Tony Burton

Tony Burton's books include “Lake Chapala: A Postcard History” (2022), “Foreign Footprints in Ajijic” (2022), “If Walls Could Talk: Chapala’s historic buildings and their former occupants” (2020), (available in translation as “Si Las Paredes Hablaran"), "Mexican Kaleidoscope” (2016), and “Lake Chapala Through the Ages” (2008). Amazon Author Page                                          Facebook Page

Nov 302023
 

This is the second in a mini series identifying some examples of photo identification errors which pertain to the Lake Chapala area.

Estampas de Chapala by Manuel Galindo Gaitan is an outstanding two-volume collection of mainly vintage photographs of Chapala and other places around the lake. Some of the historical details in the text are outdated but the photographs are an absolute treasure. The volumes were published in 2003 and 2005 respectively. Long out-of-print, they occasionally show up for sale on mercadolibre and similar sites.

Included in volume 1 (page 89) is this image, captioned “Los jóvenes que gustaban de remar en canoas por el Lago de Chapala eran turistas que con suma frecuencia visitablan el lugar.” (“The young people who liked to row small boats on Lake Chapala were tourists who visited the place very frequently.”)

Estampas de Chaplaa page 89

I admit to doing a double-take when I first saw this image many years ago. The pitched roofs of some of the buildings are quite reminiscent of some of the early villas of Chapala, including Casa Albión (later Villa Josefina), built by Septimus Crowe at the end of the nineteenth century. But my eye was drawn more to the much taller, four or five story building further back, mainly because there were no buildings this tall anywhere at Lake Chapala until relatively recently.

A quick reverse image search with the help of Señor Google brought up this strikingly similar image from more recent times:

Waikiki postcard

Waikiki postcard

It is apparent that this is the same location. The difference in date between the two images is shown by the very different leisure attire, but does nothing to mask the fact that the major buildings are the same in both photos.

Chapala or Hawaii? You be the judge!

Lake Chapala Artists & Authors is reader-supported. Purchases made via links on our site may, at no cost to you, earn us an affiliate commission. Learn more.

My 2022 book Lake Chapala: A Postcard History uses reproductions of more than 150 vintage postcards to tell the incredible story of how Lake Chapala became an international tourist and retirement center.

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

Nov 232023
 

Bertha Kaiser was the third wife of Swiss printer and shopkeeper Juan Kaiser, who—in addition to selling accounting books and ledgers via his store “Al Libro de Caja” in Guadalajara—also published beautiful early postcards of Chapala and Guadalajara featuring the work of such distinguished photographers as José María Lupercio and Winfield Scott.

Front cover of "Mein Rind. Tagebuch der Mutter" (Bertha Kaiser's diary)

Bertha’s diary, written in German in the first quarter of the twentieth century, was unknown outside her immediate family until relatively recently. Excerpts of the diary were published in 2012 as Tagebuch Von Bertha Kaiser-Peter Fur Ihren sohn Hans Paul Kaiser.

The diary contains frequent references to the members of the small Swiss community in Guadalajara, most of whom had close friendships and ties to the much larger German community in the city.

While the diary is mostly about the family’s experiences in Guadalajara and an extended trip to the US (via train to Manzanillo and steamer to California), there are some significant Chapala links scattered through the diary.

The excerpts begin in mid-1912 when Bertha and Juan’s son, Hans-Paul, was born in Guadalajara. Following his baptism, a celebration for family and friends was held at the Hotel Cosmopolita, before the Kaisers returned to their home in Jardines Seattle.

The Hotel Cosmopolita had been owned until a few years previously by German-born Francisco Fredenhagen (1849-1932), a close friend of the Kaisers, who, in about 1900, built one of the earliest weekend ‘cottages’ in Chapala at (or very near) the property which now has the address of Avenida Hidalgo #260.

Fredenhagen was a partner in a Mexico City brewery (“La Compañia Cervecera Limitada”) when he bought the Hotel Cosmopolita in 1885 and moved to Guadalajara. One of Fredenhagen’s grandchildren later married into the Seimandi family, which included one of the early managers of Chapala’s emblematic hotel—the Hotel Arzapalo—which opened in 1898. This marriage was very much in the tradition of the time that influential families consolidated their status and wealth through intermarriage.

In the mid 1890s, Fredenhagen drew anthropologist Frederick Starr’s attention to the many little pottery objects found in and around Lake Chapala, about which Starr subsequently wrote a short monograph. Fredenhagen also informed Starr about a “dwarf race” living in the hills near Ajijic, which the anthropologist planned to investigate with the assistance of Archbishop Gillow. Gillow is a particularly interesting figure in Mexican history; his story is told in Mexican Kaleidoscope: myths, mysteries and mystique.

After Fredenhagen sold the Hotel Cosmopolita in 1909, he announced plans to move to Chapala where he and his wife owned a cottage, before retiring to Germany. Events in Europe apparently caused them to rethink that idea; Fredenhagen died in Guadalajara in 1932, and his wife died there eight years later.

Members of Kaiser family in Chapala. Reproduced by kind permission of Verena Kaiser-Ernst.

Members of Kaiser family in Chapala. Reproduced by kind permission of Verena Kaiser-Ernst.

Bertha’s diary records a visit to stay with the Fredenhagens in Chapala in April 1915. Paraphrasing Bertha’s text, on February 17th the family celebrated Juan’s birthday quietly at home. Juan was not feeling well (he had a chronic illness), and they were invited to visit the Fredenhagens at Lake Chapala. They left Guadalajara on April 15th in a privately hired stagecoach (diligencia), pulled by “five lively mules” over the “sometimes very bumpy roads.” It took seven hours, but “the beautiful journey” was a “reminder of how people made long journeys in stagecoaches before the coming of the railroad.”

They spent a month with the Fredenhagen family. Bertha and Juan took a pleasant walk in the mountains every morning, before having a swim, a leisurely lunch and a siesta. They took a row boat out in the late afternoon. After dinner, they entertained themselves playing jazz.

Hans-Paul (“Juanito”) and his nanny also had a good time at Chapala. Juanito played every day on the sandy beach, bathed, and loved his time in Chapala, especially after one of his Guadalajara friends arrived with her parents.

Group at Casa Nigg, Chapala, August 1922. Reproduced by kind permission of Verena Kaiser-Ernst.

Group at Casa Nigg, Chapala, August 1922. Reproduced by kind permission of Verena Kaiser-Ernst.

Bertha recognized that Chapala was facing a difficult time. While the lake and its shores were as beautiful as ever, the unrest in the country had led to everything being neglected: “The beautiful private villas are mostly uninhabited, the hotels are poorly maintained. In former quiet times people flocked to Chapala from everywhere.” When the trip came to an end, they returned to Guadalajara by stagecoach, “taking the most beautiful memories home with us. Mr. & Mrs. Fredenhagen were such dear hosts.”

In the summer of 1915, the Kaisers undertook an arduous journey to California to combine having a family holiday with seeking specialist medical advice.

“It was a terrible journey to Colima…. It is one of the most dangerous routes in the world, wonderfully romantic in quiet times, but in revolutionary times the line was usually out of order, the trains in terrible condition, it was a horrible ride and ridiculed any description.”

Manzanillo was even worse: “The heat was unbearable, the mosquitoes plagued the children, particularly, day & night, bad food, nothing to drink.” About 40 people from Guadalajara were waiting in the port for the steamer “Peru” to San Francisco. After several days, the steamer finally arrived and the nine day journey to San Francisco was underway.

Bertha’s diary covers their California trip in considerable detail, including Juan’s chance meeting at a German music festival in Los Angeles with a fellow postcard publisher, “Mr Ruhland, an old friend whom he hadn’t seen in 12 years.” Emil Ruhland and his partner, Max Ahlschier, founded Ruhland & Ahlschier, the first company in Mexico permitted to publish and market illustrated postcards, in 1897. After selling the company in about 1903, Ruhland had moved to the US.

The Kaisers’ return home to Guadalajara is also described in great detail in Bertha’s diary. From Manzanillo, the “extra train” which arrived to take them to Guadalajara, “didn’t have passenger wagons but only freight wagons. Awful was the ride on this old railroad train that was fueled by wood… [with] the biggest rain of sparks, which was especially bad for the eyes when going fast.” To add insult to injury, Juan’s personal suitcase, containing clothes, cash and business notes, was stolen.

The dangerous stretch between Colima and Guadalajara lasted two days and a night. All too visible in the barranca below at one point were the wrecked locomotives and passenger cars from a train accident in which hundreds of people had died.

Unfortunately, Juan never recovered from his illness and died early the following year (1916). Given the uncertain future for the business, most employees resigned. Fortunately, with the assistance of a business administrator, Emil Keller, the company remained in operation while Bertha negotiated its sale to Juan’s brother, Arnoldo.

The following year, Keller asked Bertha to marry him. Bertha, greatly conflicted but wanting the best for her 5-year-old son, said ‘Yes” and the couple were married in a small civil ceremony at Bertha’s home on 24 October 1917. The newly weds left Juanito with his nanny, and drove to Chapala for a two week honeymoon.

After a week of wondering every day how Juanito was doing, “my husband decided to go back to Guadalajara and bring the little one to me as a surprise, which of course made me very happy… Now we could stay peacefully another week and enjoy the beautiful place.”

Bertha and her husband became accustomed to spending part of every summer in Chapala. Several photos in the diary provide glimpses into the social life of Bertha and her friends. In 1922, for example, Bertha was at the farewell party for the retiring Swiss consul, Juan Nigg. Nigg invited the entire Swiss community for a steamer ride on the lake and lunch at his lakeside home. (Nigg’s successor as consul was Dr Sutter, director of the Faculty of Medicine at the Autonomous University of Guadalajara, who also had a home in Chapala.)

Silver wedding of Sres Jochimsen, Chapala, November 1922. Photo by José Edmundo Sánchez. Reproduced by kind permission of Verena Kaiser-Ernst.

Silver wedding of Sres Jochimsen, Chapala, November 1922. Photo by José Edmundo Sánchez. Reproduced by kind permission of Verena Kaiser-Ernst.

In that same year, Bertha and Emil attended the silver wedding celebration in Chapala of Mr and Mrs Jochimsen. The group photo showing the invitees was taken by Chapala-born photographer José Edmundo Sánchez, whose postcards of Chapala are an invaluable source of social history.

The diary also includes this photo of the Lehmann family posing on the beach at Chapala.

The Lehmann family at Chapala. c 1925. Reproduced by kind permission of Verena Kaiser-Ernst.

The Lehmann family at Chapala. c 1925. Reproduced by kind permission of Verena Kaiser-Ernst.

Not long after the period described in the diary, Bertha and her family left Guadalajara to live in Switzerland.

Acknowledgment

My sincere thanks to Hans-Martin Kaiser and Verena Kaiser-Ernst for bringing this valuable diary to my attention, and for graciously allowing me to reproduce the photos used in this post.

Help needed

Verena Kaiser-Ernst, editor of Bertha Kaiser’s diary, is interested in having the diary translated from German to Spanish for possible publication in Guadalajara. The book has approximately 20,500 words of text and about 40 photo captions. Please contact me if this is a project that appeals to you!

Lake Chapala Artists & Authors is reader-supported. Purchases made via links on our site may, at no cost to you, earn us an affiliate commission. Learn more.

My 2022 book Lake Chapala: A Postcard History uses reproductions of more than 150 vintage postcards, including several published by Juan Kaiser,  to tell the incredible story of how Lake Chapala became an international tourist and retirement center.

Sources

  • Verena Kaiser-Ernst. 2012. Tagebuch Von Bertha Kaiser-Peter Fur Ihren sohn Hans Paul Kaiser. Stuttgart: T H Schetter.
  • La Tierra: 1 June 1901, 125.
  • The Mexican Herald: 28 June 1909, 11.
  • The Two Republics: 13 Jan 1885, 4.

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

Nov 162023
 

Mauricio Yáñez was a Mexican photographer and one of the more prolific producers of postcards in Mexico during the 1930s. He took thousands of tourist photos of Mexico, showing towns, cities and people, including at least 20 related to Lake Chapala.

This view of Chapala and its lakeshore (below)  includes a lakefront cantina mid-way between the Arzapalo hotel building (on the left) and the twin towers of San Francisco church. The cantina was demolished during the construction of the main avenue to Chapala pier (Avenida Francisco I Madero) at the very start of the 1950s.

Mauricio Yáñez. Date unknown. Chapala waterfront.

Mauricio Yáñez. c 1935? Chapala waterfront.

Yáñez’s photographs of Lake Chapala include several beautifully-composed images of fishermen and their fishing techniques. Fishing at Lake Chapala was described by travel writer Edna Mae Stark at about the same time as Yáñez took these photos.

Mauricio Yáñez. c 1935?. Lake Chapala fishermen.

    Mauricio Yáñez. c 1935? Lake Chapala fishermen.

The photo above shows a timeless scene of local fishermen, including young men, deftly working a net to catch fish right next to the shore; the waterfront is covered by water hyacinth (lirio), first introduced to Lake Chapala at the end of the nineteenth century.

Fishermen constantly needed to repair their nets, a task depicted on the following postcard. “Drying large nets required the use of an extensive area of beach. Among the many significant adverse impacts of the rash of shoreline invasions that have occurred in the past century is the great reduction in the area available to fishermen for drying and mending their nets. Missing floats or weights and tears in the mesh, however small, require rapid replacement or repair. However long the nets, their drying, checking and repairing is an essential daily task.” (Lake Chapala: A Postcard History).

Maurico Yáñez. c 1935. Fishermen mending nets, Chapala. (Fig 8.7 of Lake Chapala: A Postcard History)

Maurico Yáñez. c 1935? Fishermen mending nets, Chapala. (Fig 8.7 of Lake Chapala: A Postcard History)

According to photography researcher Miguel Ángel Morales, Mauricio Yáñez was born in Jalisco in 1882 and died in an aviation accident in Tamazunchale, San Luis Potosí, on 1 April 1939. As a youth, Yáñez apparently used a do-it-yourself manual to build his own camera and began to take portraits. He moved to Guadalajara where he continued his career under the well-established and locally-renowned photographer Ignacio Gómez Gallardo.

During the Mexican Revolution, Yáñez became a correspondent for La Ilustración Semanal and also had numerous photos published in La Semana Ilustrada. He had a studio for a time in Culiacán, Sinaloa, where he took portraits of several leading Maderistas, and then opened a studio in Mazatlán in partnership with J. M. Guillen, before finally branching out on his own.

Yáñez moved to Monterrey, Nuevo León, in 1917 where, in partnership with Jesús R. Sandoval, he ran the “El Bello Arte” studio which specialized in marriage photography and portraits. While living in Monterrey, Yáñez and local author and politician David Alberto Cossio co-founded a literary magazine, Azteca.

From Monterrey, Yáñez is known to have visited the U.S. on at least two occasions, in 1918 and again in 1924-25. The latter visit may have been to meet Kodak executives. In 1925 he was named as the “representative of Kodak Mexicana” in Monterrey, where he hosted a dinner party to which numerous local photographers were invited. According to one source, Yanez had been asked by Kodak to re-organize the “Sociedad Fotográfica de Monterrey.”

Based afterwards in Mexico City, Yáñez amassed an impressive collection of photos, and in December 1928 began selling many of them as postcards. They depicted cities and sites of tourist interest across the entire country. According to one estimate, more than 5 million photographic postcards with Yáñez’s name were printed during his lifetime!

In 1935, with Hugo Brehme, Yáñez illustrated a bilingual guide to the Teotihuacán Archaeological Zone, and in 1937 the D.A.P.P. (Departamento Autónomo de Prensa y Propaganda) published his photographs in El Valle de México.

Lake Chapala Artists & Authors is reader-supported. Purchases made via links on our site may, at no cost to you, earn us an affiliate commission. Learn more.

My 2022 book Lake Chapala: A Postcard History uses reproductions of more than 150 vintage postcards to tell the incredible story of how Lake Chapala became an international tourist and retirement center.

Note: This post was first published 1 August 2019.

Sources

  • Arturo Guevara Escobar. 2012. “Mauricio Yáñez“. Blog entry, dated 14 July 2011.
  • Lynda Klich. 2018. “Circulating lo mexicano in Mauricio Yañez’s Postcards,” chapter 10 of Tara Zanardi and Lynda Klich. 2018. Visual Typologies from the Early Modern to the Contemporary: Local Contexts and Global Practices (Routledge).
  • Miguel Ángel Morales. 2017. “Mauricio Yáñez (1882-1939)“. Blog post dated 22 February 2017.

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

Nov 092023
 

We have looked previously at several excerpts from the journal written by Dr. Leo Leonidas Stanley (1886-1976) about his multi-day visit to Lake Chapala in October 1937.

Stanley and Alonzo (his traveling companion) had ridden on horseback around the western end of the lake to Tuxcueca; they crossed the lake back to Chapala on Wednesday 13 October 1937 aboard a gasoline-powered boat—“about forty feet long, fairly narrow, and made of metal.” During the trip, “One Mexican woman… busied herself with searching for little animals, or piojos, in the hair of her small infant. These, she would crack between her thumb nails.”

Leo Stanley. 1937 Hotel Arzapalo, Chapala. Reproduced by kind permission of California Historical Society.

Leo Stanley. 1937 Hotel Arzapalo, Chapala. Reproduced by kind permission of California Historical Society.

They checked into the Hotel Nido at about 2.30pm. “It was just around the corner from the Hotel Nido to the hot mineral baths. Here, we cleaned ourselves of the dusts of travel, and went back to the hotel, where comida, or lunch, was being served.”

After a siesta, they decided to walk to the top of Cerro San Miguel before their evening meal:

One narrow street led up a very steep incline to a table-land, and ascending this street was a small burro loaded with heavy adobe bricks. The animal was urged along by a dirty little Mexican boy, who appeared to be not more than eleven years of age, but who, in reality, was sixteen. His father was building a house on the mesa, and this lad was, with his burro, bringing up the material. On top of the level table-land, we searched the ground, and found many pieces of obsidian, or volcanic glass. It was from this material that the Ancients made their arrowheads and spears.”
. . .
We asked him about finding any idols, spearheads, or monos, as the Mexicans call the relics of the ancient Aztecs and Toltecs… We told the lad that if he could find some monos for us, we would give him money for them. Another Mexican, who came along while we were there, told us that down a little canyon at the base of the cerro, was a Mexican, named Ysidoro [Ed: correct spelling is Isidoro], who had found many of these idols.”
This night we did not go on top of the extinct volcano, which some of the natives said was haunted, or enchanted, but went clear around its base, and finally came to the hut of Ysidiro. This lad, perhaps twenty-five years of age, was a bright and intelligent Mexican, who was extremely cordial and friendly. He brought out to us a big box of heavy, stone idols, which he displayed with great joy. These idols were for the most part, figures of squatting deities, rather ugly and grotesque. Some were in the shape of turtles, horned toads, bears, and cattle.
Ysidoro was quite proud of the fact that numerous tourists had visited him and had written him letters which he displayed to me. One was from a poet, named Brynner [Bynner] Witter, a resident of Santa Fe, New Mexico. [Ed: Some years later, after Witter Bynner bought a house in Chapala, he employed Isidoro as his housekeeper”] He also had a letter from Mrs W. F. Anderson, who lived in the Carmel Valley in Monterey, California. These people had all spent happy days in Chapala, and had been entertained by Ysidoro.
Mrs. Pulida [Pulido], Ysidoro’s wife, had, several weeks previously, given birth to a new baby, the fourth in the family, but she had developed a very severe inflammation of the bladder, and was lying quite ill in the hut. I promised Ysidoro that I would examine her the following day.”

