Nov 022023
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nicolas Muzenic. ca 1953. Escalera.

Nicolas Muzenic. ca 1953. Escalera.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

Oct 262023
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Early in the story, Herbert describes how:

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

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

Sources:

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

Note: this post was first published 2 September 2017.

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

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

Sep 222023
 

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

México Fotográfico. Date unknown. Chapala chalets.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

México Fotográfico. Date unknown. Chapala lakeshore.

México Fotográfico. c 1950. Chapala lakeshore.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Acknowledgments

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

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

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

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

Note: This post was first published 29 July 2019.

Sources

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

Aug 312023
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Millard Sheets. Chapala Church. (EBay photo)

Millard Sheets. Chapala Church. (EBay photo)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source

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

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

Jul 202023
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who was Herbert Johnson?

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

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

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

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

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

The unofficial squire of Ajijic

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

Ann Medalie. 1944. Ajijic. (Quinta Johnson)

Ann Medalie. 1944. Ajijic. (Quinta Johnson)

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

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

Herbert Johnson. c 1944. Mezcala Island.

Herbert Johnson. c 1944. Mezcala Island.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Acknowledgments

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

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

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

Sources

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

Jul 132023
 

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

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

Virginia Snow, 1944.

Virginia Snow, 1944.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raphael Greno. Undated. Unraveling silk cocoons, Ajijic.

Raphael Greno. Undated. Unraveling silk cocoons, Ajijic.

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

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

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

Sources

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

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

Feb 232023
 

American artist Garrett Van Vranken (1887-1961) and his wife, Tommie (Thomy) E Carruthers Van Vranken (1888-1962), lived their final years in Chapala.

George Garrett Van Vranken (sometimes Vanvranken) was born in Cadillac, Michigan, on 16 December 1887. He completed four years of high school before serving in the military during the first world war. Known for his pastels and commercial art, it is claimed by one source that Van Vranken was an alumnus of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Tommie (Thomy) E Carruthers, born in Florida 5 March 1888, died in Chapala 23 January 1962. She had completed one year of college and was living in Los Angeles when she and Garret married in about 1925. She is recorded in the 1930 US census as owning a Los Angeles advertising agency, while her husband is listed as an artist.

Garrett Van Vranken. Commercial artwork, c 1936.

Garrett Van Vranken. Commercial artwork, c 1936.

Garrett Van Vranken appears to have been a founder member of the local (Los Angeles) group of members of the American Artists Congress, and combined his personal fine arts career with commercial work.

His painting “Three by the Sea” (below) was shown in the first exhibition of works by local members of the American Artists Congress at the Stanley Rose Galleries in Los Angeles in September 1936: “Garrett Van Vranken shows a good figure composition, “Three by the Sea” which links the “modern” side of the show with the various still lifes and flower pieces of academic vein.”

Garrett Van Vranken. "Three by the Sea," c 1936.

Garrett Van Vranken. “Three by the Sea,” c 1936.

The local group of the American Artists Congress, which later had its own gallery on Hollywood Boulevard, had been formed about eighteen months earlier.

In 1942, at least one painting by Van Vranken was included in a group show of works by “artists employed in aircraft factories,” a show held at Raymond & Raymond Galleries on Sunset Blvd. in Los Angeles. The following year, his painting “Woman on White” was shown at the Los Angeles County Museum in the Fourth Annual Exhibition of Work of Artists of Los Angeles and Vicinity.

After his retirement in the early 1950s, Van Vranken and his wife moved from Los Angeles to Mexico, apparently initially to the border town of Brownsville, Texas, and then to Lake Chapala, where they established their home at Calle Juárez #512. It remains unclear whether or not Van Vranken painted or exhibited while living in Chapala.

Garrett Van Vranken died on 13 April 1961, and his wife, Tommie, died on 23 January the following year. There was some confusion about Garrett’s date of death; his wife confirmed to US authorities when they filed the official Report of the Death of a US citizen Abroad that her husband had died on 13 April 1961, and not on 20 April, as stated in the formal registration of his death in Chapala.

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

To read more about the history of the Lake Chapala art community, see Foreign Footprints in Ajijic: Decades of Change in a Mexican Village.

Sources

  • Edan Hughes, Artists in California, 1786-1940.
  • Los Angeles Times: 20 Sep 1936, 56; 10 Jul 1938, 56.
  • Los Angeles Evening Citizen News: 28 Nov 1942, 2; 20 Mar 1943, 7.

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

Feb 162023
 

Robert Lewis Taylor (1912-1998) worked as a journalist on the St Louis Post-Dispatch before joining the staff of the New Yorker magazine. He wrote numerous books in a productive literary career which spanned four decades and included a Pulitzer Prize in 1959 for his novel The Travels of Jamie McPheeters, a novel about the travails of a 14-year-old boy and his father during the 1849 California gold rush.Travels cover

Taylor was a frequent visitor to Ajijic from about 1973, and kept a home there (“Casa Sastre”) until at least 1978. Bill Atkinson, a longtime Chapala resident who knew Taylor, once proudly showed me the copy Taylor had given him of his biography of W. C. Fields, with a personal inscription dated 1974.

During his time in Ajijic, Taylor focused on writing books. Interviewed by a journalist in 1978, Taylor, then 65 years old, explained that he preferred research (“digging is such good fun”) to writing, and that he had devoted the past five or six years to writing books:

Every morning I get up at 5:30 a.m. and, oozing pain from every pore, I drink some coffee and then I start writing and keep it up until about 1 p.m. without leaving my desk.

At our home in Ajijic, Mexico (he and his wife also have homes in Connecticut and Florida which they use frequently) I’ve got the housekeeper trained to keep people away from me. She’s marvelous! When she’s there no one gets to see me before I’m through working.”

In the afternoons he relaxed by playing tennis, swimming, lifting barbells and shooting pool.

Adapted for TV, 1963

Adapted for TV, 1963

Robert Lewis Taylor, was born in Carbondale, Illinois on 24 September 1912. After graduating from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign he worked at the Carbondale Herald and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for three years and had articles published in the Saturday Evening Post and Reader’s Digest. Taylor joined the New Yorker in 1939 and continued to write for the magazine until 1961, even submitting copy during the years he served in the Navy (1942-1946). He married Judith Martin in 1945.

None of Taylor’s writing was specifically about Mexico, though two of his novels do relate to Mexico as it was in the early nineteenth century. A Journey to Matecumbe (1961), the story of a boy on a journey from Illinois to the Florida Keys, was adapted in 1976 as the Disney movie Treasure of Matecumbe. Two Roads to Guadalupe (1964) recounts the adventures of two brothers who served with Alexander Doniphan’s Missouri Volunteers in the Mexican War of 1846-48.

Taylor’s other published books include: Adrift in a Boneyard (1947), Doctor, Lawyer, Merchant, Chief (1948), W.C. Fields: His Follies and Fortunes (1949), The Running Pianist (1950), Winston Churchill: An Informal Study of Greatness (1952), The Bright Sands (1954), Center Ring: The People of the Circus (956), Vessels of Wrath: The Life and Times of Carry Nation (1966), A Roaring in the Wind: Being a History of Alder Gulch, Montana (1977), and Niagara (1980).

His obituary in the New York Times remembered him in his prime “as tall and good-looking, a brilliant comic writer and sharply—some say caustically—witty.”

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

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

Sources

  • Barbara Stewart. 1998. “Robert Lewis Taylor Is Dead, Novelist and Biographer, 88.” (obituary). New York Times, 4 October 1998.
  • Brownsville Herald: 4 November 1976.
  • Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek): 19 February 1978, 35.
  • Michael Hargraves. 1992. Lake Chapala: A literary survey; plus an historical overview with some personal observations and reflections of this lakeside area of Jalisco, Mexico. Los Angeles: Michael Hargraves.

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

Feb 022023
 

Calvin Tomkins, who later wrote extensively for Newsweek and the New Yorker, completed his first novel Intermission while staying at Lake Chapala. The autobiographical novel was first published by Viking Press, New York, in 1951. The book is not set at the lake; its locales are Santa Fe, New York and New Jersey. It explores the tricky and sometimes difficult relationships between two brothers, one of whom is the narrator, and one of their oldest friends and his wife.

Tomkins was born in Orange, New Jersey, on 17 December 1925. After graduating from Berkshire School, he served two years in the US Navy, and then completed a degree program at Princeton University in 1948. Still in his early twenties, and newly married with an urge to write, he got lucky: Tomkins’ father, a New Jersey businessman, offered to finance an entire year for him to focus on trying to become a writer. Calvin and his wife rented a place in Santa Fe, and Calvin began drafting the story which turned into Intermission.

After some months in Santa Fe, the young couple decided to visit Mexico where they:

“ended up in a place outside of Guadalajara, at a pretty little inn by Lake Chapala. . . We were there three or four months, and I wrote there, too. It was a kind of Hemingway-esque experience for me. I remember finishing the manuscript there and sending it to my agent. I heard back a few weeks later that it had been accepted by Viking Press!”

Tomkins - IntermissionOn their return to the US, Tomkins struggled to write a second novel, but did get several short stories published. To make ends meet, he became a journalist, working first for Radio Free Europe (1953-1957) and then Newsweek. He had a freelance contribution to the New Yorker accepted in 1958, and joined the magazine two years later as a staff writer. In addition to short stories and humor pieces, he branched out into nonfiction. Over two decades, he focused on chronicling the rapidly evolving New York City art scene. He was the New Yorker’s official art critic in the early 1980s, and responsible for hundreds of art reviews and profiles for the magazine’s “Art World” column.

Besides Intermission, Tomkins’ major published works include: The bride & the bachelors: the heretical courtship in modern art (1965); The Lewis and Clark Trail (1965); The world of Marcel Duchamp (1966); Eric Hoffer: An American Odyssey (1969); Merchants and Masterpieces: The Story of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1970); Living Well Is the Best Revenge: The Life of Gerald and Sara Murphy (1971); The Scene: Reports on Post-Modern Art (1976); Off the Wall : A Portrait of Robert Rauschenberg (1980); Marcel Duchamp: The Afternoon Interviews (2013); and The Lives of Artists (2019).

In retirement, Tomkins donated his papers to the Museum of Modern Art and his art-book archive to the Redwood Library and Athenaeum in Newport, Rhode Island.

Acknowledgment

My sincere thanks to artist Peter Holden for bringing Calvin Tomkins’ important link to Lake Chapala to my attention.

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

To learn more about the literary history of Lake Chapala, see the relevant chapters of Foreign Footprints in Ajijic: Decades of Change in a Mexican Village.

The Lake Chapala-Santa Fe literary-art nexus has had many distinguished members over the years, including 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. Instrumental in fomenting the links in the 1940s was Santa Fe journalist Brian Ború Dunne.

