Mar 242022
 

Tobias (“Toby”) Schneebaum (1922-2005) was a gay artist, author, adventurer and activist, best known for living among, and documenting, the Amarakaeri people of Amazonian Peru and the Asmat people of the southwestern part of the island of New Guinea.

Before these trips into the tropical jungle, Schneebaum had lived in Ajijic for several years, and had experienced his first taste of tropical jungle by visiting the reclusive Lacandón people in Chiapas.

Schneebaum’s life and legacy to anthropology have been analyzed at length by later writers who have placed most emphasis, quite rightly, on his adventurous exploits in distant jungles, and on his humanitarian, activist work in New York City in connection with HIV/AIDS.

Tobias Schneebaum. 1970s. (New York Observer)

Tobias Schneebaum. 1970s. (New York Observer)

This post focuses on Schneebaum’s formative years in Ajijic, immediately before he began his major travels. His three years at Lake Chapala undoubtedly left their mark on the young man. Schneebaum later wrote at some length about his time in Ajijic in two of his memoirs: Wild Man (1979) and Secret places: my life in New York and New Guinea (2000). Unfortunately, these two accounts contain some factual inaccuracies and sometimes conflict with one another, making it difficult to reconstruct with certainty the details of his time in the village.

Theodore Schneebaum (his birth name) was born to Polish immigrants in New York on 25 March 1922 and raised in the Jewish faith in Brooklyn. After attending Stuyvesant High School, he studied at the City College of New York, where he gained a B.A in Mathematics and Art.

Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Schnnebaum joined the U.S. army and became a radar mechanic. After the war, he took evening painting classes at the Brooklyn Museum Art School with Mexican muralist Rufino Tamayo. Schneebaum was underwhelmed by Tamayo’s teaching but did follow his advice to pursue his artistic dreams in Mexico rather than Paris.

In either 1947 or 1948, Schneebaum headed for Mexico City. In Wild Man, Schneebaum recalls living for a time at a pension called Paris Siete, where political painters such as Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros (who “liked my paintings”) met every week.

Schneebaum first visited Ajijic in the company of “Madame Sonja”, an elderly “Rumanian osteopath” who he accompanied when she traveled from Mexico City to Lake Chapala to treat Zara Alexeyeva Ayenara, who had recently lost her “adopted brother, a Russian who had been a great dancer”. (New York-born Zara and her Danish dance partner, Holger Mehner, lived at Lake Chapala for years and were known locally as the “Russian dancers”.) In Wild Man, Schneebaum claims that Sonja’s patient was Zara, but in Secret Places he mistakenly says it was “Holga Menha” (which is impossible since Holger had died in 1944).

Schneebaum landed on his feet in Ajijic and it became his base for the remainder of his time in Mexico, including trips to southern Mexico and the one in 1950 to visit the Lacandón Maya in Chiapas. Like many other artists who have visited Ajijic, Schneebaum’s own artistic output during his stay in the village was greatly influenced by his discovery of pre-Columbian motifs and statues.

Tobias Schneebaum. Undated. Abstract (Sold by Clarke Auction Gallery, 2017)

Tobias Schneebaum. Undated. Abstract (Sold by Clarke Auction Gallery, 2017)

Schneebaum also taught art for several weeks each summer and encountered a variety of local and international artists in the village, who formed the nucleus of an active social circle. Moreover, as David Bergman, in his foreword to Secret Places, writes, “Schneebaum had refrained from sex after some adolescent experiences; now in the Mexican town of Ajijic, his homosexual desires were reawakened.”

In fact, these three main facets of his life in Ajijic – art, friends and sexual reawakening – were intimately intertwined shortly after being employed by Irma Jonas to teach students attending her summer painting schools in Ajijic (which were held from 1947 to 1949 inclusive). Jonas also appointed a second American artist, Nicolas Muzenic, and a Mexican artist, Ernesto Butterlin (who adopted the surname Linares), to share the classes. The three became fast friends.

In his memoirs, Schneebaum describes Ernesto (whom he refers to as “Lynn”) in glowing detail: “A young blond painter, born in Guadalajara of German parents, also lived in Ajijic. He was twenty-seven, blue-eyed, four inches over six feet, and very handsome, and was subject to the attentions of both the men and the women who later passed through town… He was engaging and irresistible; he was slender and deeply tanned and had just the right amount of softness to his body and mind so that he threatened no one.”

According to Schneebaum, an ill-fated love triangle developed between the three artists. Schneebaum fell in love with Nicolas Muzenic, who fell in love with Lynn. Matters were complicated by the arrival of “haughty and radiantly beautiful” Zoe, the “fourth member of our group”, who had been living with Henry Miller in Big Sur when she heard about Lynn and decided to visit Ajijic. Zoe “wore sheath dresses of black or white and penciled dark lines around her eyes to shape them into almonds, and enlarge the black pupils. Her skin was pale, the color of pearls.”

To further complicate their relationships, Zoe became obsessed with Nicolas who “arranged her hair in various styles and coated her face with makeup and sequins”. After dinner, “they would dance with their slender bodies tightly together, moving to slow foxtrots and tangos, dipping deeply, and turning with grace.”

Schneebaum recalls in Wild Man that, “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 and began a frenzied, volcanic affair that lasted two years”, ending (according to Schneebaum, though it sounds somewhat fanciful) with Nicolas buying the property and forcing Lynn to move out.

Katie Goodridge Ingram was living in Ajijic at the time and knew this quartet of extraordinary individuals. She remembers Zoe as “one of the most stunningly beautiful woman you could ever see. She slathered coconut oil all over and then went down to the (then) wonderful old stone pier and tanned herself generously for hours. Toby joined her, and Lin and sometimes Nick Muzenik. All of them gorgeous. Well, Toby was quiet, shy, introverted, and stooped, so was not so dramatically attractive.”

Tobias Schneebaum. Undated. Abstract (Sold by Clarke Auction Gallery, 2017)

Tobias Schneebaum. Undated. Abstract (Sold by Clarke Auction Gallery, 2017)

Recalling one of the summer schools he taught at, Schnnebaum writes in Wild Man that, “Irma [Jonas] sat with her twenty-six students, only two of whom were male. They stayed in Ajijic six weeks, loved it all, and were very generous with everyone. I received an offer from the aged wife of a Hollywood producer to live with her and two swimming pools in Bel Air.” This number of students does not tally with that provided by Jonas in an article written much closer to the time, but Schneebaum’s description presumably applied to the 1949 workshop, the last of Jonas’ painting schools to be held in Ajijic. The following year, she moved the classes to Taxco. (Incidentally, the students at the summer 1949 workshop in Ajijic included the African American playwright, artist and author Lorraine Hansberry.)

In his two memoirs, Schneebaum mentions various other residents of Ajijic, including authoress Neill James, the Johnsons (Herbert and Georgette), “an elderly British couple” who “had a splendid garden with hundreds of blossoming hibiscus”, and “Herr Müller and Fräulein Müller”, a German brother and sister who ran the village’s only small pension, though “They were nondescript and almost never talked to each other or to any of the guests.” Despite staying at their pension for several months, Schneebaum has recalled their names inaccurately since he is clearly describing Pablo and Liesel Heuer.

While he was in Mexico, Schneebaum (in Secret Places) claims to have had “one-man shows in Mexico City and Guadalajara with the help of Carlos Mérida” but I have been unable to find any supporting evidence or details for these in the local press or elsewhere.

He did, however, participate in at least two group shows in Jalisco. The first, held at the Museo del Estado (Regional Museum) in Guadalajara in March 1949, was of abstract works by “four Ajijic artists”: Schneebaum, Louise Gauthier, Ernesto Linares (Ernesto Butterlin) and Nicolas Muzenic and Guadalajara-based Alfredo Navarro España. Later that year, in August, a group show at the Villa Montecarlo in Chapala featured works by Schneebaum, Muzenic, Alfredo Navarro España, Shirley Wurtzel, Ann Woolfolk and Mel Schuler.

This abstract multi-media (pastel, watercolor, ink and pencil) drawing (below) by Schneebaum dates back to his time in Mexico and is currently listed for sale at DallasModerne.

1950. Multi-media abstract (DallasModerne)

Tobias Schneebaum. 1950. Multi-media abstract (DallasModerne)

After Ajijic and his trip to the Lacandón in 1950, Schneebaum returned to the U.S. where, in 1953, he held his first one-man art show at the Ganso Gallery in New York. After that gallery closed, Schneebaum was taken on by the Peridot Gallery which staged solo shows of his work in 1955, 1957, 1960, 1964 and 1970.

Between about 1954 and 1970, Schneebaum was alternating travel to distant places with a job as designer at Tiber Press, a silk-screen greeting-card company in New York that also occasionally published books. This was when, according to journalist Robin Cembalest, Schneebaum moved into an apartment next door to Norman Mailer. The two became good friends. Mailer and Adele (soon to become his second wife) had also spent some time in Ajijic. After they returned from Mexico and became engaged, “Schneebaum made an accordion-shaped announcement for the engagement… when unfolded, it revealed a long penis.”

In 1954, Tiber Press published a curious limited edition children’s book entitled The Girl in the Abstract Bed. This has delightfully whimsical text by Vance Bourjaily, accompanied by genuine silkscreen prints of watercolors by Schneebaum that were tipped in before the book was bound. Clearly the two men were close friends (Bourjaily himself spent most of 1951 in Ajijic) and the book’s title came from the name of an abstract painting that Schneebaum had done for Vance and his first wife, Tina, to beautify the headboard of their daughter Anna’s crib.

In 1955, Schneebaum was awarded a Fulbright fellowship to travel and paint in Peru, an epic journey recounted in his 1969 memoir Keep the River on Your Right. The book, which became a cult classic, included the sensational story of how, while in the Amazon, he had been forced to participate in cannibalism.