After dinner, Stanley and Alonzo walked to the plaza:

This was well filled with people, who enjoyed spending the evening in the cool air. About the plaza were several cantinas and billiard halls. We visited some of these, and found that many of the Mexicans were playing and enjoying the evening…. Upon our return, we found that Maria, the chambermaid, had turned down our beds, and that the electric lights, which were supplied to the hotel by a gasoline dynamo, had been shut off and the motor quieted. We had to go to bed by candle light.”

The following morning, Thursday 14 October 1937, Stanley and Alonzo attended Mass before breakfast:

We heard the church bell ringing for Mass, and, looking into the tower, saw a youth ringing the heavy bell. We went into the church and stayed for Mass. Numerous women were walking on their knees from the entrance up to the altar, and every woman had on her mantilla, or head-covering. The church was highly decorated, and was well lighted with candles. The music and chanting was really very impressive.”

After breakfast they walked round to Ysidoro’s to ask him to help them search for idols. When they reached his home, they found that his wife was being cared for by a nurse, and that one of his friends was busy, “boiling, in a copper kettle over the wood fire, a mixture of cane sugar and milk. He was the candy-maker, and each night vended his wares in the plaza. He gave us some of his candy, which was really quite good.”

Ysidoro led them off, out of town, to hunt for idols:

With a crow-bar, pick and shovel, we started up around the base of the cerro…. Not far from the enchanted hill is a large mound which might prove to be an Aztec pyramid. There were numerous stones which had been brought in by the Ancients. These were probably foundations for some of their Temples.”
. . .
The plain up to the foot of the mountains was furrowed by small gullies and streams, some of which had flowing water. Almost all of this plain was under cultivation, growing crops of tomatoes, onions, chili, or corn. A few of the fields were ready for planting again. We encountered quite a number of Mexicans farming in the fields. To our inquiry regarding the human bones and idols, they usua1ly replied that they were “mas alla,” which means farther on. There were quite a number of out-croppings of limestone and shale. In some of these we found petrified wood, and in others perfectly preserved fossils of small ferns.

By noontime we had walked about three miles, and decided that we would rest under a mesquite bush. Here, we made a noonday meal of green onions and raw tomatoes. Ysidoro had brought along a few tortillas in his bolsa, or knapsack. … In another field… we found a number of scattered boulders, which evidently had been the markings of a grave. Ysidoro thought this was a likely place to dig. He and Alonzo worked like Trojans, and dug a hole in which one could have buried an ox, but the search was unproductive.”

On their walk back to Chapala they took a different route, looking for more likely digging places and found a number of human bones, two dozen beads and numerous pieces of ancient pottery, concluding that, “All through the hills were places where human beings had been buried, some of them perhaps hundreds of years ago, and others more recently.”

Stanley and Alonzo got back to town at about six o’clock and enjoyed a refreshing thermal bath before dinner. Among the other guests at the Hotel Nido were a couple with their two nieces: “young ladies of about twenty years of age.”

Stanley suggested that the nieces walk with them to the band concert in the plaza:

Of course, I asked the aunt and uncle first. They approved. One of the girls had come from Mexico City and there had studied English in a private school. As we walked about the plaza, she and I agreed that she should speak with me in English, and I would talk to her in Spanish, and in that way we would both get practica, or practice, in the language we desired. This was very excellent training for both of us, and we discussed many subjects. She spoke English slowly but correctly. There were many people in the plaza on this night. There was no light in the bandstand but the musicians played their instruments in the dark and really rendered very good music. Everyone seemed to enjoy the evening. There were a few girls on the loose. The Mexican boys, with their sombreros and serapes over their shoulders, would ogle them at times, and occasionally in passing would drop a few pinches of confetti on the girls’ heads. This, they all seemed to enjoy. Promptly at ten o’clock, tío and tía, or uncle and auntie, appeared on the plaza and told us that it was time for the girls to come in. This was, of course, entirely agreeable.”

Lake Chapala Artists & Authors is reader-supported. Purchases made via links on our site may, at no cost to you, earn us an affiliate commission. Learn more.

My 2022 book Lake Chapala: A Postcard History uses reproductions of more than 150 vintage postcards to tell the incredible story of how Lake Chapala became an international tourist and retirement center.

Acknowledgments

My heartfelt thanks to Frances Kaplan, Reference & Outreach Librarian of the California Historical Society, for supplying photos of Stanley’s account of his time at Lake Chapala. I am very grateful to Ms Kaplan and the California Historical Society for permission to reproduce the excerpts and photo used in this post.

Source

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

Nov 022023
 

Alexander Nicolas (“Nick”) Muzenic was born 25 September 1919 in Kansas, and died in Los Angeles 12 March 1976. His first names are variously listed as Nicolas, Nicholas, Nikolas, A. Nicolas or simply Nick. His family, of Austro-Croatian heritage, also used the anglicized surname Muzenich.

He lived and worked in Ajijic from about 1948 to 1953.

Muzenic graduated from the University of Kansas at the age of 19 before studying on a scholarship at the Art Center School of Los Angeles. After serving in the US Naval Intelligence Service for a year, from 22 June 1944 to 23 May 1945, he continued his art education at Black Mountain College.

Black Mountain College was a liberal arts college in North Carolina; its faculty members at one time or another included such luminaries as Josef Albers and Anni Albers, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Buckminster Fuller and Aaron Siskind.

Portrait of Nick Muzenik by Hazel Larsen Archer, fellow student at Black Mountain College

Portrait of Nick Muzenik by Hazel Larsen Archer, fellow student at Black Mountain College

This portrait of him, in his time at Black Mountain College, was taken by Hazel Larsen Archer, a fellow student. American sculptor Ruth Asawa, famous for her intricate and mesmerizing wire baskets and wire bushes, was also one of Muzenic’s fellow students. Asawa studied Spanish and art in Mexico City in 1945 and first encountered the technique of crocheting wire in Toluca in 1947. She may have influenced Muzenic in his decision to move to Mexico. Muzenic and Asawa both gifted books on Mexican art to the Black Mountain College library.

In November 1946, one of Muzenic’s paintings, “Introspection”, was included in an exhibit for a Children’s Fair at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA).

After college, Muzenic’s first solo exhibition was at the American British Art Center in New York. This show, which opened on 6 January 1948, featured at least 24 works; the introduction to the catalog was written by Anni Albers. Later that year, the same collection was hung in Chicago. According to The New Yorker, this was “A first one-man show of abstractions that indicate a perceptive sense of color and pattern.”

We know more about Muzenic’s next few years, when he moved to Mexico and lived in Ajijic for at several years from about 1948 to 1953. During that time, he was employed—along with Tobias Schneebaum and Ernesto Butterlin—by Irma Jonas to teach students attending her summer painting schools in Ajijic.

According to Schneebaum, an ill-fated love triangle developed between the three artists at this time, complicated by the arrival of “haughty and radiantly beautiful” Zoe Kernick, the “fourth member of our group”, who had previously been living with Henry Miller in Big Sur.

Nicolas Muzenic. ca 1953. Escalera.

Nicolas Muzenic. ca 1953. Escalera.

Schneebaum, who shared a house with Muzenic for part of his time in Ajijic, described Muzenic as tall, “cold, haughty and grand.” As for his paintings, “Nicolas’s paintings were as tight, involuted and hard-edged as his body, and were somber with browns and dirtied yellows, unlike the clarity, brilliance and simplicity of his teacher.” (Schneebaum, Wild Man 13).

The teacher Schneebaum is referring to is Josef Albers. In his Secret Places, Schneebaum recalls that Muzenic “had been a student of Josef Albers at Black Mountain College. Albers himself arrived one afternoon, accompanied by his wife, Anni. They spent a couple of nights in Ajijic.” (Secret Places, 7)

According to Schneebaum, Ernesto Butterlin (aka Lin) and Muzenic had “a frenzied, volcanic affair that lasted two years.” “Lynn’s casual ways bewitched and irritated Nicolas, just as Nicolas’s arrogant, snobbish manner attracted and mortified Lynn. Nicolas moved into Lynn’s house.” Muzenic eventually bought the property and forced Lynn to move out. (Wild Man 13)

Nicolas Muzenic. Red Forms. Date unknown. Photo courtesy of Bill Sinyard.

Nicolas Muzenic. Red Forms. Date unknown. Photo courtesy of Bill Sinyard.

Muzenic’s work was included in two group shows in 1949. The first, in March at the State Museum in Guadalajara featured works by the four artists of the “Ajijic group” (Muzenic, Louise Gauthiers, Ernesto Linares and Tobias Schneebaum), along with works by Guadalajara-based abstract-surrealist artist, Alfredo Navarro España. The second exhibit—at the Villa Montecarlo in August 1949, and billed as the 4th Annual Painting Exhibition—showcased works by Muzenic, Tobias Schneebaum, Alfredo Navarro España, Shirley Wurtzel, Ann Woolfolk and Mel Schuler.

Muzenic’s work found its way into some very significant private collections. For instance, when a small selection of the Fred Olson Collection was shown at the Artists Guild in St. Louis, Missouri, in March 1952, Muzenic’s work was hung alongside works by Picasso, Klee, Albers and other internationally renowned artists.

In 1953, Muzenic held a solo exhibition which opened on 23 September and closed on 16 October at the Galería San Ángel (Dr. Gálvez 25), in the southern part of Mexico City. The small printed program of that exhibit included an introduction by Anni Albers praising the artist’s use of form, color and composition. Among the 18 paintings and 6 constructions in the show was “Valentine para Zoe,” lent by Zoe Kernick. Other works had been lent by Margaret Mason, Rémy Bastien and Berenice Cortelle. Mason, Muzenic’s sister, and her husband, Kenneth Mason (the basis for the character Lawrence Creighton in Eileen Bassing’s novel Where’s Annie?), were both living in Ajijic at the time.

The constructions, “created with simple materials such as string, colored lacquer and nails on small black panels” were especially admired by Carlos Merida, who remarked “it is astonishing to consider the limited elements which have sufficed the artist to instill life into these beautiful architectural structures, windows into cosmic worlds.”

Muzenic had his fourth solo show at the Santa Barbara Museum in November 1953. By this time examples of his paintings were already in various prestigious private collections, including those of Fred Olsen, Henry P. McIlhenny, Joseph Pulitzer Jr., and Mrs Huttleston Rogers. A review of this show was illustrated by “Posada” which had previously been displayed in Mexico City.

While living in Ajijic, Muzenic became a close friend of Eileen and Bob Bassing. After the Bassings returned to California and one of Eileen’s novels was turned into a screenplay, they used the resulting windfall to commission Muzenic to design them a home on  Carbon Beach, Malibu, a home later featured on the cover of Time magazine.

Muzenic was also living in California by that time, and working mainly as an interior designer. His employer for many years was the Welton-Beckett architectural firm in Los Angeles. Schneebaum says that Muzenic “lived alone in Los Angeles, rich, isolated, and introspective.” (Wild Man, 18). In 1976, only a few days after losing his job, he died in his own home.

Note: this is an updated version (November 2023) of a post first published 8 January 2015.

Sources:

  • Bob Bassing, personal communication, January 2023.
  • Galería San Ángel. 1953 Catalog for Muzenic exhibit, 1953.
  • Tobias Schneebaum. 1979. Wild Man.
  • Tobias Schneebaum. 2000. Secret places: my life in New York and New Guinea.
  • Henry J Seldis. 1953. “Muzenic Show Reveals Skill in Decorative Art Field.” Santa Barbara News Press, 22 November 1953.
Lake Chapala Artists & Authors is reader-supported. Purchases made via links on our site may, at no cost to you, earn us an affiliate commission. Learn more.

Several chapters of Foreign Footprints in Ajijic: Decades of Change in a Mexican Village offer more details about the history of the artistic community in Ajijic.

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

Oct 262023
 

As we saw in previous posts, science fiction fans everywhere should be eternally grateful that Frank Herbert (author of Dune) accompanied his friend Jack Vance to Chapala in 1953.

Frank Herbert, 1952. Photo by Jack Vance. (Jorgensen. 2014)

Frank Herbert, 1952. Photo by Jack Vance. (from Jorgensen, 2014)

They arrived in September and rented a house in Chapala for a couple of months. Several aspects of their joint trip to Mexico are endearingly told by Herbert’s elder son, Brian, in Dreamer of Dune: The Biography of Frank Herbert.

While the writers did cooperate on some “joint ventures” while in Chapala, they also wrote independently, hoping to sell some short stories to magazines north of the border and thereby extend their stay in Mexico. Herbert also completed a humorous short piece entitled “Life with Animalitos”, submitted to Reader’s Digest but never published, and worked on a psychological thriller set in a submarine, serialized in Astounding magazine as “Under Pressure”, and later turned into the book The Dragon in the Sea (1956).

What fans of Herbert’s writing did not learn until about a decade ago is that he also wrote an 18,000-word novella set entirely at Lake Chapala . The work remained unpublished during his lifetime (he died in 1986) but an ebook version was eventually published by his estate in 2014.

The story is entitled A Thorn in the Bush. According to the publicity blurb:

“Everything of beauty must have at least one flaw in it. Otherwise people do not realize how beautiful it truly is.

Mrs. Ross is an expatriate American who has found a quiet life in the small Mexican village of San Juan, a place where she can be content, a place where no one knows the secrets of her shadowy past life. Until an ambitious American painter takes up residence in San Juan, attempting to depict — and expose — everything about the sleepy Mexican town. But he may have underestimated the lengths a seemingly harmless old woman will go to protect her secrets.”

Mrs. Emma Ross is a streetwise and conniving 71-year-old who has amassed a property portfolio in the village since arriving there more than a decade ago in 1937. Mrs. Ross’ maid, Serena, is the hub of an extensive gossip network that ensures her mistress stays well appraised of local events and scandals.

When Mrs. Ross looks out from her balcony over the lake:

Toward the near shore the water held a deep ultramarine tone shading to cobalt. But farther out, the color faded into grey, then white—reflecting a fleecy billow of cumulus clouds piled over the distant hills: the first storm gathering of the season.”

The cast of characters includes the local mayor Don Jaime Cervelles y Madera, a former suitor of Ross, as well as his nephew, the local police chief, Roberto García y Machada, usually known as “Beto”.

Paulita Romera, who lives across the street from Mrs. Ross, is a beautiful, coquettish young lady who spends her time by a ground floor window sewing punta de cruz (cross-stitch) floral designs. In the morning light, she looks particularly captivating and is chosen by a young American visiting artist as the subject for his next painting.

The artist, Francis Andrew Hoblitt, is single, 28-years-old and drinks too much. He reminds Ross, uncomfortably, of someone who caused problems in her former (secret) life. Much of the novel revolves around the growing antagonism between Ross, the incumbent, and Hoblitt, the interloper. Eventually they agree an uneasy truce, despite their different motives for seeking a degree of reconciliation.

Early in the story, Herbert describes how:

Mrs. Ross studied Hoblitt: the intensity of the man at his work—slashing strokes of pencil, blots of black on the paper. The artist was a blond, athletic type with corded muscles showing at the shoulders beneath a white shirt. His features, as Mrs. Ross recalled, were stern, full of angular abruptness. He had been in San Juan only a month, but already was tanned a rich shade of golden oak.”

Frank Herbert (1920-1986) was a keen observer of local scenes, customs, sayings and cultural norms. During his relatively short time (about two months) in Chapala, he was clearly a particularly astute student of the different kinds of interactions between Americans and Mexicans. Skillful writing and his astute choice of telling details move this story along at a comfortable pace with plenty of perceptive insights into the complexities of expatriate life in Mexico.

Sources:

  • Brian Herbert. 2003. Dreamer of Dune: the biography of Frank Herbert. (New York: Tom Doherty Associates).
  • Frank Herbert. A Thorn in the Bush (Wordfire Press, 2014).

Note: this post was first published 2 September 2017.

Lake Chapala Artists & Authors is reader-supported. Purchases made via links on our site may, at no cost to you, earn us an affiliate commission. Learn more.

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

Oct 192023
 

At least two postcards of Lake Chapala from the late 1920s bear the imprint on their reverse side of “F. Martín. Mexico, D.F.” and a stylized “FM” circular logo. According to researcher Arturo Guevara Escobar, the “F. Martín” name was registered as a trade name and used for about 50 years for several distinct series of postcards, which makes it likely that the estimated 1000+ postcards produced by the firm represented the work of more than one individual.

The main “F. Martín” series has bilingual captions in red numbered from 1 to at least 628. This series includes the two cards illustrated here. It is unknown whether these photographs, which date from the 1920s, were taken by Martín himself or were the bought-in work of other photographers.

Felix Martin. Date unknown. Lago de Chapala.

F. Martin. c 1928 (?). “Lago de Chapala.”

The card above (#158) shows a view of Chapala from the west towards the town and jetty of Chapala. The twin towers of the Church of San Francisco are especially prominent.

The card below (#154) is one the very few postcards showing Villa Virginia, one of the numerous elegant villas built along the lakeshore in the period 1890-1930. This particular villa, west of the jetty, and still standing, was built after 1905 by the Hunton family. The matriarch of the family was the basis for the title character of Arthur Davison Ficke’s 1939 novel “Mrs Morton of Mexico.” (See chapter 31 of If Walls Could Talk: Chapala’s Historic Buildings and Their Former Occupants.)

Felix Martin. Date unknown. "Un challet a orillas del Lago de Chapala"

F. Martin. c 1928 (?). “Un challet a orillas del Lago de Chapala”

The images on both postcards have five-digit numbers—97899 and 97900 respectively—in tiny white font in the lower left corner. These numbers appear to be identical in style to the five-digit numbers found on cards published (at approximately the same time) by “S. Altamirano” of Guadalajara, so it is likely that the two publishers had a commercial relationship.

The mystery of F. Martín

Arturo Guevara Escobar decided that postcards marked “F. M.” or “F. Martín” were almost certainly the work of Félix Martín Espinoza, who lived in Mexico City, and was a member of the committee responsible for overseeing Mexican participation in the World’s Columbian Exposition (Chicago World’s Fair) in 1893. The address of this individual in the first decade of the 20th century was 1er Callejón de López #416.

