Aug 132020
 

Ever since I first stumbled across two woodblock prints by Raphael Greno, I have wanted to see more examples of his work, characterized by a superb eye for detail and high-quality workmanship. So imagine my surprise and delight a week ago when I received an email from a collector with images of another Ajijic print by Greno. This one is especially intriguing.

The subjects of the four Greno prints I’ve seen previously—for details, see Raphael and Vee Greno, multi-talented artists who lived in Ajijic in the 1970s—are all readily identifiable. This latest Ajijic print, entitled “Don Elpidio,” is a powerful study of an elderly man, most likely a resident of Ajijic.

Raphael Greno. "Don Elpidio"

Raphael Greno. “Don Elpidio”

I know that at least two of Greno’s other prints date back to the 1950s; it is possible that he was still producing them as late as the 1970s.

Can anyone tell me more about this gentleman or his family? It would be fantastic to learn more about the subject of Raphael Greno’s masterful portrait.

Acknowledgment

  • I am very grateful to Jacob Hayman for bringing this work to my attention and for providing the excellent photograph.

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 082020
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related post:

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

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

Jun 042020
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Otto’s legacy

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

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

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

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

Acknowledgment

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

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

 Posted by at 5:25 am  Tagged with:
Apr 162020
 

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

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

Photo by Haig Shekerjian.

Portrait by Haig Shekerjian.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source:

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

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

Feb 272020
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Baxte. Portrait of a lady.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Baxte died in Mexico City in 1972.

Acknowledgment

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

Sources

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

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 202020
 

What was Ajijic like 70 years ago? Well, a recently-found article by Zoe Kernick  in Mexican Life gives us some tantalizing glimpses into life in the village back then.

A single overly-long sentence sets the scene and hints at some of the conflicts and contradictions that life in the village, even then, entailed:

For the pamphlet department, Ajijic is a quaint primitive village, full of fisherfolk; for Neill James, noted Petticoat Vagabond, it possesses the placidity of Paradise; for the tourist, it can be sometimes drab, though, if he becomes acquainted with certain of the residents, it can become an exultant drunken town; for the clergy of Guadalajara, an evil village, a place that Sunday parishioners must be warned against in scarlet words; for lovers, flowers trumpet against the patina of night-pink walls, remnants of rainfall glitter in the darkness, and from the Miradores, stately stars travel in ancient and tranquil paths over the lake; for some of us, who are formed by our own particular village vision, into a triple entente, Ajijic is a place of humor, a humor without logic, a witchcraft humor, where lights go on and off, where church bells ring for no apparent reason, where definitions can suddenly fly apart like a giant castillo with all its figures shooting off into the air.

Kernick lists several noted foreign residents, such as Pablo Heuer and his sister Louisa (“who run a pension which continues its primitive existence as though electricity and showers had never come to the village”), the ballerina La Russe, writer Neill James and the English couple, Herbert Johnson (“the village squire”) and his wife, Georgette.

She also writes a great deal about Mexican artist “Ernesto Linares” (real name Ernesto Butterlin) who, she informs readers,

“has known Ajijic since he was a small boy, week-ending with his family from Guadalajara…. A great deal of the spirit which guides the carnival gaiety of nightly fiestas, is due to Mr. Linares, for his competent hands are as deft with bottles as with brushes.”

Kernick offers a description of his recently opened store which “resembles a modern art gallery” and “sells hand-painted materials, pottery, leather goods” as well as paintings by village artists, including Linares, Nicolas Muzenic and Tobias Scheebaum.

The three artists are all involved in summer art classes for visitors from the US, and,

“As the bus with its twenty students and New York director, Mrs irma Jonas, rolled into Ajijic on the morning of July 10, 1949, it was met by the town lads in charro costume, pivoting about on their horses like Indians circling a caravan. The students were conducted to the Posada, rented for their stay, and then taken to a reception at the home of Mr. Linares. Everyone came to welcome them: the conglomerate foreign colonies of Ajijic and Chapala, the villagers, the charro lads. Martinis made music and mariachis made noise.”

Two oil paintings by Ann Medalie, the most striking of which is this unusual view across the lake (with the garden of Hubert and Georgette Johnson in the foreground) are used to illustrate Kernick’s article.

Ann Medalie. Ajijic Landscape (oil). ca 1945

Ann Medalie. Ajijic Landscape (oil). ca 1945

Kernick rhapsodises about the “spontaneous carnival spirit” of Ajijic, especially at fiesta time at the end of November when “castillos blaze at night in the plaza, spitting with great revolving wheels of silver sparks, golden fire; and dark Madonnas of parchment sail into the air.”

She is less enchanted with the local celebration of “Carnival,” when

“tired street oxen are herded into an arena where tequila-reeling men bite their tails to goad them into attitudes of fury; the whole town cheers on flimsy stands so crowded that both orchestra and audience are liable to imminent collapse. The Hero of each day is He Who Gets Gored, and each citizen contributes money to pay for the hero’s hospital bills, or for his funeral.”

On the other hand, she loves the Day of the Blessing of the Animals, when

“Every animal in the village, from bulls to pet doves, from pigs to cats to burros, to goats, are bathed and sprayed with perfume. Some of the animals are lovingly painted with color and always they are bowed in great satin pink and red ribbons. The animals are then led under the wall of the church where the priest stands, reading to them an imposing text, and scattering over their sweet heads his liquid dispensation. Things often get a trifle out of hand, as bulls start bellowing, armadillos run away, and spoiled cats climb up the priest’s robe.”

Things quietened down during the winter season, when

“Most of the entertaining is done en casa; supper parties on terraces beautiful with an arrangement of white flowers, white candles, women in long white gowns, silver sandals, and unfashionably long hair. The manner of living, graciously casual, inexpensive, yet fastidious, creates a fine fashion of its own.”

To avoid creating the wrong impression among her readers, Kernick takes pains to conclude that “All of this might be called a seed thrust of civilization; but Ajijic is not an art colony, and it is not a resort.”

Source

  • Zoe Kernick. 1951. “Ajijic.” Mexican Life, April 1951, 13-14, 58, 60, 62-63.

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 132020
 

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

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

Violette Mege. Lavandera de Ajijic (El Nacional, 1954)

Violette Mege. Lavandera de Ajijic (El Nacional, 1954)

Violette Clarisse Mège (or variants Mege and Mége) was born in Algeria in 1889. When she became the first woman to win a prestigious Beaux Art competition in Algeria in 1914, the organizers only awarded her the scholarship after the French government intervened on her behalf.

Mège had work exhibited in a group show in Paris in 1916 at the Latin Quarter Association. After winning the Beaux Art scholarship for a second time, she decided to broaden her horizons and used the prize money to travel to New York with her younger sister, Emma, in 1916.

Her New York trip proved to be a pivotal moment in her life. She fell in love with Michael Posner Baxte, an up-and-coming violinist and composer. The couple briefly visited Mège’s homeland before settling in Manhattan, New York, where they married in 1920.

Mège held a solo show of her paintings at The Touchstone galleries in New York in 1917. A critic described this as “an exhibition of singular attraction by a very bold student of color, Violet Mege, an Algerian who paints her native land, showing rich color effects where light is not toned by shadow, her shadows being almost negligible in values. Her figure work is good, especially in the portrait of a woman and a violinist.” The violinist was, presumably, Michael Baxte.

Violette Mege. Still life. (Auctioned by Black Rock Galleries in 2013)

Violette Mège. Still life. (Auctioned by Black Rock Galleries in 2013)

Her work was also praised in a group show the following year at the Macdowell Club: “The spirit of the manners and customs, as well as the costumes of the strange people pictured by her is quaintly and withal pleasingly worked out. Sometimes her work halts before it should, but is particularly noteworthy in its freshness and excellent coloring. Miss Mege is not always so good in her rendering of flowers.”

