagged with:
Apr 022020
 

Winifred Martin, a journalist working for the The San Bernardino Sun in California, spent six weeks in Mexico in 1909 and has left us a first-hand account of staying at the Hotel Ribera Castellanos (located mid-way between Jamay and Ocotlán near the eastern end of the lake), one of Mexico’s most fashionable resorts at the time.

Extolling the virtues of “the delightful balminess,” perfect temperature and “gentle lapping of the waves,” Martin labeled the Hotel Ribera Castellanos “a place unique in all the great republic of Mexico.”

The hotel is picturesque and charming with lawns sloping steeply to the water’s edge… the long rambling building with its tiled roof fits well into the setting. Song birds fill the trees and birds of brilliant scarlet plumage, mingle with their kin of the silver voices. Mesquite trees with foliage like a species of acacia, are among those which dot the lawn, with banana plants, palms, bougainvillea, geraniums and other plants with gorgeous blooms in unstudied arrangement.”

She praised the hotel management:

Mr. and Mrs Sumrow, formerly of the Kenilworth Inn at Asheville, North Carolina, are managing the Ribera now, and give Americans a warm welcome. The chef is Chinese and the other servants as a matter of course are Mexicans. Horseback and coach rides are very popular and a number of interesting trips may be made, that to the old Indian village of Jamay, being one of the most popular.”

Martin also comments on how native boats with square sails plied the waters of the picturesque lake, which was a “hunters paradise during October, November and December, 22 species of game birds being found thereabouts.”

When Martin visited in 1909, the hotel was building an “addition with 58 rooms and baths.” The hacienda, of which the hotel was part, employed 230 men and produced “wheat, corn, and garbanzas.”

During her Mexico trip in 1909, Martin also made “delightful visits to Mexico City, Guadalajara, Guanajuato, Aguascalientes, and a score of other places of interest in the mañana land.” She concludes in her article that she shares “the experience of every traveler there, in that she was loath to leave and longs to enjoy the trip again.”

Winifred Martin, who never married, was born on 6 February 1869 in Cloverdale, Indiana, and died in San Bernardino, at the age of 92, on 22 June 1961. She began her career by working on The Transcript, a newspaper started in San Bernardino by her father in 1898. Her brother, Ernest Martin, who later became the San Bernardino postmaster, also worked there. At that time, San Bernardino was little more than “a harsh frontier town of muddy streets and drab buildings.” When her father sold The Transcript, Martin moved to the Daily Sun, beginning a long career with that paper (and its later iterations) that extended almost 60 years.

Martin was the paper’s social correspondent and chronicled social activities, births, marriages and deaths of three generations of San Bernardino families, always insisting on checking out key facts in person and never relying only on telephone conversations. She would work late into the night writing and checking material that would appear in the following morning’s edition.

Even as her health declined, Martin refused to slow down or retire. Even though needing a wheelchair in her later years, she still attended the annual Sun Company Christmas party, where she would be introduced as the “Grand Lady of the Sun Company”. In memory of her outstanding contributions, the paper established a Winifred Martin Scholarship which was awarded annually to the outstanding female journalism student in San Bernardino high schools.

Sources

  • Anon. “Personal”. The San Bernardino County Sun, 9 Dec 1909, 5.
  • Robert L Harrison. 1961. Winifred Martin Taken by Death. San Bernardino Sun-Telegram, 23 June 1961, C12, C17.
  • Winifrid Martin. 1909. “Astray in Mexico: South Republic Exiles Give Thanks.” The San Bernardino Sun, 4 Dec 1909, 5.

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.

Mar 262020
 

German artist Peter Woltze is primarily known as a watercolorist who specialized in street scenes and architectural studies. He lived in the U.S. for many years at the end of the 19th century and his beautiful painting of Chapala, dated 1899, is among the earliest watercolors known of the region.

Friedrich Karl Peter Berthold Woltze was born in Halberstadt, Germany, on 1 April 1860, the son of portrait painter Berthold Woltze (1829-1896) and his wife, Anna. Peter Woltze studied in Weimar, Karlsruhe, Munich, Venice and Rome.