Display adverts in the Mexico City press from 1901 to 1913 tie that address (and a series of others) to the “Yucatán Medicine Co.” a company selling patent medicines, including a vegetable oil for hair color restoration made by the doctor. At least one of the hair restorer ads gives the doctor’s full name as “Félix Martín Espinoza L.” This would mean that “Martín” was not the doctor’s paternal surname (as the name “F. Martín” would suggest) but was actually his second name, and that his paternal surname was Espinoza. It would have been very unusual at the start of the twentieth century to use two forenames as an advertising/company name, so I believe we need to find a stronger candidate for the “F. Martín” who published postcards.

A much more likely candidate, in my opinion, though no further biographical details are known, is the “Felix Martín” who lived at “5a Capuchinas 89, Mexico City,” and placed regular advertisements in The Mexican Herald from October 1913 to April 1914 claiming to be “The best place in the city to buy postal cards at wholesale prices.” A subsequent F. Martín campaign, in El Pueblo from 1915 to 1919, offered “postcards of every type and style.” The Capuchinas address was a commercial premises which had previously belonged to Bordenave & Coryn, “General Agents for Scotch Whisky Perfection, American Whiskey, Ceylon Tea, etc.”

Lake Chapala Artists & Authors is reader-supported. Purchases made via links on our site may, at no cost to you, earn us an affiliate commission. Learn more.

My 2022 book Lake Chapala: A Postcard History uses reproductions of more than 150 vintage postcards to tell the incredible story of how Lake Chapala became an international tourist and retirement center.

Note: This post was first published 30 July 2019.

Source

  • El Imparcial: diario ilustrado de la mañana,12 April 1913, 6.
  • El Pueblo: 12 Nov 1915, 5; 19 Jan 1919, 6.
  • El Siglo Diez y Nueve, 30 April 1884, 4.
  • Arturo Guevara Escobar. 2011. Letra: M. “Fotógrafos y prodcutores de postales.” Originally published 19 November 2011.
  • The Mexican Herald: 14 October 1913, 6; 7 April 1914, 6.
  • Semanario Literario Ilustrado, 1 July 1901.

Comments, corrections and additional material are welcome, whether via the comments feature or email.

Oct 122023
 

One of the earliest literary mentions of Lake Chapala comes in “Ixotle,” a story by Andrew Jackson Grayson published in 1870. Here is the full text of the original article:

IXOTLE

During a sojourn in Tepic of some six weeks, for the purpose of making collections of Ornithology, I went into the almost impenetrable mountains of San Juan Guaya, and came to the old Mission of San Luis.

The little village was ensconced among the mountains, with bold and magnificent scenery. Cultivation of maize and beans in small patches abounded everywhere. The village consisted of some adobe houses, and numerous jacals; the population, of half-civilized Indians. In the centre of the village was a very ancient, but small church, built of stone. The roof and its rough walls were overgrown with plants, giving it an air of age and decay. In the adjoining building I was shown the venerable Cura, whose form, that had been once tall, seemed to be as ancient as the dilapidated building that sheltered him. Though age told upon him, as his gray hairs and care-worn visage fully attested, he yet possessed that vigor of mind and keen memory we often find in the persons of those enthusiastic ecclesiastical recluses who have wandered into the very depth of the wilderness, to subdue the savage to Christianity and civilization.

The old man had dwelt in this spot for forty-eight years, endeavoring to tame these wild Indians, and induce them to adopt that partial civilization and Christianity to which most of the native Mexicans have been brought, but in vain; they still retained their ancient customs to a considerable degree, and were known as Sozado’s wild Indians, who scorned to associate with their neighbors of the lowlands. They venerated the old Cura, and many attended his church on Sundays; but they cared very little for Christianity, and nothing for civilization.

I found the Cura to be a very intelligent man, and a Spaniard by birth. He appeared to take much interest in my collections of Natural History, upon which subject I found him better informed than most people in that region. He told me of the different species I would find in those mountains: of birds of resplendent plumage —of birds that sang, and those without song —and he knew all their Indian names. At length he said: “You ought to visit the islands of the Tres Marias. There you will find the forest full of birds, and so tame as to be taken by the hand.” I replied that I had already been there, and what he said was true; for I had discovered some rare birds, and made a fine collection.

After some conversation upon these Islands, of which be had heard much, but had never seen, I at length asked him why so beautiful a spot should have never been populated, either by native aborigines or modern Mexicans? In reply he then told me the following tradition, which was related to him by an old Cacique of the tribe that once inhabited these mountains, but long since dead:

Señor,” said he, “these islands were held sacred by the ancient Mexicans of the west, or coast region, and dedicated as a place of worship to the God of the Storms of the Sea, Tlaxicoltetl: here he dwelt, and here he governed the whirlwind and the storm.

“One human victim—a virgin or youth —was offered as a sacrifice upon the rough-hewn coral altar annually, on St. John’s day, the 24th of June, which is about the commencement of the stormy, or rainy season. This offering was made to appease the wrath of Tlaxicoltetl and supplicate protection to the fishing canoes that supplied the vast interior with fish and pearls, camarones and oysters, of which the coast tribe held independent possession. The pearls obtained in various localities of the Gulf of California, together with other beautiful shells for ornaments, were carried even to the great Aztec city of the lakes, Mexico. This was long before the White Man was known. Many well-trodden foot-paths penetrated to the interior from the seashores in the vicinity of Tepic; and where San Blas now stands (then called Jualtelotepec)—where is a precipitous cliff, which now forms the background of San Blas, and where once stood the old Spanish town and fortifications—was the principal rendezvous of the fishermen. From this locality a large, well-beaten trail extended through Tepic on to where Guadalajara now stands, and where then stood a large city, which was called Chapala.

“The lake near Guadalajara is still known by that name; and the Indians found near its borders, who yet live in a semi-barbarous state, are called to this day Chapalo Indians, and are a very degraded, thieving race. But previous to the conquest, they were a numerous and industrious people—well skilled in the manufacture of articles of utility. Cotton cloths, both coarse and fine, were largely manufactured by them, as also various kinds of pottery; and their dressed deer-skins were of a superior quality. These kinds of goods were bartered with the Tepic Indians for fish, pearls, etc.

“Their principal town was where the beautiful city of Guadalajara now lifts its numerous church-spires proudly over the once heathen temples of human sacrifice. It was then a large city, and continues to be second only to the Capital.

“Just before the corning of the White Man, or conquistador, there lived in the city a beautiful young girl of sixteen. She was called Ixotle (‘the drooping flower’). She was remarkable for her intelligence, and the sad and melancholy expression of her face; and was chosen by the idolatrous priests as one of the sacred virgins of the many to assist at the disgusting fêtes of human sacrifice. But when the time came for her attendance, together with her sister virgins, upon one of these cruel displays of human depravity, she refused: no persuasions or threats could induce her to join the others in ceremonies over the torments and sufferings of her fellow-creatures. But she was forced by the priests to follow in their procession, and go through the performances around the altar allotted to them. She was looked upon as strange for refusing so high an honor; but she felt the disgrace, wrong, and dark religion of her people, whose ritual of polytheism and their revolting worship would sooner or later be avenged by the great and true God. On her part, she went through the performance with the other virgins, with a saddened heart and dejected mien, until the priest, with gory hands, had pronounced it finished.

“She then stepped forth from the platform near the bloody altar, and with her hand raised toward heaven, said, in a tender, but distinct voice, ‘Behold, 0 thou priest of this hated temple! The Great God and Father of all looks with anger upon these bloody sacrifices, and the worship of these ugly stones which ye call gods. 0, ye priests and worshipers! I warn ye: let this be the last of your bloody sacrifices; for toward the rising sun a people with white faces and long, red beards are coming — they are already on the march. They carry in their hands the lightning and the thunder, with which they will demolish your
great temples. They are sent by the true God. Not a stone will be left; and on their sites will be erected white temples—the pure temples of the true and only God. Beware, then, and let this be the last of human sacrifice!’

“It may be imagined,” said the Cura, “with what awe these wicked priests gazed upon that divine figure who dared make such prophecy even in presence of their stony gods. She was regarded as a false prophetess, or witch, and sold to the Tepic nation, to be sacrificed upon the burning altar of Tlaxicoltetl, the God of Storms.

“The day at length arrived for the voyage to the islands. It was the 20th of June: on the 24th of that month the sacrificial offering was to take place.

“Twenty large canoes, ornamented with pearls and other beautiful shells of the gulf, contained the priests and virgins: they were the sacred canoes, and in one of these sat the beautiful Ixotle, gorgeously dressed In native costume, and adorned with the brightest of pearls. A drooping flower indeed, but with the look of an angel amid her rough attendants! As the sun disappeared below the calm and glistening sea, these canoes departed in the direction where the sun had gone down, followed by a numerous assemblage of other canoes. At the expiration of two nights and one day they reached the place of the temple dedicated to their storm-god. It was in a secluded little cove upon the eastern portion of the most northerly island, now called Maria Madre.

“The temple, or altar, was of rude construction, pyramidical in form; upon which stood the idol, huge and uncouth, in the shape of a human being. It was hollowed out, in order that the flames kindled within might give a more hideous expression to the face, by lighting up the round holes for the eyes and open mouth.

“It was a gloomy-looking spot, overshadowed by the large trees that abound on these islands. Darkness had closed the day, and the silence of the hour was only broken by the dull moaning of the sea and distant murmuring of thunder.

“The time had come for the sacrifice. Torches were lit around the altar, and, as the dull light of the idol grew into flames of fire, the victim was led to the top of the altar, in front of the idol, where she was permitted to stand, that all might gaze for the last time upon her lovely form.

“While thus standing, she turned to the audience, and again related her prophecy of the coming of the White Man, and reiterated her belief in the true and only God of all. She deprecated the foul and disgusting worship of her people, and said the time was near at hand when the Great Creator would terminate this evil practice. When she had finished, there was a deep silence—nothing was heard but the roar of the sea and the approaching tornado. Suddenly, it burst upon the spot with a terrific crash of thunder and lightning, accompanied with furious rain, while the overpowering wind caused the great trees to bend and sway like reeds, the very earth to tremble, and the forest to howl.

“The lights were soon extinguished by the wind and rain, all save that within the hollow idol, which, shining through the eye-holes and distended mouth, gave to the scene an indescribably weird aspect. Ixotle, still standing upon the altar, turned her face up to the mountain, where she beheld a singular apparition of vapory light, amid which the lightnings played and the thunder deafened— and thought she saw the figures of pale-faced men with long beards. Turning to the people, at the same time pointing in that direction, she cried aloud, ‘Behold! there they are! they have already come!’ At that instant, a flash of lightning struck the tree near which stood the idol, shivering tree and idol into atoms. The girl bounded from the altar, and fled into the dark forest.

“The priests and panic-stricken worshipers took to their canoes, amid the raging storm and angry sea. After they had departed from the shore, they looked back upon the island. The mountain seemed to be lit up in ablaze of ghastly, unearthly light; those vapory clouds presenting to their affrighted minds a strange phantasmagoria as of men and beasts, among which they thought they saw the form of their victim, ‘the drooping flower.’

“The storm raged all night; but two of the canoes reached the main-land, the occupants having undergone for several days much suffering. After their rescue they related what had happened, and heard with amazement that the girl’s prophecy had already come to pass! The White Man had arrived in Mexico. From that time forth no more sacrificial offerings were attempted on the island: ‘the God of the Sea-Storm’ was destroyed. Henceforth, according to the tradition of the locality, these attractive shores bore the ominous appellation of ‘the Haunted Isles,’ and were ever after shunned by every Indian with superstitious dread.

“The vapory, or phosphorescent, light which so frightened the idolaters from their intended sacrificial offering of the unhappy virgin, still makes its appearance when the first storms after the long, dry season moisten the earth and exuberant, decaying vegetation, in which, according to Indian superstition, the spirit of Ixotle still dwells.”

Such was the strange legend, deeply dyed with romance, as told me by the aged Padre of the Mission of San Luis. It may have been much exaggerated through its long repetition, but at the same time there would appear to be some foundation for its truthfulness.

I have myself seen the phosphorescent vapors. On returning from my first visit to the Socorro Island, in the month of June, three years before, we passed between the two main islands, and during the night of the 24th were overtaken by a chubasco, or tornado, which threatened our destruction. We were drenched with the rain and spray, and the ocean was white with foam, the wind furious, and the lightning awfully vivid. We could not carry sail, yet we were driven before the wind like a feather—our little craft plunging madly through the surge. I was holding the light, and the compass on my lap, down In the little cabin, and calling out the course to the Captain, that be might know how to steer. He suddenly called to me, and said the island was in a blaze of light. I looked out, and saw the strange phenomenon. It appeared in many places as if enshrouded in a pale, ghastly light of mist, which, swayed and moved by the wind, produced curious and fantastic figures of unearthly appearance. The storm was of short duration. The sea became again quiet, and the clouds less lowering, but the vapors still hovered over the island.

– – –

Source

  • Andrew J. Grayson. 1870. “Ixotle.” Overland Monthly and Out West Magazine, vol. V, #3, (Sept 1870), 258-261.
Lake Chapala Artists & Authors is reader-supported. Purchases made via links on our site may, at no cost to you, earn us an affiliate commission. Learn more.

Several chapters of Foreign Footprints in Ajijic: Decades of Change in a Mexican Village offer more details about the history of the literary community in Ajijic.

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

Oct 122023
 

With the exception of Bernardo de Balbuena’s mention of Chapala in his epic poem “El Bernardo,” (written between 1592 and 1602 and published in Madrid in 1624), one of the earliest literary mentions of Lake Chapala is in a story by Andrew Grayson published in 1870. Grayson, an ornithologist, rarely wrote fictional pieces and is far better known for his non-fiction natural history articles, published in numerous US magazines and newspapers in the first half of the nineteenth century.

William Jewett. 1850. Portrait of Andrew and Frances Grayson, and their son, in California. (Terra Foundation for American Art).

In “Ixotle,” posthumously published, the author made good use of his knowledge of Western Mexico, and describes how he is making “collections of Ornithology” when he encounters an elderly local priest who turns out to have an extensive knowledge of the birds of Western Mexico. The priest recounts a local legend explaining why the Tres Marias islands, a birding hotspot, were never settled. The legend revolves around the God of the Storms of the Sea, Tlaxicoltetl, and a beautiful, intelligent 16-year-old girl, Ixotle (“blooming flower”), who has been chosen by her people to be sacrificed to their ancient gods. The girl refuses and prophesies that:

a people with white faces and long, red beards are coming — they are already on the march. They carry in their hands the lightning and the thunder, with which they will demolish your great temples. They are sent by the true God. Not a stone will be left; and on their sites will be erected white temples—the pure temples of the true and only God. Beware, then, and let this be the last of human sacrifice!”

One short section of the story relates directly to Lake Chapala:

From this locality [San Blas] a large, well-beaten trail extended through Tepic on to where Guadalajara now stands, and where then stood a large city, which was called Chapala.

The lake near Guadalajara is still known by that name; and the Indians found near its borders, who yet live in a semi-barbarous state, are called to this day Chapalo Indians, and are a very degraded, thieving race. But previous to the conquest, they were a numerous and industrious people—well skilled in the manufacture of articles of utility. Cotton cloths, both coarse and fine, were largely manufactured by them, as also various kinds of pottery; and their dressed deer-skins were of a superior quality. These kinds of goods were bartered with the Tepic Indians for fish, pearls, etc.

Their principal town was where the beautiful city of Guadalajara now lifts its numerous church-spires proudly over the once heathen temples of human sacrifice. It was then a large city, and continues to be second only to the Capital.”

Click here for the full text of “Ixotle.”

Andrew Grayson. Green Parakeet. (Image believed to be in public domain)

Andrew Grayson. Green Parakeet (a Mexican endemic). Image believed to be in public domain.

Andrew Jackson Grayson was born in Louisiana in 1819 and died in Mazatlan in 1869. A sickly child, he spent most of his childhood roaming the countryside, watching and drawing local birds and other wildlife. As an adult, after failing to run a store profitably in Louisiana, he married Frances Jane Timmons in 1842 and two years later the couple moved to St. Louis, in preparation for the overland trek west to California. They arrived in California in October 1846, where Grayson bought several lots in San Francisco and the surrounding area.

Seeing an exhibition of bird paintings by James John Audubon in San Francisco in 1853 reignited Grayson’s childhood passion for drawing birds. Grayson became a self-taught painter and taxidermist, working first in San Jose, then Tehuantepec, Mexico (1857), and the Napa Valley (1859) before moving to Mazatlán where he owned a general store and began working towards a book he envisaged titled “Birds of the Pacific Slope.”

Grayson spent the next decade submitting articles, mostly about natural history, to a number of newspapers and magazines in California and Mexico. He also supplied the Smithsonian Institution with birds and bird biographies. Despite making exhaustive efforts to find a sponsor for his book on Pacific Slope birds, the work remained unfinished when Grayson died of “coast fever” in Mazatlán in 1869. Shortly after, his wife returned to California, where she later remarried.

156 of Grayson’s stunning bird paintings were eventually published in a collectors’ edition by Arion Press in 1986, accompanied by a detailed biography of the ornithologist-artist.

An archive of Andrew Jackson Grayson papers and paintings is held by The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

Sources

  • Andrew J. Grayson. 1870. “Ixotle.” Overland Monthly, vol. V, #3, (Sept 1870), 258-261.
  • Anon. Guide to the Andrew Jackson Grayson Papers, 1844-1901. The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.
  • Robert J. Chandler. 2011.”Andrew Jackson Grayson: The Birdman was a traitor.” The California Territorial Quarterly. #88 (Winter 2011), 46-51.
  • Lois Chambers Stone. 1986. Andrew Jackson Grayson: Birds of the Pacific Slope: A Biography of the Artist and Naturalist, 1818-1869. Arion Press.
Lake Chapala Artists & Authors is reader-supported. Purchases made via links on our site may, at no cost to you, earn us an affiliate commission. Learn more.

Several chapters of Foreign Footprints in Ajijic: Decades of Change in a Mexican Village offer more details about the history of the literary community in Ajijic.

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

Oct 052023
 

When cataloguing extensive photo archives, it is inevitable that errors are occasionally made. This mini series identifies some examples of photo identification errors which pertain to the Lake Chapala area.

Mexico’s National Photo Archive (Fototeca Nacional INAH) includes this image, titled “Multitud en la ribera del lago de Chapala” (Multitude on the shore of Lake Chapala). The image is credited to Winfield Scott, with a date of about 1920.

Winfield Scott-foto-allegedly of Chapala

“Multitud en la ribera del lago de Chapala” ?? (Winfield Scott, c 1920) Fototeca Nacional INAH.