Mège had paintings of Algeria and of a Cypress tree in New York included in the Third Annual Exhibition of The Society of Independent Artists at the Waldorf Astoria in New York in 1919.

Inspired by his wife, Baxte began to paint. Mège was his only teacher, and he was her only student. Her classes and encouragement paid off a decade later when Baxte was chosen as one of the two winners in the Dudensing National Competition for American Painters.

For the next decade, Mège devoted herself to teaching her husband to paint and helping him refine his techniques. According to a 1930 newspaper account, she rarely painted during this time, and it was only after her husband’s work was widely acclaimed that she “she picked up her palette and brushes where she had laid them down on marriage.”

In 1930 she held a solo exhibit at the Delphic Studios in Battle Creek, Michigan.

The couple lived in France during the 1930s. They left when the second world war began and, by 1941, had moved to Mexico, where Mège exhibited her paintings at “Decoración Gallieres” the following year. Mège and her husband had a home (later owned by Rufino Tamayo) in Coyoacán and traveled to various parts of Mexico. Many of their paintings show landscapes and people in Michoacán and western Mexico.

As in the case of her painting “Lavandera de Ajijic”, exhibited in Mexico City in 1954 and reproduced in El Nacional, Mège often signed paintings using only her surname. This painting was shown, alongside work of her husband, in an exhibition of 20 non-Mexican artists from 12 regions of Mexico at the Salón de la Plástica Mexicana in Mexico City. The El Nacional’s art critic was less than generous in his appreciation of the couple’s work, writing that though “the works of Mège and her husband display some well-observed Mexican aspects,” neither “had a strong sense of color.”

Mège died in Mexico City on 11 May 1968 at the age of 69.

Acknowledgment

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

Sources

  • American Art News. 1916. “Paris Letter.” American Art News, Vol. 14, #33 (10 May 1916).
  • Battle Creek Enquirer (Michigan). 1930. Battle Creek Enquirer 4 May 1930, 26.
  • Michael Baxte. 1942. “Violette Mége.” Mexican Life, v 18 (October 1942).
  • P. Fernandez Marquez. 1954. “La Exposicón de Artistas Huéspedes.” El Nacional,
    1954; Suplemento Dominical, 6.
  • The International Studio: an Illustrated Magazine of Fine and Applied Art. 1918. (November 1917-February 1918).
  • The Evening World (New York), 2 December 1918, 11.

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 062020
 

Language educator and writer Katharine (“Katie”) Goodridge Ingram was born in Mexico City on 23 June 1938 to American parents. Her father, Ezra Read Goodridge, was a rare book dealer and her mother, Helen Kirtland, a fashion designer.

Katie spent her early childhood in Mexico City. In the mid-1940s, when her parents’ marriage came to an end, her mother took Katie (then eight) and her two brothers (two- and ten-years-old, respectively) to live in Ajijic on the shores of Lake Chapala. Her very determined mother began this new phase of her life by becoming an entrepreneur, starting a weaving business and using her design skills to create fashionable clothes and accessories.

Katie’s creative non-fiction memoir of her childhood in Mexico City and Ajijic – According to Soledad: memories of a Mexican childhood – has just been published. It is a compelling read. Advance readers have described According to Soledad as a literary equivalent of the award-winning movie Roma (2018), written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón. However, whereas Roma was set in 1970-71, According to Soledad is set earlier, in 1947-52.

Katie was born to write. At the urging of German poet Gustav Regler, a friend of the family, she began to write her autobiography at the age of 9! She still treasures the wonderful response she received after writing about this at the time to another family friend at the University of Michigan. In part, the reply reads: “I am delighted that you haven’t yet finished either your book or your life… the latter at any rate really ought to be a fascinating subject. You go ahead and finish the book, anyhow, and I’ll bet you can get it published. Certainly you can if your letter is any indication of your auctorial prowess!”

In Ajijic, Katie was educated by a series of private tutors. At the age of 14, after her mother remarried and her father died in a Mexico City nightclub fire, Katie was sent north to The Putney School, an independent high school in Vermont, to complete high school. A bright and precocious student, Katie subsequently graduated from Pomona College, a liberal arts college in Claremont, California, in 1959.

After Pomona, Katie taught at Hamlin School in San Francisco (1959–1961) and Wesley School, Cape Coast, Ghana (1963–1965).

While living in the US, Katie returned to Ajijic every summer. In 1973 she settled in the village full-time with her two children and managed the Galería del Lago art gallery from 1973 to 1978. She then opened her own Mi México gallery in Ajijic which she continued to own until 1992. During her time in Mexico, Katie co-founded the bilingual Oak Hill School at Lake Chapala in 1974. She was also the area’s regional correspondent for the Mexico City News, writing a regular weekly column covering local art, culture and current events.

In 1981, Katie moved back to California, where she ran Gallery Bazar El Paseo in Santa Barbara for the next eight years. Katie co-founded the Santa Barbara Poetry Festival in 1990 and was a scholar at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference in 2002 and 2003.

She returned to teaching in the 1990s. While working at Ojai Valley School (1992–1994), she gained a certificate in teaching English as a Second Language from the University California, Santa Barbara. Katie then moved to the Crane School in Santa Barbara, where she chaired the Spanish department from 1997 to 2002.

Katie has regularly contributed poems and stories to collections and anthologies, such as A Bird Black as the Sun: California Poets on Crows & Ravens, edited by Enid Osborn and Cynthia Anderson in 2011, and Solo Novo: Psalms of Cinder and Silt (2019).

Her short story “Swimming Under Salvador”, the basis for chapter 14 of According to Soledad, won the nonfiction prize in the New Millennium Awards 26 in 2008. It was summarized on that occasion as “the account of a torrid love affair in Central America from the perspective of a small child whose loyalties are torn when she is rescued from drowning by her mother’s lover, a famous sculptor.”

Katie lives with her husband, Jim, an artist and retired architect, in Ojai, California.

According to Soledad, Katie’s first full length published work, is available in both print and Kindle editions via Amazon. Print copies will also be available at select locations (Diane Pearl, La Nueva Posada, Mi México) in Ajijic by the end of February.

Buy your copy today: According to Soledad

Acknowledgment

My sincere thanks to Katie for sharing her memories with me and for entrusting me with helping her publish According to Soledad.

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

Jan 092020
 

Among the amorous beauties who enlivened the party scene in Ajijic in the early 1950s is one who is particularly noteworthy: Zoe Kernick (1915-2006).

Born on 21 May 1915 in Oakland, California, Dorothy Zoe Kernick was raised by her mother, Dorothy E Copeland, and stepfather, George Arthur Kernick. Zoe attended Occidental College, a private liberal arts college in Los Angeles.

Hoping to become a writer, Zoe had several poems and at least one story published in El Palenque, magazine produced by the Associated Students of the San Diego State College. Her short story, Interpretation, appeared in the Fall 1935 issue of El Palenque, followed in Spring 1936 by a poem, of which this is the opening stanza:

“What do you know of me
Whose lips meet mine,
Between the cool grass, in the dew?
I drink the wine
Of all this ecstasy
And still evade you.”

In 1939, and after spending some time in Hawaii, Zoe was one of four Chula Vista, California, poets whose work was chosen for “major poetry anthologies” issued by Henry Harrison, a New York poetry publisher.

By 1942, she had married, divorced, and was about to remarry. On 12 June 1942 she married Claude E. Smithers (a native of New York) in Cd. Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico. Zoe described herself as a journalist and resident of Chula Vista, California but spent much of the following year in Mexico, with a prolonged stay in Acapulco; it is unclear whether or not her husband accompanied her.

Early in 1948 Zoe was the Social Editor of the Carmel Pine Cone in California.