At the age of 26, he left Germany on 29 August 1886 for the U.S., where he lived for most of the next 14 years. His decision to emigrate may have been at the encouragement or invitation of Austrian artist August Löhr (1843-1919) or German artist Friedrich Wilhelm Heine (1845–1921) who had partnered to establish the American Panorama Company (APC) in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, two years earlier. They commissioned as many as twenty German artists to work on large panoramic paintings for the APC. Löhr later moved to Mexico, where he painted Lake Chapala in about 1905.

Woltze certainly worked with the APC and the timing of his decision to cross the Atlantic to Milwaukee appears to confirm that he knew he would find employment there. During his years in Milwaukee, Woltze studied art with Heine (who set up the Heine School of Art in 1888) and contributed to several German language publications.

Peter Woltze. 1899. Chapala. (Credit: Auktionshaus Angerland, Germany)

Peter Woltze. 1899. Chapala. (Credit: Auktionshaus Angerland, Germany)

The permanent collection of the Milwaukee Art Museum has several Woltze paintings, including one of his few known portraits. In style, Woltze, influenced by the Grand-Ducal Saxon Art School in Weimar, moved away from classical composition towards more natural “genre” paintings based on an appreciation of nature. Among the other prominent artists of this School was Max Beckmann, who also moved to the U.S., where he taught creative American artist Barbara Zacheisz Elstob, who painted in Ajijic in the early 1950s.

Woltze became a member of the influential Salmagundi Club of New York, which holds regular art exhibitions and has amassed its own permanent collection, which includes a work by Gerald Collins Gleeson (1915-1986) who also painted in Chapala. Alan Horton Crane (1901-1969), also a member of the Salmagundi Club, visited Chapala in 1949 to produce some striking lithographs.

In addition to painting scenes in the Milwaukee region, Woltze also spent time in New Orleans and the south, where he painted numerous street and genre scenes.

Woltze visited Chapala in 1899, only a year after the opening of the town’s first international hotel, the Hotel Arzapalo. (Chicago-based artist Richard Smith Robbins (1863-1908) had visited Chapala the year before.) Woltze’s lovely watercolor of Chapala, sold at auction in Germany in 2019, is unusual in that it does not show the lake but focuses on the essential elements of rural life.

In 1900, Woltze returned to live in Germany, settling initially in Frankfurt am Main. Three years later, on 27 March 1903, he married Helene Meurer in Weimar in central Germany. The couple moved to Weimar in 1907, the same year Woltze published a portfolio of watercolor views of the city’s historic buildings.

Peter and Helene Woltze visited the U.S. in October 1909. Four years later, his wife returned to New York to mount an exhibition of almost 100 of her husband’s superb watercolors at the Waldorf-Astoria. A news report of the time emphasized the quality of the works on display, which were all “painted on English water color paper in English-made colors.”

Peter Woltze died in Weimar on 4 April 1925, at the age of 65. Examples of his Milwaukee paintings have occasionally appeared in group shows, such as Wisconsin Artists 1855 Until Today (1963); A Century Plus of Wisconsin Watercolors (1976); Collecting the Art of Wisconsin – The Early Years (1996) and An Unfolding Story… Panorama Painting In Milwaukee (2008).

Sources

  • The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 6 December 1913, 7.
  • William Gerdts. 1990. Art Across America. Abbeville Pr, vol. 2: 333.
  • John A. Mahé, Rosanne McCaffrey (eds). 1987. Encyclopaedia of New Orleans Artists, 1718-1918, p 418.
  • Museum of Wisconsin Art. 2007. “Peter Woltze” (biography).
  • Estill C Pennington (Contributor), James C Kelly (Contributor). 1985. The South on Paper: Line, Color and Light. Saraland Pr/Robert M Hicklin Jr Inc.
  • The Post-Crescent (Appleton, Wisconsin) 29 January 1967, 22.

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.