Sources

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

Jan 192023
 

Multilingual playwright Samuel McCulloch (1921-1991) and his wife, Jennie, lived in an old adobe house in Ajijic for six years from 1956 to 1962. In a 1958 press interview, McCulloch told a reporter that in Ajijic he was writing plays, working daily from 11 am to 7 pm, with a break for lunch, and that “When we first went there two years ago, we had electricity only at night. Now we’ve got it round the clock, except when the plant is broken down, which is every few days.” McCulloch named the plant operator as “Pancho de la Luz” and added that there were “about 75 Americans in Ajijic, many of them retired business and professional men and their wives.”

Sam and Jennie McCulloch, 1972. Credit: Concordia Sentinel.

Sam and Jennie McCulloch, 1972. Credit: Concordia Sentinel.

Born on 9 February 1921 in Memphis, Tennessee, McCulloch was educated at Central High School, Memphis, and Choate School in Connecticut. (Coincidentally, a former teacher at the Choate School—novelist Christopher Veiel—had lived in Ajijic a few years earlier.) McCulloch then studied at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, before graduating with a degree in English and Greek from Southwestern (now Rhodes College) in his hometown.

During the second world war, McCulloch served with the US Army as an interpreter and interrogator of prisoners of war in Africa, Italy and France, work which improved his command of German, Italian, French and Spanish.

After the war ended, McCulloch took classes at the Sorbonne in Paris and at the University of Perugia, Italy, before completing an MA in drama at Syracuse. In 1947 he registered the copyright of a film script, apparently never published, titled “The Turning Point.”

In 1952 he returned to Memphis and helped found the Arena Theatre in Memphis, Tennessee; McCulloch also operated a summer theater in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. The Arena lasted only a couple of years, but attracted stars such as John Carradine and Eva Gabor to perform in its plays. The theatre ran into censorship problems in 1953 when McCulloch adapted Erskine Caldwell’s novel Tragic Ground, which features a young man and woman in bed, but clothed. The performances were duly moved to a nightclub in West Memphis.

It was at the Arena that McCuloch met his wife, Jennie Keeter, who had majored in English at Queens College in Charlotte, North Carolina, and took a part-time gig as a volunteer usher. Not long after the Arena folded, the couple couple moved to Ajijic. In his 1958 interview, McCulloch claimed to have been writing most of the time; in a later interview he claimed that in Ajijic the couple “did absolutely nothing for six years.”

What did McCulloch and his wife think of Ajijic. When they returned briefly to Memphis in 1959, Sam told a local newspaper that He had just put a manuscript in the mail, that “Harper’s is bringing out a novel soon by one of our people” and that “The Golden Fleecing,” written by another Ajijican, Lorenzo Semple Jr, had recently received good notices on Broadway. (Note that it is unclear which Harper’s novel was being referred to; Willard Marsh’s Week With No Friday, set in Ajijic, was not released by Harper’s until 1965.)

However, even if McCulloch was optimistic about his writing career, he reported that Ajijic was “now crawling with Americans so Jennie and I are sneaking around at night, putting up “Yankee Go Home” signs.” Goodness only knows what McCulloch might say if he were able to visit Ajijic today!

After their extended vacation in Mexico, McCulloch joined the US Information Service and the couple spent three years in Paraguay, followed by stints in Chile, Guatemala and Washington DC, where McCulloch was cultural coordinator for Latin America.

Sam and Jenny McCulloch retired to Jonesville, Lousiana, in 1972, shortly after buying a home, sight unseen, on Horseshoe Lake. Mementos from their time in Mexico and their travels were proudly displayed in their lakeside home.

McCulloch died in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on 17 March 1991, shortly after his 70th birthday.

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

To read more about life in Ajijic in the 1950s, and the many authors who lived there, see the 13 chapters that comprise Part C of Foreign Footprints in Ajijic: Decades of Change in a Mexican Village.

Sources

  • The Commercial Appeal (Memphis): 9 Dec 1965, 68; 20 March 1991.
  • The Memphis Press-Scimitar: 25 Dec 1958, 16; 30 Dec 1959, 11.
  • Bea Nathanson. 1972. “They came on a Visit – and Returned here to live.” The Concordia Sentinel, 15 Nov 1972

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

Jan 122023
 

Of all the notable artists associated with Lake Chapala, the one who made the most waves in international art circles in the latter part of the twentieth century was Feliciano Béjar.

Feliciano (‘Chano’) Béjar was born on 14 July 1920 in Jiquilpan, Michoacán. Jiquilpan had been in close proximity to Lake Chapala for centuries until the eastern third of the lake was drained for agriculture a decade before Béjar was born.

A self-taught artist, who overcame polio as a child, Béjar was revered for his inspired sculptures, painting and weaving. His most famous series of works, dubbed ‘magiscopes,’ imaginatively combined glass with metals, plastics and other recycled materials; they stimulate viewers awareness of the unlimited power of the human eye to see and interpret abstract sculptures.

Feliciano Bejar. Boat seller.

Feliciano Bejar. Boat seller.

Béjar attended the Colegio Salesiano of Guadalajara (1932-1934) and his childhood interest in art was stimulated by meeting José Clemente Orozco when that great artist was painting his remarkable murals in Jiquilpan in 1940.

There is little point in me rehashing all the details of Béjar’s life, which are readily available online, including in this Wikipedia article.

If it had not been for serendipity, Béjar might never have become an acclaimed artist. He had traveled widely in Mexico before leaving for New York in 1945 to work, paint and buy himself a Chevrolet. Béjar painted during the day and worked nights in a department store.

Feliciano Bejar. Posada del niño

Feliciano Bejar. Posada del niño

In 1947 he left some paintings at a frame shop which, by chance, was patronized by gallery owner Ward Eggleston. Helped by Nathaniel Coleman and his wife, a wealthy art-loving couple who had struck up a friendship with Béjar in the department store, Eggleston made arrangements to hold a solo show of Béjar’s work at his gallery the following year.

Meanwhile, Béjar had bought a car (despite not knowing how to drive) and persuaded a friend to drive him and the car back to Jiquilpan. Shortly after their safe arrival, his friend borrowed the vehicle to visit his own family; unfortunately he then totaled the automobile in an accident.

Béjar returned to New York for his solo show, the first of several he would hold at the Ward Eggleston Galleries. Nathaniel Coleman remained his chief promoter and sponsor; he purchased some two hundred of Béjar’s works over the years; the terms of his will meant that more than half of them eventually returned to the artist.

Feliciano Bejar.Sunset at Lake Chapala

Feliciano Bejar.Sunset at Lake Chapala

According to a contemporary review of the first New York show, at the Ward Eggleston Galleries in 1948:

“It was difficult to leave the Ward Eggleston Galleries after viewing the paintings of Chano Bejar without being haunted long afterwards by the pinks and yellows and greens in his “Fiery Horse,” a dream creature out of Mexican Indian mythology who flamed and quivered with motion that threatened to shatter the very canvas which held him.”

Béjar’s art remained unrecognized in Mexico, until after he was sponsored by UNESCO to travel to Europe in 1949 for a group show of Latin-American artists which included several of his works. On his return, the Instituto Mexicano Norteamericano de Relaciones Culturales took a keen interest and arranged several shows over the next few years. A retrospective exhibit of his works in Los Angeles in 1956 was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. These shows helped establish Béjar’s reputation and resulted in dozens more solo shows. UNESCO produced a film in 1964, “The world of Feliciano Béjar,” and Béjar’s work featured in the Mexican pavilion at the New York World Fair in 1965. During his long artistic career, Béjar held more than 150 solo shows in Mexico, the US and Europe.

Two early Chapala-related paintings deserve a special mention. Béjar’s solo show at the Galeria José María Velasco in Mexico City in 1962 included “Tuxcueca.” Completed in 1947, this painting of a humble village on the south shore of Lake Chapala is probably the only time the village has ever been painted by a major artist. A second 1947 oil on canvas was included in Béjar’s 1965 show at Galeria Mer-kup, also in Mexico City: it was titled ‘Chapala.’

Feliciano Bejar. Three magiscopes.

Feliciano Bejar. Three magiscopes.

Magiscopes were first shown in 1966 at the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, and at Mappin Art Gallery in London, UK. Inspired by childhood toys and games, Béjar’s magiscopios are somewhat reminiscent of Renaissance clocks, astrolobes and other scientific instruments, coupled with the visual allure of kaleidoscopes.

During this highly productive period of his life, Béjar also prepared designs for several European ceramics makers, including Spode, and designed stage sets. The artist held strong opinions about all manner of social and environmental concerns, and shared them via a weekly column in the 1980s in Mexico City daily El Universal.

Francisco Béjar, one of the more remarkable self-taught artists to emerge in Mexico during the second half of the twentieth century, died in Mexico City on 1 February 2007. His work continues to be highly sought after by collectors.

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

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

Sources

  • Modern Mexico: March-April 1949 (Vol 22 #2); July-August 1950 (Vol 23 #4)
  • Justino Fernández. (multiple years) Catálogos de las Exposiciones de Arte, Anales del Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, Mexico.

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

Jan 052023
 

One of the modern myths of Lakeside is that long term American resident and benefactor Neill James, author of Dust on my Heart, was the originator of the phrase “When once the dust of Mexico has settled upon your heart, you cannot then find peace in any other land.”

Dust on my Heart, published in 1946, was James’ final book, the only published work she wrote in Ajijic, and the only one of her books to include descriptions of life in the village. However, you only have to read the first page of the book to realize that James never claimed any credit for the “dust of Mexico” quote; she fully acknowledged that it was an existing saying and not an original line. What James actually wrote on the first page of Dust on my Heart was:

There is a saying, ‘When once the dust of Mexico has settled upon your heart, you cannot then find peace in any other land.’”

In several modern accounts, this has been modified to:

Neill James wrote, “Once the dust of Mexico settles on your heart, you can never go home again.””

In the years since James, several other authors utilized versions of the same saying. The most famous of these authors is Malcolm Lowry, who writes in Under the Volcano, that “He upon whose heart the dust of Mexico has lain, will find no peace in any other land.”

In recent years, Carolena Torres chose Dust on Their Hearts as the title of her debut novel, which is partially set at Lake Chapala. She paraphrases the original proverb as, “When the dust of Mexico falls upon your heart, you will never be the same.”

How or where did Neill James first encounter the proverb? Immediately prior to her arrival in Ajijic in 1943, James had spent several months in and out of a Mexico City hospital following a climbing accident and a volcanic eruption. It is entirely possible that it was in the hospital or shortly afterwards, during her convalescence  in the spa town of Ixtapan de la Sal, that she read Dust of Mexico , a romance novel by Ruth Comfort Mitchell. Embedded in the story line of this novel, first published in 1941, is this version of the saying: “Once the dust of Mexico has settled on your heart, never can you rest in any other land.”