Late in 1948 or 1949, following an affair with Henry Miller, Zoe arrived in Ajijic looking for a good time. She quickly found it, becoming the glamorous female companion of three artists—Ernesto Butterlin, Toby Schneebaum and Nicolas Muzenic—entwined in their own complex love triangle. When Butterlin ran a summer art school (on behalf of Irma Jonas) in Ajijic in 1949, he employed the other two artists to help him.

According to Schneebaum, the ill-fated love triangle that developed between the three artists was greatly complicated by the arrival of “haughty and radiantly beautiful” Zoe, the “fourth member of our group”, who had previously been living with Henry Miller in Big Sur, when she heard about Lynn [Butterlin] and decided to visit Ajijic.

Katie Goodridge Ingram, who grew up in Ajijic at this time and later ran an art gallery in the village, recalls that ” Zoe was one of the stunningly beautiful woman you could ever see. She slathered coconut oil all over and then went down to the (then) wonderful old stone pier and tanned herself generously for hours.”

Zoe continued to write and her account of life in Ajijic at this time (which we will look at in a separate post) was published in Mexican Life in April 1951.

Leaving Ajijic, Zoe returned to California, where she lived in Sausalito and worked as “Marin Shopping Guide columnist.” She attended a cocktail opening of works by Jean Varda at the Tin Angel on the Embarcadero in San Francisco in June 1953 at which fellow guests included the “Ernie Alexanders.” Zoe would likely have known this couple—Black American artist Ernest Alexander and his Canadian wife, Dolly—very well from numerous prior raucous evenings in Alex’s Scorpion Club in Ajijic.

A couple of years later, on 18 May 1955, Zoe married a San Francisco Chronicle reporter, George Draper (son of designer Dorothy Draper). The couple made their home in Sausalito, but had parted company by the time George died in 1992.

According to author Carol Sklenicka, Zoe’s history included modelling for Salvador Dalí, and giving very poor suntanning advice to a friend – to use “baby oil mixed with iodine as skin lotion.”

Zoe Kernick, who had enjoyed a fuller and more exciting life than most, died in Salinas, California, on 14 March 2006.

Acknowledgment

My grateful thanks to Katie Goodridge Ingram, author of According to Soledad: memories of a childhood in Mexico, for her recollections about Zoe Kernick and Ajijic.

Sources

  • Carmel Pine Cone, 30 January 1948.
  • The Chula Vista Star (Chula Vista, California): 2 February 1934, 3; 16 June 1939, 4; 20 August 1943, 3;
  • Zoe Kernick. 1951. “Ajijic.” Mexican Life, April 1951, 13-14, 58, 60, 62-63.
  • Sausalito News: 25 June 1953, 3; 27 May 1955, 3.
  • Carol Sklenicka. 2019. Alice Adams: Portrait of a Writer. Scribner.

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 052019
 

At the beginning of his art career, Michael Boyd and his wife, Verlaine (a writer and poet), lived for several months in Ajijic.

Boyd was born in Waterloo, Iowa, on 27 November 1936 and died in Ithaca, New York, at the age of 78, on 29 September 2015. He and his wife moved to Ajijic shortly after he graduated with an honors degree in art from the University of Northern Iowa in 1959. Staying in Ajijic does not appear to have directly influenced his painting style, though living in relative solitude at Lake Chapala may have helped him decide to pursue simplicity in his paintings rather than over-elaboration.

Michael Boyd. Untitled.

Michael Boyd. Untitled.

From Ajijic, the couple moved to New York City and joined the city’s vibrant downtown artists’ community, where Boyd worked in graphic design, honed his skills as a jazz pianist and began producing abstract impressionist paintings.

In 1968 Boyd accepted a position on the faculty at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Thereafter, he divided his time between Ithaca and New York, where he maintained a loft studio. At Cornell he taught courses in basic design in the Department of Design and Environmental Analysis in the College of Human Ecology. Boyd held a tenured professorship at Cornell from 1970 until his retirement in 1995.

Michael Boyd. 1995. Hood. Collection: UNI

Michael Boyd. 1995. Hood. Part of the Waterloo Series. Collection: UNI

Alongside his academic work, Boyd continued to paint. He became fascinated by the idea of minimalism, distilling paintings down to their core structure. His intense focus on form and color was much admired by critics and collectors. His first major solo exhibition was at the the Max Hutchinson Gallery in New York, where he held several one-person shows in the 1970s. Boyd had more than 40 solo exhibitions in his lifetime, including shows in Zurich and Milan.

Examples of his art can be found in the permanent collections of such prestigious institutions as the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, The David Rockefeller Collection at Chase Manhattan Bank, The Albright Knox Gallery in Buffalo, and The Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia.

Michael Boyd. Exhibit at Eric Firestone Loft, 2017.

Michael Boyd. Exhibit at Eric Firestone Loft, 2017.

In 2017 the Eric Firestone Loft in New York held an exhibition of Boyd’s works from a particularly creative time in his life, 1970-1972. Entitled That’s How the Light Gets In the show was enthusiastically reviewed. Charles Riley II, for example, wrote that, “A visit to the stunning Michael Boyd show at Eric Firestone Gallery Loft in New York might make visitors wish they had been pupils in the artist’s design class at Cornell…. The collective impact of these brilliantly hued abstract works, all produced during a marvelous creative jag from 1970 through 1972, is both contemplative and joyful.”

I would love to learn more about Michael Boyd’s stay in Ajijic in 1959-60. Please contact me if you can supply more details.

Sources

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

 Posted by at 5:48 am  Tagged with:
Oct 172019
 

In the early 1950s, Ajijic was a center for art classes marketed primarily in the U.S. The classes and workshops attracted a wide diversity of painters of equally varied artistic backgrounds.

Several of the young students studying in Ajijic at that time went on to forge stellar careers in the art world. We looked at the extraordinary work of Barbara Zacheisz Elstob in a previous post.

In this post we focus on Jorge Fick. Born George Fick in Detroit, Michigan, in 1932, Fick changed his first name to its Hispanic version – Jorge – following his time studying art in Ajijic in 1951 and in deference to Hispanic culture.

Prior to studying in Ajijic, Fick attended Cass Technical School, a public trade school in Detroit, between 1947 and 1950, and studied at the city’s Society of Arts and Crafts from 1950 to 1951.

It is unclear how he came to study in Ajijic but it certainly had a profound impact on his life as an artist.

After Ajijic, Fick studied from 1952 to 1955 at Black Mountain College, whose faculty, at one time or another, included such artistic luminaries as Josef Albers, Anni Albers, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Buckminster Fuller and Aaron Siskind.

His decision to study at Black Mountain College immediately after Ajijic is especially interesting and may well have been prompted by one of his teachers in Mexico. The art workshops in Ajijic were led by local artist Ernesto Butterlin, ably assisted by “Nick” Muzenic. Alexander Nicolas Muzenic (1919-1976) had studied at Black Mountain College, under the legendary Josef Albers, from about 1945 to 1948 before moving to Ajijic. Albers and his wife, Anni, subsequently visited the village for a few days – to reconnect with their former student – and this may have coincided with Fick’s study visit. It is tempting to speculate that Muzenic, perhaps with help from Albers, persuaded Fick to attend Black Mountain College.

Jorge Fick. 1952. Where War Is. Credit: Eric Firestone Gallery

Jorge Fick. 1952. Where War Is. Credit: Eric Firestone Gallery

In 1953, Fick was staying in New York when he lent a suit to poet and author Dylan Thomas, who wore it three days before he died. The suit was returned to Fick and is now proudly displayed in the Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea, Wales.

Fick’s tutors at Black Mountain College were Franz Kline, Philip Guston, Jack Tworkov, Joseph Fiore, Esteban Vicente (collage) and Peter Voulkos (pottery). He thrived in the liberal artistic atmosphere of the college and graduated in 1955 with a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts degree. After graduating, Fick shared a studio in New York for some time with Kline, his college mentor. Kline had previously invited Fick to exhibit at the Stable Gallery and had encouraged him to explore abstract expressionism.

