Aug 292019
 

James Patterson, whose books have sold more than 300,000,000 copies worldwide, incorporated a mention of Lake Chapala into his very first novel, The Thomas Berryman Affair, published in 1976, when he was 29 years of age.

James Brendan Patterson was born in Newburgh, New York, on 22 March 1947. He graduated with a B.A. in English from Manhattan College and an M.A. in English from Vanderbilt University. He was studying for a Ph.D. at Vanderbilt when he took a job in advertising. He became an advertising executive at J. Walter Thompson (and the firm’s North American CEO from 1988) and combined this career with writing until 1996 when he finally retired from advertising to focus all his energies on writing and the promotion of reading. As an ardent philanthropist, Patterson has given away millions of books to schools and the military and funded dozens of reading programs, university grants and scholarships.

The multi-award winning author has written more than 140 books, ranging from thrillers, comedy, mystery and romance to young adult fiction. Among his noteworthy series are Alex Cross, Women’s Murder Club, Maximum Ride, Daniel X, NYPD Red, Michael Bennett, Witch and Wizard, Middle School, and I Funny. Patterson has the enviable record of having written 114 novels that have appeared on the New York Times bestselling list and 67 that made it to the #1 spot. Many of his more recent books have co-authors.

The Thomas Berryman Affair, his first novel, was released in 1976 when Patterson was working for the J Walter Thompson advertising agency. It was rejected by 31 publishers before finally being accepted. In later releases, the book was renamed The Thomas Berryman Number.

Thomas Berryman is a Texan-born contract killer hiding out in Mexico. Berryman accepts an invitation to stay for a few days at an hacienda 90 miles west of Mexico City belonging to Sr. Jorge Amado Marquez. The hacienda “was situated on a deep blue lake like Italy’s Como, looking straight up at a small volcano.”

Berryman had several days of leisure:

“He’d slept in a third-floor suite equipped with a wraparound terrace some seventy-five feet over the lake. The front windows looked over at the volcano. A large back window looked out on bush country: brazil-wood and palms, streaming with parrots.

In the early morning, dark-haired thirteen- and fourteen-year-old girls would be out on his terrace from sometime before sunrise. They were pretty little girls with dusty brown legs. They played silent barefoot games until Berryman came to the door leading out onto the terrace. Then, giggling, blushing, curtsying like the maids in American novels, the pubescent señoritas would bring him bananas, papaya, mangos, bacon, whitefish from Lake Chapala.

His afternoons could be peaceful sailing out and around the volcano, swimming in lake water clear enough to see bottom whenever it hadn’t rained; hunting deer with or without Marquez, who was gentleman enough to give Berryman his choice.”

As travel writer Sydney Clark wrote in the 1940s, whitefish was notoriously difficult to transport:

“A popular story relates that President Díaz once sent a tankful of live pescados blancos to King Edward VII and Edward liked them so very much, and said so, that the Mexican dictator felt obliged to send him a fresh tankful each year. It was so extraordinarily difficult to achieve this with success that it caused something like an annual crisis in Mexican foreign policy, but perhaps it did at least offer a practical and interesting problem to the dictator’s Científicos. I did not blame King Edward when I sampled this fish….”

Whitefish may have been readily available to the wealthy elite in the 1970s, when Patterson was writing The Thomas Berryman Affair, but is now rarely encountered by Lake Chapala fishermen.

Sources

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

Aug 082019
 

Among the many non-professional artists who found creativity while living in Ajijic, Raphael Greno deserves a special mention. Greno completed several striking woodcuts of subjects rarely depicted by other artists. How he acquired his skill is unclear but the end results are high quality and speak for themselves.

To date, four woodcuts by Greno have come to light, two on bluish paper and two on yellowish paper.

One on those on bluish paper is a portrait of American author Neill James who wrote Dust on My Heart and lived in Ajijic from the 1940s to her death there in 1994. Greno’s landscape-format woodcut shows James sitting in an equipal in front of her typewriter. The typewriter is on a rustic wooden table and James is cradling a pet parrot in her left hand. A second pet parrot is looking on from the tree branches that frame the central image.

Undated. Women washing clothes, Lake Chapala.

Raphael Greno. Undated. Women washing clothes, Lake Chapala.

This second woodcut, of similar format, shows two women kneeling as they wash clothes on the shore of the lake. Distant mountains help frame the scene.

The two woodcuts on a yellowish paper show two distinct stages in the production of silk, an industry begun by Neill James in Ajijic in the 1950s. A landscape format woodcut, entitled “Deshilando los capullos”, depicts three women unraveling the silk from the cocoons. A portrait format woodcut, “Hilando con malacate,” shows an older woman using a spindle to spin the silk thread.