 Posted by at 5:39 am  Tagged with:
Mar 192020
 

Ken Smedley and his wife, Dorianne Smedley-Kohl, lived and performed at Lake Chapala from 1978 until 1989. Ken was a long-time friend of George Ryga, and the couple stayed initially at Ryga’s “cottage” in San Antonio Tlayacapan, before moving later to Ajijic, where they rented a house opposite “La Rusa” on Calle Independencia.

Image: Cover art of Smedley’s “Arrest That Naked Image”

Ken Smedley is an actor, director and dramatist who grew up in Kamloops, British Columbia. Smedley has presented one-man shows such as “Three of a Certain Kind” at Fringe festivals in Edmonton and Vancouver (both in 1986) and was a founding member of the Western Canada Theatre Company, now a professional theatre. He has directed plays at the Phoenix Theatre in the U.K. and several radio plays for CBC.

During his time in Ajijic, Smedley wrote Horn Swoggled, an over-the-top Pinteresque black comedy set in Mexico. The play was performed as a stage reading at several locations – Kamloops, Vernon, Kelowna, Penticton and Armstrong – in the interior of British Columbia in 1994.

The setting for Horn Swoggled is a gathering of relatives mourning the family’s dead matriarch, whose body lies in a casket in the living room. As the assorted relatives – including the priceless family patriarch, “Don Porfidio”, who clutches a gallon jug of tequila throughout – interact, they recall past events, recount differing versions of past events and argue angrily and vehemently with each other.

While the Smedleys were living in Mexico, Smedley directed several productions at Lake Chapala, including plays by Joanna Glass, Jack Heifner, David Marnet and Harold Pinter. Perhaps the single most noteworthy production was Smedley’s dinner-theater offering, in 1979 at the (Old) Posada Ajijic, of Portrait of a Lady, a Tribute to Margaret Laurence. This work, based on George Ryga’s seminal adaptation of Margaret Laurence’s classic novel The Stone Angel, featured Dorian Kohl’s acclaimed portrayal of heroine Hagar Shipley, a role Kohl has reprised numerous times since, in theaters across British Columbia.

Smedley was later appointed director of the George Ryga Centre, a cultural venue occupying Ryga’s former home in Summerland, British Columbia, Canada. Due to funding problems, the center closed in 2013.

Dorianne Smedley-Kohl (also known as Dorian Kohl) is a Canadian model, actress and artist. Dorianne was a fashion model in Toronto, New York, Paris and London for more than a decade, before becoming a regular on the “Wayne & Shuster Hour” on television. She has also appeared in the CBC TV series “The Party Game”, “The Actioneer” and many other works. Her stage performances include roles at Toronto’s Royal Alex Theatre, in “The King and I” and in “Pal Joey”.

In 1988, Ken and Dorianne Smedley were instrumental in mounting the first (and only) Ajijic Fringe Theatre – “El Fringe” – which included performances by Dorianne in “Circle of the Indian Year”, and by Ken in “Ringside Date with the Angel”, alongside various other events.

smedley-kohl-diego

Terence “Diego” Smedley-Kohl

The couple’s son Terence “Diego” Smedley-Kohl was born in Ajijic and spent the first ten years of his life in Mexico. Diego later became a member of “El Mariachi (Los Dorados)”, a Canadian mariachi band that had the honor of playing at the prestigious International Mariachi Festival in Guadalajara a few years ago.

Want to find the play?

  • Ken Smedley. 1983. Horn Swoggled. Canada: Rich Fog Micro Publishing (2019).

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.

Mar 122020
 

American couple Jim and Gloria Marthai took early retirement and moved to Ajijic in 1969. After 5 years there, they opted out of its bright lights in favor of the small village of San Pedro Tesistán on the south side of the lake. Very very few foreign residents have chosen to live in San Pedro; the Marthais lived there 15 years, enjoying the simple life and rural surroundings. Gloria, a keen rider, made regular forays on her horse to nearby villages and to the higher elevations behind their home, including the summit of the volcanic peak Cerro García, the highest point around the lake.

The Marthais’ lifestyle and willingness to learn Spanish enabled them to take an active part in village life and they quickly gained friends and became well integrated into their adopted community.

The couple later moved to the Roca Azul subdivision on the outskirts of Jocotepec.