On first hearing it, the central character in Dust of Mexico—Priscilla Carpenter, a staid, single New York librarian—laughs at the idea. However, she changes her opinion after being taken on a trip to Mexico by a married, frivolous aunt, who promises Priscilla’s mother that there will be no men on the study tour of the National Federation of Business and Professional Women. But there are men, including a famous radio comedian and an ambitious American doctor, and in the process of choosing between several men, Priscilla “gains a knowledge of the romance and lure of Mexico.” Prior to publication as a novel, Dust of Mexico had been serialized in Women’s Home Companion.

Or perhaps James had read Anita Brenner? A decade earlier, renowned Mexican author and art critic Anita Brenner (1905-1974) quoted an almost identical version of the same proverb on the very first page of her Your Mexican Holiday: A Modern Guide, published in 1932: “Because there is a proverbial obsession expressed in a line which goes: ‘Once the dust of Mexico has settled on your heart, you have no rest in any other land.’ Mexico means something to you…” Three years earlier, Brenner had included this line on page 15 of Idols Behind Altars (1929): “But with the dust of Mexico upon it, that heart can find no rest in any other land.”

Within Mexico, it is common to see a translation of the “dust of Mexico” saying attributed directly to Brenner, failing to recognize that, like Neill James, she was not claiming any credit for the saying, merely quoting it. Several institutions and newspapers that should know better have done this, including Mexico’s National Museum of Art and Mexico City’s El Universal, and Nexus.

And there are earlier users in print of the saying than Brenner. For instance, in 1923, reporter, artist and screenwriter Wallace Smith used an extremely similar version in The little tigress; tales out of the dust of Mexico, a collection of stories set during the Revolution. He opened the chapter titled “Dust of Mexico” as follows:

“Once the dust of Mexico has settled on your heart there can be no rest for you in any other land. That is a saying in Mexico. It is spoken proudly and sometimes hopelessly. The truth of it is in the empty, seeking eyes of exiles in other countries- in places far away from the land of golden lights and purple shadows.” Smith was a talented cartoonist and “these tales of love, treachery, courage, and adventure are illustrated by the author’s atmospheric drawings from his field sketchbook.”

He, too, makes it clear that it is an old saying, not his original creation.

If you can add other early instances of the use of versions of the “Dust on my Heart” saying in mainstream works, please get in touch!

– See comments for details of a 1935 version of the saying in Vultures in the Sky by Todd Downing.

References in reverse chronological order

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

To read more about Neill James and her life in Ajijic, see chapters 13, 14, 21, 26, 34 and 39 of Foreign Footprints in Ajijic: Decades of Change in a Mexican Village.

Sources

  • Roberta C Gilman. 1941. “Lure of Mexico Gets in Blood.” Detroit Free Press, 14 September 1941.
  • New York Times. “Dust of Mexico. By Ruth Comfort Mitchell.” New York Times, 16 Feb 1941.
  • Mexican Life, June 1941, p 39.

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

Dec 292022
 

Despite several popular art sites listing Bert Pumphrey’s exhibitions as including three in Ajijic, I have yet to find any details for them. Pumphrey’s distinctive work is so highly collectible, that he would certainly deserve a place among the Lakeside greats (and in the Ajijic Museum of Art) if his association with Lake Chapala can be proven.

The three exhibitions listed for Bert Pumphrey in Ajijic are:

  • La Nueva Posada, Art Shows in the Garden, 1955
  • Casa de la Cultura, Ajijic, Plaza Principal 1978
  • Galeria AXIXICC, Ajijic, 1985

The 1955 entry clearly cannot be correct. Either this was an exhibit in the (Old) Posada Ajijic, or the year is inaccurate and it should be 1995. Either way, I have found no confirming evidence anywhere for this or the other two shows. If you can help, please get in touch!

Despite drawing a blank as regards the Ajijic exhibitions, my search for answers has enabled me to compile a more accurate account of Pumphrey’s life and work than those currently available on the web.

Bert Pumphrey. Undated. Un militar.

Bert Pumphrey. Undated. Un militar.

Bertrem (Bert) Pumphrey was born in Welby, Salt Lake City, Utah, on 30 January 1916. After graduating from Provo High School in 1936, Pumphrey took classes for a year at the Chicago Art Institute. From 1937 to 1941, he studied on a scholarship at the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles, where he was strongly influenced by Henry Lee McFee and Tom Craig

At the second annual exhibit of Artists of Los Angeles and Vicinity (organized by Los Angeles County Museum) in 1941, Pumphrey’s painting “Rainy Season” and a work by famous Japanese-American modernist Sueo Serisawa received honorable mentions for painting.

In 1940, while still a student, Pumphrey had registered for military service, and after completing his studies the following year he enlisted in the army. He served as a surgical technician in the Army Medical Corps in Asia and the Far East

His first major group show after the war was at the Los Angeles Art Association in 1946, in a collective exhibition titled “They Have Returned,” with one critic writing that “Bertram Pumphrey’s oils of India convey that land’s rich decoration and vegetation and the accompanying poverty.”

Later that year in September Pumphrey held his first solo show (of 47 oil paintings) at the prestigious Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco.

In 1947, Pumphrey had the first of at least two solo shows at the American Contemporary Gallery in Los Angeles. His 22 canvases were described by Los Angeles Times art critic Arthur Millier as “rich in color and human interest.” Millier also recorded that Pumphrey had “recently worked” with Tom Craig on a large mural or murals at the San Antonio Hospital, Claremont, and had completed a large 40′ by 12′ mural commission in a private Hollywood home.

In 1947-1948 Pumphrey taught art part-time at the Art Barn School of Arts in Salt Lake City, giving himself ample time to develop his own art while still having a reliable income.

Bert Pumphrey. Undated. Hasidic Rabbis Dancing. (oil on board)

Bert Pumphrey. Undated. Hasidic Rabbis Dancing.

Pumphrey moved to Mexico in 1948, and exhibited relatively infrequently in the US after that date, though he retained links with California, giving classes and participating in group shows in Lafayette and Oakland in 1954. By this time he had married Isabel. The couple apparently kept homes in both Tlalpan, a suburb of Mexico City and in California, dividing their time between the two places. Isabel became a naturalized US citizen in 1984 on her 54th birthday.

In 1955, Pumphrey painted murals depicting typical scenes from Bavarian villages on the walls of Sam’s Hof Brau in the historic Kost building in Sacramento. Four years later, he completed a large mural for the Seagulll Motel in Salt Lake City, assisted by his twin brother, Joe, who was also an artist.

His first major solo show in Mexico was at the Galería Pemex in Mexico City in January 1960. It included 106 works, in a variety of media, from oils on masonite and linoleum to watercolors and ink drawings, and of varied subjects, demonstrating the artist’s impressive versatility.

Pumphrey’s smaller solo show the following year at the Mexican-Northamerican Cultural Institute in Mexico City featured 19 oils and 17 watercolors; it included a self portrait alongside animal, coastal and jungle studies.

Pumphrey’s techniques and preferences changed markedly over the years. In 1971, the Oakland Museum showed a short film “Bert Pumphrey, Pleasanton Artist,” which depicted how Pumphrey liked to paint: using palette knives, including some of his own design, to cut through successive layers of paint to achieve the color, texture and form he wanted. (This technique was similar to that used for traditional lacquer work in Mexico). For these paintings, Pumphrey worked on masonite, rather than canvas, and on a table, rather than an easel.

Bert Pumphrey. 1969.

Bert Pumphrey. 1969.

Pumphrey completed murals for several public buildings, clubs, churches and private homes in Mexico (presumably mainly in 1950s), as well as murals in the Kost building, Sacramento (1955) and the Seagull Motel, Salt Lake City (1959).

Bert Pumphreys’s confirmed group shows include Los Angeles Art Association (1946, 1947); Chaffey, Ontario, California (1947); Biblioteca Cervantes, Mexico City (1952); Artists’ Market, Oakland, California (1954) and Valley Art Center, Contra Costa, California (1955).

In addition to the three possible shows in Ajijic and one (also unconfirmed) in the Virgin Islands, Pumphrey’s solo shows included Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco (1946); American Contemporary Gallery, Los Angeles (1947, 1948); Palette Club, Salt Lake City (1947); Galería Pemex, Mexico City (1960); lnstituto Mexicano-Norteamericano de Relaciones Culturales, Mexico City (1961); Little Gallery, Philadelphia (1967); Cory Gallery, San Francisco (1969); and La Cienega Gallery, Los Angeles (1971).

The artist spent his final years in South Pasadena, where he died on 20 June 2002.

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

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

Sources

  • Bingham Bulletin 12 Sep 1941, 5; 3 Sep 1954, 3
  • Contra Costa Gazette 11 Feb 1954, 5; 22 Jul 1955, 4
  • Contra Costa Times 25 Feb 1954, 5
  • Daily Herald 08 May 1936, 3
  • Justino Fernández. (a) 1953 (b) 1961 (c) 1962. Catálogos de las Exposiciones de Arte en los años 1952, 1960 and 1961. Anales del Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, Mexico.
  • Los Angeles Times 16 March 1941, 21; 16 March 1941, 21; 23 Mar 1941; 24 March 1946, 26; 6 Jul 1947, 26; 21 Sep 1947, 28; 04 Jul 1948, 45; 25 Jul 1971, 425
  • Oakland Tribune 14 Feb 1954, 91; 31 Jan 1971, 125
  • Pasadena Star-News. 2002. Bertrem Pumphrey (obituary). 29 June 2002.
  • Philadelphia Inquirer 04 Jun 1967, 141
  • Sacramento Bee 22 Jan 1955, 52
  • Salt Lake Tribune 02 Nov 1947, 64; 10 Aug 1947, 48; 14 Dec 1947, 72; 12 Jul 1959, 29; 18 Oct 1964, 78
  • San Francisco Examiner 29 Sep 1946, 135; 28 Dec 1969, 142

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 222022
 

As explained in a previous post, my on-going fascination with the history of Lake Chapala was stimulated, in part, by the chance discovery many years ago of a copy of Antonio de Alba‘s 1954 book, Chapala.

Antonio de Alba. Chapala, p 115

Antonio de Alba. Chapala, p 115 (Click to enlarge)

The online claim (made only a few years ago) that Chapala is “the most accurate book to date about the local history” may have been true many decades ago, but has certainly not been true since the turn of this century.

The focus of my personal interest has been on when, how and why Chapala first became a center for international tourists. The ‘when’ is the easy part, given that the town’s first major hotel, the Hotel Arzapalo, opened its doors in 1898. The ‘how’ and ‘why’ are trickier to answer, and have led me down innumerable ‘rabbit holes’ related to the lives of early foreign settlers in Chapala.

What has emerged from years of research, and new online friendships with the descendants of many of these early settlers, is that the story of Lake Chapala is far more complex (and interesting) than I had ever imagined. Many of the details in de Alba’s account of the “principal promoters of tourism in Chapala” (page 115) need to be reconsidered, and in some cases rejected.