Raphael Greno. Undated. Unraveling silk cocoons, Ajijic.

Raphael Greno. Undated. Unraveling silk cocoons, Ajijic.

All the woodcuts are signed “Rafael G.”, the Spanish spelling adopted by Raphael while he and his wife were living in Mexico. Although none of the woodcuts are dated, the two silk-related works must predate 1960 since they are mentioned by Neill James in a letter dated 22 May 1960. Clearly, the Grenos had personal knowledge of Ajijic well before they moved there to live in the late 1960s.

Raphael Valentino Greno was born in Lisbon, Ohio, on 30 January 1909; his father was Italian, his mother American. He died in San Bernadino, California, on 31 December 1982. By 1920 his father was out of the picture and he (and possibly his mother) were living with an aunt in Arnold, Pennsylvania. The family later moved to Los Angeles where Raphael graduated from the Manual Arts High School in 1927. He then spent four years (1927-1931) at Oregon State College in Corvallis, Oregon. During his time there, he spent part of one year as one of several “cadets” on board the President Jefferson on a round-trip from San Francisco to Yokohama, Japan.

At college, Greno was as interested in writing as in art. In 1930, he had “What Price Cleanliness”, a short piece about the interior workings of a commercial laundry, published in the State College magazine. Greno was a member of the Pi Kappa Phi fraternity.

After college he returned to Los Angeles where he worked as a clerk. For the 1940 census, he gave his occupation as a writer of fiction, working from his home at 1547 N Sierra Bonita. Later that year he was working in advertising.

In 1941, he married Violet E. Evans, originally from Colorado and then resident in Hollywood, California. Violet, known as Vee in Ajijic, was born on 4 August 1917 in Joycoy, Colorado, and died 16 November 1990 in San Bernardino, California.

By 1944, the Grenos were living at 1404 N Gardner St and Greno was working as an “investigator.” Greno trained as a census crew leader for the 1950 U.S. census.

Fifteen years later, the family was living in Redlands at 525 Esther Way, where Violet (Vee) taught school. In the mid-1960s Vee taught art and crafts at Cope Junior High School in Redlands, California. She occasionally exhibited her own work, examples of which were included in two group shows at the Lyon Art Gallery in Redlands – one of works by teachers of art (March 1965) and another of flower-related art the following month. Greno also had a “modern oil” painting – “Mexican Market – accepted into the All-California Art Exhibit held in San Bernardino in March 1966.

While living in Ajijic in the mid-1970s, Vee gave regular Friday morning art classes for a couple of years at the Galería del Lago. Katie Goodridge Ingram, who was director of the Galería del Lago at the time, recalls that Vee Greno also made beautiful necklaces.

The Grenos were still living in the village in the late 1970s when the informal cultural group known as TLAC (Todas las Artes Combinadas) arranged a Self Portrait Show, held at the Posada Ajijic on 1 April 1978. Both Raphael and Vee Greno participated in the show.  Other Ajijic artists taking part in that show included included Jean Caragonne, Grace Castle, Bee Dunham, Hubert Harmon, Lisa Hilton, Lona Isoard, Sheldon Lychek, Ramiro Magaña, Jim Marthai, Robert Neathery, John Kenneth Peterson, Howard Skulnick and Robert Snodgrass.

Raphael Greno also wrote several short plays for TLAC, including Cushions, presented at a Dinner Theater event at Posada Ajijic in October 1977 and Buttons, on the bill to be performed there the following August.

After living in Mexico in the 1970s, the Grenos moved back to the U.S., to Yucaipa, a short distance from San Bernardino, California.

Raphael and Vee Greno had two children: Anthony and Eugenia. Anthony Evans Greno (1943-2009) completed a degree in Latin American History at Berkeley and a Masters in Journalism at Columbia before becoming Mexico correspondent for several newspapers including the San Francisco Examiner and the Chicago Tribune. Tony Greno’s first wife, Lucretia Leduc Zenteno, was a Mexican society news reporter from the state of Tabasco working in Mexico City. Tony’s sister, Eugenia Vee Greno (1945-2008), lived the latter stages of her life in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Rafael’s lively woodcuts of Ajijic are just one of the Grenos’ many and varied contributions to the lively artistic scene in the village in the 1960s and 1970s.

Acknowledgments

My sincere thanks to Katie Goodridge Ingram and Dale Palfrey for sharing their memories and knowledge of the Grenos and to the Lake Chapala Society for allowing me access to its Neill James Archive.