Tobias Schneebaum. Undated. Abstract (Sold by Clarke Auction Gallery, 2017)

Tobias Schneebaum. Undated. Abstract (Sold by Clarke Auction Gallery, 2017)

On other extended trips, Schneebaum explored Europe, crossed the Sahara desert, and ventured into the Congo, Ethiopia and Somalia before completing an overland crossing of Asia from Istanbul to Singapore, Borneo and the Philippines. In 1973, he lived for months with the Asmat people on the southwestern coast of New Guinea. This indigenous group became the focus for the next 25 years of his life. He helped establish the Asmat Museum of Culture and Progress, went back to school to complete an M.A. degree in Cultural Anthropology from Goddard College in 1977, and was a lecturer on cruise ships to the region.

In 1999, Schneebaum was persuaded by film-makers Laura and David Shapiro to revisit New Guinea and Peru for a documentary film, entitled Keep the River on Your Right: A Modern Cannibal Tale, released in 2000. He spent the final years of his life in Westbeth Artists Community in Greenwich Village, New York City, and died, after a lengthy battle with Parkinson’s, in Great Neck, New York, on 20 September 2005.

Schneebaum left his collection of Asmat art to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and his personal papers to the University of Minnesota, where they are part of the Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection in Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Studies. His written legacy includes Keep the River on Your Right (1969); Wild Man (1979); Asmat Images, The Asmat Museum of Culture & Progress (1985); Where the Spirits Dwell (1989); Embodied Spirits (1990) and Secret Places: My life in New York and New Guinea (2000).

Acknowledgments

My thanks to Gail Eiloart and Katie Goodridge Ingram for sharing with me their personal memories of Tobias Schneebaum.

Sources

This profile was first published 5 January 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.

Oct 282021
 

The Lake Chapala-Santa Fe literary-art nexus has had many distinguished members over the years:

D. H. LawrenceWitter Bynner, “Spud” Johnson, Betty Binkley , Josefa (the “mother of Mexican fashion design”), Jorge Fick, Clinton King and his (first) wife Lady Twysden, Clark Hulings, John Liggett Meigs, Alfred Rogoway, Don Shaw, photographer Ernest Walter Knee,  poet and painter John Brandi, musicologist Charles BogertBob Hunt, Arthur Davison Ficke and Gladys Brown Ficke.

Brian Boru Dunne (credit: unknown)

Brian Ború Dunne (credit: unknown)

Instrumental in fomenting the links in the 1940s was Santa Fe journalist Brian Ború Dunne who wrote a regular column for the Santa Fe New Mexican titled “Village Gossip.” There is no evidence that Dunne ever visited Lake Chapala. But in 1946 he reported that a “Rogelio M Chávez” had just returned from Ajijic and told him that the village of Ajijic was a colony of artists and writers with fourteen “white” people. These included two “rich women with palaces or castles… a fascinating Russian ballerina… [and] an Englishman who wears a Persian robe, a hat and motorcycle goggles.”

This article about Ajijic was instrumental in helping to persuade Santa Fe author John Sinclair to travel to Lake Chapala in December 1946 to write his novel Death in the Claimshack.

What else did Chávez tell Dunne about Ajijic?

Well, there were no door bells, electricity was limited to three hours daily—starting at sunset—and most people bathed “au naturel” in the lake. Ordinary mail was delivered occasionally “but air mail gets attention.” For nightlife—music, dancing and drinking—there was a bus to Chapala.

The foreign residents of Ajijic included Mrs Neill James, and Herr Heurer [sic] a refugee from Germany, who escaped World War I, and who had built “cubicles of mud, plaster and bamboo thatching for rent.” The heroine of Mrs Morton of Mexico also, according to Chávez, lived in Ajijic. In fact, Mrs Hunton, the real-life basis for the fictional Mrs Morton, lived in Villa Virginia in Chapala.

And who was Brian Ború Dunne? Relatively little is known about his education and life. He was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, on 13 July 1878 and died in Santa Fe at the age of 84 in December 1962. Dunne was an aspiring journalist when he chanced to meet English novelist George Gissing in Europe in 1897. His account of their time in Italy is the subject of a book published in 1999. Dunne was awarded a A.B. degree by St. Mary’s Benedictine College in North Carolina in 1906.

Dunne was the author of Cured! The 70 Adventures of a Dyspeptic, published in 1914, in which he tells, with great good humor, the story of his search for a cure for dyspepsia. After eight years of travails and visits to dozens of different specialists, Dunne’s odyssey culminated when he met an eye specialist who prescribed new lenses for his glasses. In his foreword to the book, H G Wells called it “ a manuscript shining with cheerfulness and telling of years of ill health” and “a real contribution to the difficult art of living!”

Dunne moved to New Mexico in about 1940, after working for a Washington D.C. newspaper and for the Baltimore Sun. He became a well-known figure in Santa Fe and his gossip column was deservedly popular. According to his obituary, Dunne wore gold-rimmed glasses, was a friend of H. L. Mencken, and lectured throughout the US on the importance of the Spanish language.

A decade ago, Rob Dean (also a Santa Fe New Mexican journalist) wrote about Dunne’s legendary status in Santa Fe:

“No one in town could fail to notice him. Hummingbirdlike with a bony frame and sharp nose, Dunne wore a showy wide-brimmed hat with a silver band — famous locally for touching off a contest among people who claimed the hat after his death. He planted himself in the middle of the Santa Fe social scene, wrote a newspaper gossip column and hung out for years in the lobby doing ambush interviews of La Fonda guests. For years, Dunne… wrote articles light in substance but heavy on sensation. Likewise, when he spoke, his dramatic delivery puffed up his empty rhetoric and made it seem profound.”

Dunne married Edith Hart Mason (1894–1974) in 1920. Their son, Brian Ború Dunne II, was the chief experimental scientist on Project Orion, the futuristic nuclear propulsion project.

And were there really only fourteen foreign residents in Ajijic in 1946? Well, no, the number is a slight undercount – but this profile, in the spirit of Dunne, is about more than just facts.

Sources

  • Brian Ború Dunne. 1914. Cured! The 70 Adventures of a Dyspeptic. Foreword by H.G. Wells. Cartoons by Hugh Doyel, cover design by Enrico Monetti. Philadelphia: The John C Winston Company.
  • Brian Ború Dunne. 1946. “Village Gossip,” Santa Fe New Mexican, 3 October 1946, 9.
  • Brian Ború Dunne. 1999. With Gissing in Italy: The Memoirs of Brian Ború Dunne. Co-edited by Paul F. Mattheisen, Arthur C. Young and Pierre Coustillas. Ohio University Press.
  • Rob Dean. 2010. “Families, Fiestas and Fun” in The New Mexican, 4 December 2010.
  • Santa Fe New Mexican. “B. B. Dunne of Santa Fe dead at 84.” (obituary), Santa Fe New Mexican, 31 December 1962, 1-2.

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

Aug 192021
 

I would love to learn more about Charlotte Speight, aka “Mrs Melvin S. Wax,” who held an exhibit of paintings and drawings of Ajijic at the Carpenter Art galleries at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, in July 1947.

The exhibition included “six oils, several pen and ink sketches and a gouache, depicting scenes in Ajijic, a primitive Tarascan Indian village bordering Lake Chapala, where Mr and Mrs Wax lived last winter.”

Charlotte Frances Speight (of British heritage) had married Melvin Sumner Wax the previous year and the couple had spent several months in Mexico as a wedding trip.

Charlotte Wax and her painting "Desolation". Chicago Tribune

Charlotte Wax and her painting “Desolation”. Chicago Tribune, 9 September 1956

Born in Berkeley, California, on 15 April 1919, Charlotte graduated from George School in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and then attended Swarthmore for a couple of years, before studying art in Paris, France. She also studied art at the Yale School of Fine Arts and the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills.

She married Melvin Wax, a journalist, on on 29 September 1946, and their daughter Martha Anne was born on 25 July the following year.

By the 1960s the family was living in Sausalito, California, where Charlotte taught art at Dominican Upper School for about four years and did set design and costumes for Sausalito Little Theater and the Marin Shakespeare Festival. At about the time her husband was elected mayor of Sausalito, Charlotte began studying sculpture at the San Francisco Art Institute, from where she graduated with a bachelor of fine arts degree in sculpture in 1967.

Please get in touch if you have any more information about this artist or examples of her work.

Sources

  • Daily Independent Journal, San Rafael, California, 5 June 1967, 13.
  • Rutland Daily Herald (Rutland, Vermont), 26 July 1947, 7.

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.

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Jun 242021
 

Prior to becoming a noted abstract expressionist painter, Stanley Twardowicz (1917-2008) lived in Ajijic in about 1948. Three years later, he exhibited about twenty photographs from that visit in New York, and won instant acclaim as a talented fine arts photographer.

Remarkably, Twardowicz had only taken up photography a short time before arriving in Ajijic, and he only took a camera with him to help supplement the preliminary sketches he needed to compose paintings on canvas. When the photos were developed, Twardowicz realized that the images he had captured were artistically satisfying in, and of, themselves. This began a lifelong love of photography, alongside his passion for painting.

Stanley Twardowicz. c.1948. Fishing nets, Ajijic. (Credit unknown)

Stanley Twardowicz. c.1948. Fishing nets, Ajijic. (Credit unknown)

Stanley Jon Leginsky was born to Polish parents in Detroit on 8 July 1917 and grew up with his godfather; he formally adopted his godfather’s surname in his early twenties, shortly before marrying Pauline (aka Apolonia) Jaszek (1921-2012) in October 1940. The marriage did not last and the couple divorced after six years.

Twardowicz attended summer school programs at the Chicago Art Institute and studied photo-retouching at the Meinzinger Art School.

He held his first exhibition of paintings in Detroit in 1944. Two years later he won a scholarship to the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine.

Despite having no formal qualifications, Twardowicz was then offered a teaching position at Ohio State University. He taught there for about five years and became close friends with another instructor, Roy Lichtenstein—they were later best man for each other on their respective wedding days.

Twardowicz won a $1500 fellowship in 1948 in Pepsi-Cola’s Fifth Annual Paintings of the Year Competition; his work was included in a show at the National Academy of Design in New York City.

Stanley Twardowicz. c.1948. Fishing nets, Ajijic. (Credit unknown)

Stanley Twardowicz. c.1948. Fishing nets, Ajijic. (Credit unknown)

It is unclear how he came to learn about Ajijic but he traveled there in 1948-49, seeking inspiration for more paintings; while there he took a series of eye-catching photographs of fishermen and their nets. His “stunning photographic journal of the Mexican people” (New York Times) was the basis for his Mexican series of paintings, completed between 1948 and 1951.