Please note that I am not, by publishing this critique, trying to disparage or discredit Antonio de Alba, his research or his book. On the contrary, it was his book that got me started down this road! But, like all accounts of history, over time new facts come to light, alternative interpretations are proposed—some of which become accepted—and a new, revised (and hopefully more accurate) version of the story is developed.

Let’s take a close look at de Alba’s account of the principal promoters of tourism in Chapala. It did not take me long to realize that ‘Séptimo Crow’ was Septimus Crowe (with an ‘e’ at the end), who was, as de Alba stated, of English origin, though he was actually born in northern Norway, where his father had a massive copper mine. It took me a lot longer to realize that the “Mr. Leonel Garden,” who built Villa Tlalocan, was Mr (later Sir) Lionel Carden (with a ‘C’), and even longer before I identified ‘Sr. D. Carlos Eissman” as Karl (Carlos) Eisenmann. Once I had their real names, it was relatively easy to find out a lot more about these individuals and their lives, and their connections to Chapala.

It turned out that Septimus Crowe, for example, had abandoned his wife and young son in Europe when he moved to Mexico. His son was informed that his father had died, and never lived to learn the truth; members of the succeeding generation were totally astonished to find a brief reference in one of my articles about Septimus’ life in Mexico.

De Alba writes that Crowe arrived in about 1895. While I can’t prove precisely when the eccentric Mr Crowe first came to Chapala, it was certainly several years earlier than that, as I have pointed out repeatedly over the past two decades. This is known because there is a clear reference to Crowe by Mexican diplomat-author Eduardo A. Gibbon in a book published in 1893. Gibbon’s account refers both to Crowe having built a “very lovely estate that can be seen from the lake on a hill, a quarter of a league from the village of Chapala” (now the site of Hotel Montecarlo) and to Crowe having “stimulated others to build holiday homes and with them give life and civilization to this very beautiful region.”

In the past several years, as I delved ever deeper into the lives of Crowe and others, I have been able to prove that Crowe built all the three houses mentioned by de Alba (Villa Montecarlo, Villa Bell, Villa Josefina), though not in the order he suggested. Before he built Villa Bell, Crowe had built Casa Albión, renamed Villa Josefina after it was bought by American-born beer magnate Joseph Maximilian Schnaider.

In the case of Villa Tlalocan, de Alba is correct that the house was built in about 1896: construction began in 1895 and the Cardens were able to move in the following year, in time to invite President Díaz for breakfast one morning in early November. De Alba is also correct that Carden sold Villa Tlalocan to Carlos Eisenmann. However, de Alba’s claims that the house was then bought by Manuel Cuesta Gallardo ‘after Eisenmann’s death’, and that the new owner built a home there intended as a gift for President Díaz, which the President never received because the Mexican Revolution broke out (1910), are inaccurate.

First, I have never found any contemporary newspaper accounts supporting the idea that Manuel Cuesta Gallardo built any home intended for President Díaz. There are, though, several references to a home being prepared for the President by his inlaws at El Manglar. Secondly, Eisenmann died in 1920 (in Germany), three years after Manuel Cuesta Gallardo had already transferred the title of Villa Tlalocan to a younger sister.

I repeat—for those who have read this far—that none of this post is intended in any way to disparage Antonio de Alba, his research or his book. It was my chance find of Chapala back in the 1980s that led me to become so passionate about exploring the history of how the small fishing village of Chapala became such an important international tourist destination.

Reading the book

Copies of Chapala, which has never been reprinted, are difficult to find. Fortunately for readers, Javier Raygoza Munguía, the publisher of the weekly PÁGINA Que sí se lee! has uploaded the entire text as a series of digital files which can be accessed via the link.

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

Several chapters of If Walls Could Talk: Chapala’s Historic Buildings and Their Former Occupants – available in Spanish as Si las paredes hablaran: Edificios históricos de Chapala y sus antiguos ocupantes – offer more details about the history of Chapala.

Sources and references

  • Antonio de Alba. 1954. Chapala. Guadalajara: Banco Industrial de Jalisco.
  • Eduardo A Gibbon. 1893. Guadalajara, (La Florencia Mexicana). El salto de Juanacatlán y El Mar Chapálico. 1992 reprint Guadalajara: Presidencia Municipal de Guadalajara.

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 012022
 

Robert Clutton (1932-2016) lived in Ajijic from about 1959 to 1961. His time in Mexico introduced him to the pantheon of ancient Aztec and Maya gods which so strongly influenced much of his later art. He revisited Ajijic several times after this initial extended stay in the village.

“Bob” Clutton, “Roberto” to his Mexican friends, was born in England on 5 June 1932, brought up in Wales, and passed away in San Francisco on 15 August 2016 at the age of 84.

He left Wales in 1949 to cross the Atlantic on the Mauretania. (Until late in life he much preferred ocean liners to aircraft.) He settled in Baltimore where he became the Art Director for Black & Decker. In October 1955, he was one of numerous artists exhibiting in the The Artists’ Union of Baltimore annual show.

By 1959 Clutton was living and working in Ajijic on Lake Chapala. Several of his paintings from this time can be seen on this Facebook page of the San Francisco Senior Center. This painting of the Posada Ajijic in 1959 (below) is a fine example of Clutton’s style during his first months at Lake Chapala.

Robert Clutton. 1959. Untitled painting of Posada Ajijic. Reproduced by kind permissoin of the artist's family

Robert Clutton. 1959. Untitled painting of Posada Ajijic. Reproduced by kind permission of the artist’s family

Former Ajijic gallery owner Katie Goodridge Ingram remembers Bob Clutton as a lovely man, who was well-liked by everyone in the community. During his time in Mexico, Clutton became increasingly fascinated by the “gods of ancient Mexico” and images of these gods became a frequent theme in his later paintings.

When he decided to leave Ajijic in 1961, he chose to move to San Francisco because that was where “all the interesting people he met in Mexico” were from. He continued to make his living as a professional artist in that city for more than fifty years. He retained some close ties to Mexican friends in Ajijic, and revisited the village several times.

Robert Clutton. 1959. Bullfight, Ajijic.

Robert Clutton. 1959. Bullfight, Ajijic. (Image from San Francisco Senior Center page)

A newspaper feature in 1968, entitled “Art by the Foot” described how Clutton, “a bronzed, bearded, no-nonsense British artist” was making “made-to-measure bas-reliefs” in his Divisadero Street studio. The bas-reliefs, “designed to be decorative indoors and architectural assets outdoors”, used Aztec symbols and colors, and relied on the interplay of sun and shade to emphasize the materials, relief and texture.

Clutton was still producing “formal paintings” which also showed the influence of Mexico, and was represented by the Vorpal Gallery in San Francisco. A solo show of his oils and acrylics at that gallery in 1969 brought a wider audience for his work. Shortly after Clutton petitioned for US citizenship in 1971, the Vorpal Gallery also included examples of his work in its 1971 Christmas Show, which also featured paintings by John Denning, Muldoon Elder, Roy Glover, Stephen Haines Hall, Bruce Sherratt (who had previously lived for several years at Lake Chapala) and Gary Smith.

Clutton also exhibited in Los Angeles and in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, where a show of his oil paintings opened at Galeria Uno (Morelos 561) in Puerto Vallarta on 23 March 1993.

Robert Clutton. ca 1969. Tezcatlipoca in front of his smoking mirror seeing himself as Huitzilapochtli.

Robert Clutton. ca 1969. Tezcatlipoca in front of his smoking mirror seeing himself as Huitzilapochtli. (Vorpal Gallery)

In 1988, Clutton designed the poster for the 1988 Haight Ashbury Street Fair. He enjoyed social events, garden parties and dinners and surrounded himself with creative people, making for lively and entertaining discussions. In his final years, Clutton was active as an artist at the San Francisco Senior Center.

This is an updated version of a profile first published 1 December 2016.

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

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

Acknowledgment

  • My sincere thanks to Jane Clutton for sharing memories of her husband, and for graciously permitting me to share images of paintings belonging to his family.

Sources

  • Jane Clutton; personal communication, October 2016.
  • Peninsula Times Tribune, 1 Jan 1972, 42.
  • San Francisco Sunday Examiner and Chronicle, California Living, Week of March 31, 1968: “Art by the Foot” [copy supplied by Jane Clutton]
  • San Francisco Chronicle. 2016. Robert Clutton – obituary, San Francisco Chronicle from Oct. 2 to Oct. 7, 2016.
  • Vorpal Galleries. Robert Clutton. 1969. San Francisco: Vorpal Galleries.

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

Nov 242022
 

Among the chance events back in the 1980s that stimulated my curiosity about the history of Chapala was finding a book titled Chapala in a used bookstore in Ajijic. While the bookstore lasted only a few months, Chapala has been in a pride of place on my book shelves ever since.

Antonio de Alba. Chapala (1954)

Written by Antonio de Alba, Chapala was published by the Banco Industrial de Jalisco in 1954 in an edition of 2000 copies. The 177-page book was published as de Alba was nearing the end of more than two decades of service as parish priest of Chapala.

Chapala is an impressive achievement for its time, and the earliest book to be devoted to a single town or village at Lake Chapala. The first book-length histories of other settlements—including Ocotlán, Jocotepec, Ajijic, Tizapán el Alto and La Palma—all came many years later.

Antonio Guadalupe de Alba was born on 12 December (Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe) 1900 in San Juan de los Lagos. Antonio was several months shy of his third birthday when he lost his father, Jesús Alba Alba (1856-1903), and was raised by his mother, Lucía Rodríguez Murguía de Alba (born in 1859), who died in Chapala in 1946.

Antonio de Alba served as parish priest in Chapala from 1937 to 1954. His initial appointment was not without its critics; a group of parishioners wrote to the Archbishop supporting an alternative candidate. De Alba quickly demonstrated his ability to unite the faithful and gain their respect. Shortly after arriving in Chapala (from Cocula), he helped lead the effort to build a chapel to Our Lady of Lourdes (Nuestra Señora de Lourdes) on the hillside above the Villa Montecarlo. The first stone of this chapel was laid on 18 March 1940 and the dedication service was held on 14 August 1941.

Throughout his time in Chapala, de Alba was held in high regard by his parishioners. In April 1954, de Alba was appointed Canon of the Collegiate Church of San Juan de los Lagos. He died in León, Guanajuato, on 25 December 1958.

De Alba explains in the preface to Chapala that his own interest in the town’s history had been prompted by meeting José Ramírez Flores, the author of an article titled “Chapala y su curato hasta el Siglo XVIII” in the first issue of Estudios Históricos (a Guadalajara-based magazine). In response to some queries from Ramírez, de Alba began to explore the parish archive for answers:

I discovered treasures of true greatness, hidden under the dust of the years and the carelessness of our Mexican character (which does not know how to judge the greatness of our heroes, and is not accustomed to recounting their feats).”