I have no idea whether or not this photo was taken by photographer and hotelier Winfield Scott (1863-1942), whose close ties to Lake Chapala are explained in “Photographer and hotelier Winfield Scott (1863–1942).” Nor do I have any idea how accurate the date might be.

However, the photograph was certainly not taken at Lake Chapala. Indeed, I think it unlikely to have been taken anywhere in Mexico! The group of multistory buildings (right-hand side of the image) does not correspond in any way to the architecture of any town at Lake Chapala, whether at the end of the nineteenth century or at any point since.

Surely, this photo must show a place in the US? Perhaps an eagle-eyed reader can suggest a likely location? All suggestions welcomed!

Lake Chapala Artists & Authors is reader-supported. Purchases made via links on our site may, at no cost to you, earn us an affiliate commission. Learn more.

My 2022 book Lake Chapala: A Postcard History uses reproductions of more than 150 vintage postcards to tell the incredible story of how Lake Chapala became an international tourist and retirement center.

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

Sep 282023
 

Serenata de Chapala was first performed at the Padua Hills Theatre, California, on 2 August 1939 and had a highly successful one-month run. This makes it the earliest Chapala-linked play I have so far come across! Unfortunately, it is highly unlikely that a script still exists, since its author and director, Charles Alvah Dickinson, was a strong proponent of improvisation.

Dickinson was born in Corona, California, on 26 December 1910 and died from a heart attack in Claremont, California, on 3 December 1950. He graduated from Pomona College in 1932 and gained a master’s degree from Caremont Graduate School in 1934, by which time he was already working with the Padua Hills Theatre, located three miles north of Claremont, a city on the eastern edge of Los Angeles County. In 1940, Dickinson married Kathryn Estelle Welch (1909-1984).

Dickinson’s 18 years with the Padua Hills Theatre was interrupted only by his service in the US Army from 1943 to 1945. At the theatre, he was the art and dance director of the Mexican Players, an acting group that was the mainstay of the Padua Hills Theatre, which began in the early 1930s and lasted until 1974.

Dickinson wrote more than 100 plays produced at Padua Hills, and acted in or directed many others. All the plays had close ties either to Mexico or to Mexico-California connections, and Dickinson’s in-depth knowledge of Mexico was ever-apparent. In 1936, for example, he took the part of an American entomologist in It rained in Ixtlán del Río, “a riotous comedy” about a bandit who tried to take advantage of a group of train passengers stranded in a crowded inn after their journey north was interrupted owing to a blockage on the railroad line.

The theatre, built in 1930, had struggled through the Great Depression. But Mr and Mrs Herman H Garner recognized the potential of the many young Mexican boys and girls who worked there and founded, in 1935, the Padua Institute. The institute arranged classes, some with guest teachers from Mexico, in music, dance, dramatics, languages and arts and crafts, all with the aim of promoting friendly relations between the US and Mexico.

Ad for "Serenata de Chapala (Redlands Daily Facts, 2 Aug 1939)

Ad for “Serenata de Chapala (Redlands Daily Facts, 2 Aug 1939)

At the time Serenata de Chapala was running, the Mexican Players consisted of a group of about 30 young people of Mexican or Spanish Californian descent, some of whom were born in Mexico, and most of whom had lived in California for some time.

Serenata de Chapala was a rollicking romantic comedy in two acts. Performances were followed by a “Jamaica” or outdoor carnival of songs, dances and festive Mexican games. Presented in Spanish, Serenata de Chapala was about the serio-comic tribulations of a sextet of ardent young lovers. The “conversation of the play frequently introduces English, and the action is so arranged that it is easily followed by those who do not understand Spanish.” Chapala, the setting for the play, was described in publicity materials as “Mexico’s famed vacation resort.”

According to one review, “Serenata de Chapala told a merry and exciting story of how an Americanized Mexican lad unwittingly solved a romantic quadrangle through defying time-honored customs to give the señoritas a thrill.” Another reviewer wrote how “Serenading a señorita in Mexico at 4 o’clock in the morning is a hazardous pastime that may provoke a pistol barrage from an irate papa, to judge by the startling and hilarious climax of Serenata de Chapala.’”

"Serenata de Chapala" (Redlands Daily Facts, 14 Aug 1939)

“Serenata de Chapala” (Redlands Daily Facts, 14 Aug 1939)

The Padua Hills Theatre won national and international recognition as a unique cultural project, with the Stage magazine including them on their list of the ten best little theatre groups in the US. According to Wikipeda, Padua Hills Theatre was the longest running theater featuring Mexican-theme musicals in the US. The dinner theatre group called the “Mexican Players” lasted until 1974. Several former players continued their careers on stage; others, such as Natividad Vacío, made their name in movies.

The Padua Hills property was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1998, and is used today primarily for weddings and special events.

This website has many evocative images of the Padua Hills Theatre in its heyday.

Papers, flyers, photos and other material associated with Padua Hills Theatre are housed in a special collection at the Claremont Colleges Library.

Sources

  • Anon. “‘Padua Hills’ – Unusual Institution.” Pacific Electric Magazine, August 1939, 3-4.
  • Redlands Daily Facts: 25 Jul 1939; 2 Aug 1939; 14 Aug 1939; 23 Aug 1939.
  • South Pasadena Review: 1 Sep 1939, 2.
  • The Pomona Progress Bulletin: 12 Feb 1936, 5; 4 Dec 1950, 13.
  • Santa Barbara News-Press: 4 Dec 1950, 3.
Lake Chapala Artists & Authors is reader-supported. Purchases made via links on our site may, at no cost to you, earn us an affiliate commission. Learn more.

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

Sep 222023
 

Among the many early postcards of Lake Chapala that were published in Mexico City are several labeled with a caption and stylized “MF” logo. These cards were produced and distributed by México Fotográfico, a Mexico City firm founded by Demetrio Sánchez Ortega. Sánchez Ortega himself took many of the photographs used for the company’s early cards and may have taken this view of the shoreline in Chapala with its distinctive “chalets”. The three most prominent buildings nestled beneath Cerro San Miguel in this image are (from left to right) Villa Elena, Villa Niza and Villa Josefina.

México Fotográfico. Date unknown. Chapala chalets.

México Fotográfico. c 1930. (l to r) Villa Elena, Villa Niza and Villa Josefina.

Demetrio Sánchez Ortega was born in Huatusco, Veracruz, on 22 December 1898. He moved to Mexico City in search of work as a young man and took a job selling paper before finding work as a traveling agent for the Cervecería Moctezuma brewery. This position involved traveling to bars (cantinas) all over the country, where he would perform simple sleight-of-hand and magic tricks, using cards, bottles and simple props, all designed to boost the sales of the brewery’s XX beer brand.

During these trips he must have come across (and maybe relied on) existing illustrated tourist guides, just as he surely encountered postcards published earlier by the likes of Hugo Brehme, Alfred Briquet, William Henry Jackson and Charles B. Waite.

The knowledge, experience and connections that he built up during his travels served him well when he decided to become a photographer. Introduced to photography by a friend, and almost entirely self-taught, Sánchez Ortega founded México Fotográfico, located on Calzada de Guadalupe in Villa de Guadalupe in Mexico City, in 1925, a year after Plutarco Elías Calles became president. Some sources suggest he had government support. México Fotográfico, like several other postcard publishers, became an important pillar of Mexico’s promotion of tourism.

México Fotográfico. ca 1940s. Chapala plaza and ex-presidencia.

México Fotográfico. c 1945 (?). Former Chapala plaza and Presidencia Municipal.

The view of downtown Chapala (above) shows the plaza in its pre-1950s location and the former Presidencia Municipal.

México Fotográfico was very much a family business. Sánchez Ortega and his wife, Tomasita Pedrero, had five children—Alfredo, Eustolia, Teresa, Demetrio and Alfonso—all of whom worked at one time or another in the laboratory and printing side of the business.

Later, the sons became traveling photographers. The company employed a number of “traveling agents”, responsible for photographing the places they visited while promoting the company, taking orders and arranging the distribution of postcards.

México Fotográfico. Date unknown. Chapala lakeshore.

México Fotográfico. c 1950. Chapala lakeshore.

This card (above), showing the lakeshore, trees and fishing nets, and believed to date from the 1950s, was a popular choice as a memento of a trip to Lake Chapala.

Over the years, México Fotográfico amassed an extensive and culturally-rich collection of landscapes and towns large and small all over the country. The collection includes more than 25 cards related to Chapala, and an additional 10 cards of Ocotlán. Several of the cards were reissued in a colorized edition with crenulated edges, and the firm published at least one multi-view card of Chapala, with small reproductions of six photographs in the series.

México Fotográfico. c. 1935? Main beach, Chapala.

México Fotográfico. c. 1935? Main beach, Chapala.

The company’s longevity (it was still producing cards into the 1970s) meant that its corpus of work provides a valuable visual record of the changes in towns, people and customs across post-revolutionary Mexico.

The Mexico City daily, Excelsior, had introduced a weekly supplement—Jueves en Excelsior—in 1923. Photographs published by México Fotográfico were used occasionally as illustrations in 1926. In 1927, the two companies began a much closer relationship, with México Fotográfico supplying many of the photos used in the supplement, perhaps in exchange for small display ads. The earliest such ad, in May 1927, had a portrait of Sánchez Ortega and the text “Fundador gerente de la negociación México Fotográfico, establecida en Guadalupe Hidalgo, México, DF”.

México Fotográfico was active from the 1920s into the 1970s. Its founder, the beer-parlor magician Demetrio Sánchez Ortega, master of postcard illustration, gradually lost his sight and had become completely blind by the time of his death on 27 January 1979.

Acknowledgments

My thanks to Manuel Ramirez for responding to a query posted on Facebook asking which postcard publisher utilized the MF logo.

This profile is based almost entirely on the extensive research by Mayra N. Uribe Eguiluz for her 2011 thesis on the company for a Masters degree in Art History at the National University (UNAM) and her related article in Alquimia, referenced below.

Lake Chapala Artists & Authors is reader-supported. Purchases made via links on our site may, at no cost to you, earn us an affiliate commission. Learn more.

My 2022 book Lake Chapala: A Postcard History uses reproductions of more than 150 vintage postcards to tell the incredible story of how Lake Chapala became an international tourist and retirement center.

Note: This post was first published 29 July 2019.

Sources

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

Sep 142023
 

Pedro Magallanes López was a Guadalajara photographer, active from the mid-1880s until the start of the 1920s, whose studio was initially located in the city center at Santuario #1, and then at Pedro Loza 17. This latter location was advertised in 1922 as for sale or rent, suggesting that this may be when Magallanes retired.

Best known for his superb portrait work, Magallanes also took several very interesting photographs of Lake Chapala, colorized versions of which were published by the Guadalajara firm of Editores Alba y Fernández. (Among those credited for other postcards of the region in the Alba y Fernández series are J. de Obeso and Manuel Hernández.)

Pedro Magallanes. Undated. Fuerte de Ocotlán.

Pedro Magallanes. Undated. Fuerte de Ocotlán.

At the start of Magallanes’ career, the town of Ocotlán, on the main railroad line between Mexico City and Guadalajara, was still one of the major routes via which visitors reached the town of Chapala. Near Ocotlán, the resort known as Ribera Castellanos, built in the first decade of the twentieth century, attracted lots of tourists, especially those looking to hunt or fish.

Relatively little is known about the life of Pedro Magallanes López. He was born on 23 August 1863, the son of Pedro Magallanes and Petra López, and married Herminia del Castillo, then aged 20, in January 1887. The couple had four children. Sadly, his first wife died in December 1894.

Four years later, Magallanes took Clotilde Castellanos as his second wife. Clotilde, 30 years old at the time of their marriage in Guadalajara on 24 August 1898, gave birth to a daughter, also named Clotilde, on 4 March 1900, and to a son, José Manuel, on 1 April 1902.

Magallanes’ marriage to Clotilde, who had been present as a guest at his first marriage, clearly cemented his ties to the extensive and influential Castellanos clan, and Magallanes became the family’s official portraitist (see the article by Beatriz Bastarrica Mora). He took numerous formal portraits of family members and groups, as well as many unusually informal photos of the family vacationing at Lake Chapala. Some of these show the family’s domestic workers and several include local residents in the background.

Pedro Magallanes. Undated. View of Chapala from Villa Carmen.

Pedro Magallanes. c 1910. View of Chapala from Villa Carmen.

Magallanes’ studio in Guadalajara was only one of several photo studios that thrived in Guadalajara at the time. The reverse of his photos included an elaborately drawn logo of an arch, bright rays of light, flower pots and flowers emblazoned with the photographer’s name. Many prints also included a statement saying that the negatives were kept on file to allow for future repeat orders. As Alberto Gómez Barbosa has pointed out, this is indicative of the importance Magallanes attached to marketing and maintaining clients.

Magallanes died in Guadalajara on 6 September 1928. In 1930 his widow, Clotilde (aged 63), was living in the city with several unmarried relatives, including Clotilde Magallanes (30), Manuel Magallanes (28), M. Maria Magallanes (20) and Beatriz Magallanes (15).

Lake Chapala Artists & Authors is reader-supported. Purchases made via links on our site may, at no cost to you, earn us an affiliate commission. Learn more.

My 2022 book Lake Chapala: A Postcard History uses reproductions of more than 150 vintage postcards to tell the incredible story of how Lake Chapala became such an important international center for tourism and retirement.

Note: This post was first published 4 July 2019.

Sources:

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

Sep 072023
 

Librería Ruhland & Ahlschier, publisher of the earliest illustrated postcards of Mexico, was a bookstore in Mexico City owned by Emil Ruhland and Max Ahlschier. The store advertised as “Libreria Internacional de Ruhland & Ahlschier” and was located at Coliseo Viejo #16. The company published at least seven different postcards of Lake Chapala, including views of the shoreline, boats, church, plaza (jardín) and a stagecoach. Two of the photographs were also published, at about the same time, by Juan Kaiser in Guadalajara. Kaiser and Ruhland were apparently close friends.

Ruhland & Ahlschier were commissioned to provide the first ever series of illustrated postcards for the Mexican Post Office in 1897. All previous postcards (which at that time were postage paid and purchased in a post office) had one side for correspondence and the other side pre-stamped and reserved for the address. As illustrated cards became popular in Europe and then in the U.S., the Mexican government saw the advantages of issuing its own illustrated cards, which required the purchaser to purchase postage stamps separately and affix them to the card prior to mailing.

These beautifully-produced and inexpensive souvenir postcards soon spurred a new market for collectors; many of the art cards, especially, were far too pretty to entrust to the vagaries of being sent through the mail without an envelope to protect them. In consequence, relatively few postally-used examples exist of many of the more attractive cards.

Demand for illustrated postcards grew rapidly. When the postal service relaxed its regulations, several private firms entered the market, each producing their own illustrated cards and selling them through hotels and a wide variety of stores and other outlets.

Illustrated cards still reserved, prior to 1906, one entire side for the address and stamp, meaning that any message or correspondence had to be written on the same side as the image. The first postcards to have divided backs, allowing for both correspondence and address on the reverse, thereby leaving the entire front side of the card for the image, were released in the UK (1902), then mainland Europe and Mexico (1905), and the U.S. (1907); they were legal to mail in the U.S. from 1 March 1907.

The two men who owned Ruhland & Ahlschier are something of an enigma. Emil Ruhland and Max Ahlschier were both born in Germany. Ruhland, born in about 1847, left Germany in about 1869 and was certainly established in Mexico City by 1883 when he is named as the editor of Deutsche Zeitung von Mexiko, a newspaper for the German-speaking community in the city. In 1888 he partnered with Isidoro Epstein to found (and co-edit) another German newspaper, Germania. Ruhland’s name continued to be associated with Deutsche Zeitung von Mexiko until at least 1897, by which time Max Ahlschier was his co-editor.

In 1888, Ruhland edited and published the Directorio General de la Ciudad de México, a forerunner of the telephone directory and later commonly referred to simply as Directorio Ruhland. City directories were especially important following the introduction of the telephone to Mexico in the 1880s. By 1893 telephone services existed in 14 cities even though intercity lines would not become available until much later.

The first edition of Directorio General de la Ciudad de México in 1888 cost $1.60 (paper cover) or $2.00 (cloth cover). New editions of the directory appeared more or less annually thereafter for more than twenty years. The 500-page 1892 version, “more complete than ever,” and costing $3.00 had four parts: the names of residents and industries and their place of residence; a listing of professional men, merchants and manufacturers; contact details for all government offices and heads of departments; and listings for railroads, the press, societies and ecclesiastical figures. Ruhland published a similar volume for Guadalajara in 1894.

Ruhland’s directories proved to be extremely popular and a commercial success. At the 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta, Georgia, Ruhland won an award for his guides to the Mexican republic. The following year, the 1896-1897 edition of his directories went on sale in Mexico City at his own store (Avenida Cinco de Mayo #4) and at the bookstore of F. P. Hoeck (San Francisco #12) as well as in New York (E. Steiger & Co., 25, Park Place) and London (Dulan & Co, 37, Soho Square).

Emil Ruhland’s association with Max Ahlschier seems to have begun in 1897. We know little about Ahlschier beyond the fact that he was born in Germany in 1867 and married Anna Vogt, also from Germany, in Mexico City on 4 June 1903. The Lutheran service was held at the Casino Alemán.

The two men opened their joint bookstore, Librería Ruhland & Ahlschier, and also began to publish pictorial postcards. Publicity for their store in 1897 shows that it sold, among other items, American books, literature, American and German paper, pencils, pens, inks, maps of Mexico and illustrated postal cards with views of Mexico.

The earliest Ruhland & Ahlschier cards were black and white or sepia collotypes; later cards were produced by chromolithography. Though their postcards do not identify the photographer, their stable of photographers included some important names in Mexican photography, including German-born Guillermo Kahlo (the father of Frida Kahlo), Guadalajara-native José María Lupercio, and American photographers Winfield Scott and Charles B. Waite.

Guillermo Kahlo (born Carl Wilhelm Kahlo) (1872-1941), who first arrived in Mexico City in 1891, at the age of 19, learned his craft in Mexico and was mainly known as a commercial photographer; his photos were first turned into postcards by “Ruhland & Ahlschier” in about 1903.

Charles Betts Waite (1861-1927) set up shop as a photographer in Mexico City in 1896 and amassed a vast collection of thousands of images taken all over Mexico. In 1908 he bought all the “photographic view negatives” of Winfield Scott, and advertised that he now had “the largest assortment of views of any one country in the world.”

Charles B. Waite. Beach, Chapala.

Winfield Scott. c 1897 (published c 1902). Beach, Chapala.

Winfield Scott was responsible for the photograph on this Ruhland & Ahlschier postcard (above), a photograph now in the collection of Mexico’s National Photo Archive. The photo shows fishermen sitting on a boat in front of the beach, with the Casa Capetillo in the middle background. To the right, only the first story of the Hotel Arzapalo has been built, dating this particular image (though not the card) to 1896-1897. The two-story hotel opened in 1898, and Winfield Scott was its manager when D. H Lawrence visited Chapala in 1923.