Safely back in the US in 1949, Twardowicz held the first of several annual solo shows at the Contemporary Arts Gallery in New York, and married an Ohio State student, Ruth Ann Mendel (1929–1973). Mendel (the spelling used on the marriage certificate is given as “Mandel” in Twardowicz’s obituary and elsewhere online) later became known for her wood-cut prints. According to one source, the couple lived for a time “near Guadalajara” (presumably in Ajijic), though I have yet to find any hard evidence for this assertion.

Twardowicz’s photographs of Ajijic went on show at Wittenborn & Co., 38 East Fifty-seventh Street, New York, in October 1951, shortly after Ann graduated from Ohio State and he resigned his teaching position there. The New York Times included one of the photos—of fishing nets in Ajijic—alongside its very positive review:
“The show… consists mainly of poetic impressions of fishing nets billowed by the wind and photographed about two years ago, a year after Mr. Twartowicz began to use a camera…. The pictures convey an artist’s emotional response to the mood of a situation rather than a literal rendering of material.”

Stanley Twardowicz. 1951. (Oil on canvas) Fish Nets (Ajijic). Credit: Berner's Auction Gallery, Ohio

Stanley Twardowicz. 1951. (Oil on canvas) Fish Nets (Ajijic). Credit: Berner’s Auction Gallery, Ohio

Twardowicz’s paintings based on these photographs include an oil on canvas entitled “Fish-Nets”, completed in 1951, which was auctioned in 2015 at Berner’s Auction Gallery in Donnelsville, Ohio.

Twardowicz and Ann left for Europe on 23 November, bound for Le Havre.  When they returned to the US six months later, in June 1952, they lived in Plainfield, New Jersey, near enough to New York to enjoy its vibrant arts scene. From late-1952, the couple were Saturday evening regulars at the Cedar Tavern in Greenwich Village, where they became friends with Jack Kerouac and a group of artists (later recognized as Abstract Expressionists) including Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and others.

By 1953, Twardowicz’s own painting had shifted away from semi-abstraction to full abstraction. The following year he was introduced to Zen philosophy and began a series of bio-morphic paintings, developing a technique to pour household paint onto canvasses stretched flat on the ground.

Twardowicz’s innovative artworks brought him major success with numerous solo shows, including annual one-person shows in the Peridot Gallery for twelve consecutive years.

In the 1960s, Twardowicz moved to Northport on Long Island. While visiting Twardowicz there, Kerouac wrote “The Northport Haiku” (1964), which first appeared in print in Street in Spring 1975. By this time, Twardowicz had been married to artist Lillian Dodson for four years.

Twardowicz continued to work also in photography. His best known later photographs are the portraits of Jack Kerouac he took in June 1967, a few months before his good friend died. The friendship was mutual: Kerouac considered Twardowicz “the most compassionate man I’ve ever met.” Despite their long friendship, the portraits were the first photographs of Kerouac that Twardowicz had ever taken.

Towards the end of the 1960s, Twardowicz became fascinated by color field theory and its relationship to visual perception; this led to him painting a series called “Disappearing Ovals.” He kept developing and experimenting as an artist. His style during the 1990s was aptly dubbed “Moving Color” by the Phoenix Museum when it held the a retrospective of Twardowicz’s work in 2001. The artist had three other retrospectives during his lifetime, all in New York: Heckscher Museum (1974), Nassau Community College (1987) and Hofstra University Museum (2007)

After a prolific career spanning 65 years, Twardowicz retired from painting in 2005 and died in Huntington, New York, on 12 June 2008.

Main sources

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

Jun 172021
 

Born on 18 January 1924 in Berlin, Germany, artist Renée George (birth name Renate Judith Georg) emigrated to the US as a stateless fifteen-year-old in August 1939, just as the second world war broke out in Europe.

George visited Ajijic during her three month trip to Mexico in the summer of 1947. When she returned to New York she was employed by the public relations magazine Modern Mexico, which published a short article she wrote and illustrated about her experiences in Mexico. The title illustration for her article is a street scene in Ajijic.

Renée George. 1947. Street scene in Ajijic. (Modern Mexico)

Renée George. 1947. Street scene in Ajijic. (Modern Mexico)

George had studied at Hunter College and taken courses in watercolor painting with William Starkweather, as well as attended night classes at the Art Students League with William McNulty, John Groth, and Howard Trafton. At the Art Students League she met her future husband Thomas O’Sullivan; they married in 1952. From 1959 onward the couple had a summer home in Martha’s Vineyard, where George was a founder member of the Martha’s Vineyard Art Association.

George later undertook illustration assignments for several books, including The River Horse by Nina Ames Frey (1953); Here come the trucks by Henry B Lent (1954); Inside the Ark and other stories by Caryll Houselander (1956); and Sixty Saints for Girls by Joan Windham (1979). She also contributed humorous drawings to the New York Times Book Review and several other publications.

Her article in Modern Mexico was written as a series of letters home to her parents.

George explains that the title of her article, “Ay Naranjas!” is the same title she would use if she ever wrote a book about all her adventures in Mexico:

– “Ay Naranjas! as I was told by a helpful Mexican has a spicy double meaning. When someone calls out Ay Naranjas! at you, and he is not selling oranges at the time, you better beware, for it is the call of the Mexican wolf.”

While in Mexico City she had the good fortune to see Diego Rivera and Siqueiros at work, and also saw paintings by Tamayo, which subsequently inspired her in the use of color.

Adjusting to Mexico brought some challenges:

“I am just beginning to understand the meanings on signs and boxes. Mexico City is particularly devoid of mail boxes, and I, being used to one at every corner, have probably mailed many a letter hopefully in a garbage can.”

Two later letters in the article are written from Ajijic, where she is staying with a friend named Hanna.

In the first, she sums up her thoughts about Ajijic:

“Am writing you this from my cot by the light of a flickering candle… Ajijic seems to the hideout for authors who have written books on Mexico (“Little Villages in the Sun,” etc) and those who are in the act of doing so. Without electric light and plumbing they get the feel of the primitive, and when they get tired of that they can always slosh through the mud to somebody’s cocktail party.

Don’t ever tell anybody you are going to Ajijic, unless of course you are talking to an artist, because you will be classed as demented. Have found no cause here for such prejudiced classification. This is one of the most charming, uninhibited places, where man and beast run around loose, enjoying their life on the shores of the lake.”

In her second letter from Ajijic, George describes the rainy season and a frustrated burglary attempt:

“It has been raining quite steadily lately, and a knee-deep river is flowing in front of our door step. Am unhappy because… all the mangos around here are spoiled because of some fly that must have sneaked through.

A few robberies have been committed lately, and our neighbor was practically paralyzed when she saw a man in a black sarape jump over her wall. When he saw here he got so scared that he climbed right back over again without touching anything. No one is wearing black sarapes around town today.

The grapevine is whispering that the charming young man who escorted Hanna and me home from the costume party last night is one of the ring leaders. I guess time will tell if no one else will.”

From Ajijic, George carried on to Cordoba and then Veracruz on the Gulf Coast, where, as she was about to return home, she was serenaded at dawn by mariachis hired by two traveling Campbell’s Soup salesmen!

George died in New York on 10 October 2010. A posthumous retrospective exhibit of her art was held at the Old Sculpin Gallery in Martha’s Vineyard in 2011.

Sources

  • Renée George. 1949. “Ay Naranjos.” Modern Mexico, Vol 22, #2, Mar-Apr 1949, 16-17, 28-29.
  • Ask art. Entry for Renee George O’Sullivan.

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 032021
 

New York-born author John Sinclair was already the successful author of a “Western cowboy” novel, published by MacMillan, when he decided to hide out in Ajijic for a few weeks in 1946-47 to write his next novel.

According to a newspaper article in December 1946, Sinclair planned to:

“write another novel in Ajijic, which is a hamlet of 2,000 Mayan-Indians and 14 white people, three of whom are from Europe. Sinclair said he was inspired to move to Ajijic for at least six months by the book “Village in the Sun.” It is by the late Dane Chandos, an English writer. Sinclair pronounced the book, which is published by Putnam, an English classic.”

We can quibble about details (“Mayan-Indians”) and ponder precisely who was included in the “14 white people, three of whom are from Europe,” but clearly Sinclair was keeping up with the latest books. Village in the Sun had been published in fall the previous year, and Nigel Millett—one half of the ”Dane Chandos” writing duo—had died unexpectedly in March 1946, only months before Sinclair announced his intention to travel to Lake Chapala.

Sinclair-Death in the Claimshack

Getting to Ajijic in 1946 was not that simple. Sinclair, who was based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, took a bus to Tucson, followed by a train to Guadalajara, bus to Chapala and finally a small launch to Ajijic, where he planned to stay several months. However, less than two months later, it was reported that Sinclair was on his way back to Santa Fe, earlier than anticipated, “because he has important mail communication with his publishers in the East and wanted to be sure of deliveries, going and coming.”

Apparently, Sinclair had already completed his next book, Death in the Claimshack, announced in February 1947, despite also writing regular “fascinating letters of the beauty and charm of the life on the edge of Lake Chapala, in the land of perpetual Indian summer.”

Sinclair had an adventurous upbringing. Born to a wealthy family in New York City in 1902, his father died when he was young and he was brought up from age 10 by a grandfather and uncle, both in Scotland. Sinclair graduated from Cambridge University and completed an apprenticeship in animal husbandry before returning to North America, where his family was prepared to finance the establishment of a family-owned ranch in British Columbia. A stop-off in New Mexico, where he fell instantly in love with saddle ponies, cowboys and the landscape, completely changed his life. When he told his family of his intention to live in New Mexico, he was disinherited.

Sinclair worked as a cowboy for fourteen years in New Mexico, before turning his hand to writing. By 1936, he was living in the growing literary community of Santa Fe. He worked for the Museum of New Mexico and established the Lincoln Historic Site in the old courthouse of Lincoln, while working on his first novel, In Time of Harvest, published in 1943. He wrote his other novels while employed as superintendent of the Coronado State Monument near Bernalillo. He described his life as “like that of Thoreau, one of simplicity and solitude.”