Jorge Fick. 1965. Zoroaster.

Jorge Fick. 1965. Zoroaster.

In 1958, Fick moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico. He spent the remainder of his life (he died in 2004) in New Mexico, dividing his time between Santa Fe and Taos. He made significant contributions to the art scene in New Mexico. In addition to developing his own painting techniques, including large-scale “Pod” oil paintings that combine abstraction, Pop art and cartoons, Fick also printed Eliot Porter’s environmental photographs (1962-1968), acted as a color consultant to architect-designer, Alexander Girard, responsible for the rebrand of Braniff Airlines, and collaborated with Cynthia Homire on glazed stoneware pieces.

Between 1969 and 1983, Fick ran “The Fickery” Gallery and Art Space at 720 Canyon Road in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Fick’s paintings won numerous awards. His work featured in numerous solo and group shows including the Museum of New Mexico Biennial (1971, 1998); the International Folk Art Museum in Santa Fe (1971, 1972); Colorado Springs Fine Arts Museum (1972); Roswell Museum (1972); Taos Artist Association Annual (1994); St. John’s College, Santa Fe (solo show, 1994); Albuquerque Museum (1996).

Examples of Fick’s paintings can be seen in many important public collections, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Harwood Museum, Taos; New Mexico Museum of Art, Santa Fe; Phoenix Art Museum; Roswell Museum; Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, Massachusetts.

Sources

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

Sep 262019
 

Prior to 1908, when the south-eastern part of Lake Chapala was drained for agriculture, the town of Sahuayo was very close to the shore of the lake. Sahuayo is where Mexican poet Luis Arceo Preciado was born on 24 January 1926. Arceo, one of eight siblings, died there in 2018.

According to his biography in Enciclopedia de la literatura en México, Arceo studied at Montezuma College in New Mexico (then a Jesuit seminary) before completing postgraduate degrees in Hispanic literature from La Universidad del Altiplano and the Centro de Estudios Superiores Dante Alighieri.

Arceo combined poetry writing with a teaching career, which included working at the Escuela Normal Superior Juana de Asbaje (in Zamora, Michoacán) and supervising teachers in the telesecundaria system for the Ciénaga region at the eastern end of Lake Chapala.

Arceo won more than thirty poetry awards in Mexico. He wrote more than a dozen books of poems, including Huellas en el Tiempo (1964); El Llamado Inútil; Poemas de Alguna Vez; La Tierra de los Paisajes Doloridos; El Cid y el Juglar; Poemas Mayores; ¿Qué hacen mis raíces en la Tierra?; De Paso por la Mancha; Décimas Sacramentales; Cantos Testimoniales para una Amiga (2004); Itinerario del Amor y de la Ausencia.

He is one of the seven poets whose work featured in De Esta Tierra Nuestra; Antología Poética (Colección Sahuayo No. I, 1972) and his poems were also included in Antología del Primer Festival Internacional de Poesía Morelia 1981 (1982, selected and edited by Homero Aridjis), Juegos Florales (V) (1991) and El viaje y sus rituales (2016).

Arceo, who was the first Cronista of the City of Sahuayo, from 1984-1986, was the founding director of the literary group “Cero Al Poniente” and an organizer of the national “Sahuayo Prize for Literature”, held in Sahuayo the first Friday in December each year. He also founded three literary magazines: Pórtico, Caracol and Aristas.

Examples of his work have been translated into English, Catalan and P’urépecha, the language of the indigenous inhabitants of Michoacán.

Source

  • Anon. “Luis Arceo Preciado“. Enciclopedia de la literatura en México ELEM (Fundación para las Letras Mexicanas).

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

 Posted by at 5:08 am  Tagged with:
Sep 122019
 

American lecturer and journalist Mable F. Knight wrote two travel articles about Ajijic in the 1950s. In the first, published in the magazine of the Pemex Travel Club in 1952, Knight concluded that,

“Ajijic is not a tourist resort and never will be for many years to come, but for those who want to see the real Mexico it is adorable. It is just a narrow strip of land between mountains and lake with more mountains across the lake and burros everywhere.”

Times, of course, have changed, and Ajijic has moved on, though not necessarily for the better in the eyes of many old-timers.

So, just what did Knight report on in her first article? She mentioned the books about Ajijic by Dane Chandos and Neill James and described two hotels in Chapala: the Nido and the Montecarlo. Knight reported that there were three places to stay in Ajijic: the “private home” of the Heuers with its bungalows, the Posada Ajijic “which has recently changed hands” and the General’s House (or Quinta Mi Retiro) with its “elegant bungalows, designed for Mexican families with maids”, each of which had views of the lake.

Knight decided that one of the main attractions in Ajijic was Neill James, the American authoress who had settled there a decade earlier. Her hagiographic portrait of James suggests that perhaps Knight was visiting Ajijic at her behest. Knight described how James had 80 workers sewing blouses (and this in a village of barely 2500 residents) and was adored by her two maids: María Perales and Consuelo Gómez. The article is illustrated with several photos including one of James and her dog, Pluto. Another member of the menagerie that lived in James’ tropical gardens was Paco, a parrot that had formerly lived at Villa Montecarlo in Chapala.

Mabel F. Knight, 1929.

Mabel F. Knight, 1929.

Knight’s second article about Ajijic, published in the Mexican American Review in 1955, is focused solely on James, with chapter and verse about how she had introduced silkworms to Ajijic and started a successful silk business. According to Knight, James had first tried to start a knitting business, which failed, and then cross-stitch embroidery which had become such a success that one room of James’s house was “piled with blouses, skirts, towels, and cocktail napkins.” Now she was diversifying and had a “room where more than 60,000 silk worms were at work nibbling the mulberry leaves which grow on the estate.”

Just who was Mabel F. Knight? She was a really colorful character who billed herself as Ta-de-win (“Maiden of the Winds”), the ceremonial name she was given by the Omaha tribe of Indians in Nebraska in the summer of 1923.

Knight was born in Boston on 29 November 1879 and graduated from Everett High School. She completed a degree at Tufts College and studied French and German in Europe for two years. On her return to the U.S. she gave lectures on European travel and taught modern languages in a series of high schools, including Wayland and Peterboro in New Hampshire and Augusta in Maine.

The Boston native donned traditional dress when lecturing. Attired in full Indian regalia, she kept audiences spellbound with tales and performances of the music, legends and dances of the Omaha. Knight used her extensive knowledge of the Omaha to write a two-act play Wild Rose and Swift Arrow about a young Indian, Swift Arrow, and his love for an Indian maiden, Wild Rose. Other characters in the play include Chief Wild Eagle (“an old, wise Indian Chief”), Stalwart Joe (“a World War Veteran”), Black Hawk (“An irrepressible Indian”) and a trader and his wife.

Her repertoire of lectures, all illustrated by colored lantern slides, had such titles as “In Camp with the Omahas”, “Our New England Indians”, “The Six Nations of N. Y. State” and “The Art, Life and Lore of the American Indian”.

The Special Collections Department in the library of the University of Iowa Libraries holds various papers relating to Mabel F. Knight and her lecture career.

Sources

  • Mabel F Knight. 1952. “Ajijic – The Gem of Jalisco”, Pemex Travel Club magazine, 1 Feb 1952: 2-4
  • Mabel F Knight. 1955. “The Silkworm returns to Mexico”. Mexican American Review (Mexico City: American Chamber of Commerce of Mexico), Vol XXIII #8 (August 1955) 16, 33.

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 012019
 

The novel El gran Chapa, by Juan Pablo Guzmán Alemán, was awarded the first ever Premio Jalisco for literature in 1950 and was published the following year. The distinguished jury that selected El Gran Chapa was comprised of Mariano Azuela, Enrique González Martínez, Agustín Yáñez, José Cornejo Franco, José R. Benítez and José Ruiz Medrano.