Charles B. Waite. Carden's garden, Chapala.

José María Lupercio. c. 1900 (published c 1904). Carden’s garden, Chapala.

The National Photo Archive also has this Lupercio photo of the garden of Villa Tlalocan, the vacation home in Chapala of British consul Lionel Carden and his wife. The home was completed in 1896 and this postcard shows ornamental flower vases in the front garden, with the lake behind and Chapala’s San Francisco church in the distance.

Early cards published by Ruhland & Ahlschier have the imprint “Librería Ruhland y Ahlschier, México, Coliseo Viejo 16.” In about 1903, the two men sold their business, and later postcards (published from 1904 on) have a different imprint: “Ruhland & Ahlschier Sucr. Calle Espiritu Santo 1½, México.” This was the address of La Sociedad Müller y Cia, owners of a competing bookstore, Librería Internacional.

By 1909, Müller and Company had also acquired ownership of, and the rights to publish, Ruhland’s Directorio general de la ciudad de México. The 1909-1910 edition was published in two volumes, one for Mexico City and one for the rest of the country. Müller and Company continued to publish the directory until at least 1913.

What became of Emil Ruhland and Max Ahlschier, pioneers of the Mexican illustrated postcard?

Ruhland revisited Germany in 1899 after an absence of 30 years, before returning to Mexico. Four years later (1903) he appears to have moved to the U.S., at about the time the postcard publishing company was sold. He was a good friend of Juan Kaiser, and Kaiser’s wife, Bertha, records the two men meeting for the first time in twelve years in Los Angeles in 1915.

Ahlschier and his wife visited Europe in 1906. Two years later, he was elected secretary of the Sociedad Alemana de Beneficencia (German Benevolent Society) in Mexico City. In 1912 he lost a civil action brought by a Martin G Ribon and was ordered to pay $3371.08 plus costs.

It seems likely that he and his wife subsequently returned to live in Germany, given that a Max Ahlschier is listed in trade directories there as a publisher between 1928 and 1933. Support for the idea that he returned to Germany also comes from an unusual source. In the Library of Congress’s vast collection of German documents, captured by American military forces after World War II, is a record of one by Max Ahlschier entitled “German colonies in Mexico, 1890-1910.”

Lake Chapala Artists & Authors is reader-supported. Purchases made via links on our site may, at no cost to you, earn us an affiliate commission. Learn more.

My 2022 book Lake Chapala: A Postcard History uses reproductions of more than 150 vintage postcards to tell the incredible story of how Lake Chapala became an international tourist and retirement center.

Note: This post was first published 9 August 2019.

Sources

  • Atlanta Constitution, 22 Nov 1895, 1.
  • El Continental, 13 May 1894, 3.
  • El Diario del Hogar, 3 Feb 1912, 3.
  • Diario Oficial Estados Unidos Mexicanos, 19 Jan 1905; 13 June 1908; 16 July 1909; 17 Oct 1912.
  • El Imparcial, 7 June 1903, 2.
  • Jalisco Times, 10 Apr 1908.
  • Verena Kaiser-Ernst. 2012. Tagebuch Von Bertha Kaiser-Peter Fur Ihren sohn Hans Paul Kaiser. Stuttgart: T H Schetter, 45.
  • The Mexican Herald: 6 Sep 1896, 9; 6 July 1897, 8; 3 May 1899, 8.
  • El Mundo, 1 April 1897.
  • La Patria, 28 Aug 1883, 8.
  • El Partido Liberal, 7 June 1888, 2.
  • The Two Republics, 31 Oct 1888, 2; 20 Feb 1892, 1.

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.

Aug 312023
 

Renowned American painter, educator, designer and architect Millard Owen Sheets was born in Pomona, California, on 24 June 1907, and died in Anchor Bay, California, on 31 March 1989.

Details of his biography are readily available online, at Wikipedia and at the website of the California Watercolor gallery.

But, in summary, Sheets studied at the Chouinard Art Institute, where, even before graduating, he was exhibiting watercolors in the annual shows of the California Water Color Society and teaching watercolor techniques at Chouinard.

Millard Sheets. 1983. Lake Chapala, Mexico. Reproduced by kind permission of California Watercolor gallery.

Note: Giclées of this painting are available via the website of the California Watercolor Gallery

He exhibited widely across the U.S. and Europe, and gained national recognition as a fine watercolorist. His life, work and painting style made the pages of Art Digest, Eyes on America and a book published by Dalzell Hatfield in Los Angeles in 1935.

During the second world war, Sheets was an artist-correspondent for Life magazine and served with the United States Army Air Forces in India and Burma.

As an art educator, Sheets worked at Chouinard Art Institute, Scripps College, and was Director of Otis Art Institute (1953-1960), fomenting the development of hundreds of young artists.

Millard Sheets. Chapala Church. (EBay photo)

Millard Sheets. Chapala Church. (EBay photo)

Later in life he designed and executed dozens of major mosaic and mural projects. His commissions ranged from Los Angeles City Hall to Detroit Public Library, the Mayo Clinic, the mosaic dome and chapel at the National Shrine in Washington DC, and the Hilton Hotel in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Works by Sheets are in the permanent collections of many major museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum (both in New York; the Chicago Art Institute; the National Gallery (Washington D.C.); the DeYoung Museum (San Francisco); and the Los Angeles County Museum.

Sheets made multiple visits to Chapala between 1947 (believed to be the first time he visited the lake) and the early 1980s.

Millard Sheets.1979. Noon, Chapala. Reproduced by kind permission of California Watercolor gallery.

Note: Giclées of this painting can be purchased on the website of the California Watercolor Gallery

Sheets’ 1947 trip to Chapala was in the company of long-time friend Merritt (‘Muggs’) Van Sant (1898-1964) and fellow artist, master woodworker and designer Sam Maloof (1916-2009), who was working for Sheets at the time and had learnt Spanish as a child from a Mexican-born housekeeper. Interviewed in 2002 by Mary MacNaughton for the Archives of American Art, Maloof recalled, albeit all too briefly, their trip to Chapala:

“… we flew to Guadalajara and I could have stayed for three years for what it cost us for three weeks. Of course it had to be the best hotel rooms and I had a room by myself. Millard and Muggs Van Zandt [Sant] had a room together and we had to rent a car. They had a brand new Buick with a driver that drove us all over and we’d all put money in the kitty every morning and Muggs would be the banker and we traveled from Lake Chapala to Morelia.”

Katie Goodridge Ingram (who first brought Millard Sheets’ link to Lake Chapala to my attention) remembered Sheets bringing an artist group to paint in Ajijic on at least one occasion.

Note: This is a work in progress. If you can offer any additional information about Millard Sheets’ visits to Lake Chapala, please get in touch!

Lake Chapala Artists & Authors is reader-supported. Purchases made via links on our site may, at no cost to you, earn us an affiliate commission. Learn more.

Several chapters of Foreign Footprints in Ajijic: Decades of Change in a Mexican Village offer more details about the history of the artistic community in Ajijic.

Source

  • Mary MacNaughton. 2002. Interview of Sam Maloof conducted January 2002 by Mary MacNaughton, for the Archives of American Art, in Maloof’s home/studio in Alta Loma, California.

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

Aug 172023
 

Mexican photographer José María Lupercio (1870-1929) took numerous outstanding photos of Lake Chapala at the start of the twentieth century.

Lupercio was born in Guadalajara on 29 December 1870 and was one of the most noteworthy Mexican photographers of his era. Lupercio was one of several fine photographers whose work reached a wide audience because it was used for many early picture postcards of Lake Chapala. While Lupercio was 100% Mexican, many of the other photographers whose images of Lake Chapala illustrated postcards in the early twentieth century—including Charles Betts Waite, Hugo Brehme and Winfield Scott—were foreign-born, as were most of the postcard publishers.

José María Lupercio began his artistic career by studying painting in the Guadalajara studio-workshop of the Brazilian artist Félix Bernardelli, where he was a classmate of such distinguished artists as Gerardo Murillo (Dr. Atl), Rafael Ponce de León and Jorge Enciso.

Bernadelli and friends, 1898

Bernadelli and friends, 1898

Lupercio developed his photography skills by working with the commercial photographer Octaviano de la Mora (1841-1921) who had his studio in Guadalajara. Despite his humble background, De la Mora, born in Ixtlahuacán de los Membrillos, became one of the most renowned early commercial photographers in Mexico. The quality of his portraiture work was praised by contemporary critics and won him a major award in the third Paris World’s Fair in 1878.

Lupercio took over de la Mora’s Guadalajara studio, located in Portal Matamoros, in 1900 when de la Mora moved to Mexico City to work at the National Archaeology, History and Ethnology Museum. Some years later, Lupercio also moved to Mexico City, and again stepped into de la Mora’s shoes when he took over as the museum’s resident photographer after de la Mora retired.

During Lupercio’s time in Guadalajara he shifted the emphasis of the studio’s commercial work away from the formal portraits initially favored by his mentor towards landscapes and photographs of people posed in their natural, day-to-day surroundings. According to an editorial mention in a local English-language paper in 1904, “José Lupercio, the photographer in Portal Matamoros, offers some beautiful views of the city and republic. His portrait work is unrivalled.”

José María Lupercio. Chapala. c 1905.

José María Lupercio. Chapala. c 1905. Published by Juan Kaiser.

Lupercio’s talents brought him great success and he won numerous national and international awards for his work, including a diploma from the French Photographic Society (1898), a silver medal from the 1900 Paris Exposition, a silver medal from the 1901 Panamerican Exhibition in Buffalo, New York, and a gold medal in the 1904 Saint Louis Exposition in Missouri.

The latter achievement was the basis for the text of a 1906 ad for Lupercio’s studio: “Honor for Guadalajara! Native Types of Mexico Took First Premium at St. Louis Exposition. – Lupercio’s – The Finest Views of Guadalajara – Photographs of all Kinds. – José Lupercio, Portal Matamoros #9, Guad.”

Lupercio was a founder member of the Ateneo Libre de Controversias Literarias, Artísticas y Políticas founded by Dr. Atl in Guadalajara in 1916, along with José Othón de Aguinaga, Antonio Pérez Verdía, Ixca Farías and several other local artists and intellectuals.

Many examples of Lupercio’s photographs of Lake Chapala are preserved in the National Archives. More than a dozen of his Chapala photographs were published as postcards in the first decade of the twentieth century, mainly by either Juan Kaiser or Ruhland & Ashclier, though Lupercio also sold his work to several other publishers. Some of the finest images of Chapala taken by Lupercio were used by little-known local publisher Manuel Hernández for postcards printed in Austria, which are of  exceptional quality.

In the year 2000, one particular photograph of Chapala, taken by Lupercio in about 1906, was accorded the rare distinction of being included on a Mexican postage stamp to commemorate the importance of photography in Mexico during the twentieth century. Somewhat surprisingly, this 2000 issue was the first time Lake Chapala had been portrayed on a Mexican stamp.

Mexican postage stamp (2000) with Lupercio photograph of Lake Chapala, ca 1906.

Mexican postage stamp (2000) with Lupercio photograph of Lake Chapala, c 1906.

In 1916, Lupercio was appointed the official photographer at the National Museum in Mexico City. He subsequently took thousands of photographs of archaeological pieces and other items in the museum’s collections. He also photographed the artwork of his former classmate Dr. Atl in the Escuela de San Pedro y San Pablo, the paintings of Saturnino Herrán, the murals of Diego Rivera and took portraits of many of the celebrities of the time, including Rivera, Atl, Manuel Toussaint, José Vasconcelas and other prominent intellectuals.

Lupercio maintained a private studio in Mexico City at Avenida Madero 42 and began to produce postcards for sale in the National Museum. The postcard photographs portrayed ethnographic themes as well as ancient codices, archaeological sites and historic monuments. His production was prolific. For example in 1922, he produced no fewer than 2,564 different postcards! But this was not even his peak level of activity. Astoundingly, between July 1925 and July 1926, he produced 8,229 distinct postcards!

Ever an adventurous individual, Lupercio not only found time for his painting and photography but also worked on theater sets and participated in bullfighting, car racing and flying.

Examples of Lupercio’s superb photographs are preserved in many public and private collections, including those of the Instituto Cultural Cabañas in Guadalajara, the National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City and the National Archives in Pachuca, Hidalgo.

Lupercio remained the official photographer at the National Museum until his death in Mexico City on 2 May 1929.

Lake Chapala Artists & Authors is reader-supported. Purchases made via links on our site may, at no cost to you, earn us an affiliate commission. Learn more.

My 2022 book Lake Chapala: A Postcard History uses reproductions of more than 150 vintage postcards to tell the incredible story of how Lake Chapala became an international tourist and retirement center.

Note: This post was first published 2 July 2019.

Sources:

  • Raúl Aceves. 2005. “La tarjeta postal ilustrada en México durante la época clásica (1896-19015).” Boletín Filatélico Guadalajara, Año 8, No 17, 2005, 3-19.
  • Arturo Guevara Escobar. 2011.”Letra L. Fotógrafos y productores de postales” Blog Post, dated 10 November 2011.
  • Francisco Javier Ibarra. 2005. “José María Lupercio: espejo de la memoria IV.” El Informador, 24 July 2005, 13-B.
  • El Informador: 27 February 1966.
  • Jalisco Times: 14 May 1904; 5 January 1906.

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

Aug 102023
 

Prolific playwright Fred Walker Carmichael (1924-2009) visited his brother Thomas M. Carmichael in Ajijic at some point during the latter’s residence there with his family from 1966 to 1972. Fred subsequently wrote a play, dedicated to Tom, set in Ajijic entitled Mixed Doubles: A Comedy in Two Acts (Samuel French Inc., 1973). Curiously, despite its close connection to Ajijic, this play has never been performed at the Lakeside Little Theatre.

Fred Carmichael was born in Pelham, New York on 1 February 1924. His love for the theater began when he acted in Peter Pan in his teens with the Clare Tree Major performing group. He performed in many plays and eventually turned to writing. He was the author of more than 50 plays, including: Exit The Body (1962); The Best Laid Plans (1965); Any Number Can Die (1965); All the Better To Kill You With (1968); Victoria’s House (1969); Done To Death (1971); Foiled by an Innocent Maid, or The Curse of the Iron Horse (1977); Said the Spider to the Spy (1987); Don’t Mention My Name (1993); Coming Apart (1994). Fred Carmichael and his wife Patricia owned and operated the Caravan Theatre at the Dorset Playhouse in Dorset, Vermont, for twenty-seven seasons from 1949 to 1975.

Carmichael-Fred-mixed-doubles-coverThe first performance of Mixed Doubles was at the Dorset Playhouse, and featured Fred Carmichael playing two parts in a production staged by his wife. It has been regularly performed in community theatres (including the Borelians Community Theatre in Port Perry, Ontario, in 1981; the Red Barn Theatre in New Castle, Pennsylvania, in 1986; and Boise Little Theater in Idaho in 1988. It also played to packed houses in New Orleans in 1986, when the Community Theater there put on several performances at the Bayou Barriere Country Club. More recently, in April 2010, the play was put on in Mexico, at Rosarito Beach, in Baja California.

Mixed Doubles: A Comedy in Two Acts, described by Village Voice as “perhaps the funniest of his laugh-a-minute plays”, is set in a small hotel in Ajijic called the Casa Pericolo. The first act, about a separated middle-aged couple who occupy connecting suites and have a romantic fling, takes place in October. In the second act, set in the following June, the adjoining suites are respectively occupied by an unmarried golden-age couple and a band of inept drug smugglers.

The Casa Pericolo is fictional, but in the late 1950s, there was a small bed and breakfast establishment in Ajijic called the “Posada del Perico,” operated by Bruce Ackland, and, in much more recent years, a “Hotel Perico” on the libramiento.

Lake Chapala Artists & Authors is reader-supported. Purchases made via links on our site may, at no cost to you, earn us an affiliate commission. Learn more.

Several chapters of Foreign Footprints in Ajijic: Decades of Change in a Mexican Village are about the history of the literary community in Ajijic and the Lakeside Little Theatre.

Note: This is an updated version of a post first published 27 June 2017.

Sources:

  • Times Picayune. 1986. Review of “Mixed Doubles”. Times Picayune, (New Orleans) 19 June 1986, p 167.
  • Frederick Walker Carmichael (Obituary)

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

Aug 032023
 

Herbert Johnson (1877-1960) and his wife, Georgette (1893-1975), settled in Ajijic in December 1939. Shortly after Herbert died in Ajijic in 1960, Georgette returned to live in the UK.

These photographs come from a photo album that once belonged to Georgette. For the story of its fortuitous rediscovery by historian Dr Kimberly Lamay Licursi in an estate sale in New York, see

The photos in the album have no captions or dates, but are believed to date from 1940 to 1945.

This gallery focuses on the building and gardens of Quinta Johnson, the Johnsons’ house in Ajijic.

Other galleries of photos by Herbert Johnson are:

Note

For more details about the Johnsons’ many contributions to the village of Ajijic, see Foreign Footprints in Ajijic: decades of change in a Mexican village (2022).

Lake Chapala Artists & Authors is reader-supported. Purchases made via links on our site may, at no cost to you, earn us an affiliate commission. Learn more.

Acknowledgment

My sincere thanks to Dr Kimberly Lamay Licursi for recognizing the importance of this photo album and for kindly entrusting it to my care.

Comments welcomed via email or via comments feature on this post.

Jul 272023
 

In a rare departure from my ongoing efforts to document the history of the authors and artists associated with Lake Chapala, this is a review of the Spanish language book Chapala: Ciudad Señorial e Insigne. Chapala cuenta su historia. (Chapala: Stately and Distinguished City. Chapala tells its history). This book, coordinated by Moisés Alejandro Anaya Aguilar, was published in 2022 by the Jalisco State Government.

book coverIts publication was timed to coincide with the designation of the City of Chapala as a “Ciudad Señorial e Insigne” (Stately and Distinguished City). The book has contributions by various writers and historians on a wide range of topics, from the early (precolonial) history and evangelization, to the events on Mezcala Island during the fight for independence, as well as details of the lives and contributions of certain key individuals to projects that established Chapala’s enduring appeal.

Interesting as many parts of the book are, perhaps—if a second edition is ever produced—the coordinator could see fit to consider some of the following suggestions?

The one line reference to “Henry Guillaume Galeotti” (page 68) offers no context or explanation for his inclusion. Henri (the correct spelling) Galeotti, was born in Paris, lived most of his life in Belgium, and deserves far more credit: he wrote the earliest truly scientific account of the lake, and his detailed report, based on a visit in February-March 1837, was an extraordinary achievement for the time.