Sinclair’s other novels were Cousin Drewey and the Holy Twister (1980) and The Night the Bear came off the Mountain (1991). He also wrote several non-fiction works, including New Mexico, The Shining Land (1980), Cowboy Riding Country (1982), and A Cowboy Writer in New Mexico: The Memoirs of John L. Sinclair (published posthumously in 1996), as well as articles and short stories for the New Mexico Magazine and The Saturday Evening Post.

Among the many awards he won for his writing were two Western Heritage Wrangler Awards, the Western Writers’ Golden Spur Award, a New Mexico Governor’s Award for Excellence and Achievement in the Arts, and an honorary life membership in the Cowboy Hall of Fame.

John Sinclair died in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in December 1993.

Sources

  • Ben E. Pingenot. 1998. “Review of A Cowboy Writer in New Mexico: The Memoirs of John L. Sinclair By John Sinclair.” Great Plains Quarterly, Spring 1998 (University of Nebraska – Lincoln).
  • The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, New Mexico), 06 Dec 1946, 11; 22 Jan 1947, 5;
  • Los Angeles Times, 20 Dec, 1993, 199.

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

May 202021
 

American composer and conductor H. Owen Reed (1910-2014), a professor at Michigan State University, spent five months in Mexico over the winter of 1948-49. After several weeks in Mexico City and Cuernavaca, with side trips to Taxco and Acapulco, he spent a couple of months in Chapala. This trip, funded by a Guggenheim Fellowship, was the inspiration for his most famous composition, “La Fiesta Mexicana: a Mexican Folk Song Symphony for Band.”

H. Owen Reed

H. Owen Reed

The idea for the symphony first came to him after reading Stuart Chase’s fine book, Mexico; a study of two Americas (1946). Reed envisioned a three-movement symphony referencing folk songs and popular music that would also lend itself to choreography. And, indeed, though usually performed by dedicated wind orchestras, “La Fiesta Mexicana” has sometimes been presented in conjunction with costumed dancers and staging.

The opening movement of the symphony, Prelude and Aztec Dance, is based on a march Reed heard in Cuernavaca and Aztec dance music from central Mexico. The second and third movements—Mass and Carnival—were inspired by Reed’s time at Lake Chapala: “In a small choir loft in Chapala, I heard the chant from the Liber Usualis which I used in the second movement…. The two-against-three rhythm of the two bells used throughout “La Fiesta Mexicana” was a standard cliche of the young musicians who seemed to have little respect for my early morning sleep. Again this was in Chapala.” Part of the third movement makes use of a mariachi rendition of El Son de la Negra. [1]

The work was premiered by the US Marine Band in 1949. The first major label commercial recording, released in 1954, “burst on the classical record scene and became an overnight sensation. Music lovers were dazzled by the color and inventiveness of the score.” [2]

Score of La Fiesta MexicanaThe work marked a milestone in the “genre of long-form compositions for wind ensemble” and has been recorded dozens of times since.

The score includes the following notes on each movement:

“I. Prelude and Aztec Dance — The tumbling of the church bells at midnight officially announces the opening of the Fiesta, which has previously been unofficially announced by the setting off of fireworks, the drinking of tequila and pulque, and the migration of thousands of Mexicans and Indians to the center of activity — the high court surrounding the cathedral. After a brave effort at gaiety, the celebrators settle down to a restless night, until the early quiet of the Mexican morning is once more shattered by the church bells and fireworks. At mid-morning a band is heard in the distance. However, attention is soon focused upon the Aztec dancers, brilliantly plumed and masked, who dance in ever-increasing frenzy to a dramatic climax.”

“II. Mass — The tolling of the bells is now a reminder that the Fiesta is, after all, a religious celebration. The rich and poor slowly gather within the great stone walls of the old cathedral [for reverent] homage to their Virgin.”

“III. Carnival — Mexico is at its best on the days of the Fiesta — days on which passion governs the love, hatred and joys of the Mestizo and the Indio. There [are] entertainment and excitement for both young and old — the itinerant circus, the market, the bullfight, the town band, and always the cantinas with the ever present band of mariachi.”

Notes:

[1] Reed’s lecture notes on La Fiesta Mexicana  [6 May 2021]

[2] Phillip Nones. 2013. “H. Owen Reed at 103: The Dean of American Composers Celebrates a Birthday.” Blog post dated 19 June 2013.  [27 April 2021]

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

May 132021
 

Hari (Harry) Matthew Kidd (1899-1964) was a painter, printmaker and writer associated with Philadelphia (Pennsylvania), El Paso (Texas) and Key West (Florida). Kidd was living in Chapala in the mid-1940s when he first met his future wife Edythe Wallach, then living in Ajijic. Kidd had his paintings in a group show at the Villa Montecarlo in Chapala in December 1944, a month after Wallach had held her own one-person show there.

Born in Detroit to an Englishman and his Canadian wife, Hari Kidd attended high school in El Paso before enlisting as a teenager in the Royal Canadian Air Force which later sent him to England to paint a portrait of General Hugh Montague Trenchard (later 1st Viscount Trenchard). Kidd returned from Europe in 1923 and studied art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. His first wife, Elizabeth, also an artist, was possibly a fellow student. The young couple left from Boston in May 1927 on an extended trip to Europe, returning to Philadelphia in early April of the following year.

In 1933, apparently on health grounds (Kidd had lifetime mobility issues), and seemingly without Elizabeth, he moved to El Paso. He soon acquired a reputation as a fine artist and mixed in an illustrious social circle that included sculptor Urbici Soler. He was also a good friend of the British conductor Leopold Stokowski, director of the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra.

Hari Kidd. Men riding freight cars. undated.

Hari Kidd. Men riding freight cars. undated. Sold by Heritage Auctions, 2015.

Kidd’s work was in numerous local exhibits including a one-person show at the Crouse Galleries in El Paso in 1937. During his years in El Paso, Kidd gave art classes from his studio. Among his students was the El Paso artist Jake Erlich who stood 2.59 meters (8 feet 6 inches) tall and was widely believed at the time (even if inaccurately) to be the tallest man in the world.

Hari Kidd also turned his hand to writing, sending letters, columns and articles (often illustrated with charming drawings) to the El Paso Herald-Post. From El Paso, he made several trips into Mexico, including one to San José Purua in 1939 and another, in about 1942, further south into Oaxaca, spending close to a year in Tehuantepec and Ixtepec. These trips provided material for several illustrated articles for Mexico Magazine whose editor, Lloyd Burlingham, lived in El Paso.

The 1940 US Census lists Kidd as “divorced”, living on his own in El Paso. He had already had a painting included in the All Texas General Exhibit which opened in January 1940 at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. A year later, his first major solo show, of oil paintings at the Palace of Legion of Honor in San Francisco was warmly received by knowledgeable critics. Simultaneously he had a solo show of watercolors at Gump’s store in the same city.

That same year, further east, his work was chosen for the Texas-Oklahoma General Exhibition and he had a solo show (in October 1941) at the Witte Museum in San Antonio, where a reviewer commented (favorably) that Kidd was a “colossal egotist, sure of himself as a creative artist.”

Kidd’s social realism pictures frequently depicted Mexican people and topics, based on explorations along the Río Grande. According to several accounts, Kidd was sufficiently famous to have been visited in El Paso by Diego Rivera and Frieda Kahlo.

Harry Kidd. Date unknown. Untitled. Coll: University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee

Harry Kidd. Date unknown. Untitled. Coll: University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee

Back in El Paso in 1944, Kidd persuaded a local hospital for wounded Army soldiers to hang his paintings in their rooms as inspiration to speed their recuperation. He also held a show of painting at the Mexico Magazine Galleries in El Paso, which was operated by fellow artist (and Lloyd’s wife) Hilda Burlingham. That exhibition was then sent to the American Airlines office in New York City.

In late 1944, Kidd was back in Mexico and living at Lake Chapala. He is one of just three artists named in a short piece in the Guadalajara daily El Informador about the founding of a “Chapala Art Center” and its first exhibition, held at the Villa Montecarlo in Chapala from 10-17 December. (Edythe Wallach, his future wife, had held a solo exhibition at the same venue a month earlier). Betty Binkley of Santa Fe and English artist Muriel Lytton-Bernard are also named in the newspaper. The show also included works by the famous American surrealist Sylvia Fein, Ann Medalie, Otto Butterlin, Ernesto Linares (Lyn Butterlin), and Jaime López Bermúdez.

Hari Kidd was friends with Tennessee Williams and it may even have been Hari Kidd who first suggested that the great writer spend the summer of 1945 in Chapala.

Hari Kidd married Edythe Wallach in Key West, Florida, in March 1946. Later that year, the Miami News reported that Mr Kidd was preparing for a solo show at the Philadelphia Art Alliance in December. That show was followed by a second solo show, at the same venue, of Kidd’s “new and sensational” War Series of watercolors, which firmly established his reputation as an artist of note.

In September 1947, Kidd held another solo show of watercolors, at the Pittsburgh Water Color Society.

Hari Kidd. "Spring" (mother and child). Painted at Key-West; undated.

Hari Kidd. “Spring” (mother and child). Painted at Key West; undated. Sold by Butterscotch Auction Gallery, 2017.

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

In 1964, due to her husband’s declining health, Edythe and Hari moved to Tucson, Arizona, where Hari Kidd-artist extraordinaire-died in hospital four months later.

A retrospective of Kidd’s art opened at the El Paso Museum in October 1967; his widow attended the opening. Individual works by Kidd have also appeared periodically in group shows, including two at the Harmon Gallery in Naples, Florida in 1975.

In 1990, Edythe Kidd donated 135 of her husband’s works (the largest known collection of his work, comprising oils, lithographs, water-colors, gauches and cancels) to  the University of the South, a private, coeducational liberal arts college in Sewanee, Tennessee. According to the university journal, “It is not known why the collection was donated to Sewanee, however it may have been on account of his friendship with Tennessee Williams, donor of ten million dollars to the University following his own death in 1985.”