De Alba then devoted a lot of his time to finding and collating historical material. Though he openly acknowledges in his book that he was not a historian and did not write like a historian, he explains that he felt compelled to share “what I had discovered, which is unknown to most people.”

He singled out the need to preserve the memory of clerics, such as Friar Miguel de Bolonia who lived his final years in Chapala, and of the “heroism of our aboriginal Indians, as well as the fine nobility of almost all the Spaniards who conquered these lands and stayed here”, as well as of the “many beautiful and very honorable events in our history, such as the great actions of our local insurgents and the defense of the Island of Mezcala.”

The early chapters of Chapala are based on excerpts from, and summaries of, the early accounts of the region written by Franciscan chroniclers such as friars Antonio Tello, Antonio de Ciudad Real and others, combined with the more formal syntheses written by historians of Jalisco.

De Alba acknowledges that the second part of the book, which focuses on the twentieth century history of the town, is “taken from tradition or personal knowledge.” Some of “the interesting and instructive news related to our town” that de Alba includes is based on the recollections of some older members of his parish. These recollections, which pertain to memories from half a century earlier, are neither comprehensive in coverage nor, with the benefit of hindsight, entirely accurate.

I am quite certain, after reading and rereading de Alba, that he never intended Chapala to be the final word on the town’s history. He acknowledged its limitations but wanted to share the findings of his research, not compile a formal, comprehensive, historical account.

It is unfortunate, therefore, that so many later writers have relied almost exclusively on de Alba’s writing. Tracing the origins of what I’ve come to call the “modern myths” of Chapala’s history—such as President Díaz spending Holy Week there every year from 1904 to 1909—has led me time and time again back to Chapala. The claim about President Díaz, for example, stems from a single sentence (page 117) which we now know is not supported by contemporary documents.

In this separate post – How history progresses: Antonio de Alba and “Chapala”  – I clarify and correct statements made on one particular page of Chapala, in the hope that this will offer some small but significant steps towards a revised history of the town.

For its time, Antonio de Alba’s book is a true tour-de-force, and an invaluable source and inspiration for later authors, including myself. I have the highest esteem for both Antonio de Alba and Chapala. However, this does not mean that everything he wrote should be accepted uncritically and without comment or, where possible, correction. And I am hopeful that this is precisely what future authors and researchers will do in relation to my own work.

Reading the book

Chapala has never been reprinted, and copies are difficult to find. Fortunately for readers, Javier Raygoza Munguía, the publisher of the weekly PÁGINA Que sí se lee! has uploaded the entire text as a series of digital files (access via link).

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

Several chapters of If Walls Could Talk: Chapala’s Historic Buildings and Their Former Occupants – available in Spanish as Si las paredes hablaran: Edificios históricos de Chapala y sus antiguos ocupantes – offer more details about the history of Chapala.

Sources

  • Antonio de Alba. 1954. Chapala. Guadalajara: Banco Industrial de Jalisco.
  • Peter Bello, personal communications via FB, November 2022.
  • Luis Enrique Orozco. 1958. Nuestra Señora de Lourdes de Chapala. Reseña histórica ordenada por el Sr. Cura D. Raúl Navarro… Guadalajara.

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

Sep 222022
 

According to his birth certificate, painter and art educator Luis Sahagún Cortés was born in the town of Sahuayo, Michoacán, on 20 November 1900 (and not on 20 May as stated in some online biographies). His parents were well educated: his mother (Petra Cortés, or Cortéz as on his birth certificate) was a teacher and his father (Pascual Sahagún) a doctor. In 1900, Sahuayo was situated on the southern shore of Lake Chapala; during the artist’s childhood, the eastern third of the lake was drained and ‘reclaimed’ for agriculture, causing Sahuayo to lose its proximity to the lake.

Luis Sahagún Cortés. Autoretrato. Credit: Morton Casa de Subastas, 2017.

Luis Sahagún Cortés. Autoretrato. Credit: Morton Casa de Subastas, 2017.

Luis Sahagún studied art in Guadalajara from the age of 18 with José Vizcarra (1868-1956) and then at the Escuela Libre de Bellas Artes in Mexico City before moving to Rome, Italy, in 1925 to study at the Academy Libre de Desnudo, where his teachers included Rómulo Bernardini. Sahagún also attended art classes and workshops in Turkey, Palestine, Egypt and Morocco.

Sahagún returned from Europe in 1932 and married Italian-born Adela Appiani Panozzi (c.1907-1964) in Mexico City on 5 November 1936; the couple never had children.

Sahagún dedicated his life to his art and art education. As an educator, he was Professor of Art at the National Fine Arts School (Escuela Nacional de Artes Plásticas) in Mexico City, where he had a studio in the colonia Postal, from 1932 to 1976. He also led the Departamento de Restauración Artística del Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes (INBA) for more than 20 years.

Among the many students of his who went on to enjoy distinguished careers as professional artists were Raul Anguiano, José Luis Cuevas, Humberto Peraza, Luis Nichizawa and Martha Chapa.

Sahagún held more than 40 one-person exhibitions, in locations from France, Spain and Cuba to New York and Philadelphia, and was commissioned to complete official portraits of numerous ex-Presidents. During the presidency (1934-1940) of Lázaro Cárdenas, Sahagún was appointed official painter to the president, commissioned to complete official portraits of numerous former presidents and asked to paint several murals, including some in Los Pinos (formerly the official residence of the president), and the Palacio Nacional (National Palace).

Luis Sahagún Cortés. Peces de colores.

Luis Sahagún Cortés. Peces de colores.

In addition to his oil paintings, his charming well-executed drawings are much sought after by collectors. Drawings and paintings by Sahagún are on permanent display in the Gallery of the Società Dante Alighieri in Rome, Italy, and can be found in collections in New York, London, the Dutch Royal Academy, Denmark, Monaco, the Oval Office of the U.S., Cuba, and many other places, including, now, the Ajijic Museum of Art.

Luis Sahagún Cortés. Personajes en el autobus. Credoit: Morton casa de subastas.

Luis Sahagún Cortés. Personajes en el autobus. Credit: Morton Casa de subastas.

Sahagún never relinquished his attachment to Sahauyo and moved back there in 1975 to live out his final years. His paintings can be admired in the city’s Santuario de Guadalupe, and in the Museo Luis Sahagún museum (part of the Casa de la Cultura Petrita Cortés de Sahagún).

luis-sahagun-cover

His most well known works in Sahuayo are the fourteen unique stations of the cross, using Venetial mosaics and commemorating the Cristero martyrs, embedded in niches beside the stairway leading up to the Cristo Rey monument. Sahagún’s depictions feature Purepecha Indians; this is perhaps the only Way of the Cross in the world to have truly indigenous motifs.

Sahagún died in Sahuayo on 24 February 1978. In his memory, Mexico’s Lotería Nacional issued tickets bearing his portrait, and (in 1999) a series of Ladatel phone cards with illustrations of his paintings was issued.

A short book about his life and work was published in 2006 by the Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes (CONACULTA).

Several fine examples of drawings by Luis Sahagún Cortés are in the permanent collection of the Ajijic Museum of Art (AMA).

Sources

  • Ma. del Carmen Alberú Gómez. 2006. Luis Sahagún Cortés : pincel del equilibrio. Mexico City: Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes (CONACULTA).
  • 2-minute Facebook video: Via Crucis de Cristo Rey en Sahuayo, Michoacán.
  • El Informador: 12 November 1998, 53.
Lake Chapala Artists & Authors is reader-supported. Purchases made via links on our site may, at no cost to you, earn us an affiliate commission. Learn more.

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

Jun 302022
 

Vida Hills Shepard (1885-1972) was a journalist who spent several winters in Chapala in the mid-1950s. Shepard was a regular columnist for The Chico Enterprise-Record in California, and several of her columns make reference to her multiple visits to Chapala.

Vida Shepard, 1955

She first visited in late 1954, writing in an early column how she had rented a cottage in the Nido Hotel. The cottage had windows that overlooked a pleasant patio. Though the cottage had no kitchen, the hotel offered to provide three meals a day for 50 pesos ($4). Shepard remarked that the garden was enlivened by the antics of a parrot—“Sra Nido’s best loved pet”—and two mockingbirds in cages. Shepard encouraged readers to consider visiting Chapala, and rent one of the “numerous homes rented by La Señora Nido, who has owned a large slice of the town since her husband’s death four years ago.” (In fact, Ramón Nido had died in 1945, fully a decade before Shepard’s visit.)

In her column the following week, Shepard explained that Chapala had no TV reception, very few radios, and only limited phone service, with the hotel having one of the very few lines available. She also commented on the corncobs used as fuel for most water heaters (“except for the very new ones”), saying that it was a very inexpensive method since a “huge gunny sack of corncobs costs about 16 cents and lasts a few months.”

When Shepard returned to Lake Chapala the following winter, this time renting accommodation in Ajijic, she first had a few days in Guadalajara, where she enjoyed “a very good lunch in the Ajijic restaurant in Hotel Guadalajara.” This is the first and only reference I have ever seen to an “Ajijic restaurant” in the big city.

Her column the following week is about visiting Neill James at her home, Quinta Tzintzuntzan, in Ajijic. Shepard opens by quoting an inscription—“Little by little, drop by drop, one can empty the sea”—carved on one of the hand-hewn beams of the living room ceiling, which “could well be the inspiration which, little by little, has brought this remarkable woman health, a sound business and such contentment in Mexico that she feels no compulsion to leave her picturesque village, Ajijic.”

Other beams were carved with designs from “Aztec codices”, and one had an inscription in Spanish reading “The pen is the tongue of the soul.” Shepard summarized James’ early business enterprises (embroidery and weaving) before focusing on her silkworm operation, claiming that each year James “has a new dress for her traditional Christmas egg-nog party made from threads spun by her own silk worms.” Shepard was charmed by the verdant orchard around James’ home, especially its “15 varieties of bananas” and the massed “scarlet flowers” of “an espaliered poinsettia.”

The following year (1956), when Shepard was staying at Lake Chapala, she described how she had taken visiting friends to explore Ajijic, where they met ‘Stephen.’ Stephen turned out to be the son of artist Alfred Rogoway, and persuaded them to walk with him to the gallery where his father’s works were on show. They arrived to find that Stephen’s mother was busy cooking supper there: the gallery-restaurant had only opened the previous day.

Shepard had a short story, “The Merry-Go-Round,” published in Mexican Life in 1957. The merry-go-round apparently never works properly, and its owner is constantly tinkering with the machinery in a valiant and never-ending effort to get it to work as intended. Shepard had previously co-authored a cook book with Mary Dunbar Lemcke titled Four ‘n Twenty Blackbirds: A Book on Game Cookery With Other Recipes Based Upon Products of Northern California (1949).

In 1958, Shepard apparently spent the summer rainy season in Chapala. In a column written several years later she recalled having watched a dramatic thunderstorm in Chapala from the front porch of a house near Villa Lourdes which “a group of UFO hunters had rented.”