The chapter “Nombre y origen,” first published many years ago, is closely based on Antonio de Alba’s 1954 book, Chapala. As valuable as de Alba’s book is, it offers only a partial list of the city’s many old villas and mansions, and it is also worth noting that the Hotel Nido and the Hotel Niza were both originally part of the famous Hotel Palmera, designed by Guillermo de Alba.

Devoting a short chapter to Alberto Braniff is a surprising choice. Braniff lived in Mexico City and spent only limited time in Chapala, where he had bought Casa Pérez Verdía (later known as Casa Braniff) for his mother. It is interesting to learn that Braniff, after agreeing to be a godparent for a local child, marked the occasion by throwing silver coins into the air, but surely Braniff was a peripheral figure among the many individuals who contributed more directly to the betterment of Chapala. The book rightly features the roles of Ignacio Arzapalo, Christian Schjetnan and Guillermo de Alba, but surely Septimus Crowe, Joseph Schnaider, Victor Huber (and several others) are at least as deserving of inclusion as Braniff?

A number of significant details in the section titled “Personajes y datos curiosos” are inexact. For instance, the “Naufragio del Vapor ‘Luisito’” occurred not in 1926 but in 1928 (as reported in El Informador and the New York Times), and the boat was not a steamboat (vapor) but a gasoline-powered motor launch. This section of the book is a miscellany and lacks any common thread.

The section of the book of most personal interest to me is “Chapala en sus inicios.” This is a period of Chapala’s history that holds a particular fascination for me as a geographer-historian. It is disappointing and annoying to read “Crow” for “Crowe” and “Garden” for “Carden” (143-144), and equally infuriating to read that Crowe first arrived in 1895, suffered from arthritis, and that he was somehow helped by Angelo Corsi. I have been debunking these and similar claims for years. The dates and chronology given for Crowe’s several houses in Chapala are inaccurate. And, though I agree with the author that the new 1960s’ version of the Montecarlo has no architectural merit, Sr. Crowe certainly did NOT sell the Villa Monte Carlo to Aurelio González Hermosillo, as claimed in this book (145-146).

The parts about Ignacio Arzapalo (and Guillermo de Alba) are similarly error-strewn. For example, evidence is totally lacking that de Alba designed the Hotel Arzapalo (146-7) or ever worked with Septimus Crowe (151). This section, a strange mix of fact and fiction, relies far too heavily on Antonio de Alba’s 1954 book.

Elsewhere, there was no such person as “Sra. Aurora Vidrio viuda de Arzapalo” (page 149) . The ONLY “viuda de Arzapalo” was María Pacheco, the second wife of Ignacio Arzapalo (senior) who built and owned the hotels. Their son, Ignacio Arzapalo Pacheco, had died a widower in 1904 and had never owned the hotels. It was his daughter, María Aurora—grandchild of Ignacio Arzapalo senior and María Pacheco—who inherited the hotels as a child.

Similarly, the account of Schjetnan’s early years in Mexico (page 153 on) contains grains of truth but the suggested chronology is unsupported by contemporary written sources. The capital for Schjetnan’s 1917 company (which successfully built the railroad) came largely from Norwegian investors, and most definitely not from state or federal funds. As a point of detail, the heavy rains and flooding which led to the closure of the Chapala railroad (page 180) occurred in 1926, not 1925.

The chapters about legends and local cuisine are a valuable part of this book, and an enjoyable read.

The chapter about photographer Jesús González Miranda (“El Chorchas”) is attributed in this book to Marco Antonio Castrañon Castro. Curiously, the text is identical to an article bylined by Javier Raygoza Munguía, published in the 18 December 1995 issue of PÁGINA Que sí se lee! Regardless of original author, this chapter repeats an unfortunate error in its penultimate sentence when it claims that Foto Esmeralda was the name of González’s photo studio. That studio had no connection to González and was (always) owned by a different photographer, José Cruz Padilla Sánchez.

Hopefully, some or all of these comments might be taken into account if or when a second edition is prepared for publication.

Lake Chapala Artists & Authors is reader-supported. Purchases made via links on our site may, at no cost to you, earn us an affiliate commission. Learn more.

Note: My own books about Chapala history include Lake Chapala Through the Ages: an anthology of travelers’ tales which looks at the period from 1530 to 1910, and If Walls Could Talk: Chapala’s historic buildings and their former occupants, which considers Chapala in the twentieth century. The latter book is also available in Spanish as Si las paredes hablaran: Edificios históricos de Chapala y sus antiguos ocupantes.

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.

Jul 202023
 

Herbert and Georgette Johnson were almost certainly the earliest English couple to settle in Ajijic. They arrived in December 1939 and were fixtures of the local community for the next two decades.

The pioneering Johnsons acquired an extensive lakefront property one block east of the current pier and built a roomy single-story home in the local architecture style of adobe and tiles. The couple then created a stunning garden, extending down to the beach.

Otto Butterlin. 1943. Portrait of Herbert Johnson. Image courtesy of Milagros Sendis.

Otto Butterlin. 1943. Portrait of Herbert Johnson. Image courtesy of Milagros Sendis.

Herbert was a keen amateur photographer and documented the construction work via his camera. By a remarkable stroke of luck, I was gifted a photograph album in 2019 that once belonged to the Johnsons and had been found by chance at an estate sale in New York State. The 250 or so photographs it contains include approximately one hundred images of Ajijic, depicting construction of the house and garden, local scenery, streets, buildings, people and events. The album also includes photos taken on trips elsewhere in Mexico:

As an engineer, Herbert Johnson loved his gadgets, and the superb quality of these photographs, most of them from the 1940s, reflects his technical prowess with a camera. His photos of Ajijic are among the earliest known photographic images of the village.

Who was Herbert Johnson?

Johnson was quite an adventurer. As a teenager he helped lay cable in the Amazon; decades later, in retirement, he was the unofficial squire of Ajijic.

The son of a Cambridge-educated clergyman, Herbert Braithwaite Johnson, was born on 16 August 1877 in Lincolnshire, UK. At age 16, he left Harrow, one of England’s top private schools, to become an electrical engineer.

Johnson was likely already working for Siemens in 1895 when the company was contracted to lay telegraph cable along the Amazon, from Belem to Manaos. This massive undertaking, and the 18-year-old Johnson’s role in it, have been well documented by Bill Burns and James Catmur, a great-grandnephew of Johnson.

By November 1898, Johnson was back in London, and sponsored for student admission to The Institution of Electrical Engineers (formerly The Society of Telegraph Engineers). In his application, Johnson wrote that he was employed by Siemens Bros & Co., and was attending evening classes at the City and Guilds of London Institute in Finsbury. He was a student member of the IEE for three years before becoming an Associate Member in 1902 and a full Member in 1904, by which time he was living at 8, Quarry Road, Wandsworth. In 1905 he was fined £5 for riding his motorcycle too fast through the village of Cobham. By the 1920s, Johnson was the Resident Engineer at the Wandsworth Generating Station. He retained membership of the IEE until his retirement in 1930, the year he married Georgette Martin Wilkie.

The newly weds moved to Chinon, in the Loire Valley of France. In 1939, on the eve of the second world war, the Johnsons wisely decided to leave France and move to Mexico.

The unofficial squire of Ajijic

When the Johnsons arrived in Los Angeles, via the Panama Canal, in June 1939, they first headed north to visit a cousin in Canada and take a trip to Alaska. They then headed south, and crossed the border into Mexico on 5 December 1939. It is unknown how they first learned of Ajijic or precisely why they decided to make their home in the village. Within a couple of years, they had bought 5000 square meters of lakefront property (known informally as Quinta Johnson) and built their house, garden and orchard.

Ann Medalie. 1944. Ajijic. (Quinta Johnson)

Ann Medalie. 1944. Ajijic. (Quinta Johnson)

The elaborate and colorful garden was painted and photographed by prominent artists, such as Ann Medalie (whose paintings of Ajijic were exhibited in Mexico City), and lavished with praise by visitors, including the Canadian writer Ross Parmenter. It even made it into Gardens of the World. In 1949 it was the setting for the marriage of Johnson’s 29-year-old niece, nurse Helen Eunice Riggall, and Canadian writer Harold Walter Masson. Their love story, one of the most endearing tales to emerge from my Ajijic research, is retold in Foreign Footprints in Ajijic.

Binoculars at the ready, Herbert took a paternal interest in all the comings and goings at the nearby pier. (At that time it was far easier to reach Ajijic from Chapala by boat than by road.) The foreign community in Ajijic was tiny when the Johnsons first arrived. But a combination of world events and personal misfortunes caused it to grow steadily during the 1940s.

Herbert Johnson. c 1944. Mezcala Island.

Herbert Johnson. c 1944. Mezcala Island.

Having completed his house and gardens, Herbert Johnson used his engineering skills to help others. He oversaw the construction in San Antonio Tlayacapan, on a lot owned by Georgette, of a house which became the residence of Peter Lilley (one half of the Dane Chandos pen name responsible for House in the Sun and Village in the Sun). Author Sybille Bedford included references to both the Johnsons and Lilley in The Sudden View, her fictionalized account of traveling in Mexico.

In 1948, Johnson also helped Neill James design and build Quinta Tzintzuntzan, now part of the Lake Chapala Society complex, as she recounted in “Ajijic Carrousel”:

I was faced with building a casa for myself, an intriguing project. Herbert Johnson, Ajijic’s first English home-owner, a retired engineer, was a help to me… Herbert helped figure out the stress and strain of wooden and steel beams… He supervised the making of the reinforced cement ring with cutting edge used in digging my well.”

The Johnsons also fomented the nascent artistic community in the village. In December 1944, for instance, they held an exhibition of work by area artists and authors on the terrace of their home. The show included paintings, drawings and watercolors, plus embroidery work by village women.

In an unpublished manuscript, Neill James describes Herbert Johnson as a feudal lord whose list of all the foreigners living in Ajijic was divided into two columns: the sane and the crazy. The only sane ones were Johnson himself, Georgette and a couple from Scotland. All the others—including La Rusa, Louisa Heuer, James herself, and “Dane Chandos”—were crazy.

In the 1950s, the Johnsons’ guest cottage was rented by American artist Barbara Zacheisz.

Later occupants of Quinta Johnson, which was divided into three sections shortly after Herbert’s death, included Helen Kirtland. Kirtland’s daughter, Katie Goodridge Ingram, wrote a fascinating account of early life in Mexico City and Ajijic (in the 1940s and 1950s) in According to Soledad; memories of a Mexican Childhood.

The large metal cross on the lakeshore at the end of Calle Nicolas Bravo was originally erected by Herbert Johnson. It is one of the few remaining signs of the Johnsons’ long period residing in, and presiding over, the foreign community in Ajijic.

After Johnson died in 1960 and was laid to rest in the Ajijic cemetery, Georgette returned to live in England, where she died in 1975. When Georgette’s estate was finally settled in 1983, it was valued at only £5665.00. Apparently she must have known nothing about—or had no way of accessing—the several million dollars held by Herbert in the US, some of which was eventually claimed by, and distributed among, family members.

Family members visiting Mexico in 1973 successfully located Johnson’s grave marker. Looking somewhat improvised, and with an incorrect year of birth, it read “H. B Johnson / EX-HARROVIAN / ENGLAND / 1876-1960.”

Is it still there? If so, having it restored or replaced would be a long overdue tribute to this pioneering Englishman.

Acknowledgments

My sincere thanks to James Catmur, for sharing family photos and memories, to Bill Burns, and to Dr Kimberly Lamay Licursi for kindly entrusting the Johnson’s photo album to my care.

Lake Chapala Artists & Authors is reader-supported. Purchases made via links on our site may, at no cost to you, earn us an affiliate commission. Learn more.

Chapter 9 of Foreign Footprints in Ajijic: Decades of Change in a Mexican Village is devoted to the Johnsons’ time in Ajijic. Several other chapters offer more details about the history of the artistic community in Ajijic.

Sources

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

Jul 132023
 

US journalist Virginia Snow spent about 15 years in Mexico, reporting for Texas newspapers on all manner of events, Mexican customs, curiosities and meetings from her base in Mexico City.

Born in Detroit, Michigan, on 4 October 1908, she spent the last year of her life in a nursing home in that city, before her death there on 3 April 1959. It was little surprise that she became a journalist, given that her father was a former managing editor of the Detroit Journal. Details of her early career are disappointingly sparse, but she and her sister, Kathleen, were traveling together in Europe in 1938, when they returned to the US barely a year before the second world broke out.

Virginia Snow, 1944.

Virginia Snow, 1944.

In 1944, Snow studied Spanish for six months in Mexico City before establishing a home there. She planned to undertake feature writing, illustrated by photographs, which she took, developed and printed herself.

According to a news report about the Texas Pan American Round Table conference in Laredo in 1947, Snow was there as an ‘honored guest’ and had apparently been the originator of the city’s Parade of Flags.

One of the last meetings she attended in Mexico was the 1958 meeting of the Mexico City Association of Foreign Journalists, where she sat in a place of honor at the head table alongside Sr. Estrada and Ing Luis Poyo.

During her lengthy residence in Mexico, Snow was society columnist for the Mexico City Herald, and penned numerous columns about Mexico published in such Texas papers as the Laredo Times, Corpus Christi Times, Brownsville Herald and the Waco Tribune-Herald.

Her columns relating to George Ochoa, including interviews with the accused murderer held in Mexico in 1950 pending his return to Texas, were widely republished across the US. Her “Did You Know” columns about Mexico were full of all manner of fun facts and trivia, ranging from history and ecology to travel and cuisine. (She was clearly a woman after my own heart!)

The opening of her report about Ajijic in 1952 neatly combines historical perspective with then current trends:

I found mastodon teeth in practically every parlor of Ajijic during a recent visit to that Lake Chapala village in Jalisco state. They are a fad in the small American colony of artists, writers, weavers and escapists living in the primitive Village in the Sun.”

Snow then explains how an alarming fall in lake level (due to the diversion of Lerma River waters for dams, irrigation and the Mexico City water supply) had caused the lakeside beaches to disappear, and the white fish to become scarce. On the plus side, it revealed “relics of prehistoric animals,” collected by, among others, “Neill James, whose book Dust on My Heart helped Ajijic to fame,” and Helen Kirtland, “a former New York dress designer, who now designs Mexican sports clothes from her own handloomed fabrics.”

Snow devoted the remainder of her report to the silk business initiated by Neill James, who is “literally living with silk worms. Scores of the wriggling white creatures occupy boxes in her studio bedroom where they are feasting on mulberry leaves and spinning cocoons.”

James was reportedly convinced that the silk industry would be transformative: “Ajijic will be the richest village in Mexico within five years.” She already had “100 Venezuelan mulberry trees” in her own garden, acquired from Dr Varton K. Osigian, a noted Armenian silkworm specialist living in Mexico City, who had given a talk on Ajijic plaza offering grafted mulberry trees for two pesos each, free to anyone who could not afford that price.

Raphael Greno. Undated. Unraveling silk cocoons, Ajijic.

Raphael Greno. Undated. Unraveling silk cocoons, Ajijic.

This was the beginning of one of Neill James’ more noteworthy entrepreneurial schemes in Ajijic. Sadly, the enterprise petered out about three years later, but not before it was captured for posterity in several evocative woodcuts by Rafael Greno.

Lake Chapala Artists & Authors is reader-supported. Purchases made via links on our site may, at no cost to you, earn us an affiliate commission. Learn more.

Foreign Footprints in Ajijic: Decades of Change in a Mexican Village offers a comprehensive account of Neill James, Helen Kirtland, the silk industry and what Ajijic was like in the past.

Sources

  • The Brownsville Herald: 17 Oct 1944, 3; 19 Nov 1947.
  • Corpus Christi Times (Texas): 6 Oct 1950; 7 Oct 1950.
  • El Espiritu Publico (Campeche): 1 July 1958, 8.
  • El Paso Times: 5 Apr 1959, Page 57.
  • Laredo Times: 3 Jul 1949, 5; 10 Jan 1950, 1; 7 Oct 1950.
  • Virginia Snow. 1952. “The Mexican Parade.” Waco Tribune-Herald 6 Jan 1952, 30.
  • ——— 1956. “The Mexican Parade: Souped-up Silk Worms and Modern Machinery Lead to New Industry.” Waco Tribune-Herald, 4 March, 1956.

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.

Jul 062023
 

American artist Emily Meeker (1908-1983) was a long-time resident of Chula Vista who had previously led an extraordinarily exciting life in India and elsewhere.

Born Emily Preston in Abilene, Texas, on 26 June 1908, her architect father moved the family to Brazil three years later. Emily later attended the New York School of Interior Design in 1926, where she won a scholarship for a 6-week trip to England and France. With her sister and mother for company, the six weeks eventually became three years, and included art classes as they toured France in a Model T Ford. When the Depression hit, Emily’s father cabled: “Broke. Home best way you can.” They could only afford a cabin in steerage class, but talked their way into dining first class and dancing second class.

Emily married New York native Don Meeker in 1932. Don lived and worked in India, as the representative of Colgate-Palmolive-Peet in India, Burma and Sri Lanka. Five years into their marriage, Don switched jobs to join Warner-Lambert. After a year in New York, while Don familiarized himself with the company, they were returning to India in 1939, when, just as they embarked at Genoa for the ship home, Mussolini took over the railways. The ship left port for Bombay (now Mumbai) and was repainted and transformed mid-voyage into a troop ship. The Meekers traveled extensively each year to cover all the territory that Don was overseeing. Their adventures included unexpectedly having to share their reserved compartment on a long distance train with three locals and their belongings: “a canary in a cage, a pot of roses, jugs of drinking water, foul-smelling food, bed rolls, and prayer rugs.” On another occasion, trekking in Kashmir with twenty two helpers and eighteen ponies to carry their supplies, Emily lost her footing and slid to the brink of a 400-foot-deep ravine; the helpers formed a human chain and just managed to stop her slide in time.

In 1942, the couple returned to New York to see out the end of the war. Three years later, war over, they returned to Bombay; it took them  five months, and they had to travel via Lisbon and South Africa. Back in India, Emily took up golf, and became the women’s champion of “West and East India and Ceylon.” She was also elected president of the Bombay American Woman’s club. The Meekers were guests of the Aga Khan III in his palace when he celebrated his 60th year of Ismaili rule.

In 1948, Emily visited her mother in Abilene, Texas, for the first time in ten years. She held an exhibit of artworks there. Three years later, she designed costumes for a play held in the city, and in 1960 she exhibited 40 oils and pastels at the City Library, and gave a gallery talk about the status of art in India. in 1962 she exhibited a selection of her paintings in India, though the claim that this was the first art show in India by an American woman seems somewhat far-fetched.

This Bombay (Mumbai) watercolor, currently for sale at Barbara’s Bazaar in Ajijic, dates from 1954, when the Meekers were still living in India.

Emily Meeker. 1954. Woman in Bombay. Courtesy Tom Thompson.