A posthumous retrospective of his work was held in 2010 at the El Paso Museum of Art (EPMA). Examples of his work are in the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Atlanta Art Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Acknowledgment

My sincere thanks to Mary O’Neill, Visual Resources Librarian at The University of the South, for graciously providing me with copies of documents and images in the library archives.

Sources

  • Andrew Erlich and Cara Van Miriah. 2012. The Long Shadows (a fictional work about Jake Erlich; chapter 25 is entitled “Harry Kidd”). eBookIt.com.
  • El Paso Herald Post: 18 March 1946, p 6; 21 January 1937, p 8; 20 Jan 1944, p6; 4 Oct 1967, Showtime, p 14.
  • The Miami News: 8 Sep 1946, p 23: 25 Jan 1948, p 59.
  • Oakland Tribune: 19 Jan 1941, p B-7.
  • John and Deborah Powers. 1946. Texas Painters, Sculptors & Graphic Artists.
  • San Antonio Express: 5 Oct 1941.
  • San Antonio Light, 5 Oct 1941, Part Three, p 8,
  • The Sewanee Purple, 25 February 1991, p 2.

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

 Posted by at 5:02 am  Tagged with:
Apr 152021
 

Edythe Wallach (1909-2001) lived and painted for most of 1944 in Chapala and Ajijic. Her Lake Chapala paintings were exhibited in both Chapala and in New York.

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

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

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

Edythe Wallach. 1944. Plaza at Chapala. Coll: University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee.

Edythe Wallach. 1944. Plaza at Chapala. Coll: University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee.

Wallach moved from Ajijic to Chapala at the insistence of fellow artist Hari Kidd. After meeting at a lunch for area expatriates at a hotel in Chapala, they strolled to the plaza:

“While seated in the postage stamp plaza, Hari suggested that I move to Chapala from Ajijic where I was preparing a New York exhibition. I said no – but within two weeks I was seated beside the lake, looking through borrowed binoculars for the boatman who was to fetch me. In two days he appeared and I reached Chapala. The following morning Hari stood at my door, rigid as a Rousseau painting, a bouquet in his hand.” (document written by Edythe Wallach Kidd dated 10 June 1966)

Their romance blossomed in Chapala under the soft moonlight reflecting off the serenely beautiful lake…

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

Postcard of The Villa Montecarlo, Chapala, ca 1940

Postcard of The Villa Montecarlo, Chapala, ca 1940

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

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

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

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

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

Untitled. Date unknown. Credit: Stephanie Wallach.

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

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

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

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

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

Acknowledgment

My sincere thanks to Edythe Wallach Kidd’s niece, Stephanie Wallach, for helping clarify details of the artist’s life and for kindly supplying the photograph of one of her paintings, and to Mary O’Neill, Visual Resources Librarian at The University of the South, for graciously providing me with copies of documents and images in the library archives.

Note: This post, originally published in January 2018, was significantly updated in October 2018 and March 2021.

Sources:

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

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

 Posted by at 5:51 am  Tagged with:
Feb 112021
 

Esther Henderson and her husband, Chuck Abbott, spent six weeks in Mexico taking photographs for Arizona Highways magazine in the early 1940s. They were major contributors to the magazine for decades.

They published at least three photographs related to Lake Chapala in Arizona Highways. The first two were black and white images in the September 1942 issue of a farming family’s home and a landscape view of adjoining peasant smallholdings on the lakeshore. This color Kodachrome photograph, taken from almost exactly the same vantage point as that landscape view, was included in the October 1945 issue of Arizona Highways.

Esther Henderson / Chuck Abbott. c. 1942. Lake Chapala.

Esther Henderson / Chuck Abbott. c. 1942. Lake Chapala.

The original caption for the following photo (from the September 1942 issue of Arizona Highways) read “A farmer’s house and his family on the shores of Lake Chapala, near Guadalajara. These farming folk are unusually industrious and self-reliant.”

Esther Henderson / Chuck Abbott. c. 1942. Lake Chapala.

Esther Henderson / Chuck Abbott. c. 1942. Lake Chapala.

The precise location of these smallholdings is undetermined, but appears to be somewhere on the southern shore of the lake, perhaps close to San Luis Soyatlán or Tuxcueca.

Charles “Chuck” Abbott was born in Michigan in 1894 and died in Santa Cruz, California in 1973. After high school, he joined his brother in Hawaii to work on a pineapple plantation. During the first world war, he served with the 23rd Army Engineers in Europe, where “he photographed the war-torn landscape.” On his return to the U.S., he established Chas. H. Abbott Photography business in New York to market his photographs. With the proceeds, he opened (with a German partner) a shop on Fifth Avenue selling exotic birds. Abbot married the daughter of a wealthy rug merchant and the couple moved to Florida to run a dance hall and casino, “Abbot’s Joint.” After that business was destroyed in a hurricane in 1928, his wife returned to New York.

Abbott, however, moved to California and ran a coffee shop in Carmel before relocating to Palm Springs, where he became known as the “Cowboy Host,” arranging breakfast rides and events for the wealthy patrons at the Desert Inn. He first met his second wife, Esther, when he was hired by the Tucson Sunshine Club as the “Cowboy Photographer” to take photos of all the various important celebrities visiting Tucson.

Esther Henderson was born in Illinois on 24 July 1911 and died on 22 August 2008. She was a professional dancer in New York City for several years before taking up photography. After studying at the New York Institute of Photography, she moved to Tucson, Arizona, in 1935 to start her photography career. Esther specialized in landscape photography and was a frequent contributor to Arizona Highways from the 1930s onward.

Chuck and Esther met in early 1941. Esther was the chairwoman of a group of local Tucson photographers who were outraged that the Sunshine Club had chosen Chuck Abbott, an outsider, as their “Cowboy Photographer.” Chuck tried to visit her in an effort to smooth the ruffled feathers. After first refusing to meet him, Esther later agreed to join him for a drink, which led to a picnic, and then a joint camera shoot. They were married within months.

The couple, who had two sons, traveled and worked regularly together to capture images and write copy for several travel publications. During the 1950s, Esther published “Way Out West”, a weekly photographic feature column every Saturday in the Tucson Citizen.

Esther and Chuck opened The Photocenter photography studio and gallery in Tucson, where they also later established Color Classics, the first color laboratory in Arizona.

The January 1968 issue of Arizona Highways was a special edition devoted to three decades of Esther’s photography.

The couple moved to Santa Cruz, California, in 1963 where they were actively involved in community affairs. They restored a number of houses in the town and spearheaded an initiative to improve the downtown area; the name Abbott Square honors their achievements. They also replaced the town’s lighthouse as a memorial to their son, Mark, who drowned while bodysurfing at the age of 18.

Chuck died in 1973. Esther continued to live in the family home in Santa Cruz until her death in 2003.

The University of Santa Cruz is the custodian of an extensive archive of the couple’s color transparencies.

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.

Dec 312020
 

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 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 and date from 1940-1945.

This gallery (many locations unknown) focuses on places in central and western Mexico.

Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Tzararacua Falls, near Uruapan?
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Tzararacua Falls, near Uruapan?
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Tzararacua Falls, near Uruapan?
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Tzararacua Falls, near Uruapan?
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Tzararacua Falls, near Uruapan?
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Tzararacua Falls, near Uruapan?
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Central Mexico
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Central Mexico
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Central Mexico
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Tzararacua Falls, near Uruapan
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Tzararacua Falls, near Uruapan
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Tzararacua Falls, near Uruapan
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Camecuaro park (near Zamora)
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Camecuaro park (near Zamora)
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Camecuaro park (near Zamora)
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Camecuaro park (near Zamora)
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Camecuaro park (near Zamora)
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Camecuaro park (near Zamora)
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Central Mexico
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Central Mexico
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Central Mexico
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Central Mexico
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Central Mexico
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Central Mexico
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Central Mexico
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Central Mexico
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Central Mexico
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Central Mexico
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Central Mexico
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Central Mexico
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Central Mexico
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Central Mexico
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Central Mexico
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Central Mexico
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Central Mexico
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Central Mexico
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Taxco.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Taxco.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Taxco.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Taxco.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Taxco.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Taxco.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Central Mexico
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Central Mexico
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Taxco.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Central Mexico
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Central Mexico
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Central Mexico
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Central Mexico
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Central Mexico
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Central Mexico
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Central Mexico
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Central Mexico
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Central Mexico
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Central Mexico
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Central Mexico
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Central Mexico
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Central Mexico
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Central Mexico
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Central Mexico
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Central Mexico
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Central Mexico
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Central Mexico
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Central Mexico
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Central Mexico
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Central Mexico
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Central Mexico
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Central Mexico
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Central Mexico
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Central Mexico
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Central Mexico
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Central Mexico
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Central Mexico
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Central Mexico
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Central Mexico
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Central Mexico
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Central Mexico
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Central Mexico
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Central Mexico
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Central Mexico
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Central Mexico
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Central Mexico
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Central Mexico
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Central Mexico
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Morelia.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Morelia.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Morelia.

Note

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.

Dec 032020
 

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 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 and date from 1940-1945.

This gallery (locations unknown) focuses on horsemanship and bullfights.

Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Horsemanship and bullfight.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Horsemanship and bullfight.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Horsemanship and bullfight.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Horsemanship and bullfight.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Horsemanship and bullfight.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Horsemanship and bullfight.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Horsemanship and bullfight.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Horsemanship and bullfight.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Horsemanship and bullfight.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Horsemanship and bullfight.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Horsemanship and bullfight.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Horsemanship and bullfight.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Horsemanship and bullfight.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Horsemanship and bullfight.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Horsemanship and bullfight.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Horsemanship and bullfight.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Horsemanship and bullfight.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Horsemanship and bullfight.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Horsemanship and bullfight.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Horsemanship and bullfight.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Horsemanship and bullfight.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Horsemanship and bullfight.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Horsemanship and bullfight.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Horsemanship and bullfight.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Horsemanship and bullfight.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Horsemanship and bullfight.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Horsemanship and bullfight.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Horsemanship and bullfight.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Horsemanship and bullfight.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Horsemanship and bullfight.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Horsemanship and bullfight.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Horsemanship and bullfight.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Horsemanship and bullfight.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Horsemanship and bullfight.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Horsemanship and bullfight.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Horsemanship and bullfight.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Horsemanship and bullfight.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Horsemanship and bullfight.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Horsemanship and bullfight.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Horsemanship and bullfight.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Horsemanship and bullfight.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Horsemanship and bullfight.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Horsemanship and bullfight.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Horsemanship and bullfight.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Horsemanship and bullfight.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Horsemanship and bullfight.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Horsemanship and bullfight.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Horsemanship and bullfight.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Horsemanship and bullfight.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Horsemanship and bullfight.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Horsemanship and bullfight.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Horsemanship and bullfight.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Horsemanship and bullfight.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Horsemanship and bullfight.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Horsemanship and bullfight.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Horsemanship and bullfight.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Horsemanship and bullfight.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Horsemanship and bullfight.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Horsemanship and bullfight.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Horsemanship and bullfight.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Horsemanship and bullfight.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Horsemanship and bullfight.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Horsemanship and bullfight.

Note

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.

Nov 052020
 

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 rediscovery by historian Dr Kimberly Lamay Licursi in an estate sale in New York, see

The photos in the album are in no particular order and have no captions or dates. The photos in the album date from 1940-1945.

This gallery focuses on three individual archaeological sites:

  • Tenayuca
  • Teotihuacan
  • Xochicalco
Tenayuca
Tenayuca
Herbert Johnson. c 1943. Tenayuca
Tenayuca
Tenayuca
Herbert Johnson. c 1943. Tenayuca
Tenayuca
Tenayuca
Tenayuca
Tenayuca
Tenayuca
Herbert Johnson. c 1943. Tenayuca
Tenayuca
Tenayuca
Herbert Johnson. c 1943. Tenayuca
Tenayuca
Tenayuca
Herbert Johnson. c 1943. Tenayuca
Tenayuca
Tenayuca
Herbert Johnson. c 1943. Tenayuca
Teotihuacan
Teotihuacan
Herbert Johnson. c 1943. Teotihuacan
Teotihuacan
Teotihuacan
Herbert Johnson. c 1943. Teotihuacan
Teotihuacan
Teotihuacan
Herbert Johnson. c 1943. Teotihuacan
Teotihuacan
Teotihuacan
Herbert Johnson. c 1943. Teotihuacan
Teotihuacan
Teotihuacan
Herbert Johnson. c 1943. Teotihuacan
Teotihuacan
Teotihuacan
Herbert Johnson. c 1943. Teotihuacan
Teotihuacan
Teotihuacan
Herbert Johnson. c 1943. Teotihuacan
Teotihuacan
Teotihuacan
Herbert Johnson. c 1943. Teotihuacan
Teotihuacan
Teotihuacan
Herbert Johnson. c 1943. Teotihuacan
Teotihuacan
Teotihuacan
Herbert Johnson. c 1943. Teotihuacan
Xochicalco
Xochicalco
Herbert Johnson. c 1943. Xochicalco
Xochicalco
Xochicalco
Herbert Johnson. c 1943. Xochicalco
Xochicalco
Xochicalco
Herbert Johnson. c 1943. Xochicalco
Xochicalco
Xochicalco
Herbert Johnson. c 1943. Xochicalco
Xochicalco
Xochicalco
Herbert Johnson. c 1943. Xochicalco

Note

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.

Nov 052020
 

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 rediscovery by historian Dr Kimberly Lamay Licursi in an estate sale in New York, see

The photos in the album are in no particular order and have no captions or dates. The photos in the album date from 1940-1945.

This gallery focuses on Xochimilco and its trajineras.

Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Xochimilco.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Xochimilco.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Xochimilco.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Xochimilco.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Xochimilco.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Xochimilco.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Xochimilco.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Xochimilco.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Xochimilco.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Xochimilco.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Xochimilco.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Xochimilco.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Xochimilco.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Xochimilco.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Xochimilco.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Xochimilco.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Xochimilco.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Xochimilco.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Xochimilco.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Xochimilco.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Xochimilco.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Xochimilco.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Xochimilco.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Xochimilco.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Xochimilco.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Xochimilco.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Xochimilco.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Xochimilco.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Xochimilco.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Xochimilco.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Xochimilco.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Xochimilco.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Xochimilco.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Xochimilco.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Xochimilco.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Xochimilco.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Xochimilco.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Xochimilco.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Xochimilco.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Xochimilco.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Xochimilco.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Xochimilco.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Xochimilco.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Xochimilco.
Herbert Johnson. c. 1943. Xochimilco.

For more information about Xochimilco, see:

Note

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.

Nov 052020
 

One of the delights of writing this blog has been the number of readers who have reached out to me with further information about the artists and writers I’ve written about. This has greatly improved the blog and resulted in some valuable virtual friendships.

A case in point. A year ago, a chance find at an estate sale by Dr Kimberly Lamay Licursi, an adjunct instructor of history at Siena College in New York, and author of Remembering World War I in America (University of Nebraska Press, 2018), led to her contacting me to ask if I knew anything about “Georgette and Herbert Johnson” of Ajijic. 

I was barely able to contain my excitement. The Johnsons were an English couple who settled in Ajijic in 1939, and I’ve been researching them for a chapter in a forthcoming book. Kimberly had rescued a photo album containing more than 250 photographs which fortuitously included a copy of a greetings card sent by the Johnsons. Long story short, Kimberly has entrusted me with the album’s future.

The album almost certainly belonged to Georgette Johnson. Apart from a copy of their own greetings card, it also includes several postcards sent to the Johnsons and one or two photos with inscriptions on the back that make it clear they were gifts to the couple. The fact that the photos are in no particular order and have no captions or dates makes me confident that the album was Georgette’s rather than Herbert’s. (Herbert’s hardcover “weather log,” given to me many years ago by Jocotepec author Joan Frost, has meticulous notes and weather records from the 1940s, making me confident that Herbert would have added neat captions and dates if the album had been his.)

Herbert Johnson was an engineer and loved his gadgets, including his camera. He is depicted in a few of the photographs (presumably taken by someone else), but both subject matter and style make me confident that he was the photographer responsible for the vast majority of the photos in the album. Almost all the photos date from 1940-1945; a few loose photos are slightly later.

A small number of Herbert Johnson’s photos were included as illustrations in June Summers’ Villages in the Sun. In that slim volume the photos were misleadingly captioned and poorly reproduced. The original of one of those photos is in the photo album; the quality of the original clearly reveals the technical skills of Herbert Johnson as a photographer.

Apart from the Johnsons’ photo album, very few photos of Ajijic in the early 1940s (or earlier) are currently known. This makes the photo album particularly valuable in documenting the village’s history.

The following posts are photo galleries revealing the scope and quality of Johnson’s work:

Further photo galleries will be added in due course, including:

  • Quinta Johnson (house and garden), Ajijic

Acknowledgment

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

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

Oct 082020
 

Roy Vincent MacNicol (1889-1970), “Paintbrush Ambassador of Goodwill”, had an extraordinary artistic career, even if his personal life was sometimes confrontational.

The American painter, designer, writer and lecturer had close ties to Chapala for many years: in 1954, he bought and remodeled the house in Chapala that had been rented in 1923 by English author D. H. Lawrence, and then, according to artist Everett Gee Jackson, by himself and Lowell Houser.

After MacNicol and his fourth wife Mary Blanche Starr bought the house, they divided their time between Chapala and New York, with occasional trips elsewhere, including Europe. Their New York home, from 1956 (possibly earlier) was at 100 Sullivan Street.

Roy MacNicol: Mood, Mexico (1936)

Roy MacNicol: Mood, Mexico (1936)

Roy MacNicol was a prolific painter and numerous MacNicol paintings of Lake Chapala are known. Romantically and artistically, he lived an especially colorful life and was involved in several high profile scandals and lawsuits.

Born in New York City on 27 November 1889, MacNicol left home as a teenager to take acting classes and work on the stage, appearing in the farces Twin Beds and Where’s Your Wife? on Broadway in 1919.

MacNicol’s first marriage lasted less than four years. In 1920, MacNicol took vaudeville singer and performer Fay Courtney as his second wife. With the backing of his new wife, MacNicol left the stage to concentrate on his painting career.

Best known for his watercolors and elaborate decorative screens, MacNicol’s work embraced a number of different styles over the years before he developed (in the 1940s) a unique style he termed “geo-segmatic.”

MacNicol’s first solo exhibit was in November 1921 at the Anderson Galleries, New York. His bird and animal motifs on large screens were admired on opening night by more than 800 guests. However, this led to a serious professional clash with a fellow artist, Robert W. Chanler, who called him a “copyist” who had stolen his designs. MacNicol was outraged and took Chanler to court, seeking $50,000 for the alleged libel.

His second solo show was in Palm Beach, Florida, the start of the artist’s long connection with the Palm Beach area.

After visiting France and Spain, MacNicol held a solo exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago in April 1926, which included many abstract paintings of fauna such as cranes, herons, Australian squirrels and penguins. In the program notes, A. G. Warshawsky praised the abstract compositions that “still hold a human and essentially humorous effect, which adds both to the charm and naiveté of the subject”.

Roy MacNicol: Untitled (1961)

Roy MacNicol: Untitled (1961)

In the 1930s, his wife’s singing career took the couple to Europe, Asia and South America. Between these trips MacNicol held many more solo shows, including one at the Everglades Club in Palm Beach (1931) and at the A Century of Progress World’s Fair in Chicago (1933–34).

In about 1937, the MacNicols, on an impulse, decided to drive down to Mexico to seek more of the “Spanish flavor” that had inspired some of MacNicol’s best work to date. In Mexico City, Thomas Gore, the owner-manager of the Hotel Geneve in the Zona Rosa, commissioned MacNicol to paint two Xochimilco-related murals for the dining room.

Tragically, Fay became ill on their tour of South America and died, at home in New York, in February 1941.