The only reviews in the U.S. of El Gran Chapa were by Winston Allin Reynolds, a professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of California at Santa Barbara, who subsequently wrote the introduction to the author’s second novel, Llaga viva.

In his short review of El gran Chapa for Books Abroad, Reynolds wrote that the 290-page “prize-winning novel departs from the traditional pattern in many respects.” The emphasis lay “on deep psychological probing into the emotional drives of the Mexican.” Reynolds argued that it was well constructed artistically and imprisoned “the reader in the characters’ awful little world of violence and ‘love-hatred.'”

Cover-El-Gran-Chapo

In a lengthier and more analytical review in Spanish for Revista Iberoamericana, Reynolds explained that the book was a significant work of provincial fiction because its “talented author” had resisted the allure of moving to the capital city, preferring “the quiet and anonymous life of his native region,” where he could live and work “away from ambition.”

As Reynolds pointed out, provincial fiction is too-often regarded as somehow inherently inferior to the works produced in a country’s capital city. Capital cities were thought to offer a “propitious and stimulating environment for artistic creation” and far more “pecuniary and professional opportunities”.

However, Reynolds argued that El gran Chapa was not a traditional regionalist novel, where the emphasis was on a solid plot and realistic depiction of life, but was more modernist. The book was an artistic creation whose “pages that vibrate with emotive power” sought to capture the “spiritual and sensitive depth” of the Mexican.

Reynolds summarized the plot:
– “A young Indian seminarist returns to his people in the Chapala Lake region, which groans under the most brutal caciquismo. This deep-rooted social disease is the heritage of the despotic pre-Cortesian chieftain Chapa, ruler of the ancient kingdom called Chapalac. The seminarist is gradually and painfully drawn back into the environment, and after a series of emotional crises his mystical character finds an outlet in a wild dream of liberating his race from themselves and uniting them in a movement of great brotherly love. The drama is climaxed by his inevitable destruction at the hands of his own people, still incapable of throwing off their inherent barbarism.”

The book opens with about a dozen people on horseback, including the seminarian, riding down from the hills towards Chapala:

Now the views rolled down the slopes until they bounced off the bottom of the ravines divided into geometric cultivated plots. The beasts trampled their hooves in the stony path that widened with premeditated plan to allow for the wheels of carts and cars. This road was a novelty that contrasted with the old anonymous tracks that the muleteers had made and it was like the door that Chapala opened to the world so that tourists and merchants began to plague its beach, its streets, its indigenous heart. A rough route, but many automobiles (small Fords) had already begun a flow of traffic that covered the distance at incredible speeds (from twenty to thirty kilometers an hour) to bring the bourgeois and foreigners who misused the near-virginity of the region.” [9-10]

This adept paragraph not only provides a setting for the action but sets up one of the central conflicts of the novel, the differences between old ways and new. It more than hints at class differences, environmental changes and the adverse impacts of tourism.

In terms of plot, the seminarian eventually “begins to fall under the mysterious influence of the great gods that inhabit the lake” and decides that the only way forward from his “tremendous spiritual chaos” is to concoct a plan to free his people. In Reynolds’ words, “[He] believes himself called by divine inspiration to unite the fishermen in a great movement of brotherly love. He will be their redeemer and will save them, despite their own resistance.” Unfortunately, his plan has an air of doomed inevitability about it. When it fails, “the seminarian, raptured by violent psychological currents in a state of perpetual crisis, ends up being cruelly destroyed by his own people.”

Reynolds felt that the novel “affords a valuable insight into the Mexican’s enigmatic reaction to life, subjectively interpreted by the author’s own intensity of feeling and artistic skill” and that El gran Chapa was “a novel that although it is unlikely to acquire great renown, will remain as an interesting effort, of great literary quality. Its pages are a magnificent example of what an author from the provinces can achieve.”

I would go significantly further than Reynolds in applauding the genius of this book, which is remarkable for its psychological insights into the mixed feelings of Lake Chapala’s indigenous residents as they responded to the massive influx of outsiders, tourists and foreigners during the 20th century.

It is both ironic and tragic that this beautifully-crafted novel, El gran Chapa, with its perceptive examination of how the area’s indigenous people perceived outsiders and foreigners, is no longer in print and no longer readily available.

Source

  • Juan Pablo Guzmán Alemán. 1951. El gran Chapa. Guadalajara: Gobierno del Estado de Jalisco. (Translations by TB; all rights reserved)
  • Winston A. Reynolds. 1951. “Juan Pablo Guzmán Alemán. El Gran Chapa” (review), in Revista Iberoamericana, Vol. XVII, Núm. 33, Julio 1951, 121-124. (Translations by TB)
  • Winston A. Reynolds. 1952. “Juan Pablo Guzmán Alemán. El Gran Chapa” (review), Books Abroad, v 26, #2 (Spring 1952), 161.

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 062019
 

Juan Pablo Guzmán, a renowned Guadalajara physician, wrote several books, including a novel – El gran Chapa – set at Lake Chapala. We will take a closer look at the novel, which won the inaugural Premio Jalisco for literature in 1950, and offers valuable insights into lakeside communities and culture, in a separate post.

In this post, we consider the life and work of its author, Juan Pablo Guzmán.

Juan Pablo Guzmán Alemán was born in Guadalajara on 26 June 1909. His father died when Juan Pablo was still in his teens. At the time of the 1930 census, Juan Pablo’s mother, María Jesús Alemán viuda de Guzman, was head of a large household which included four children older than Juan Pablo (then almost 19 years of age) and three younger children.

The previous year, having just entered university to study medicine, Juan Pablo had won a statewide oratory competition, held in the Degollado Theater in Guadalajara, before going to on place second in a national competition in Mexico City. His younger brother, Victor, who also became a doctor, accompanied him on his trip to the capital.

Juan Pablo had completed his medical training and was practicing in Guadalajara when, at the age of 31, he married María Dolores Serratos on 29 October 1940. The couple’s son, Juan Bernardo Guzmán Serratos, born in 1945, also entered the medical profession, training as a medical surgeon and odontologist (forensic dentist) and teaching at the University of Guadalajara.

Juan Pablo Guzmán was a multi-talented individual who combined his professional life as a gynecologist with active involvement in the arts as a poet, musician, painter, writer and dramatist. He published three books, the first of which – El gran Chapa, was set at Lake Chapala.

Cover-Llaga viva

His second novel, a decade later was Llaga viva (“Open Sore”). It also won a Premio Jalisco. Guzmán’s third book, Tres voces en tres cuentos, was published in 1997.

The two early novels are extremely difficult to find though copies are held by several U.S. university libraries and the Biblioteca Pública del Estado de Jalisco Juan José Arreola in Guadalajara.

When Llaga viva was published, in 1961, Winston Allin Reynolds, a professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of California at Santa Barbara, supplied the introduction. The 181-page novel was enthusiastically reviewed by Dr. Alfonso Manuel Castañeda in El Informador who praised the author’s “penetrating and scrupulous observation of people”.

Castañeda described the succession of everyday characters that populates the pages of Llaga Viva as “pilgrims without a destination and migrants without a direction in the constant wanderings of life.”

For a sense of the style of Llaga Viva, here is a loose translation of a short passage lamenting the fact that it has become money not knowledge that establishes a person’s position in society:

“In the city you learn the urgency of money; the main thing in choosing a profession is to work out which one can most easily bring you wealth. People with experience, and all of society, had constantly yelled at him: Gold! It takes gold for you to live among us! It’s no use if you stuff your head with books while your pockets are empty. The old days, when a man was considered a man on account of his knowledge and virtue, have passed. Do you have the gold? With that you will buy a place in society; you will buy the sensuality of all women; you will buy valuable friends; you will buy the glories that cultured citizens pursue; you will buy life….”