Emily Meeker. Bombay, 1954. Courtesy Tom Thompson.

Emily began a new phase of her life after Don’s retirement in 1963. They read about Chula Vista, visited and, on their first trip, bought a view lot on the appropriately named Privada de la Vista, where they built their new home overlooking the lake. They moved in the following year, after several weeks visiting family in the US.

In May 1964, Emily, who normally golfed at either the sporty 9-hole Chula Vista course or the Chapala Country Club, had a hole-in-one at the 4th hole of the Guadalajara Country Club. This was reportedly the first ever hole-in-one by a female golfer at that course.

After her husband died in 1966, Emily continued to call Chula Vista ‘home’ for more than twenty years, until her own death on 18 November 1993 at the age of 85.

In the mid-1980s, Emily exhibited in several group shows in the Chapala area, the most noteworthy of which was “Pintores de la Ribera” in May 1985 at the Club Campestre La Hacienda (km 30 of the Guadalajara-Chapala highway). Fellow artists at that show included Daphne Aluta, Eugenia Bolduc, Jean Caragonne, Donald Demerest, Laura Goeglein, Hubert Harmon, B. R. Kline, Jo Kreig, Carla W. Manger, Sydney Moehlman, Xavier Pérez; Tiu Pessa, De Nyse Turner Pinkerton and Eleanor Smart.

In 1987, Emily’s artworks were exhibited in a group show at the Piaf Restaurant in Guadalajara.

Few artists associated with Lake Chapala led such a varied and adventurous life as Emily Preston Meeker.

Lake Chapala Artists & Authors is reader-supported. Purchases made via links on our site may, at no cost to you, earn us an affiliate commission. Learn more.

Several chapters of Foreign Footprints in Ajijic: Decades of Change in a Mexican Village offer more details about the history of the artistic community in Ajijic.

Sources

  • Abilene Reporter-News: 2 June 1946, 58; 11 July 1948, 50; 13 November 1951, 8; 25 August 1960;
  • Maura Drechsler. “Travels of a Lakeside Painter,” El Ojo del Lago, April 1987, 1-3.
  • El Informador: 4 May 1985.
  • Guadalajara Reporter: 19 March 1964, 5; 28 May 1964, 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.

Jun 292023
 

To honor the centenary of D H Lawrence’s visit in 1923 to Chapala (where he wrote the first draft of The Plumed Serpent) here are links to posts about his time and work in Chapala, as well as links to short profiles of his immediate literary entourage and others closely associated with him:

D. H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda, Chapala, 1923

D. H. Lawrence and his wife, Frieda. Chapala, 1923

Lake Chapala Artists & Authors is reader-supported. Purchases made via links on our site may, at no cost to you, earn us an affiliate commission. Learn more.

Several chapters of Foreign Footprints in Ajijic: Decades of Change in a Mexican Village (2022) and of If Walls Could Talk: Chapala’s Historic Buildings and Their Former Occupants (2020), translated into Spanish as Si las paredes hablaran: Edificios históricos de Chapala y sus antiguos ocupantes relate to other artists and authors associated with Lake Chapala.

Comments, corrections and additional material welcome, via comments feature or email.

Jun 222023
 

Helen Marie Krustev, born in the USA on 16 September 1933, and wife of Bulgarian-born artist Dimitar Krustev, is an accomplished portraitist in her own right. Helen Marie had private art training in the Middle East before studying in Des Moines, Iowa, where Dimitar was one of her teachers. She continued to develop her own art while working with Dimitar on numerous cultural tours in Europe, Mexico and elsewhere.

Helen Marie Krustev. Untitled.

Helen Marie Krustev. Untitled.

Helen and her husband moved permanently to Ajijic in the year 2000. Her love of Mexico, and enthusiasm for portraying the country’s dozens of indigenous groups, shines through in her work. In recent years she has specialized in painting portraits, usually in acrylics, of people such as the Tarahumar, Huichol, Cora and Maya, depicted in their colorful traditional clothing, and often facing away from the artist.

Helen Marie Krustev. Canoa y chinchorro.

Helen Marie Krustev. Canoa y chinchorro.

Helen’s work has been exhibited, often alongside that of her husband, in several galleries in Mexico. In 1989 the couple held a joint showing of their work at the Art Studio Galeria in San Antonio Tlayacapan. In February 2000, they held another noteworthy joint exhibit, titled Caras de México, in the lobby of the Las Hadas hotel in Manzanillo.

Lake Chapala Artists & Authors is reader-supported. Purchases made via links on our site may, at no cost to you, earn us an affiliate commission. Learn more.

Several chapters of Foreign Footprints in Ajijic: Decades of Change in a Mexican Village offer more details about the history of the artistic community in Ajijic.

Source

  • Diario de Colima, 25 Feb 2000.

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

Jun 152023
 

Luis Gonzaga Urbina  (1864-1934) began composing “El poema del lago” (“The Lake Poem”) (1907) on the shores of Lake Chapala, before completing it in Mexico City. The poem consists of 18 sonnets, each with its own particular direction and strength.

luis-g-urbina

This is the full text of the poem, in Spanish:

El poema del lago

A Jesús E. Valenzuela
I

A UN ÁRBOL DEL CAMINO

¿Qué dice tu nervioso gesto de selva oscura
árbol vetusto y seco sin una verde rama?
Con cicatriz de hachazos y quemazón de llama,
como un espectro tiendes tu sombra en la llanura.

¿Qué dice, viejo inmóvil, tu fiera crispatura?
¡Tremendo y misterioso debe ser tu drama!
Parece que te encoges, y al cielo que te inflama
quieres lanzar tu grito de inmensa desventura.

Es trágico el profundo silencio de las cosas;
lo inanimado sufre dolencias pavorosas,
ignotos infortunios que no tienen consuelo;

porque la vida es toda crueldad, y es inconsciente,
porque es la tierra a todo dolor indiferente,
y es impasible y muda la inmensidad del cielo.

II

PAISAJE MATINAL

¡Qué soledad augusta! ¡Qué silencio tranquilo!
El lago, quieto, monorrítmicamente canta,
y sobre el sauce, cuyas frondas me dan asilo,
un pájaro su débil cancioncita levanta.

En las perladas linfas, como una red de hilo
de cristal blanco, tiende, la luz que se abrillanta
con las ondulaciones, su claridad. Y un filo
de sol, oculto en una nube que se adelanta,

rompe, sereno y frágil, las aguas a lo lejos.
En las violetas cumbres, tapices de reflejos
desgarran, al capricho, sus ocres bordaduras,

y una remota barca, despliega, puro y leve,
en el azul del aire, su triángulo de nieve,
que brilla bajo el hondo zafir de las alturas.

III

TARDE SERENA

Es un gran vidrio glauco, y es terso y transparente,
y copia, espejeante, la playa florecida,
con un matiz tan rico, tan claro, tan valiente,
que el agua da, a colores y a formas, nueva vida.

La sierra, al esfumino, se borra de allá enfrente,
como una nube incierta que al cielo va prendida,
y, voluptuosa y fresca, columpia la corriente
un haz de lirios muertos bajo la luz dormida.

El lago soñoliento no canta sotto voce;
no tiembla. Vive en una tranquilidad que asombra.
Presto vendrá el crepúsculo con su oriental derroche;

el lago, limpio y terso, como una verde alfombra,
espera a que lo agiten las alas de la noche,
o, en tempestad, lo encrespen las manos de la sombra.

IV

PRIMER INTERMEDIO ROMÁNTICO

A una amiga lejana

Es diáfano el crepúsculo. Parece
de joyante cristal. Abre en el cielo
su ágata luminosa, y es un velo
en que el azul del lago desfallece.

En ámbares cloróticos decrece
la luz del sol, y ya en el terciopelo
de la penumbra, como flor de hielo,
una pálida estrella se estremece.

Mientras las aves lentamente giran,
la sombra avanza que los oros merma,
y entre la cual las púrpuras expiran.

Yo dejo que mi espíritu se aduerma,
y me pongo a soñar en que me miran
tos ojos tristes de esmeralda enferma.

V

DÍA NUBLADO

El viento arruga y mueve pesadamente el lago
que se levanta en olas de oscura refulgencia.
El horizonte extiende su azul brumoso y vago,
lo mismo que las aguas su gris opalescencia.

Hay una nube inmóvil, con el perfil de un mago
medieval, en la cumbre de la montaña. Herencia
de la noche lluviosa, cual iracundo amago,
la nube mancha un cielo de suave transparencia.

Una mañana fría de opaco claroscuro.
El sol que las montañas pálidamente dora,
deja en el aire un tinte blanco, glacial y duro;

y un árbol viejo, en medio de la calma infinita,
al borde de la margen, sobre el agua sonora,
parece un triste anciano que en su dolor medita.

VI

MEDIODÍA

El agua está cual nunca de linda y de coqueta;
no hay rayo que no juegue, no hay ola que no salte;
de lejos, tiene rubios perfiles su silueta,
y azul es en la playa, con limpidez de esmalte.

Vestida está de fiesta: no hay joya que le falte;
las barcas, a su puesto, le dejan una inquieta
cinta de plata virgen, para que así resalte
la luz en el radioso brocado de violeta.

Cerca, en el promontorio de musgos y basaltos,
un gran plumón de nubes se tiende y busca asilo;
al fondo, van las cumbre, en los celajes altos,

rompiendo el horizonte con su cortante filo,
y en el confín que esplende, se funden los cobaltos
del cielo y las montañas, en un zafir tranquilo.

VII

EL BAÑO DEL CENTAURO

Chasquea el agua y salta el cristal hecho astillas,
y él se hunde; y sólo flotan, del potro encabritado
la escultural cabeza de crines amarillas
y el torso del jinete, moreno y musculado.

Remuévense las ondas mordiendo las orillas,
con estremecimiento convulso y agitado,
y el animal y el hombre comienzan un airado
combate, en actitudes heroicas y sencillas.

Una risueña ninfa de carne roja y dura,
cabello lacio y rostro primitivo, se baña;
las aguas, como un cíngulo, le ciñen la cintura;

y ella ve sin pudores… y le palpita el seno
con el afán de darse, voluptuosa y huraña,
a las rudas caricias del centauro moreno.

VIII

EL BUEY

Uncido a la carreta, va el buey grave y austero;
y su ojo reproduce no el campo verde, como
lo vio Carducci, sino la inmensidad de plomo
del lago que finge una gran lámina de acero.

La arena de la playa le sirve de sendero,
y el sol, que está en lo alto del infinito domo,
unta sus resplandores en el sedeño lomo
y clava su aureola sobre el testuz severo.

El animal camina con majestad estoica,
y ante la fuerza plástica de su figura heroica,
despiértase un recuerdo clásicamente ambiguo;

que, a las evocaciones, es el buey melancólico,
en la hoja de papirus hexámetro bucólico,
y en el frontón del templo bajorrelieve antiguo.

IX

SEGUNDO INTERMEDIO ROMÁNTICO

A una onda

Arrulla con tus líricas canciones,
onda terca que vienes de tan lejos
enjoyada de luces y reflejos,
arrulla mis postreras ilusiones.

La juventud se va; se van sus dones;
del placer quedan los amargos dejos,
de la pasión los desencantos viejos,
y del dolor las tristes emociones.

Queda la vida, que el instinto afianza,
queda el recuerdo del amor perdido,
y queda el ideal que no se alcanza.

Tú, que cantando sueños has venido,
onda lírica, dame la esperanza,
y si no puede ser… dame el olvido.

X

PAISAJE SIN FIGURAS

El saúz es audaz; dejó la orilla
y avanzó en la corriente que chispea
y en derredor del tronco cabrillea
bajo la luz del sol que tiembla y brilla.

Ligeramente impura y amarilla,
en el borde arenoso el agua ondea,
y en la remota extremidad clarea
con blancura de nieve sin mancilla.

El árbol, que se empapa en luces blondas,
deja caer, sensual y perezoso,
la móvil cabellera de sus frondas,

y en el augusto y plácido reposo,
sobre el trémulo raso de las ondas
vuelca su verde limpio y luminoso.

XI

LA HORA MÍSTICA

Se enciende el oleaje, como a la luz se enciende
la leche de los ópalos, en fuegos repentinos;
y la onda turbia lumbres metálicas desprende
si en su volar la rozan los pájaros marinos.

El sol, en desmayadas claridades desciende,
y empapa el horizonte de tonos ambarinos,
rompe con lanzas de oro los cúmulos y prende
rubíes, de las velas en los flotantes linos.

Es la hora letárgica de la melancolía;
todo está mudo y triste. Ya va a apagarse el día;
dilúyese en la sombra cuando en la tierra alumbra.

Sólo en la humilde iglesia, refugio de oraciones,
lucen, como dos puntos rojizos y temblones,
las llamas de dos cirios que pican la penumbra.

XII

NOCHE CLARA

Blanco de ensueño; blanco de los polares días,
blanco que fosforece, que las linfas estaña;
blanco en que se deshace la sobra en una extraña
niebla azul y profunda que borra lejanías.

La ondulación es lenta, rayada con estrías
de luz — maravillosa e inmensa telaraña,
cuyo tejido frágil se rompe cuando baña
al ramo, la corriente de mudas ondas frías.

Entonces ¡qué prodigio! ya el remo se mueve
sobre el lago salpica gotas de plata y nieve,
que marcan de los botes los caprichosos giros,

hasta que al fin se pierden con su movible estela
en la remota bruma —la azul y blanca tela
que es polvo de diamantes en humo de zafiros.

XIII

PUESTA DE SOL

Y fueron en la tarde las claras agonías:
el sol, un gran escudo de bronce repujado,
hundiéndose en los frisos del colosal nublado,
dio formas y relieves a raras fantasías.

Mas de improviso, el orto lanzó de sus umbrías
fuertes y cenicientas masas, un haz dorado;
y el cielo, en un instante vivo y diafanizado,
se abrió en un prodigioso florón de pedrerías.

Los lilas del ocaso se tornan oro mate;
pero aún conserva el agua su policroma veste:
sutiles gasas cremas en brocatel granate.

Hay una gran ternura recóndita y agreste;
y el lago, estremecido como una entraña, late
bajo el azul caricia del esplendor celeste.

XIV

TERCER INTERMEDIO ROMÁNTICO

Vidas inútiles

Salpicadas de aljófares las sensuales corolas,
se abren, urnas de seda, bajo el claro del día;
los lirios y nenúfares, son lotos y amapolas
que a flor de agua, en la margen, van sobre la onda fría.

Es un jardín flotante… ¡Ah! yo me inclinaría,
yo hundiera mis dos manos en las crujientes olas,
para cortar un cáliz… Pero es que vivo a solas,
no hay alma que me espere ni a quien le nombre mía.

Loto que yo arrancara, porque lleno de unciones
durmiera entre las hojas de un libro de oraciones,
púdrete a flor de agua… ¡Qué igual es nuestra suerte!

Yo floto en mi tristeza, que es honda y que no brilla,
en tanto que los vientos me arrancan de la orilla
con rumbo a las oscuras riberas de la muerte.

XV

LUCES Y CARNES

Rayos de sol en plenitud esmaltan
el gris del lago, en claridades blondas,
y son insectos de cristal que saltan
sobre la turbia seda de las ondas.

En las vecinas márgenes exaltan
el verdor enfermizo de las frondas,
y de la sierra en el confín, cobaltan
las lejanías. Junto a las redondas

redes que están al sol, desnudo juegan
y a sus retozos cándidos se entregan,
dos niños en la arena de la orilla,

y la luz, de doradas palideces,
en aquellas oscuras desnudeces,
con maternales complacencias, brilla.

XVI

EL TRIUNFO DEL AZUL

El rosicler ardiente de la mañana, pinta
el lago de una pálida sangre de rosas. Quietas
está las aguas, donde como una frágil cinta
la luz ondula y abre sus caprichosas grietas

de plata. Y, a lo lejos, en carmesí se entinta
el cielo en que las cumbres recortan sus siluetas;
las púrpuras se funden en vahos violetas
y queda al fin del rojo, la claridad extinta.

Triunfa el azul en gloria; triunfa el azul tramado
de argentos y de oros, y como imperial brocado;
es el azul profundo que baña de luz pura

el promontorio rígido y el lago que se enarca;
y sólo, en lo distante, la vela de una barca
pone su dulce nota de virginal blancura.

XVII

VOCES EN LA SOMBRA

En el silencio triste de la noche que empieza,
se oye una voz que viene de lejos, de una mancha
distinta en las penumbras solemnes de una lancha
que sobre el horizonte su mástil endereza.

Bronca es la voz, de un timbre de salvaje fiereza;
mas al cruzar del lago por la sonora plancha,
yo no sé en qué misterios musicales, ensancha
la canción, su doliente y adorable tristeza.

Solloza humanos duelos la popular y ruda
canción y los desgrana sobre la noche muda…
son del dolor perenne, los viejos estribillos.

Un alma primitiva cantando está un tormento;
y es una voz que lleva por acompañamiento
el diálogo estridente de los insomnes grillos.

XVIII

ENVÍOS

A ti, viejo poeta, con quien crucé yo un día,
gozoso e impaciente, los lagos del ensueño;
tú eras robusto y grande, yo débil y pequeño,
mas tu barca de oro dio asilo a mi alegría.

Tu juventud ilusa fue hermana de la mía;
tu empeño, noble y alto, fue amigo de mi empeño;
hoy que es fronda de otoño nuestro brote abrileño,
tu pena es camarada de mi melancolía.

A ti va mi poema, vivido frente a frente
del agua y de los cielos, en una hora clemente
pasada en el regazo de la naturaleza.

Va a despertar, si puede, dormidas añoranzas;
y reencender, si sabe, rescoldos de esperanzas,
y a divertir con sueños tu plácida tristeza.

Source

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 082023
 

Juan (‘Juanito’) Olivarez Sánchez was born in Ajijic on 12 July 1944 and died there at the age of 77 on 28 May 2022.

Like numerous other local artists in Ajijic, Olivarez’ interest in art began as a student of the Children’s Art Program (CAP) started by Neill James. Olivarez was among the first generation of students to benefit from CAP which began in the mid-1950s.In the 1960s, Olivarez helped teach the next generation of youngsters. Later students of Juan Olivarez included, in the early 1990s, Bruno Mariscal, described by Lyn Adams as: “Truly a jack-of-all-trades, this talented man is also a well-known rotulista or sign painter. His padrino, Juan Olivarez, started training him in this craft when he was around 18 years old.”

Olivarez’ considerable artistic talent was recognized by the highly experienced art educator Jack Rutherford, a professional Californian artist then living in Ajijic with his wife and their four children. Rutherford was instrumental in arranging for Olivarez to spend several weeks in Studio City (then Ajijic’s sister city) in 1970. Rutherford persuaded Studio City Chamber of Commerce to sponsor Olivarez and to find him a family to board with while he took art classes. Rutherford and his family drove Olivarez up to Studio City, where he was a house guest of the Heckers; Mrs Robert Hecker was a fellow art student. A lively welcome reception in Studio City was held in honor of Olivarez’ arrival before the Rutherford family carried on to spend the summer in Laguna Beach.