MacNicol’s frequent travels had inspired him to compile a “good-neighbor” show of Mexican-inspired works as a means of improving the ties between Mexico and the U.S. He returned to Mexico City and devoted nine months to painting a series of large (22 x 30″) watercolors, which were the basis of numerous “Good Neighbor Exhibits” shown in galleries across Mexico and the U.S. and in coast-to-coast television coverage.

MacNicol was dismissive of critics who argues his work was influenced by Diego Rivera, though he admitted that perhaps he had been influenced by the “entire Mexican school of art.” In particular, he admired the work of Siqueiros and of Rufino Tamayo, “the most charming, imaginative, and amusing painter in Mexico.”

Eleanor Roosevelt visited the artist’s 33rd solo show in March 1943 at the Pan American Union in Washington, D.C. and eagerly recommended it to others:

“On leaving the club, I went to the Pan American Building to see an exhibition of paintings done in Mexico by Mr. Roy MacNicol. They were perfectly charming, and I was particularly interested in the Indian types. Some showed the hardships of the life they and their forefathers had lived. Others had a gentleness and sweetness which seemed to draw you to them through the canvas. The color in every picture was fascinating and I feel sure that this is the predominant note in Mexico which attracts everyone in this country who goes there.”

Mrs. Roosevelt sponsored subsequent “Good Neighbor” exhibits, as did several prominent Mexican officials, including Mexican president Miguel Alemán.

MacNicol divided his time over the next few years between Mexico and the U.S. with solo shows in Los Angeles and at the Galería de Arte Decoración (1943) and the Palacio de Bellas Artes (1945), both in Mexico City.

In what MacNicol terms “My great folly” in his autobiography, he married Mrs. Helen Stevick, “wealthy publisher of the Champaign, Illinois, News Gazette,” in Chicago in September 1945. Newly-married, the couple went to Mexico City for their honeymoon, where Stevick’s daughter joined them. This marriage quickly became a complete disaster, leading to ample fodder for the newspapers of the time, who had a field day describing the plight (and possible motives) of the prominent painter. The Steviks accused MacNicol of fraud and had him (briefly) imprisoned in a Mexican jail. In retaliation, MacNicol sued the daughter for $500,000 for her part in wrecking his marriage.

MacNicol may have wanted $500,000, but he certainly did not get it; the case was dismissed on technical grounds. The divorce was finalized in July 1946.

Roy MacNicol. The Lily Vendor. c. 1946.

Roy MacNicol. The Lily Vendor. c. 1946.

That winter, MacNicol returned to Palm Beach for the first time in 15 years, and made arrangements to hold his 50th solo show there in the State Suite of the Biltmore Hotel. When Mrs Bassett Mitchell (the former Mary Blanche Starr) walked in the room he was instantly smitten. It turned out that Mary was the widow of a Florida financier and was equally enthralled. She bought “The Lily Vendor,” and then they had dinner together. They married in Palm Beach on 27 March 1947, and honeymooned in Nassau. Their love for each other never diminished.

In 1948, MacNiol held the first major exhibition of his “geo-segmatic” paintings in Paris, France. The following year, after a successful show at Penthouse Galleries in New York City, the MacNicols decided to move from Palm Beach to Mexico City. They drove down in their Lincoln convertible (with four truck loads of furniture following behind) and bought a 3,000-square-meter property in Coyoacan. It took them two years to convert it into a house, studio and gallery.

Health issues forced them to sell their Mexico City home and seek a home at a lower elevation.

“We took three months motoring around before we discovered the enchanting little fishing village of Chapala, tucked on the banks of a sparkling lake, set among emerald mountains and violet haze. There was a blessed tranquillity in the low rooftops and the plaza overshadowed by giant laurel trees. But it also had the advantage of a modem four-lane highway leading through rolling green hills from Guadalajara, the second largest, and the cleanest, city in Mexico, a drive of only thirty-five minutes. (Paintbrush Ambassador, 226-7)

They drove into Chapala in January 1954 and, within days, bought the house, at Zaragoza #307, which British novelist D. H. Lawrence had rented in 1923.

The MacNicols restored the house and added a swimming pool. They also added a memorial plaque on the street wall to Lawrence: “In this house D. H. Lawrence lived and wrote ‘The Plumed Serpent’ in the year 1923.” A second wall plaque had a quote from another of MacNicol’s boyhood heroes, Robert Louis Stevenson.

A “list of foreign residents in Chapala” from June 1955, and now in the archive of the Lake Chapala Society (LCS), includes Roy and Mary MacNicol among the 55 total foreign residents in the town at that time, though they were not LCS members. According to MacNicol, “Chapala has its retired American naval and military brass, business men, delightful English, some good writers and myself as the only painter.”

Roy MacNicol. 1956. Poolroom, Chapala, Mexico. B/W photo of oil in tones of red and green. (Plate 11 of Paintbrush Ambassador)

Roy MacNicol. 1956. Poolroom, Chapala, Mexico. B/W photo of oil in tones of red and green. (Plate 11 of Paintbrush Ambassador)

In 1956, MacNicol was persuaded to hold an exhibit in Copenhagen, Denmark. He and Mary flew from Mexico City to New York, carrying 52 paintings and then sailed on the MS Kungsholm across the Atlantic. The show was an unmitigated disaster, largely owing (according to MacNicol) to the complete absence of any help or support from the local U.S. Embassy. The MacNicols returned home to Chapala in November.

It is unclear precisely when the MacNicols sold their house in Chapala, but according to columnist Kenneth McCaleb, MacNicol was disposing of the contents of his Chapala home in the early 1960s, prior to selling it and moving to New York.

The exhibition catalog dating from late 1968 or early 1969 for MacNicol’s “Faces and Places of Nations” exhibit says it was the artist’s 59th (and last) solo exhibit. The catalog describes the “Paintbrush Ambassador of Goodwill”:

“He believes in the universal diplomacy of art as a means to world understanding. His “Faces and Places of Nations” series was begun in 1943. The exhibit has been shown in Mexico City, Spain, Paris, Stockholm, Copenhagen, British West Indies, Cuba, South America, as well as in key cities in U.S.A. The 1949 exhibition was televised coast-to-coast by NBC.”

Of the sixteen works listed in the catalog, six are from Mexico, including two directly linked to Lake Chapala: “Old Fisherman & Boy (Lake Chapala)” and “Mary & Duke, Casa MacNicol (Lake Chapala).” Duke was MacNicol’s Dalmation.

In addition to painting, MacNicol frequently lectured on art and his formal jobs as a young man included a spell as associate editor at the American Historical Company in New York City. He was a contributor to several newspapers including the Christian Science Monitor, Atlanta Journal, The Times Herald, Mexico City News and The Havana Post.

His autobiography – Paintbrush Ambassador – mentions dozens of notable personalities including the likes of Ernest Hemingway, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jack Warner, Danny Kaye, Gloria Swanson and Mr. and Mrs. Nelson D. Rockefeller.

MacNicol died in New York in November 1970.

Examples of his artwork are in the permanent collections of the University of Illinois; Randolph-Macon Woman’s College; University of Havana, Cuba, and the Reporter’s Club, Havana.

Despite enjoying considerable success (and some notoriety) during his lifetime, Roy MacNicol is among the many larger-than-life artists to have lived and worked at Lake Chapala whose artistic contributions to the area’s cultural heritage have, sadly, been largely forgotten.

Sources

  • Irving Johnson. 1946. “Honeymoon for Three.” San Antonio Light, 24 November 1946, 59.
  • Roy MacNicol. 1957. Paintbrush Ambassador. New York: Vantage Press.
  • Kenneth McCaleb. 1968. “Conversation Piece: How To Be an Art Collector,” The Corpus Christi Caller-Times, 15 February 1968, 17.
  • New York Times, 26 May 1925.
  • The Palm Beach Post, 20 March 1947.
  • Eleanor Roosevelt. “My Day,” Kansas City Star, 5 March 1943, 23.

Note: This is an expanded version of a post first published on 18 February 2016.

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

 Posted by at 6:34 am  Tagged with:
Oct 012020
 

A lakefront home in Ajijic was the setting in 1949 for the marriage of a Canadian author and an English nurse. The story of how they met and fell in love is one of the most endearing tales to emerge from my research into the authors and artists associated with Lake Chapala.

The venue for the wedding was Quinta Johnson, the home built by Herbert and Georgette Johnson, a British couple who had left France just as the second world war broke out and who first arrived in Mexico in 1939. The magnificent garden they created separating their residence from the lake was sufficiently famous that it featured, years later, in Elizabeth Schuler’s Gardens of the World (1962).

The groom at the ceremony in Ajijic was Harold Walter Masson, who was born in St. Raphael’s in South Glengarry County, Ontario, Canada, on 29 June 1915 and died in Hawaii at age 95 on 26 March 2011.

Prior to joining the Royal Canadian Air Force in October 1939 at the outbreak of the second world war, Masson had lived in Toronto and worked for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. In 1945, at the end of the war, “Hal” Masson, as he was known, joined the staff of Maclean’s magazine as the magazine’s assignments editor, with special responsibility for short fiction.

Over the next eighteen months the magazine published several of his short stories, starting with “These thy gifts” in November 1945 which has the memorable opening, “Black Joe and Little Joe sat at the worn kitchen table, elbows resting on the scrubbed pine boards, their faces shining in the uncertain light of the flickering kerosene lamp.”

By 1947, tired of the extreme winters in Ontario, Masson decided to emigrate to sunnier climes in the US. He crossed the border at Niagara Falls in June 1947 and, after a brief stay in California in September that year, continued driving south in pursuit of a warm winter.

Masson eventually landed in Ajijic where, in 1949, he rented the guest bungalow at Quinta Johnson and continued to write. A short story entitled “He knew what was wrong with her, and how to cure it” appeared in Collier’s Weekly in 1948, and another story—”The Worm’s Eye View”—was published in Argosy.

+ + +

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, Herbert Johnson’s 29-year-old niece was making plans to visit her uncle in Ajijic. Helen Eunice Riggall (pronounced “Regal”), born in Langton, Spilsby, Lincolnshire, on 24 April 1919, was the daughter of Herbert’s younger sister. During the war, Helen studied for three years at St. Thomas’s Hospital in London, where she passed her exams to become a registered nurse in 1942. By the time the war ended, like many of her contemporaries, she longed to forget the worst of her war-time nursing experiences and begin a new chapter in her life in new surroundings.