Like so many other visitors in the 1950s, Vida Shepard was clearly captivated by what she found. Her personal accounts of staying at Lake Chapala only serve to show just how much the area has changed since.

Sources

  • The Chico Enterprise-Record (Chico, California) 7 Jan 1955, 6; 15 Jan 1955, 4; 13 Sep 1955, 10; 28 Nov 1955, 10; 5 Dec 1955, 10; 3 March 1956, 5; 2 Jan 1958.
  • Vida Shepard. 1957. “The Merry-Go-Round.” Mexican Life, October 1957.

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

Apr 212022
 

A brief note in the Albuquerque Journal alerted me to the fact that two US visual artists of note—Lez Haas (1911-2001) and his wife, Eleanor Haas (1919-2001)—and their two young children spent the summer of 1957 in Ajijic. The note refers to them having “devoted several weeks” of their trip to painting. The timing is significant because it came shortly after his first solo show in Santa Barbara, California.

Lez Haas. Untitled watercolor. Credit: https://haasart.webs.com

Lez Haas. Untitled watercolor. Credit: https://haasart.webs.com

Lez L Haas was born in Berkeley, California, on 10 March 1911. He studied at San Francisco State College and at the Hans Hofmann School of Art, and earned his B.A. and M.A. degrees from UC Berkeley.

He married Eleanor Pauling French on 11 June 1941; the couple’s two children were Averill (born circa 1942) and Jonathan (born 1949).

The family moved to New Mexico in 1947, where Haas was head of the art department until 1963. In 1963, the family then moved to Tucson, Arizona, when Haas became Chairman of the art department at the University of Arizona, a position which he held until retiring in 1977. In retirement, Haas and his wife moved to the small town of El Rito in northern New Mexico, where Haas died on 31 July 2001.

Haas worked in a variety of media, including oils, watercolors and photography, and had solo shows at the Santa Barbara Museum (1956) and the University of Arizona (1963). His work was also exhibited at the San Francisco Art Association (1938-40), the Museum of New Mexico (1957, when he won a prize), Stanford University (1958) and California Palace of the Legion of Honor (1959).

Haas was the co-author with Reginald Fisher of A Retrospective Exhibition of Painting by Raymond Jonson (University of New Mexico Art Gallery, Santa Fe, 1956).

Eleanor Haas. Untitled oil on masonite. Credit: https://haasart.webs.com

Eleanor Haas. Untitled oil on masonite. Credit: https://haasart.webs.com

Eleanor Haas was born on 11 September 1919 in Bay City, Michigan. After completing high school in the Midwest, she moved to California to study for her B.A. at Stanford. She gained a MFA at the Art Center in Pasadena, California. She continued to develop her art while raising the couple’s two children, and after she and her husband moved to El Rito. Her preferred media were oils, pen and ink, and charcoal.

Note

I am now in contact with the Haas family (see comments) and hope to expand this post in the near future.

Sources

  • Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, New Mexico) 25 Aug 1957, 15:
  • Edan Hughes. 1989. Artists in California, 1786-1940. Hughes Pub. Co.
  • Who’s Who in American Art 1956-82.
  • Art of Lez and Eleanor Haas. Website.

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

Feb 242022
 

Peg Kittinger is one of the mystery artists associated with Lake Chapala. “Mrs L B (Peg) Kittinger” was an artist and art teacher who lived in Chapala for about nine years, from 1955 to 1964. Her address in Chapala in 1955 was Morelos #181, though she apparently later had a home in Chula Vista.

Hazel Peg (aka Peggy) Philips was born in Evansville, Indiana, on 23 September 1895. She married Louis Blacklock Kittinger (1892-1935) on 24 December 1919. The couple had two sons (George and Harold) and a daughter (Patricia Lou). On the marriage certificate her occupation is given as “decorator.”

Peg Kittinger. Still Life. Credit: K.C. Auction

Peg Kittinger. Still Life. Credit: K.C. Auction

The family lived in Kansas City, Missouri, where Kittinger was a founder member of the Kansas City Society of Artists, which began in about 1921 and lasted into the 1940s. Kittinger was especially active in the Society after it moved its headquarters to 1718 Holly Street, a formerly abandoned hotel in about 1930. Several members of the Society, including Kittinger, had studios in the building. The Society’s great claim to fame was having Thomas Hart Benson as a member; the Society held the first solo exhibition of his work in 1934, by which time the artist was teaching in New York City.

In 1932, Kittinger held a solo show at the Kansas City Athletic Club, displaying 24 paintings, including landscapes of Colorado, still lifes and portraits of her houseman, cook and children. Her studio at that time was in the “Old Westport Studios.” The following year she held an exhibit of oils, mainly landscapes, at Women’s City Club in Kansas City, and in 1934 thirty of her paintings were exhibited in the Museum of her birthplace, Evansville. Kittinger had been almost totally deaf for several years by the time of this exhibition and an Evansville newspaper printed a poignant poem she had written entitled “Compensation” about her positive experiences after losing her hearing.

Her husband died in 1935. Kittinger then lived for some years in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where she taught art in Santa Fe and Alburquerque and spent summers painting in a Taos Canyon cabin. In 1952, Kittinger held a one person show of her paintings, weaving and metal work at the Botts Memorial Hall of the Albuquerque Public Library. The following year she participated in a joint show of recent work by female artists held at the Santa Fe Museum.

A year after moving to Chapala, Kittinger drove an artist friend, Mrs A Anway, back to the US when her friend decided to settle in Albuquerque.

Peg Kittinger died in Kansas City, Missouri, on 6 June 1964. Only two months previously, the Guadalajara Reporter had said that Peg Kittinger “of Chula Vista” was now “painting again” following a recent illness.

If you have any artwork by Peg Kittinger, especially any related to Lake Chapala, please get in touch!

Sources

  • Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, New Mexico) 19 Jan 1956, 6.
  • Evansville Courier and Press (Evansville, Indiana), 1 Jul 1934.
  • Guadalajara Reporter, 23 April 1964.
  • The Kansas City Times (Kansas City, Missouri), 8 Jun 1964, 11.
  • Kansas City Society of Artists – website.
  • The Taos News, 19 Jun 1969, 9.

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

Dec 162021
 

Oscar Collier was born 26 February 1924 in Mumford, Texas, and died 3 July 1998. He and his second wife, Gladys, lived in Ajijic for six months sometime in the late 1950s, while he was still actively painting.

Oscar Collier. Self-portrait, 1940s. Reproduced courtesy of Lisa Collier

Oscar Collier. Self-portrait, 1940s. Reproduced courtesy of Lisa Collier

In this oral history interview in 1994 by Stephen Polcari, Collier talks about his childhood in Texas, his education at Baylor University (where he studied English), the University of Iowa (where he took his first art classes with Philip Guston), and the Art Students League in New York, and his links to many other artists, including Will Barnet, Peter Busa, Robert Barrell, Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock. Collier describes how he became involved in the 1940s with the style known as Indian Space Painting (named for its links to Pre-Columbian American Indian art), before giving up painting in 1959 to concentrate on publishing as a career.

Collier met his first wife, Gertrude Barrer (1921-1997), while they were both students; they married in about 1942 and separated shortly after the second world war. Gertrude was also a well-known Indian Space Painter, and the couple’s daughter, Greer Fitting (1943-2017), also became an artist and writer.

Collier married Gladys (Whitridge), his second wife, in 1949. That marriage lasted 20 years, and the couple had two children: Lisa Collier Cool, journalist and author who has written for dozens of magazines including Cosmopolitan, Penthouse and Good Housekeeping, and Sophia Collier, entrepreneur (the originator of Soho Soda), investor and artist. Oscar subsequently married Dianna Meerwarth and had a son, Christopher Collier.

Typical Oscar Collier abstract. Reproduced courtesy of Lisa Collier

Typical Oscar Collier abstract. Reproduced courtesy of Lisa Collier

Oscar Collier was active as an artist in New York in the 1940s and 1950s. He became a close friend of poet Kenneth Beaudoin (1913-1995) who then owned the Galerie Neuf on East 79th Street, in Greenwich Village, New York. Possibly the single most famous exhibit of Indian Space Painting was a show, held at Galerie Neuf in April-May 1946, called “8 and a totem pole” which featured the work of eight Indian Space Painters (Robert Barrell, Gertrude Barrer, Peter Busa, Oscar Collier, Howard Daum, Ruth Lewin, Lillian Orloff and Robert Smith) together with a Haida totem pole. This show had the alternative name of Semeiology. However, Collier’s first one man show at Galerie Neuf in 1947 was not a success.

collier-oscar-book-cover-2From 1946-1947, Collier, Gertrude Barrer and Kenneth Beaudoin collaborated to produce an art and literature quarterly, called Iconograph. Beaudoin was editor, Collier associate editor, and Barrer the art director. Sadly, financial difficulties meant that the quarterly did not last long.

In 1959, Collier abandoned painting for publishing. He became a successful literary agent, managing the publication of such best-sellers as Mark Lane’s Rush to Judgment; My Thirty Years Backstairs at the White House (by Lillian Rogers Parks, with Frances Spatz Leighton, later turned into a TV series); My Life with Jacqueline Kennedy, by Mary Barelli Gallagher; Barry Goldwater’s first set of memoirs; Harry Browne’s You Can Profit from a Monetary Crisis; The Scripps, the Divided Dynasty, by Jack Casserly; and Joseph P. Kennedy: Life and Times, by David Koscoff.

Collier was also the co-author, with Frances Spatz Leighton, of How to Write & Sell Your First Novel (1986) and How to Write and Sell Your First Nonfiction Book (1990).

Acknowledgment

My sincere thanks to Lisa Collier for making valuable corrections and additions to the original post, and for permission to reproduce photographs of her father’s artwork.

Note: This is an updated version of a post originally published on 13 March 2015.

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

Dec 022021
 

Watercolorist and art educator Ben Shute enjoyed extended trips in Mexico on several occasions and visited Ajijic in 1951. Two watercolors from that visit are now in the permanent collections of art institutions in the US.

Benjamin Edgar Shute was born in Altoona, Wisconsin on 13 July 1905, and studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, where his teachers included Allen Philbrick and George Oberteuffer from 1922-1928. He left Chicago in 1928 to take a six-week teaching job at the newly established High Museum School of Art (later Atlanta Art Institute) in Atlanta, Georgia. This temporary assignment was the start of an entire career teaching art in Atlanta, and he lived there for the rest of his life. Shute was dean-director of the High Museum from 1948-1950, and dean of the Atlanta Art Institute from 1950-52. The school established a scholarship in Shute’s honor in 1984.