James Louis Marthai (born in New York City on 22 November 1918) had first met Gloria (born in Canton, Ohio, on 7 September 1928) in California, where they both worked for General Dynamics Corporation, and married in Nevada on 28 June 1958.

The Marthais spent the first six years of their early retirement cruising the Bahamas and the U.S. east coast aboard their private 43-foot classic Elko cruiser.

After returning to live on land in Mexico in 1969, Jim Marthai developed his skills in poetry, sculpture, ivory carving and jewelry design.

He read some of his original poems at a Sunday evening of music and poetry held in 1971 at the home of Aileen Melby, a poet and children’s author, and her husband, Arthur. Jules Rubinstein and Katie Ingram also read poems at that informal soirée.

James Marthai. Drawing used for charity card in aid of Amigos de Salud.

James Marthai. 1977. Drawing used for charity card in aid of Amigos de Salud.

Jim was an accomplished sculptor, carver-especially of miniatures-and jeweler, using raw materials that varied from ebony and bone to walrus tusks and precious metals. He also made one-of-a-kind hunting knives.

Gloria immersed herself in Mexico and her experiences were the basis for a series of stories written for Mexconnect, El Ojo del Lago and the Lake Chapala Review. She contributed several pieces to Aguas Marías: Border Crossers, Boundary Breakers, a compilation of writings by 10 American and Canadian women living at Lake Chapala. Her one-paragraph bio in that book summed up her motivation to write:

“When I came to Mexico in 1969, I entered a time warp. It was the United States 100 years ago, a land of the horse. I was, and still am, intrigued and inspired by this country. I studied Spanish and bought my first horse early on, which led to easy assimilation into rural village life and an endless trail of adventure. How could I not write about it? Besides, I like tequila.”

In addition, she made made artistic shirts, mosaics and unusual decorative mobiles, frequently using bone and recycled materials.

Both Jim and Gloria Marthai had artwork exhibited in a show in October 1976 entitled “Arts and Crafts of Lake Chapala”, held at the ex-Convento del Carmen in Guadalajara and organized by the Jalisco State government. Other Lakeside artists in that show included Antonio Cardenas; Conrado Contreras; Manuel Flores; Gustel Foust; John Frost; Guillermo Gómez Vázquez; Antonio López Vega; Julia Michel [Gail Michel]; Bert Miller; Dionisio Morales; and Georg Rauch.

The following month, Gloria’s “bone mobiles” and Jim’s “crafted jewelry” were on sale at an Art and Craft Bazaar organized in Ajijic by Galería del Lago. Gallery manager Katie Goodridge Ingram, subsequently included Jim’s work in a show she organized for the Jalisco Fine Arts and Tourism departments in Puerto Vallarta. (That show also included works by Jean Caragonne; Conrado Contreras; Daniel de Simone; Gustel Foust; John Frost; Richard Frush; Hubert Harmon; Rocky Karns; Gail Michel; Bob Neathery; David Olaf; John K. Peterson; Georg Rauch; and Sylvia Salmi.)

In 1977, Jim Marthai’s drawing of a village scene (image) was used for the Amigos de Salud charity cards, available in either color or black and white. That same year Marthai illustrated The Before and After Dinner Cookbook, written by two Lakeside residents, Charlotte McNamara and Lenore Howell.

Jim Marthai died in Mexico on 14 March 2005; his wife, Gloria, passed away on 11 November 2011.

In a strange twist of horsehair, Jim Marthai’s legacy still lives on in the small town of Cajititlán, mid-way between Chapala and Guadalajara, where several families make hand-woven belts, sashes and bands for charro hats from long strands of horsehair. It was Marthai who first taught the techniques to a local woman, Consuelo Cervantes, and her son Diego in the early 1980s. She has since taught others. The unusual and ingenious handicrafts are sold at rodeos and charro events.

Acknowledgment

My thanks to Phyllis Rauch for sharing her fond memories of Jim and Gloria Marthai.