A sentiment that is surely even more true today than it was in the 1950s.

Source

  • Alfonso Manuel Castañeda. 1961. “Llaga Viva.” El Informador, 24 September 1961, 14.
  • Juan Pablo Guzmán Alemán. 1951. El gran Chapa. Guadalajara: Gobierno del Estado de Jalisco.
  • Juan Pablo Guzmán Alemán. 1961. Llaga viva. Guadalajara: Universidad de Guadalajara.
  • Juan Pablo Guzmán Alemán. 1997. Tres voces en tres cuentos. Guadalajara: Secretaría de Cultura, Gobierno de Jalisco.
  • El Informador, 25 May 1929, 6; 20 June 1929, 6.

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

May 232019
 

John Elbert Upton was born on 10 September 1917 and died aged 88, in Monterey, California, on 9 October 2005. He was a multi-talented individual who earned his living as a translator and teacher. Upton lived in Ajijic for over a decade, from 1949 to 1959, and then returned to live in the village several times (for varying lengths of time) from the 1960s through to the early 1990s.

Upton’s circle of friends in the Lake Chapala area included fellow translator Lysander Kemp, who lived in Jocotepec, and poet and literary figure Witter Bynner, who had a home in Chapala.

Upton majored in music and Spanish at college, becoming an extremely proficient classical guitarist. In 1966, he gained a Masters in Spanish Language and Literature from the University of Madrid in Spain.

John Upton, 1957. Photo credit: Leonard McCombe, Life Magazine

John Upton, 1957. Photo credit: Leonard McCombe, Life Magazine

During his early days living in Ajijic, in the 1950s, Upton wrote several colorful pieces about the area for the San Francisco Chronicle, but made his living not by writing but as a teacher to the children of expatriate families. These students included a young Katharine Goodridge Ingram, who went on to run a very successful art gallery in the village. She has particularly fond memories of Upton: “He was my tutor when I was a young girl. Truly a Renaissance man: played guitar, bass fiddle, brought solar-heated water to his Ajijic house, accompanied his wife as she sang hot old cabaret oldies, built a telescope, etc.”

This photo by Leonard McCombe shows a youthful and sartorially-elegant John Upton setting up a telescope he had built in his garden in Ajijic. It appeared in the 23 December 1957 Life Magazine article, “Yanks Who Don’t Go Home. Expatriates Settle Down to Live and Loaf in Mexico.”

Upton wrote a short piece, “Maya Today” (a linguistic study of the Mayan language Yucateco in Yucatán), published in the December 1962 issue of The Modern Language Journal, but was far better known as a Spanish-English translator. Upton’s fine translations introduced generations of English-speaking readers to the extraordinary diversity and creativity of Spanish-language literature.

Besides translations of poems by the likes of Pablo Neruda and Miguel de Unamuno, his published translations include:

  • Cumboto, by Ramón Díaz Sánchez (University of Texas Press, 1969);
  • Pueblo en vilo: Microhistoria de San José de Gracia (“San José de Gracía, Mexican Village in Transition”), by Luis González (University of Texas, Austin, 1974).
  • Jarano, by Ramón Beteta (University of Texas, Austin:, 1975);
  • In the Magic Land of Peyote, (Texas Pan American Series) by Fernando Benitez (University of Texas, Austin, 1975);
  • Polifemo, a narrative poem by Luis De Góngora (The Fireweed Press, 1977)
  • La feria (“The Fair”), by Juan José Arreola (University of Texas, Austin, 1977). This work is chock-full of local idioms, curses, etc., and, as Upton says in his translator’s note, “There are passages in “The Fair” that can confound even a well-informed Mexican”.

In the early 1990s, he worked as staff translator for the Metropolitan Museum of Art and for Latin American Art magazine. Selections of Upton’s translations were included in the book Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries, with an Introduction by Octavio Paz (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1990), and he translated some essays and catalog entries for The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Al-Andalus: The Art of Islamic Spain (1992). In 2004 he was a finalist in the Barnstone Translators’ Competition.

John Upton was one of the many extraordinarily gifted individuals who have shaped the long artistic and literary history of Lake Chapala. He will long be remembered for the supreme quality of his translations, whether of poems, literature or non-fiction.

Note: This post was first published 30 March 2015.

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May 092019
 

Leonora Baccante had published two novels prior to living in Ajijic in the 1950s, at the same time as Eileen and Robert (Bob) Bassing.

Source: New York Evening Post, 7 March 1931

Source: New York Evening Post, 7 March 1931

Baccante’s novels are not set in Ajijic, but Baccante herself was the basis for the character of novelist Victoria Beacon, the central character in Eileen Bassing‘s novel, Where’s Annie?

Little is known about Baccante, who is reported to have hated publicity, children and pets.

According to a short profile of her by Selma Robinson in the New York Evening Post (7 March 1931),  “Mrs Baccante,” who was born in London, England, “has lived for the past few years in New York, part of the time in Woodstock, part of the time with her sister in Manhattan.” Robinson added that even Baccante’s publishers “know nothing about her. She is a dark-haired, dark-eyed girl who looks Latin, although her Italian name is hers only by marriage.” Baccante was born in about 1905.

A 1928 Kingston, New York, newspaper account describes Baccante as a “former New York World staff writer” (The New York World ceased publication three years later.)

Baccante’s two novels are

  • Johnny Bogan: A Realistic Novel Of Violent Young Love (New York: Vanguard, 1931) and
  • Women Must Love (New York: Vanguard, 1932).

Baccante-JohnnyBoganJohnny Brogan is set in a small town and is a character study and love story rolled into one. The striking cover art by Puerto Rican artist Raphael Desoto shows a young brunette undressing in front of a handsome guy in a bedroom. The novel is about a ladies’ man Johnny Brogan, the son of a murderer, who falls in love with Cathy Willis, a girl who initiated their relationship at school. According to Baccante’s friends, the character of Cathy is autobiographical.

A short piece by Baccante, “Can’t we be Friends?”, with illustrations by Ty Mahon, was published in the October 1931 issue of the College Humor magazine. Baccante also wrote an unpublished play, Making the man; a play in 3 acts, recorded as written in 1929 when she was living in New York City.

Baccante renewed the copyrights of her two novels in 1958 and 1960 respectively.

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

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

May 022019
 

Brooklyn-born photographer Louis Stettner, one of the greatest U.S. photographers of all time, died in 2016 at the age of 93. The largest retrospective of his work to date – entitled “Traveling Light” – opened at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2018 and closes in June this year. It includes three photographs of Lake Chapala and its fisherfolk taken in 1956.

Louis Stettner. Lake Chapala (1956). [postcard image on Delcampe website]

Louis Stettner. Lake Chapala (1956). [postcard image on Delcampe website]

Among them is this photograph of an oar silhouetted against Lake Chapala, an image that was reproduced at least once as a postcard. Stettner had a twin brother, and Sally Katz, assistant curator of photography at SFMoMA, makes a strong case that this influenced, whether consciously or unconsciously, much of his work. She points out, in her Instagram walkthrough “Being double“, that many of Stettner’s photographs show a “strong doubling effect, both literally and poetically.” In this case, the oar helps to establish this duality.

It should be noted that in 1956 Lake Chapala was just recovering from a severe drought. The lake’s level in summer 1955 was the lowest on record (and has never been equaled since).

Louis Stettner was born in New York on 7 November 1922 to Austrian immigrant parents. He became fascinated by photography as a teenager, was given a Box Brownie by his parents, and joined the Photo League in 1939 to take a basic technique course, the only formal photography lessons he ever took.

Throughout his career, he always printed his own work and gained renown for his consummate technical skills. He formed friendships with, and was encouraged by, some of the most noteworthy photographers of the time, including Paul Strand and Alfred Steiglitz.