Shute’s first trip to Mexico, partly funded by a Carnegie Travel grant, was in 1948. He and his first wife, Nell Choate (Jones) Shute (also a talented artist) held a joint exhibit afterwards at the High Museum, Atlanta. The show, featuring 45 or so watercolors,  was a great success. Doris Lockerman praised the artists for “retelling the tumultuous, violent and ancient story of Mexico through the vibrant strokes of their paintings made spontaneously and impulsively throughout a three-month vacation this Summer in Mexico.” Lockerman urged readers to visit the show and see for themselves how the two artists “have caught a headline history of current Mexico through which the thoughtful observer might begin to understand his neighbor south of the border.” The exhibit did not only show the bright side of Mexico: “The message of mismanagement and graft show in the muddy streets, cobblestone aqueducts, leaking roofs…”

The Shutes returned to Mexico for a month in 1950, driving to Guanajuato and Mexico City. The following year, Shute was on another Carnegie Travel grant when he and his wife visited Lake Chapala. Two watercolors from that visit are now in the Betty Plummer Woodruff Collection of the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.

Ben Shute. 1951. Ajijic.

Ben Shute. 1951. Ajiji. (sic)

The first painting is a watercolor and ink on paper titled “Ajiji” (sic) and dated 13 August 1951. Set against the church bell tower and dark mountains, a woman and an infant stand next to a village wall, with a dog to the right of them. The museum website lists a second watercolor titled “View of Lake Chapala,” though sadly it is neither on display in the museum nor does the website have any image of it.

Shute is best known for his portraits, still lifes and evocative landscapes, often using casein and ink on paper. He delighted in painting plein air, and enjoyed having his creative and painting process watched by kids, animals and onlookers. His work was included in numerous group shows, the most noteworthy of which were the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Brooklyn Museum in Brooklyn, New York.  He was a co-founder in 1945 of the Southeastern Annual Art Exhibition (a juried competition with over 2000 entries from nine southern states) which he chaired until 1961.

Shute, who was a member of the Salmagundi Club in New York, died in Atlanta on 15 July 1986. A retrospective exhibition of his works, organized by the Georgia Museum of Art in Athens, toured the state in 2002-2003.

Sources

  • The Atlanta Constitution, 1 Sep 1940, 37; 30 Jul 1948, 17; 14 Nov 1948, 52; 4 Aug 1950, 21.
  • Laufer, Marilyn. “Ben Shute.” New Georgia Encyclopedia, last modified Aug 14, 2013.
  • Doris Lockerman. 1948. “Let’s See Now: The Shutes Painted an Idea.” The Atlanta Constitution, 8 Dec 1948, 18.

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

Nov 042021
 

A chance find in a New Mexico newspaper mentions that artist Arthur Merrill and his wife visited Phoenix, Arizona, in February 1952, with plans to continue on to Lake Chapala. Arthur (“Art”) Joseph Merrill (1885-1973) took up art later than most, but forged a successful career in commercial art and as a watercolorist.

Arthur Merrill. Painting auctioned in 2016.

Arthur Merrill. Painting. Credit: J Levine Auction, Scottsdale, 2016.

Merrill certainly completed watercolors of Guanajuato and other parts of Mexico. But, so far, no paintings have surfaced that are directly related to Lake Chapala.

Merrill was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on 11 April 1885, and graduated as a registered pharmacist, before deciding to study chemistry and geology. It was during a tour of European galleries and museums that he became determined to pursue art as a career. In 1911 he completed a Bachelor of Arts and Science degree at McGill University in Montreal, and took early color photographs for the French government during a Canadian geological survey.

Arthur Merrill. Mexican Street Scene.

Arthur Merrill. Mexican Street Scene.

He took art classes with A. J. Musgrove of Winnipeg and Franz Johnston of Toronto (a member of the Group of Seven), and then headed for New York, where he studied at the Art Students League with Edmund Yaghjian. He also took private classes with Julius Delbos. Merrill established his studio in Greenwich Village and supplemented his art income by teaching at a private school.

He traveled widely over the next several years filling his notebooks with pencil sketches.

After 18 years in New York he moved to the American west, where he fell in love with the stunning rock formations that characterize the region, and with pueblo life. Merrill settled in Taos in 1946 and proceeded to open an art gallery and a studio while volunteering to give art classes in several local educational institutions. The Merrills were very active members of the Taos artist community.

Merrill, who held several solo shows of his paintings and lithographs in the US, Canada and Mexico, died in Taos on 21 April 1973.

If you have a work by Merrill that may be of Lake Chapala, please get in touch!

Merrill was not the only artist or author that connected Taos to Lake Chapala. Other members of the Taos-Lake Chapala nexus included D. H. LawrenceWitter Bynner, “Spud” Johnson, Jorge Fick, John Brandi, Irma René Koen, Jorge Fick, Richard Frush, Lee F. Hersch, Pema Chödrön, Jim Levy, Walden Swank, and Kai Gøtzsche.

Sources

  • The New Mexican Sun, 3 Feb 1952, 16
  • The Taos News. “Arthur Merrill, artist, dead at 88.” Taos News, 25 April 1973.

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.

Sep 232021
 

Erik Homburger Erikson (1902-1994), who coined the term ‘identity crisis’, spent several weeks in Ajijic in 1957 while writing Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History, published the following year.

Cover of Young Man LutherErikson had been persuaded that Ajijic was a quiet place in which to write by Helen Kirtland and her husband Dr Larry Hartmus. After an exchange of letters, Erikson ended up renting the “cottage” on Calle Independencia belonging to the Sendis family, whose son, Gustavo, was a super talented painter and guitarist.

Erikson, born in Germany to Danish parents, had become a US citizen after moving across the Atlantic. He became world famous for his ideas on identity and his contributions to the field of psychoanalysis and human development. Among Erikson’s best-known books are Observations on the Yurok: Childhood and World Image (1943), Childhood and Society  (1950), Identity and the Life Cycle (1959), and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gandhi’s Truth: On the Origins of Militant Nonviolence (1969).

There are two references to Ajijic in Young Man Luther, one right at the beginning and the other at the end. In the preface, Erikson acknowledges the help of Larry Hartmus, who “read some of the medieval Latin with me in Ajijic.” In the epilogue, this paragraph serves to sum up how Erikson saw the village, and the impossible-to-ignore influence of religion:

“I wrote this book in Mexico, on a mirador overlooking a fishing village on Lake Chapala. What remains of this village’s primeval inner order goes back to pre-Christian times. But at odd times, urgent church bells call the populace to remembrance. The church is now secular property, only lent to the Cura; and the priest’s garb is legally now a uniform to be worn only in church or when engaged in such business as bringing the host to the dying. Yet, at night, with defensive affront, the cross on the church tower is the only neon light in town. The vast majority of the priest’s customers are women, indulging themselves fervently in the veneration of the diminutive local Madonna statue, which, like those in other communities, is a small idol representing little-girlishness and pure motherhood, rather that the tragic parent of the Savior, who, in fact is little seen. The men for the most part look on, willing to let the women have their religion as part of women’s world, but themselves bound on secular activity. The young ones tend toward the not too distant city of Guadalajara, where the churches and cathedrals are increasingly matched in height and quiet splendor by apartment houses and business buildings.”  [266]

Source

  • Erik Erikson. 1958. Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalyses and History. New York: W.W. Norton.

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

 

Aug 262021
 

Edgar Mitchell Ellinger junior was in his mid-forties in 1953 when he wrote about “the small, captivating town of Ajijic” for the Arizona Republic under the title, “Mexican Town Offers Peaceful Way of Life.”

Edgar Ellinger. 1953. Ajijic church. Credit: Arizona Republic.

Edgar Ellinger. 1953. Ajijic church. Credit: Arizona Republic.

Ellinger was born in New York on Christmas Day 1906. After attending Horace Mann School for Boys, he became a Wall Street securities analyst and financial executive. His (first) wife was the NBC vocal star Sarah Schermerhorn, better known by her performing name of Sally Singer. The couple married at Ellinger’s home in New York City on 27 March 1936.

In 1945, Ellinger was the executive vice-president of the Jefferson-Travis Corporation, which specialized in radio equipment and the continuous sound recording field.

To quote The New York Times, Ellinger “left Wall Street in 1947 to live in Sedona, Arizona, where he raised quarter-horses and became a writer and photographer.” Ellinger published articles in several publications, including Desert Magazine in Palm Desert, California.

Here are two excerpts from his piece about Ajijic for the Arizona Republic:

Today, this small fishing village throbs with the interesting and varied activities of a growing international population—attracted by a satisfying climate, inexpensive living, and an atmosphere of “mañana.” The “urgency of life,” so well known to Americans, is strangely lacking.
Artists, writers, musicians, and just “plain folks” have settled in this picturesque haven. Accommodations are available in the two hotels in addition to about 40 renovated old houses owned or rented by non-Mexican.

After commenting on the diverse foreign population, which included “an attractive red-haired ex-violinist and his beautiful wife” and “a world-traveled and world-weary Englishman named H. B. Thompson,” Ellinger explained that:

Ajijic has achieved its popularity in part through the efforts of two Englishmen who… wrote a widely-read book called “Village in the Sun,” which extols the naive simplicity of this harmonious settlement. Neill James has also written extensively on the same subject and occupies a delightful home which encloses wide patios outlined by myriads of brilliant flowers. She grows Japanese silkworms and weaves the silk into blouses beautifully hand-embroidered by a handful of native women who work on the premises.”

Ellinger died at his home in Mountain View, California, on 10 June 1974.

Sources

  • Daily News (New York City), 28 March 1936, 174.
  • Edgar Ellinger, Jr. 1953. “Mexican Town Offers Peaceful Way of Life.” Arizona Republic, 2 August 1953, Section 2, 8.
  • New York Times. “Edgar Ellinger Jr.” (obituary). New York Times, 12 June 1974, 48.

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

Aug 052021
 

Little is known about Albert Alfredson’s visit to Lake Chapala, though a realist oil and crayon painting by him entitled “Humble Homes” with the notation “At Lake Chapala Mex,” and believed to date from about 1950, was offered for sale on eBay in July 2021.

Albert Alfredson. c 1950. "Humble Homes." Image from EBay.

Albert Alfredson. c 1950. “Humble Homes.” Image from eBay.

Alfredson was born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1907 and died in 1977.

He studied at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, The Art Institute of Chicago, the Palette & Chisel Academy of Fine Arts, and studied portraiture with Wellington J. Reynolds.

Alfredson was a member of numerous art groups, including the Brown County Art Guild Gallery of Nashville, Indiana; the Brownsville Art League in Texas; the American Artists Professional League; and the Oak Park Art League.

He was President of the Palette & Chisel Academy of Fine Arts from 1962-64, and was the Artist Director of the Municipal Art League of Chicago.

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

Apr 292021
 

Gerald van de Wiele was 19 years old when he visited Ajijic briefly with his good friend and fellow artist George “Jorge” Fick in 1951. Sixty-six years later, and despite never having returned to the area, van de Wiele completed an abstract painting entitled “Chapala.”