Sources

  • Colony (Guadalajara) Reporter: 6 Feb 1971; 20 March 1971; 30 Oct 1976, 23; 8 Oct 1977, 18; 18 November 2011.
  • El Informador: 25 Oct 1976.
  • Charlotte McNamara and Lenore Howell. 1977. The Before and After Dinner Cookbook (illustrations by James L. Marthai). Atheneum.
  • Ojo del Lago: November 1987.
  • John Pint. 2012. “Mexican artisans of Lake Cajititlan.” MexConnect.com. 18 May 2012.  [25 March 2019]

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.

Mar 052020
 

German poet, author and journalist Gustav Regler lived for almost a year in Ajijic from late 1947 or early 1948. Regler had lived several years in Mexico City where he was a close friend of Ezra Read Goodridge, a rare book dealer, and his wife Helen Kirtland (who moved to Ajijic shortly before Regler’s visit and later founded the hand looms business, Telares Ajijic). Helen’s daughter, Katie Goodridge Ingram, a child at the time, has fond memories of Regler who encouraged her early efforts at writing. (Ingram’s fascinating memoir of her childhood in Mexico City and Ajijic, According to Soledad, has just been published.)

Regler was born on 25 May 1898 in Merzig (now in Saarland, Germany) and died in India in 1963.

After sustaining serious injuries served his native country in the first world war, he joined the Communist party and lived for a time in the Soviet Union. While working with the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War he became friends with Ernest Hemingway. He was seriously injured and spent several months in hospital before leaving Spain.

Back in Germany, he gained a reputation as a vocal critic of the Third Reich which banned his books and led to him having to leave the country and move to Mexico.

After living in Ajijic at the end of the 1940s, Regler returned to Mexico City and then established his home on a farm in the small village of Tepoztlán in the state of Morelos. He was traveling in India to receive an award when he died in 1963. (Several other artists associated with Lake Chapala had homes inTepoztlán in the 1970s and 1980s, including painter and guitarist Gustavo Sendis, sculptor and painter Adolfo Riestra and photographer Toni Beatty.)

Regler wrote several books, including one about the Spanish Civil War: Das große Beispiel (“The great example”), translated, with an introduction by Hemingway, as The Great Crusade (1940).

In Mexico, Regler composed Jungle Hut: a ballad, a 37-page booklet of poetry (in English), published in Mexico City by Ediciones “Fraile” in May 1946 in a limited edition of 2500 copies.

Various documents relating to Regler and Jungle Hut are held in the The New York Public Library Manuscripts and Archives Division in their collection “Mary Maverick Lloyd Papers Gustav Regler Letters, 1939-1959”. They include a typescript manuscript entitled “Gandhi” and several pen and ink illustrations. Mary Maverick Lloyd helped Regler evade arrest by Nazi authorities and leave Germany for North America where he settled in Mexico.

In addition Regler authored Wolfgang Paalen (1946), a 69-page book about the German artist, his fellow German exile, also living in Mexico.

A land bewitched

Regler also wrote two books in German about Mexico: Vulkanisches Land (1947) and Verwunschenes Land Mexiko (1954). The latter was translated into English as A land bewitched; Mexico in the shadow of the centuries (1955). The English translation (which mistakenly states that the original title in German was “Verwunsches Land, Mexico”) was by Constantine Fitzgibbon. This error by the editor or publisher is pretty much in keeping with the strange use of Spanish throughout the book, with some very non-conventional Spanish spelling, the most glaring example of which is Kazike for cacique. In the book’s Spanish-English glossary, all Spanish words are capitalized and some words given in the singular form in Spanish are translated into plural forms in English and vice versa.

A Spanish edition of A land bewitched was released, as País volcánico, país hechizado, in Barcelona and Mexico City in 2003.

A land bewitched is an interesting read. Its five chapters look at Mexican attitudes (as evidenced by a mix of facts, Regler’s personal experiences and second-hand anecdotes) about water; death; beliefs and religion; love; and crime and punishment. It offers some excellent insights into the Mexican psyche, even if the quality of writing and level of analysis are inconsistent.