Stettner served in the U.S. Army from 1941 to 1945, including stints as a combat photographer in New Guinea, the Philippines and Japan. On his return to New York, he taught the basic course at the Photo League and began to photograph New York subways.

Between 1947 and 1952 he lived in Paris, France. He was commissioned to collect prints for the first exhibition of contemporary French photography in the U.S. in 1948 at the Photo League’s gallery. In 1949, he held his first solo exhibit at the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris and was a prize winner in Life’s Young Photographers Contest. He accumulated an extensive portfolio of Parisian photographs and also studied film-making.

For the next six years, he worked as a freelance photographer for magazines such as Life, Time, Fortune, Paris-Match and National Geographic, with frequent trips overseas to take photographs in Paris, Greece, Spain, Portugal, Holland and Mexico. It is unclear how long he was in Mexico in 1956; please contact me if you can offer more information about his time in Mexico.

From 1958 to 1962 he returned to Paris to continue his freelance work. In the 1970s he was appointed Professor of Photography at CW Post Center, Long Island University. During this period he frequently gave lectures at other institutions. In 1975 he was awarded first prize in the Pravda World Contest and spent six weeks working in the then-Soviet Union.

He spent most of the 1980s developing his creative ideas, and produced several photographic series including Still Lifes (1983/84); Cityscapes (1985); Brooklyn Bridge (1988); Manhattan Walls (1990) and Pavement (1990).

In 1990, Stettner moved permanently to Paris, France, to photograph, paint, and sculpt. He returned regularly to New York and began taking color photographs during summer visits. He was awarded the Chevalier de l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres medal in 2001 and honored with a retrospective exhibition at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris in 2012. He died in Paris on 13 October 2016, at the age of ninety-three.

Note
The image of Lake Chapala reproduced here comes from a postcard offered on the auction site, Delcampe in April 2019.

Acknowledgment

My sincere thanks to Jorge Varela Martinez Negrete and his daughter Sofía for bringing this exhibit to my attention.

Main source

Other photographers associated with Lake Chapala:

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

Mar 072019
 

Writer and illustrator Ellis Credle Townsend moved from Guadalajara to Ajijic in about 1974 and lived and worked at Lake Chapala for more than a decade. She was the author and illustrator of more than twenty children’s books over a long career.

Ellis Credle Townsend

Ellis Credle Townsend

Ellis Credle (she used her maiden name on all her books) was born and raised in North Carolina. Born in 1902, she studied at Louisberg College and taught high school in the Blue Ridge Mountains before moving in 1926 to New York City, where she studied interior design and took painting classes at the Art Students League. She worked as a governess for two children before landing a commission to draw reptiles for the American Museum of Natural History. While continuing to write in her spare time, she was also asked to paint a series of murals for the Brooklyn Children’s Museum.

She had several rejections from publishers before one finally accepted Down Down the Mountain (1934), the first ever illustrated children’s book set in the Blue Ridge country. Helped by her deep familiarity with the area’s folk tales and life styles, it was an immediate success and quickly became a classic; it sold more than 4 million copies.

Credle visited Mexico in the early 1930s and another of her early books, Pepe and the Parrot (1937), a story about a dog and a parrot, was set in a traditional Mexican village. Other books Credle published before moving to Mexico include Across the Cotton Patch (1935), based on her childhood days on a grandfather’s farm; Little Jeems Henry (1936); That Goat That Went to School (1940) and Janey’s Shoes (1944).

Credle married Charles de Kay Townsend; the couple had one son. Born in Rhode Island, her husband was a Harvard graduate and served in the Navy during the second world war. He was a photographic technologist with the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. for many years, and it was after he retired that the couple left for Mexico with their young son, Richard, in 1947. Her husband’s photographs were used in some of Credle’s later books.

Richard grew to love Mexico and became an eminent authority on pre-Columbian cultures. He gained a masters degree in anthropology form the University of the Americas and a doctorate from Harvard for work on the art of Tenochtitlán. He was curator of the Department of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas at The Art Institute of Chicago, and edited numerous exhibition catalogs including The Ancient Americas: Art from Sacred Landscapes and Ancient West Mexico (which has many close links to the Lake Chapala area).

The family arrived in Mexico planning to stay only six months so that Credle could write without distraction, perhaps to put the finishing touches to My Pet Peepelo (1948), a story set in Mexico. Here Comes the Showboat was published the following year. By then, the Townsends had settled in Zapopan, Guadalajara, where their stay kept being extended by other book commissions; Credle ended up living in Mexico for more than 40 years.

Even in so-called retirement, Credle continued to write and based several more stories in Mexico, though none ever received the same high praise as her tales of the Blue Ridge country. In 1964, she and her husband were commissioned by Nelson to write a school book about Mexico, aimed at young teenagers. This was published in 1968 as Mexico, land of hidden treasure in Nelson’s World neighbors series.

Following the death of her husband in 1974, she moved to La Floresta in Ajijic on Lake Chapala. Late in life she also wrote “Dog Ignacio Lives On“, a short piece published in El Ojo del Lago, November 1994.

Ellis Credle Townsend was often asked to lecture in the U.S. on account of her knowledge of authentic folklore and was a regular at the Ajijic Writers’ Group.

Interviewed for El Ojo del Lago late in her life, Credle said, “I have never regretted coming to Mexico. I have always felt happy, at home, and strangely safe here.” She did not travel very far apart from occasional trips to Chicago to visit her son. She was in Chicago at the time of her death on 21 February 1998.

Sources

  • Guadalajara Reporter: 2 April 1964: 1 Oct 1964.
  • Shep Lenchek. “Ellis Townsend —A Lakeside Literary Treasure.” El Ojo del Lago,
    1996; reproduced March 2015 issue.
  • Richard Walser. 1960. Entry for Ellis Credle in Picturebook of Tar Heel Authors. Raleigh, N.C.: State Department of Archives and History.

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

Feb 072019
 

Neill James’ book Dust on my Heart is many visitors’ first introduction to the extensive English-language literature related to Lake Chapala. In the book, the self-styled “Petticoat Vagabond” tells of her adventures in Mexico and of two terrible accidents she suffered, the first on Popocatepetl Volcano and the second at Paricutín Volcano.

Cover of Dust on my Heart (1946)

Cover of Dust on my Heart (1946) (Painting by Alejandro Rangel Hidalgo)

After two lengthy stays in hospital, James’ recuperation eventually brought her, in 1943, to the small village of Ajijic, which would be her home for the remainder of her long life. The final two chapters of Dust on my Heart describe her first impressions of Ajijic and of how she learned to appreciate the idiosyncrasies of pueblo life.

As with several other noteworthy Lake Chapala residents, separating fact from fiction in trying to sort out James’ story is tricky, and made more complex by hagiographic portrayals that simply repeat identical misinformation with no attempt to check sources or provide independent corroboration for claims made.

For example, we are led to believe that James was born on a cotton plantation in Grenada, Mississippi, a woman of means who graduated from the University of Chicago, met Amelia Earhart, was visited in Ajijic by D. H. Lawrence, Ernest Hemingway and George Bernard Shaw, and pioneered the looms industry in Ajijic, before founding the Lake Chapala Society.

Unfortunately, not a single one of these claims is true. James was born in Gore Springs, Mississippi. While Gore Springs is near Grenada, James was not born on any plantation and her family was far from wealthy. She never attended the University of Chicago and almost certainly never met Amelia Earhart. The claims about Lawrence, Hemingway and Shaw are especially ludicrous. D. H. Lawrence was long dead by the time James first visited Mexico. Neither Hemingway (whom James may conceivably have met in 1941 in Hong Kong) nor Shaw ever visited Ajijic. James did not pioneer the looms industry in Ajijic and was never a member of the Lake Chapala Society prior to being accorded Honorary Membership a few years before she died!