What were the circumstances of van de Wiele’s original visit, and why was it so long before he painted “Chapala”?

Born in Detroit in 1932, van de Wiele and Fick (1932-2004) visited Mexico more or less on a whim. After studying for a few months at the Art institute of Chicago on a national scholarship, van de Wiele had applied to Black Mountain College. The same day he received his acceptance letter, he also received his draft notice.

Gerald van de Wiele. 2017. Chapala (artist-made-frame). Credit: Artist Estate Studio.

Gerald van de Wiele. 2016-17. Chapala. (Acrylic on panel with artist’s handmade frame.) Reproduced by kind permission of the artist.

Before turning up for training, van de Wiele and his good friend Fick took a road trip out to California, where they spotted Lake Chapala while looking at a map of Mexico, and decided to catch the train to Guadalajara to see the lake for themselves.

It was November 1951. During the day or two they spent in Guadalajara, before catching the bus to Chapala, the two young men explored the city on foot. Beautiful classical piano music coming from a house they passed led them to knock on the door to thank the occupant. They were invited inside and introduced to a female pianist who was—said their host—“one of Mexico’s most famous pianists.” To this day, van de Wiele has no idea who the pianist was, but the young men were amazed by the hospitality and enthralled by the music. The magic of Mexico had struck again.

When Fick and van de Wiele got off the bus in Chapala they entered a hotel (possibly the Hotel Nido) where they met an American journalist who invited them to stay at his chalet overlooking the lake.

Even though van de Wiele stayed only two weeks at Lake Chapala, the visit was memorable and remained “every vivid” in his mind. (Fick stayed on in Chapala for a few months.)

On van de Wiele’s return to the US, he did his basic military training in San Diego. By lucky coincidence, he was then posted to join the 2nd Marine Division in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, from where he was able to use a couple of weekend passes for quick visits to Fick who was now studying at Black Mountain College. Having been forced to postpone his own studies, Van de Wiele, with funding from the G.I. Bill, attended the college from 1954 to 1956.

In addition to van de Wiele and Fick, other artists and writers linking Black Mountain College to Lake Chapala include painter Nicolas Muzenic (1919-1976) and writer Elaine Gottlieb (1916-2004).

The year after leaving Black Mountain College, van de Wiele, now married, joined with several friends to open Wells Street Gallery in Chicago. This gallery was partly financed by Stanley Sourelis (1925-2006), who later lived and painted in Ajijic for many years.

Van de Wiele held his first solo show at the Wells Street Gallery in October 1957. Two years later, van de Wiele moved to the much larger and more competitive art scene in New York City, which has been his home ever since.

Van de Wiele has exhibited regularly in New York, and his works can be found in numerous major private and institutional collections.

And van de Wiele’s painting, “Chapala”? Well, it turns out—the artist told me— that it has absolutely nothing to do with Chapala apart from the title! After completing the painting in 2017, van de Wiele was pondering the best title and “Chapala” popped into his head at just the right moment. “Chapala” was first exhibited in 2018 at a major retrospective of van de Wiele’s work, covering seven decades of painting and sculpture, at the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center in Asheville, North Carolina.

For more about Gerald van de Wiele and his amazing art, please visit his website.

[Note: Fick’s biography, as submitted to art websites by his widow, Judy Perlman, shows Fick as attending a “Mexican Art school Ajijic, Guadalajara” in 1951. However, van de Wiele has confirmed to me that Fick had not been in Ajijic previously, that they arrived in late November or early December 1951, and that their trip did not involve any formal art classes. There are no records of any winter art classes in Ajijic at that time.]

Acknowledgment

  • My sincere thanks to the artist for sharing his memories of his trip to Mexico with me, and for allowing me to reproduce “Chapala.”

Sources

  • Jason Andrew. 2018. “Gerald van de Wiele: Ever the Dreamer.” Introduction in the catalog of “Gerald van de Wiele: Variations Seven Decades of Painting, Drawing and Sculpture”, exhibition curated by Jason Andrew at Black Mountain College Museum + Art Center, 19 January to 19 May 2018.

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

Apr 082021
 

When I first wrote about Salomón Zepeda several years ago, I confessed that my research had failed to unearth anything of substance about him, despite the fact that he published a Spanish-language novel set at Lake Chapala in 1951.

Salomón Zepeda was the author of La Ondina de Chapala (“The Water Nymph of Chapala”), a 149-page Spanish-language novel published by Imprenta Ruíz in Mexico City. The cover art appears to be by “Magallón.”

Several subsequent attempts to find out more about the author met with equally dispiriting results. Knowing nothing beyond the cover of the novel, I had always assumed, based on the cover art, that it was almost certainly a pocket romance of relatively limited artistic merit.

zepeda-la-ondina-de-chapalaHowever, I was forced to revise my opinion after my able and indefatigable research assistant in Mexico, Sra. Maricruz Ibarra, managed to acquire scans of the entire book. Realizing that the novel was not simply a throw-away romance prompted me to try once again to seek more details of its elusive author.

I can finally offer a few tantalizing clues about the author’s life and work. Salomón Zepeda was born in Tala, Jalisco, on 5 May 1917. His parents were Juan Zepeda Lara (then aged 32) and Gregoria Mariscal (29). He apparently had at least two brothers: Feliciano and Jorge. A close reading of his novel strongly suggests that he had a privileged upbringing. He was certainly familiar with European literature, art and history.

Zepeda appears to have lived most of his life in Mexico City, where he died on 26 May 1985. His death certificate lists him as “single” and gives his occupation as “writer.” His home was at Privada Avena 7, Granjas Esmeralda, Tlalpan.

If you are interested in reading La Ondina de Chapala, you may be able to borrow, via inter-library loan, one of the copies held in a number of academic libraries in the U.S. These libraries include the “Southern Regional Library Facility” of the University of California Los Angeles.

While I have yet to find any evidence that he published a second book, the back page of La Ondina de Chapala refers to two works in progress: a collection of stories entitled Los Rostros Alucinados (“The Hallucinating Faces”) and a novel titled La Ciudad Doliente (“The Suffering City”). If you know anything about either of these works, please get in touch!

I take a closer look at La Ondina de Chapala in a separate post.

Note: This is an updated version of a post first published 12 December 2016.

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.

Mar 182021
 

Several photographs of Ajijic by Jacques Van Belle (ca 1924-2012) are captioned “Hotel Laguna.” They are believed to date from the late 1950s.

Jacques Van Belle. ca. 1960. Hotel Laguna, Ajijic.

Jacques Van Belle. ca. 1960. Hotel Laguna, Ajijic.

The main hotels in Ajijic at about the time of the photos were:

  1. Casa Heuer, a rustic lakefront property run by siblings Paul and Liesel Heuer west of the pier in Ajijic. ‘Pablo’ Heuer died in 1957. The architectural style of Casa Heuer does not match the photographs.
  2. Posada Ajijic, the centrally-located hotel, had its main entrance on Calle 16 de Septiembre and extended to the lakeshore. It had been operating an an hotel for more than thirty years before the Eager family ran it from 1976 to 1990. The Eagers closed Posada Ajijic in 1990 and immediately opened their own new hotel, La Nueva Posada, a few blocks further east.
  3. Quinta Mi Retiro (aka Hotel del General). This hotel was most active in the 1950s and 1960s.
  4. Hotel Anita. This small hotel was on Calle Juárez, and is the “Hotel Laguna” shown in these photographs. In 1967 it was renamed Hotel Villa del Lago.
Jacques Van Belle. ca. 1960. Hotel Laguna, Ajijic.

Jacques Van Belle. ca. 1960. Hotel Laguna, Ajijic.

The Hotel Villa del Lago (Hotel Laguna) was originally owned by Anita Chávez de Basulto; the business was later owned by Luis de Alba and his wife, Margaret.

Please get in touch if you can tell me any more about “Hotel Laguna” / Hotel Anita.

Sources

  • Guadalajara Reporter, 24 June 1967; 8 July 1967.

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

Feb 032021
 

Chester (“Chet”) P. Hewitt (1923-1980) lived in Ajijic for a time in the early to middle 1950s, according to Michael Hargraves in his 1992 booklet, Lake Chapala: A Literary Survey. Hewitt wrote The Gilded Hideaway, a novel set in Mexico (though not at Lakeside) published in New York by Ace Books in 1955, under the pseudonym of Peter Twist. The novel appears to be Hewitt’s only published work.

The front cover of the book proclaims that “He sought solace in the arms of a murderess!” A publicity quote says that the protagonist “longed for easy money, beautiful women and lush living. All he needed was one big haul.” The cover art is thought to be by Robert Maguire.

Chester Peter Hewitt was born in New York City on 4 November 1923 and grew up in Manhattan. After graduating from Lawrence High School, he completed only one year of college, and was still unmarried when he enlisted in the U.S. Air Corps on 18 March 1943.

Hewitt-Cover-Gilded-Hideaway

It seems likely that Hewitt was only in Ajijic for a relatively short time, before relocating to the US Virgin Islands. By 1967, according to a Waco-Times article, Hewitt was a “slender, mustachioed”, 43-year-old, “retired civil engineer”, who had saved enough money from working in construction in St. Thomas for many years to move to Mexico City. After nine months there, he and his wife, Lucy, moved to Acapulco, where they “took over a four bedroom house overlooking the ocean, with a swimming pool in the front yard.”

The focus of the Waco-Times article was Hewitt’s humanitarian role in assisting American and Canadian prisoners locked up in the Acapulco jail. Apparently, Hewitt had been detained overnight following a vehicle accident outside a prominent hotel, and while there compiled a list of foreign prisoners, the charges they faced, and contact details for their families. On his release, he set about contacting families and trying to arrange for some of the prisoners to have fines or other debts paid and thereby gain their release. In many cases, his efforts proved successful. Hewitt visited the prisoners regularly, twice a week, with “books, food and hope”.

Even though The Gilded Hideaway is not set at Lake Chapala, it was almost certainly written in Ajijic. Hewitt’s links to Ajijic were strengthened by his marriage to Jane Twist (1914-2011) in the early 1950s, shortly after she divorced her second husband, the “9-fingered” violinist John Langley, who also had close ties to Ajijic.

“Peter Twist”—the pseudonym used for his only novel—combined Hewitt’s middle name with his wife’s maiden name.

After Hewitt’s marriage to Jane Twist also ended in divorce, she reportedly moved to Florida.

In 1961, Hewitt married Lucy Hamilton Prendergast (1923-1980); that marriage lasted until 1974. Chester Hewitt died in the U.S. Virgin Islands on 15 December 1980 at the age of 57.

Please contact us if you are able to add any more details about the life and work of this noble novelist.

[Note: This is an updated version of a post first published 2 May 2016]

Sources

Kevin M. Kelleghan. 1967. “Brings Them Hope: He may not be a “do-gooder” but those in Acapulco jail think so.” Waco-Times, 20 July 1967, 11.

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

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