The book, dedicated to Tania and John Midgley does have one tangential link to Lake Chapala. Tania Midgley (1916-2000) was a British photographer who sometimes used her maiden name Tania Stanham professionally. Several of the photographs in Regler’s book are credited to her, as are two photos of Lake Chapala in the Folio Society edition of Sybille Bedford‘s classic A Visit to Don Otavio.

Regler also wrote his memoirs, published as The Owl of Minerva in 1959.

Regler and Hemingway

I have never found any evidence for the claim that Hemingway visited Chapala, a claim made, besides other places in International Living. Certainly, Lake Chapala never gets a mention in any of the many exhaustive biographies of the great writer. It appears that the only significant time Hemingway ventured into Mexico was a visit to Mexico City (from Cuba) in March 1942. This visit later came to the attention of the FBI because he apparently checked into the Reforma Hotel under an assumed name and then met up with Gustav Regler, a friend from his time in Spain during the Spanish Civil War.

Note re Chapala links to the Spanish Civil War

Several other authors and artists associated with Chapala were active in the Spanish Civil War. Members of the International Brigade, besides Regler, included Theodore Rose Cogswell, the second husband of George Marsh; Albert Helman (who wrote the first detailed account of Otto Butterlin’s paintings); and Conlon Nancarrow (the husband of artist Annette Nancarrow, whose previous husband, Louis Stephens had a vacation home in Ajijic). Mexican writer Ramón Rubín, author of a novel about Lake Chapala, was not formally a member of the International Brigade, but accompanied a shipment of arms to Spain in 1938. Cinematographer William Colfax Miller was a member of the 3,000-strong Abraham Lincoln Brigade of American volunteers, and Peter Elstob (who lived in Ajijic in the early 1950s) was a volunteer fighter pilot for the Republicans.

Acknowledgment

My thanks to Katie Goodridge Ingram for sharing her knowledge and memories of Gustav Regler.

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.

Feb 272020
 

Artists Michael Baxte (1900-1972) and his wife, Violette Mège (1889-1968), lived in Mexico City for decades and visited Ajijic several times during the 1940s.

Baxte and his wife were near neighbors in Mexico City of Helen Kirtland and her family. After her marriage ended, Kirtland moved to Ajijic with her three young children and founded Telares Ajijic. Her only daughter, Katie Goodridge Ingram, author of According to Soledad, a memoir about her childhood in Mexico City and Ajijic, has clear memories of Baxte and Mège visiting Ajijic over the winters of 1945 and 1946, where they shared a “cottage” owned by Louis Stephens, a mutual Mexico City friend.

Michael Baxte. ca 1950. Lake Chapala. (Mexican Life, June 1952)

Michael Baxte. ca 1950. Lake Chapala. (Mexican Life, June 1952)

Michael Posner Baxte was born in Staroselje, Belarus. His family emigrated by parts to the US at the start of the 20th century. Michael and his mother joined his older brothers there in 1907. Michael later went to stay with an uncle, an accomplished violinist who lived in Mississippi. Recognizing his musical talents, the uncle sent Michael to violin classes in New Orleans. Michael then took master classes in Paris and later Berlin, where he was a student of the famed Hungarian violinist Joseph Joaquim.

After Europe, Baxte settled in New York City in 1914 to compose, perform and teach. His musical compositions were performed at the Tokyo Imperial Theater, and he was a prominent member of the American Jewish community.

It was in New York that he fell in love with painter Violette Mège. The couple briefly visited Mège’s homeland of Algeria before settling in Manhattan, New York, where they married in 1920.

Inspired by his wife, Baxte began to paint. Mège was his only teacher, and he was her only student. Her classes and encouragement paid off a decade later when Baxte was chosen as one of the two winners in the Dudensing National Competition for American Painters. Baxte also exhibited with the Society of Independent Artists, Salons of America and at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Michael Baxte. ca 1950. Village in Jalisco. (Mexican Life, June 1952)

Michael Baxte. ca 1950. Village in Jalisco. (Mexican Life, June 1952)

Lloyd Goodrich, a New York Times critic, wrote in 1929 that “Mr. Baxte… is an artist of considerable subtlety, not too strong perhaps, and sometimes a little uncertain, but always sensitive and interesting. One feels in each of his pictures an absorption in his subject and an individual manner of looking at it. He has a very attractive color sense, warm, sensuous, and unexpected, which seems natural and unforced.”