After studying stenography at the Industrial Institute and College for the Education of White Girls (later Mississippi State College for Women) in 1918 James became a secretary at the War Department in Washington, D.C. Over the next decade, she traveled widely: from Hawaii to Japan, China, Korea, India, Germany, France, Costa Rica and New Zealand. In 1931, she settled on Hawaii to work at the Institute of Pacific Relations. Three years later, she left to travel again in Asia, returning to the U.S. via the Trans-Siberian railroad and Europe.

She then began travel writing and joined the stable of writers managed by Maxwell Perkins (who edited Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Erskine Caldwell, among others) at leading New York publishers Charles Scribner’s Sons. Prior to visiting Mexico, James had published three travel books: Petticoat Vagabond: Up and Down the World, (1937); Petticoat Vagabond: Among the Nomads (1939) and Petticoat Vagabond in Ainu Land: Up and Down Eastern Asia (1942).

Her early travels in Mexico in 1942, including a few weeks spent with the indigenous Otomi people, are entertainingly told, in rich, keenly-observed detail, in Dust on my Heart. During her first few months, James traveled to many very different parts of the country, from the capital city to impoverished rural mountain villages, from Acapulco to Chiapas.

It was only after two serious accidents, the first on Popocatepetl Volcano, the 17,899-foot peak near Mexico City, and the second on the slopes of the brand-new Paricutin Volcano in Michoacán, both recounted in gory detail in her book, and both requiring months in a Mexico City hospital, that James decided to recuperate at Lake Chapala.

It was August 1943 when James first arrived at Ajijic. She eventually built her own house there. In order to complete the manuscript of her next Petticoat Vagabond book, James penned a couple of chapters about the village. This was the last book she ever wrote. As suddenly as she had started writing travel books, she stopped.

James had no independent wealth and needed to generate some income for herself. She began to buy plain white cotton blouses and pay local women piecemeal rates to embroider them. Many of the designs were created by American artist Sylvia Fein who was living in Ajijic at the time.

From the late 1940s on, James started three new tourist-related ventures – renting and flipping village homes; clothing (including weaving and silk production); and running her own tourist store – all of which remained active until well into the 1970s. Over the years, she also tried all manner of other potentially lucrative but ultimately short-lived ventures, ranging from keeping bees and selling honey to looking for buried treasure.

The short-term promise of her “revival” of embroidered blouses had fizzled out when marketing problems reduced its appeal. Meantime, Helen Goodridge, with her husband, Mort Carl, had started a commercial looms business in 1950 which was attracting attention. While James could not compete directly with their venture, she could, and did, begin to teach local women how to use smaller hand looms to weave small cotton and wool items such as women’s blouses and scarves. Whereas Goodridge employed only men as weavers (very much the tradition in this part of Mexico), James’s workforce was entirely female, in line with indigenous practice in southern Mexico.

Neill James' store label

Neill James’ store label

James also started a silk industry in Ajijic. She brought in hundreds of white mulberry trees, from Uruapan in Michoacán, and planted as many as she could in her own garden, offering others to families around the village. James also bought silkworm eggs and before long, Ajijic had a thriving silk production industry. James employed local women to weave the delicate silk thread into fine silk cloth. Precisely when James introduced the silk industry into Ajijic is unclear, though it was certainly in full flow by 1962.

The third strand of her business activity was to open a small store out of her own home, selling items made in Ajijic as well as handicrafts from elsewhere. The store closed in 1974, when James announced her retirement.

James is best remembered today for her many positive contributions to the health and education of her adopted community.

Having helped educate the children of her domestic helpers from the very beginning, James broadened her scope in about 1954 to open the area’s first public library (biblioteca pública), principally aimed at serving the needs of the local children.

The first library in Ajijic was a room, donated for the purpose, on Ocampo near Serna’s grocery store. James persuaded the municipio to part with funds for books and arranged for Angelita Aldana Padilla to oversee its activities. As their reward for reading and studying, students were offered the incentive of free art supplies and classes. This humble beginning led, after many twists and turns, to the justly-praised Children’s Art Program, now run by the Lake Chapala Society, that has helped nurture the talents of so many fine local artists.

At some point, a second library was opened, with its own supervisor, in a building James owned near Seis Esquinas, to help children living in the west end of the village. After the supervisor left, the running of La Colmena (The Beehive), as it was known, was turned over to some well-meaning teenagers. When the library was badly vandalized, the remaining books and supplies were moved to the original library, which James later moved to a building on her own property at Quinta Tzintzuntzan.

In 1977, James donated a property at Seis Esquinas (Ocampo #90) to be used as the village’s first Health Center (Centro de Salud).

Leonard McCombe. 1957. Neill James (hammock) and Zara in the gardens of Quinta Tzintzuntzan. (Life)

Neill James (hammock) and Zara (on horseback) in the gardens of Quinta Tzintzuntzan. Photo by Leonard McCombe for Life, 1957.

After her retirement in 1974, the wonderful gardens of Quinta Tzintzuntzan were no longer normally open to the public. However, in 1977, James agreed that the grounds could be open every Sunday afternoon as an art garden (jardín del arte) for a new artists’ group, the Young Painters of Ajijic (Jovenes Pintores de Ajijic).

In 1983, James offered to let the Lake Chapala Society use part of her Quinta Tzintzuntzan property rent-free for five years, provided it took over running the Ajijic children’s library located there. The Lake Chapala Society subsequently (1990) acquired legal title to the property in exchange for looking after Neill James in her final years. James died on Saturday 8 October 1994, only three months shy of her 100th birthday. Her ashes were interred at the base of a favorite tree in her beloved garden.

Given her early career as a travel writer, it is only fitting that the Mississippi University for Women now awards at least five Neill James Memorial Scholarships each year (worth up to $4000 each) to Creative Writing students. First offered in 2007, these scholarships are funded with the proceeds from a charitable trust established by her sister Jane.

It was James’ generosity that enabled the Lake Chapala Society to move from Chapala to Ajijic at a time when it was struggling and desperately needed new premises. Given her amazing accomplishments and legacy she left Lake Chapala, there is no possible need to embellish the story of Neill James, one of Lakeside’s most truly colorful, memorable and enterprising characters of all time.

Note

James was not the creator of the saying, “When once the dust of Mexico has settled upon your heart, you cannot then find peace in any other land.” What she actually wrote (on the first page of Dust on My Heart) was “There is a saying, “When once the dust of Mexico has settled upon your heart, you cannot then find peace in any other land.”” James was merely quoting an old saying; it was not her creation. An earlier version of the saying appears on the first page of Your Mexican Holiday: A Modern Guide, Anita Brenner’s book published in 1932.

Acknowledgments

I am greatly indebted to Stephen Preston Banks, author of Kokio (a fictional biography of James), and to Michael Eager and Judy King for sharing with me their insights into Neill James’ life and contributions to Ajijic.

Sources

  • Anon. 1945. “Neill James in Mexico.” Modern Mexico (New York: Mexican Chamber of Commerce of the United States), Vol. 18 #5 (October 1945), 23, 28.
  • Stephen Preston Banks. 2016. Kokio: A novel based on the life of Neill James. Valley, Washington: Tellectual Press.
  • Guadalajara Reporter, 17 September 1983, 18.
  • Neill James. 1945. “I Live in Ajijic.” Modern Mexico (New York: Mexican Chamber of Commerce of the United States), Vol. 18 #5 (October 1945), 23-28. [Reprinted in El Ojo de Lago. Vol 17, #7 (March 1999].
  • Neill James. 1946. Dust on My Heart. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
  • Leonard McCombe (photos). “Yanks Who Don’t Go Home. Expatriates Settle Down to Live and Loaf in Mexico.” Life Magazine, 23 December 1957, 159-164.

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

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