She left Southampton for New York on 20 January 1949 aboard the SS America of the United States Lines. According to her US immigration form, Helen was unaccompanied and named the US as her country of “intended future permanent residence,” indicating that she had little or no intention of returning to the UK. However, before settling in the US, she wanted to visit her uncle and his wife in Ajijic.

While some details remain unclear, it appears most likely that from New York she traveled first by train across to California and then took a steamer south, to disembark in Mexico at either Manzanillo or (less likely) Mazatlán.

At this point, it is best if Helen’s daughter takes up her mother’s story:

Her uncle and his chiropractic friend met her… and planned to drive her to Lake Chapala. Unfortunately, the sun was setting and uncle Herbert was not able to see the road well and ended up driving over a cliff. My mother’s back was broken to the point the doctors fused it. Poor thing, she spoke no Spanish [and] was in a Mexican hospital [presumably in Guadalajara] sharing a room with a woman bullfighter! It was there that my father met her and began spending time with her while she recovered. As he had been there awhile he had picked up some Spanish, while she had none. The day she was released from the hospital, he proposed.”

Ann Medalie. Ajijic Landscape (oil). ca 1945

Ann Medalie. c. 1945. Ajijic Landscape (oil). The Quinta Johnson garden.

Harold Walter Masson and Helen Eunice Riggall were married in the Quinta Johnson garden on 31 August 1949. Guests at their wedding included the Langley, Riggall, Masson, Butterlin, Johnson, Bauer and Stephens families, as well as Mrs Grace Wilcox, Miss Neill James and Miss Madeline Miedema. The witnesses to their union were Herbert B. Johnson and Guillermo González Hermosillo (owner of the Villa Montecarlo in Chapala) for the bride and, for the groom, German businessman Kurt Weinmann and Peter Lilley, the English writer behind the “Dane Chandos” books.

Interestingly, the formal registration of the wedding states that Hal was in Mexico as a tourist (normally valid for no longer than six months) while Helen was in possession of a “tarjeta especial para turistas forma 5B.” Never having heard of this category previously, I assume that her regular tourist card had expired while she was in hospital and that this was an “exceptional case” extension for a period of time—perhaps three months—which would have been about to expire by the time the newlyweds left Mexico for California in November.

When the couple crossed the border at Laredo, Helen stated her intention to become a permanent resident. Her entry paper lists a large scar on her left palm as a distinguishing feature.

The Massons revisited Mexico briefly in 1951.

While residing in Laguna Beach, Masson joined the staff of the Indian Valley Record in Greenville. When he contributed “The Sea Raiders” to that paper in 1951, it reported proudly that their new contributor had “recently crashed the American “big time” with a story in the Saturday Evening Post.” That story was entitled “Trouble Below the Border.”

Masson published several more short stories over the next few years, including “Fat Man’s Doom” in Cavalier (June 1953), “Señor, It Is a Pump”, in Bluebook Magazine (November 1953), which appeared alongside stories by John D. MacDonald, Leslie Charteris, Philip Ketchum and similarly famous writers; “The Last Quarrel” in Cosmopolitan, and “The Love Trap” in Canadian magazine Liberty.

Harold became a naturalized US citizen in April 1953; a few years later, Helen also took US citizenship. In 1958, they visited relatives in the UK to show off their young daughter. The family subsequently settled in Hawaii, where Helen died in May 1986 and Hal in 2011.

The Masson-Riggall wedding was not the first marriage between two foreign tourists in Ajijic, and certainly not the last. That between David Holbrook Kennedy and Sarah Shearer—who had married in Ajijic in 1941—sadly ended in tragedy within months.

The stars were better aligned for the union of Hal and Helen, who shared their lives and their happiness for more than 36 years. The romance of Lake Chapala and “The Love Trap” of Ajijic had struck again.

Acknowledgments

My sincere thanks to Colette Hirata for helping me piece together this profile of her parents, and to Katie Goodridge Ingram for an email sharing her memories of Hal and Helen, and of the Johnsons.

Sources

  • El Informador, 9 September 1949.
  • The Glengarry News. 1939. “Other Enlistments”, The Glengarry News, 6 October 1939, 1.
  • The Glengarry News. 1945. “On Editorial Staff of Maclean’s”, reprinted in The Glengarry News, 23 November 1955, 1.
  • Indian Valley Record (Greenville, California), 30 August 1951, 10.
  • Hal Masson, 1951. “For Sale Cheap – One Snow Shovel” Oakdale Leader (Oakdale, California), 27 September 1951, 21.

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.

Jul 232020
 

The great food writer Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher is one of the many well-known non-fiction writers to have spent time in Chapala.

Fisher wrote more than 20 food-related works and was considered by contemporaries as “the greatest food writer of our time”. The revered English poet W. H. Auden extolled the quality of her writing, saying “I do not know of anyone in the United States today who writes better prose.”

fisher-mary-frances-kennedyFisher was born on 3 July 1908 in Albion, Michigan. Her first book, Serve it Forth, was published in 1937. Her books, with titles such as How to Cook a Wolf, Consider the Oyster, and An Alphabet for Gourmets, consider food from multiple perspectives, including preparation, natural history, culture, and philosophy.

Fisher spent three weeks in Chapala from mid-October into November 1941, shortly after her second husband Dillwyn had taken his own life. [Dillwyn “was dying from a horribly painful and invariably fatal disease (and could not obtain the only medication that had any effect on the pain in the USA)” – see comments below.] Fisher visited Chapala to stay with her sister Norah and her brother David Holbrook Kennedy and his wife Sarah, who had rented a house there over the summer. David and Sarah were honeymooning in Chapala where David had a contract to paint murals in the municipal baths of Chapala, a task with which the others helped. The entire group (David, Sarah, Norah, and Mary Frances) helped paint the murals, working on them every day for several weeks. After the murals were finished toward the end of November 1941, Fisher and Norah flew back to Los Angeles, with David and Sarah following by car.

Many details and stories relating to Fisher’s visit are told in Reardon’s Poet of the Appetites and Fisher’s The Gastronomical  Me. According to Joan Reardon, her biographer, Fisher drafted some of The Gastronomical Me while staying in Chapala: “No doubt Mary Frances drafted those two chapters [of The Gastronomical Me] during the three weeks she stayed with Norah, David, and Sarah in their little rented house in the fishing village along the shore of Lake Chapala.” (Reardon, 141)

In The Gastronomical Me, Fisher describes what living in Chapala was like in 1941:

“Our house was about thirty steps from the little square, which was very correct, with a wooden bandstand in the middle and a double promenade around it under the thick green trees, so that the boys could walk one way to the music and the girls the other… until the boys found courage or centavos enough to buy flowers and join their loves.

The flower-women sat at one end of the plaza on concert nights, the dark end, and candles or little lamps shone like magic on the blossoms lying on clean cloths in front of them. There were camelias and tiny gardenias, and sometime spidery jewel-like orchids, and plainer garden flowers, all glowing in the soft light on the earth while the women crouched darkly behind, deep in their shawls, and the band wheezed bravely for the innocent concupiscent strollers on the paths.

There were two or three bars, with juke-boxes when the orchestra got tired, and a little kiosk sold bright pink and yellow ices and Coca-Cola.

In the other direction from our house, and around the corner was the market. It was a sprawling wandering collection of stands, some of them elaborate, with counters for eating and stoves in the center, and some of them a piece of cloth on the ground with two little heaps of dried peppers and a bruised yam or a pot of stew waiting to be bought. Of course there were serape merchants and sandal-makers on Sundays, and piles of thin pottery everywhere and always because it broke easily after it was bought.

There were hungry dogs and cats near the one meat-stand, where flies buzzed so thickly over the strange strips of hanging bony flesh that we could hear them before we even turned the corner.

Some days, and perhaps for a week at a time, there would be almost nothing to buy except one thing, like tomatoes, at every stand… little pungent tomatoes no bigger than pigeon eggs. It was the wrong season for avocados when I was there, but now and then we found string beans, or a rotting papaya.” (Fisher, 546)

In general, Fisher was not overly impressed with the quality of the food in Mexico, though she praised a meal in Mazatlán (where she had to overnight between flights on her way south to Guadalajara), brought from the “country” (non-American) kitchen where the waiters ate.

She was far less impressed with the culinary delights of Chapala where  “the meats were repulsive and poorly cooked; there were no salads and almost no vegetables; none of us liked the violently colored stiff sweet pastes that were called desserts.”

Even breakfast was an ordeal. She cooked scrambled eggs a few times, “but it was hard to find more than two or three at once, and there was no cream or cheese in the village.”

The family ate out most nights:

“At night we usually went to one of the little restaurants. They were very plain, and it was best to stop by in the afternoon and ask what there would be for four people. Most of the people ate in them or ordered food to be cooked there and taken home, even if they were quite poor. It was because the kitchens were so bad, I suppose, and charcoal and water and food so scarce. Always at meal times boys would be walking through the streets with food on their heads, from the little eating-places… pots of stew and beans, piles of tacos, sometimes a boiled chicken steaming naked on a platter if it was for a family feast-day.” (Fisher, 549)

Elsewhere, Fisher describes an evening spent in a bar run by a “fat widow”, “a white-faced woman with a shy flashing smile”. This description is almost certainly of the famous bar owned at that time by the Viuda Sánchez (Widow Sánchez), who popularized the tequila chaser known as sangrita.

Sources:

  • Joan Reardon, 2005. Poet of the Appetites: The Lives And Loves of M.F.K. Fisher (North Point Press)
  • M. F. K. Fisher, 1943. The Gastronomical Me (Duell, Sloan and Pearce, New York), reprinted in The Art of Eating (Macmillan 1979).

Note: This post was first published Oct 13, 2014.

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

Jul 022020
 

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

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

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

Market scene (possibly Oaxaca) painted by Irma Koen

Market scene in Central America painted by Irma Koen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Koen died in Cuernavaca in 1975.

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

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

Main sources:

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Jun 042020
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Otto’s legacy

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

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

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

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

Acknowledgment

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

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

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