Sources

  • Raphael Greno. 1930. “What Price Cleanliness”, The Manuscript, Vol 3, #2 (Winter Edition, 1930), Oregon State College, 6.
  • Guadalajara Reporter: 19 July 1975; 7 February 1976; 1 May 1976, 22; 24 September 1977, 19; 1 October 1977, 7; 19 August 1978, 15.
  • Neill James. 1960. Letter, dated 22 May 1960, from Neill James to “El Director, Museo Nacional De Cosas Regional” (sic). Neill James Archive of the Lake Chapala Society.
  • Redlands Daily Facts, 5 March 1965, 3; 2 April 1965, 4; 31 January 1966, 6; 27 February 1966, 50.
  • Times-Advocate (Escondido, California) 09 Mar 1950, 8.

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

Jun 272019
 

The Clique Ajijic was a group of eight varied and talented artists who formed a loosely-organized collective for three or four years in the mid-1970s. One of the members, Synnove Pettersen, recalls that “We never painted together as a group, just had shows.” Another member, the late Tom Faloon, once commented to me that Kate Karns, the wife of Todd Karns, sometimes posed for the artists in Clique Ajijic.

Image courtesy of Gail Michel.

The eight artists in the Clique Ajijic were (below, left to right): Sidney SchwartzmanAdolfo Riestra, Gail Michel (aka Gail Michaels), Hubert Harmon, Synnove (Shaffer) Pettersen, Tom FaloonTodd (“Rocky”) Karns, and John Peterson (the only member of Clique Ajijic who had been a member of the earlier Grupo 68).

Pettersen-Synnove-Clique-Ajijic-photo-ca-1974

See also: Photo of Clique Ajijic and friends at Galería OM, 24 October 1975.

The group’s first shows were organized by Katie Goodridge Ingram who ran the Galería del Lago art gallery, located at that time on the main highway in Ajijic.  The shows of Clique Ajijic included:

1975

  • Chapala: Villa Monte Carlo, opened 16 March 1975
  • Ajijic: Galería del Lago (Colón #6, Ajijic), 15 August 1975
  • Ajijic: Hotel Camino Real, 13-16 September 1975
  • Guadalajara: Galería OM, 24 October 1975
  • Manzanillo: Club Santiago, 29 October 1975

1976

  • Cuernavaca: Akari Gallery,  7 February 1976
  • Guadalajara: American Society of Jalisco, 21 February 1976
  • Ajijic: El Angel boutique, 10 June 1976 (dinner and studio sale)

By the end of the year, two of the original 8 artists of Clique Ajijic had left the village – Pettersen to the U.S. and Riestra to Tepoztlán (Morelos) – and the remaining members had added Richard Frush to their number. David Olof is also mentioned in one list of artists at the following show:

  • Ajijic: The Old Gold Mill, 15 December 1976 (a wine and cheese ($50 pesos a person) to benefit “Deaf Children of Ajijic”).
Image courtesy of Gail Michel

Image courtesy of Gail Michel

1977

  • Ajijic: Posada Ajijic, February/March 1977 (exhibition, auction, charity fundraiser, precise date unknown)
  • Ajijic: Posada Ajijic, 18 December 1977

The Clique Ajijic auction of artwork held at Posada Ajijic in February 1977 included works by Richard Frush, Tod Karns, John Peterson, Gail Michel and Hubert Harmon raised $24,000 pesos, “of which 10% went to help children in treatment and training at the Hearing Improvement Center in Jocotepec.” The auctioneer was popular Posada Ajijic hotelier Morley Eager, who gave 10% of all the pesos paid for drinks to the same cause.

In December 1977, another art exhibit of Clique Ajijic work, which proved to be the final throw of the dice for the group, was presented at the Posada Ajijic. The advert for this exhibit stated that the Clique had 9 members, presumably still including Pettersen and Riestro who had left the previous year.

Note: This is an updated version of a post first published on 4 May 2015.

Credits

  • My sincere thanks to Synnove Pettersen (via email), Tom Faloon (interviewed in Ajijic in February 2014), Katie Goodridge Ingram (emails and telephone), and Gail Michel and her daughter Angelina Guzmán (emails and telephone) for generously sharing their knowledge and memories of Clique Ajijic.

Sources

  • Colony (Guadalajara) Reporter, 19 Feb 1977; 5 March 1977, 10 December 1977
  • Martha Fregoso. 1975. “‘La Galería OM’ y el Buen Gusto en Exposiciones, Esta vez Ocho Pintores de Ajijic.” El Diario de Guadalajara, 24 Oct 1975.
  • Mexico City News: 13 Feb 1977.

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.

Jun 132019
 

Pioneering lithographer Richard Frush (1951-2008) painted in Ajijic in the 1970s.

Richard Wayne Frush, associated with Tucson, Arizona, and Taos, New Mexico, was born in Colorado on 17 February 1951. His parents, Donald W. and Virginia Frush, owned and operated the Trinidad Coca-Cola Bottling Company in that state for many years. Richard was one of four siblings.