Juan Olivarez. Untitled landscape. Coll-JLV

Juan Olivarez. c 1960. Untitled landscape in the Neill James Collection. Reproduced by kind permission of his family.

Jesús López Vega informed me that Olivarez was a member of the “Jardín del Arte,” a group of young local artists at the start of the 1970s, which later became known as “Asociación de Artistas de Ajijic.” This group was a forerunner of the “Ajijic Society of the Arts” (which continues to this day), the largest organization of its kind for artists (Mexican and foreign) in the area.

By 1975, Olivarez was directing a gallery in Ajijic, the Galería de los Artistas Cooperativos, a sign of the bustling art scene in the village at the time. Competing with the long-running Galería del Lago, the Galería de los Artistas Cooperativos was located at 16 de Septiembre #9. It opened on 14 December 1975 with a solo show of 25 works by Frank Barton, an American artist then living in Ajijic, fresh off a successful show in Mexico City.

Olivarez had become interested in photography from a relatively early age, initially acquiring a simple Kodak camera to help him develop his drawing technique, and then discovering the lure of photography as a hobby. He was probably the first native-born photographer to become Ajijic’s unofficial village photographer, taking over this role from, among others, Beverly Johnson.

Juan Olivarez. El Charracate. Reproduced by kind permission of Tom Thompson.

Juan Olivarez. El Charracate. Reproduced by kind permission of Tom Thompson.

Olivarez photographed hundreds of family gatherings, parties and special occasions, and amassed an extensive collection of photographs of Ajijic, covering a very wide range of subjects and events, many of them no longer celebrated in quite the way they once were. Late in life, recounting his experiences to journalist Sofía Medeles, he explained how his photos had originally cost only 50 centavos each. His photographic business was unable to survive the advent of the smartphone, which replaced conventional cameras.

Alongside his photography, Olivarez continued to paint small pictures and do some commercial sign painting. Many of his paintings remain in possession of his family and I hope to add additional images of his work to this profile shortly.

Lake Chapala Artists & Authors is reader-supported. Purchases made via links on our site may, at no cost to you, earn us an affiliate commission. Learn more.

Several chapters of Foreign Footprints in Ajijic: Decades of Change in a Mexican Village offer more details about the history of the artistic community in Ajijic.

Sources

  • Lyn Adams. 2007. “The gallery and art of Bruno Mariscal.” MexConnect.com
  • Sofía Medeles. 2022. “Remembering Juan “Juanito” Olivares, prolific photographer of Ajijic.” Semanario Laguna, 15 de junio de 2022.
  • The Van Nuys News: 26 Jun 1970, 17.
  • Guadalajara Reporter: 13 Dec 1975.

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

Jun 012023
 

Two decades ago, when I first began to document the artists and authors associated with Lake Chapala, I knew of only three or four twentieth century novels set at the lake. To my astonishment, many more (some long forgotten) have since emerged.

Ignoring, for simplicity’s sake, any attempt to define the precise limits of what does or does not constitute a Lake Chapala novel, a strong case can be made for the inclusion of the following twenty five books, the oldest dating back to the final years of the nineteenth century.

novel covers

These nineteenth and twentieth century novels set largely or entirely at Lake Chapala include, in approximate chronological order:

21st century novels set at Lakeside include:

  • Ruth Ross-Merrimer. 2001. Champagne & Tortillas.
  • William Schrader. 2002. Kiss My Tears Away.
  • T. M. Spooner.2006. Notes from Exile.
  • Dionicio Morales López. 2010. Santos Rico – Animas de Axixic.
  • John Hoopes. 2011. The Spy in Love (Lake Chapala Serenade).
  • Carolena Torres. 2013. Dust on Their Hearts.
  • Carolena Torres. 2017. Castles by the Lake.
  • Jan Dunlap. 2017. Dilemma.

Spanish language novels in 1951

As they say about buses, “You wait a long time for one to come along, and then three arrive at once.” It is exactly the same with Spanish language novels about Lake Chapala. Of the five or six lake-related novels that were published during the 20th century, three of them arrived in the same year: 1951.

Of the three, perhaps the most powerful is El gran Chapa, the first published work of Guadalajara author Juan Pablo Guzmán Alemán. This novel won the inaugural Jalisco prize for literature in 1950 and was published by the state government the following year. Coincidentally, that was when another Guadalajara author, Ramón Rubín, published his wonderful—and deservedly popular—novel, La canoa perdida: Novela mestiza, and when Salomón Zepeda (about whom little is known) published a fun, lowbrow romance novel, La Ondina de Chapala.

Lake Chapala Artists & Authors is reader-supported. Purchases made via links on our site may, at no cost to you, earn us an affiliate commission. Learn more.

Several chapters of Foreign Footprints in Ajijic: Decades of Change in a Mexican Village offer more details about the history of the artistic and literary community in Ajijic.

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

May 252023
 

Dimitar Iliev Krustev (1920-2013) was born in Sofia, Bulgaria, on 12 January 1920 and died in Ajijic on 11 February 2013. After studying at The Natioual Academy of Art for Portrait Painting in Sofia, Krustev served in the army under German rule for three years during the second world war. He moved to the US in 1947 to take a bachelor’s degree in commercial art at Kent State University, and then completed a masters degree in art history at the University of Iowa.

Dimitar Krustev. Portrait of a young man. Reproduced by kind permission of Ricardo Santana.

Dimitar Krustev. 1969. Portrait of a young man. Reproduced by kind permission of Ricardo Santana.

Krustev took US citizenship and he and his wife, Helen Marie, a former student, lived most of their married life in Des Moines, Iowa. Krustev worked as a commercial artist for the Des Moines-based magazine Better Homes and Gardens for nine years before opening the Des Moines Krustev Studio of Art. Krustev, who specialized in portraiture, loved teaching art, and many of his hundreds of students went on to enjoy considerable commercial and personal success. Krustev also enjoyed leading art study groups to Europe, Ajijic and elsewhere.

In the 1960s, as a member of The Explorer’s Club, Krustev began to travel to distant locations to document, photograph and paint the indigenous peoples of the Americas. In 1968 he became the first person known to have successfully navigated the Usumacinta River from its headwaters in Guatemala to the Gulf of México. Krustev’s fascination with people living in near isolation in what are commonly perceived as extreme environments led to his particular interest in the plight of the Lacandon Maya who live in the rain forest of Chiapas in southern Mexico.

Krustev’s experiences resulted in several books, including River of the Sacred Monkey (1970), Voices in the Night (1992), The Journals of Dimitar Krustev, an Artist–Explorer (Volume One) (1996), Black Hand Over the Jungle (1997), and Lacondón Journal 1969: From the Journals of Dimitar Krustev Artist-Explorer, published by Editorial Mazatlán in December 2012, only months before the artist’s death. His books and journals, supported by exquisite portraits, provide extraordinary insights into the changing daily lifes of the people who befriended him at a time when their traditional way of life was under siege from modernizing influences. Krustev is also the subject of a film titled The Bulgarian Gaugin.

After traveling back and forth between Des Moines and Ajijic for almost thirty years, Krustev and his wife established their home and studios in Ajijic in the year 2000. Ajijic became their base for more traveling, painting, teaching, and many joint shows. Among the artists inspired by Krustev are Pauli Zmolek (who painted her own scenes of the Chapala area) and Lois Black.

Dimitar Krustev. Boats of Ajijic. (Greetings card)

Dimitar Krustev. Boats of Ajijic. (Greetings card)

This conté drawing titled Boats of Ajijic shows typical fishing boats and fishing nets on the shore of lake, with Cerro Garcia in the background.

Krustev’s first major show in Mexico was in 1972 when he presented portraits and landscapes at the Mexican-North American Cultural Institute in the Zona Rosa, Mexico City. He also exhibited in Guadalajara and throughout Europe and the USA.

His earliest recorded exhibit in Ajijic (which accompanied a showing of his film of the Lacandon Maya) was at the Posada Ajijic in August 1977. He first ran workshops in Ajijic at about this time. Four years later, in 1981, he advertised an 11-day workshop in Ajijic for $552.60 a person; the fee included air fare from Omaha, room and art instruction.

In 1989, Krustev and his wife, Helen Marie Krustev, held a joint showing of their work at the Art Studio Galeria in San Antonio Tlayacapan. They held another noteworthy joint exhibit, titled Caras de México, in the lobby of the Las Hadas hotel in Manzanillo in February 2000.

Several of their shows in Mexico were organized by Katie Goodridge Ingram, who ran two successful art galleries in Ajijic—Galería del Lago and Mi México—for many years. Ingram explained to me that “Many of his works were a combination of conté and charcoal and pastels, though he also painted in oils” and that she was enthralled by his work among the Lacandon:

partly because of their inherent beauty and their attempts to preserve their old ways and partly because of the tragedy involved in the confluence of two cultures. I admired the adventurer who went into the jungle and, fearing the imminent extinction of these people, drew the wonderful faces, garb and lifestyle of the Lacandon Indians.”

[Katie Goodridge Ingram is the author of According to Soledad: memories of a Mexican childhood, a fascinating fictionalized memoir of growing up in Ajijic in the 1940s and 1950s.]

Krustev’s work has been exhibited all over the world, and his paintings are in many prominent, private collections in Africa, USA, Europe and Mexico, where several fine examples are in the permanent collection of Ajijic Museo de Arte.

Papers and archives

The Human Studies Film Archives of the Smithsonian include two color silent film reels from Krustev’s trips (in the 1970s and 1996), as well as 180 35mm transparencies and two sound cassettes. His manuscripts and journals are archived at the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming.

Lake Chapala Artists & Authors is reader-supported. Purchases made via links on our site may, at no cost to you, earn us an affiliate commission. Learn more.

Several chapters of Foreign Footprints in Ajijic: Decades of Change in a Mexican Village offer more details about the history of the artistic community in Ajijic.

Sources

  • Diario de Colima: 25 Feb 2000.
  • Ojo del Lago, March 1989.
  • Des Moines Register: (obituary) 3 Mar 2013.
  • Katie Goodridge Ingram, personal communication.
  • Guadalajara Reporter: 20 Aug 1977, 17; 11 April 1998, 13; 5 Nov 2011; 3 Jan 2014;
  • Kent Stater: 28 Oct 1947.
  • Omaha World Herald: 7 June 1981.
  • David Bodwell and Richard Grabman (editors). 2013. Lancandon Journal—1969: From the Journals of Dimitar Krustev: Artist-Explorer. Editorial Mazatlán.

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

May 182023
 

Marion Delamater Freeman (later Marion D Freeman Wakeman) was born in Montclair, New Jersey, on 5 December 1891 and died in Northampton, Massachusetts, on 22 September 1954 (not 1953 as stated in most online sources).

Freeman graduated from Smith College, Northampton, in 1914 and then joined the Art Students League, where she studied with George Luks and Frank Vincent DuMond. She was also taught by Charles Webster Hawthorne and Dwight William Tryon. Though she did produce a limited number of etchings and sculptures, she is primarily known for her finely executed watercolors.

She married Dr. Seth Wakeman, professor of education and child safety at Smith College, in 1926. The couple had one son, Seth Freeman Wakeman.

Marion Freeman Wakeman. 1948. Church at Chapala.

Marion Freeman Wakeman. 1948. Church at Chapala.

This painting Church at Chapala, dated 1948, was presented to the Smith College Art Museum in her memory. When it came up for auction in 2022, the artist’s surname was mistakenly given as “Wakefield.” No further details are known of her time in Mexico, though she may have been a participant in a summer art school arranged by Irma Jonas, held in Ajijic.

Marion Wakeman exhibited regularly at the National Academy of Design, the Architectural League, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the National Association of Women Artists. Her water colors were shown at the Montclair Art Museum and at the Smith College Art Museum.

In 1936, Wakeman was one of only 12 artists who had works purchased at the 45th Annual Exhibition of the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors in New York City.

The following year, her painting titled Spring Plowing; Mexico, was bought by Seward Prosser of New York and given to Mrs. Dwight W. Morrow when she attended a meeting of the trustees of Smith College. (Dwight W Morrow was a businessman, diplomat and politician, who was US Ambassador to Mexico, 1927-29 during the Cristeros period; among other achievements, he bankrolled the Diego Rivera murals in the Palace of Cortés, Cuernavaca.)

Wakeman’s watercolors exhibited at the Smith College Art Museum in July 1938 included “a number of interesting plant studies and designs.” At the time, the museum was also exhibiting a Picasso.

In 1942, Wakeman won the Edith Penman Memorial Prize at the 50th Annual Exhibition of the National Association of Women Artists for a painting titled The Vain Old Cat.

Marion Freeman Wakeman. Illustration, The Curious Lobster.

Marion Freeman Wakeman. Illustration, The Curious Lobster.

She also illustrated the charming and fun children’s book The Curious Lobster, written by Richard W. Hatch, first published in 1944. Described quite aptly as “An American Wind in the Willows,” it tells the stories and escapades of Mr Lobster and his diverse group of friends.

Wakeman’s work is represented in the permanent collection of the Martha’s Vineyard Art Association’s Old Sculpin Gallery, alongside works by Hans Hoffman, Vaclav Vytlacil, Ruth Appledorn Mead, Julius Delbos, Frank C. Wright, Renée George O’Sullivan (who lived in Ajijic in the 1940s) and Louisa Gould.

Lake Chapala Artists & Authors is reader-supported. Purchases made via links on our site may, at no cost to you, earn us an affiliate commission. Learn more.

Several chapters of Foreign Footprints in Ajijic: Decades of Change in a Mexican Village offer more details about the history of the artistic community at Lake Chapala.

Sources

  • Daily Hampshire Gazette: 3 Mar 1986, 6.
  • Obituaries: Democrat and Chronicle, 28 Sep 1954, 20; The Montclair Times 30 Sep 1954, 6.
  • New York Times: 16 October 1937, 21.
  • The News (Paterson, New Jersey): 7 Jan 1942, 2.
  • Transcript-Telegram (Holyoke, Massachusetts): 9 Jul 1938, 7.
  • Tremont Auctions. 2022 Auction Catalog, Tremont Auctions, Sudbury, Massachusetts.

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

May 112023
 

Hilda Marie Osterhout was born in Brooklyn, New York in about 1925 and died in 2016. She grew up in a well-to-do family and, after attending Packer Collegiate Institute, was “presented to society” at the “Allied Flag Ball and Victory Cotillion in New York.” She then studied at Vassar College, where she won the Dodd Mead Intercollegiate Literary Fellowship for the best draft of a novel submitted by a college student in 1946, the year she graduated.

Osterhout-coverHer novel, provisionally titled Field of Old Blood (a Lorca quotation) was set in Mexico, and the award (an advance of $1500 against future royalties) enabled Osterhout to spend eighteen months in Mexico, divided between Mexico City and Ajijic, to complete the novel in 1946-47.

The book, finally titled The Flame and the Serpent, was published in 1948 by Dodd, Mead and Company, with a European edition published by Gollancz in London the following year.

Speaking to the Manor Club of Pelham shortly after her book was published, Osterhout recalled how she lived in Mexico City “under the strict chaperonage peculiar to the young girls of the country”, whereas, “In Ajijic I rented an adobe hut for $20 a month and paid two maids one dollar a week to look after me, and I learned the quiet feeling of danger that can surround you living in an Indian village where witch doctors still practice.” According to Osterhout, she had seen witchcraft “practiced on foreigners whom the Indians did not like, to the point where the foreigners left the village and never returned.” She also claimed that, “these Indian traditions are still carried on because they are taught in the Indian schools in connection with the ancient Aztec myths.”

Osterhout concluded that the main differences between the US and Mexico lay in the categories of history (where the US looked forward, and Mexico took inspiration from its history), art (where the art of Diego Rivera and others glorified the Indians), religion (a strong uniting factor in Mexico) and the position of women:

The women in Mexico are governed by tradition, yet they are utterly respected and adored becasue of the sole fact that they are women. Perhaps we have gained a lot when we gained our equal rights with men, but after seeing the way women are treated in Mexico I am beginning to think that we lost as well as gained.”

Osterhout is reported to have studied at the University of North Carolina and at UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México), though details of her time spent at either institution are lacking.

Osterhout portrait

Osterhout. Photo by Soichi Sunami.

The Flame and the Serpent had a mixed reception. According to Marc Brandel, writing in the New York Times, the book was “a remarkable rather than an admirable novel.” Despite its “faults of style and construction” “there shines through it, even at the its worst and most pretentious, one of those vivid talents that it is impossible to ignore.” The story is about a young girl’s first trip to Mexico, and her experiences of cultural differences she encounters, including those related to life, love and marriage. Brandel thought that the merits of the novel lay in “the sensitive beautifully written descriptions of certain facets of Mexican life as seen through the eyes of an American girl.”

Charles Poole, another reviewer in the same newspaper, described it as “One of the most unusual books about Mexico… since D. H. Lawrence grappled and groaned through that magnificent country’s mysteries.” He considered the writing to be “fresh and untarnished” though the author’s “interest in life still outruns her mastery of the novel’s form.”

Osterhout, who also wrote several book reviews for the New York Times. renewed the copyright of The Flame and the Serpent, her only novel, in 1976.

In 1950, Osterhout married Brinton Coxe Young, son of prominent impressionist artist Charles Morris Young. Hilda and her husband lost many of their family heirlooms in 1989 when burglars stole 19 paintings by Charles Morris Young and twenty works by other artists, as well as a small fortune in rare china, jewelry and many other items. The total haul, conservatively estimated at over $500,000, included a gold sealing ring that had belonged to Arthur Middleton, a maternal ancestor of Brinton Young and signatory of the US Declaration of Independence. This was not the first tragedy to befall the family. Charles Morris Young had lost almost 300 of his paintings in a house fire shortly before he died in 1964.

Lake Chapala Artists & Authors is reader-supported. Purchases made via links on our site may, at no cost to you, earn us an affiliate commission. Learn more.

Several chapters of Foreign Footprints in Ajijic: Decades of Change in a Mexican Village offer more details about the history of the literary and artistic community in Ajijic.

Sources

  • Hilda Marie Osterhout. 1948. The Flame and the Serpent. Dodd, Mead and Company (and Gollancz, London, 1949).
  • New York Times, 24 October 1948; 11 November 1948; 8 May 1949; 25 June 1950; 17 June 1951.
  • The Standard-Star, 2 Feb 1949, 18.
  • AP News. 1989. “Children of Pennsylvania Impressionist Lose Family Treasures,” AP News, 20 October 1989.
  • Vassar Chronicle, Volume III, Number 34, 8 June 1946, 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.