For the next decade, Mège devoted herself to teaching her husband to paint and helping him refine his techniques. According to a 1930 newspaper account, she rarely painted during this time.

During the 1930s, the couple lived in Paris, France, where Baxte exhibited his artwork at the government-sponsored Salon d’ Automme.

They left France when the second world war began and, by 1941, had moved to Mexico, where Mège and her husband had a home (later owned by Rufino Tamayo) in Coyoacán. They traveled to various parts of Mexico and many of Baxte’s paintings are of landscapes and people in Michoacán and elsewhere in western Mexico. For example the December 1942 issue of Mexican Life included images by Baxte entitled “Village in Michoacan”, “First communion (portrait)”, “Portrait of an Indian girl”, and “Pueblos Street”.

Michael Baxte. Portrait of a lady.

Michael Baxte. Redhead in plaid. (Auctioned by Treadway Tooney in 2015)

In 1946, Baxte’s oil painting “Paisaje de Tenancingo” was included in a major exhibition of paintings of flowers at Mexico’s 5th National Floriculture Exhibition and 4th Flower Show (“Salón de la Flor”). Also showing on that occasion was Otto Butterlin, who had moved that year with his family from Mexico City to Ajijic.

Another article in Mexican Life, in 1952, when Baxte was showing at Galeria de Arte Mexicano, included images entitled “Uruapan”, “Charo”, “Village in Jalisco”, “Valley of Mexico”, “Oaxaca landscape” and “Lake Chapala”. His paintings have been described as modernist-leaning landscapes and portraits.

In 1954, Baxte and Mège both had paintings included in an exhibition of 20 non-Mexican artists from 12 regions of Mexico at the Salón de la Plástica Mexicana in Mexico City. The El Nacional’s art critic was less than generous in his appreciation of the couple’s work, writing that though “the works of Mège and her husband display some well-observed Mexican aspects,” neither “had a strong sense of color.”

None of this deterred Baxte from describing himself as an “artist of international renown when announcing, via a display ad in Mexican Life,  “the opening of his new studios at Calzada Mexico-Tacuba No 16 (corner of Melchor Ocampo) where he will be pleased to accept a limited number of endowed pupils for guidance and technical reconstruction.”

In 1957, Baxte had a solo show, mainly of landscape paintings, at the Salon of International Friendship of Mexico City’s Palacio de Bellas Artes.

Baxte died in Mexico City in 1972.

Acknowledgment

  • My thanks to Katie Goodridge Ingram for sharing with me her memories of the artist.

Sources

  • American Art News. 1916. “Paris Letter.” American Art News, Vol. 14, #33 (10 May 1916).
  • Battle Creek Enquirer (Michigan). 1930. Battle Creek Enquirer, 4 May 1930, 26.
  • Michael Baxte. 1942. “Mostly about myself.” Mexican Life, vol 18, Dec 1942, 27-30.
  • Michael Baxte. 1942. “Violette Mége.” Mexican Life, v 18 (October 1942).
  • Dorothy Dayton. 1929. “Musician Wins Painting Prize,” The New York Sun, 9 January 1929.
  • Howard Devree. 1941. “A Reviewer’s Notebook,” The New York Times, 30 March 1941.
  • The Evening World (New York), 2 December 1918, 11.
  • Lloyd Goodrich. 1929. “Reviewer’s Notebook,” The New York Times, 5 May 1929.
  • The International Studio: an Illustrated Magazine of Fine and Applied Art. 1918. (November 1917-February 1918).
  • Andrew Langston. 1952. “Michael Baxte”, Mexican Life, June 1952, 27-30.
  • Mexican Life. Feb 1954, 43. (Advert)
  • P. Fernandez Marquez. 1954. “La Exposicón de Artistas Huéspedes.” El Nacional,
    1954; Suplemento Dominical, 6.
  • Guillermo Rivas. 1957. “Michael Baxte.” Mexican Life, Vol 33 #3 (March 1957), 30-32.

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