Frush studied at the College of Santa Fe and graduated in Fine Arts from the University of New Mexico in 1974 before traveling to Madrid, Spain, to study at the University of Madrid. While in Madrid, he was chosen to paint a mural at the university and traveled extensively in Europe.

Richard Frush. 1973. Untitled. Limited edition, 3/12.

Richard Frush. 1973. Untitled. Limited edition, 3/12. (EBay)

He returned to North America in about 1976. With Peter Holmes, a fellow student who had also taken classes at the University of New Mexico’s Tamarind Institute, Frush established the Arizona Origins Press in Tubac, Arizona, that year. One of their first commissions came from famous Taos-based Native American Navajo artist Rudolph Carl Gorman (1931-2005). About five years later, Frush established Origins Press Taos, a branch of the Tubac operation, better positioned to serve the growing demand from artists there. Frush’s partner in the Taos branch was Dave Trujillo.

Frush spent much of the time between establishing Arizona Origins Press and Origins Press Taos in Mexico, where he developed a love for Spanish and Mexican culture that had a strong influence on his later artwork.

Richard Wayne Frush (Photo from Ancestry.com)

Richard Wayne Frush (Photo from Ancestry.com)

Frush first exhibited in Mexico in July 1976 when Katie Goodridge Ingram’s Galeria del Lago sponsored a two person show – of works by Frush and native Ajijic artist Antonio López Vega – at the Villa Montecarlo in Chapala.

Later that year, Ingram organized a group show, also featuring “fantastic realism” works by Frush in Puerto Vallarta. That show, for the “Jalisco Department of Bellas Artes and Tourism,” was held at the resort city’s Plaza de la Hermandad (IMPI building) and ran from 4-21 December. Other exhibitors in the group show included Jean Caragonne; Conrado Contreras; Daniel de Simone; Gustel Foust; John Frost; Richard Frush; Hubert Harmon; Rocky Karns; Jim Marthai; Gail Michel; Bob Neathery; David Olaf; John K. Peterson; Georg Rauch; and Sylvia Salmi.

Richard Frush. 1974. Untitled. Limited edition, 8/12.

Richard Frush. 1974. Untitled. Limited edition, 8/12. (EBay)

In 1977, Frush joined Clique Ajijic, a loose cooperative of artists that had begun exhibiting together in 1975. The original eight artists comprising Clique Ajijic were Sidney SchwartzmanAdolfo Riestra, Gail Michel (aka Gail Michaels), Hubert Harmon, Synnove (Shaffer) Pettersen, Tom FaloonTodd (“Rocky”) Karns, and John Peterson. .

By 1977, two of the original members of Clique Ajijic had left: the previous year, Petterson had returned to the U.S. and Riestra left Ajijic for Tepoztlán (Morelos). Faloon and Schwartzman were still in Ajijic but are not listed as exhibiting in the Clique Ajijic auction of artwork that was held at Posada Ajijic in February 1977.

At the auction, sales of works by Richard Frush, Tod Karns, John Peterson, Gail Michel and Hubert Harmon raised $24,000 pesos, “of which 10% went to help children in treatment and training at the Hearing Improvement Center in Jocotepec.” The auctioneer was popular Posada Ajijic hotelier Morley Eager, who gave 10% of all the pesos paid for drinks to the same cause.

In December 1977, another art exhibit of Clique Ajijic work was presented at the Posada Ajijic. The advert for this exhibit stated that the Clique had 9 members, presumably still including Pettersen and Riestro who had left a year earlier.

After Ajijic, Frush returned to the U.S. where he established Origins Press Taos in about 1981. An account of the new lithography operation in the local press reported that, “To Frush lithography is the only way to go because of its versatility. Plates of limestone, marble or aluminum impart various textures to the work, while grease crayon or liquid emulsion allow a wide range of technique, from sharp accents to flat washes. The desired picture can be drawn or sprayed on with an air brush.”

In the early 1990s, Frush held a series of showings of his work at the Impressions II Gallery in Tucson, Arizona. A solo show “celebrating the Mexican heritage of the southwest in a muralist style filled with personal imagery by Richard Frush” opened there in September 1990. Frush’s work was included in a group show held in December 1992 at the gallery, a show that also featuring works by Jean Richardson, Richard Frush, Angus MacPherson, Kurt Tallis, A.C. Gorman and Steve Bergthold. In April 1993, Frush and Carol Steffgen held a two-person show of their oils and acrylics at the gallery,

Frush died in Tucson on 7 January 2008.

If you have a painting or lithograph by Richard Frush, please get in touch! I’d  love to see more images of his work.

Acknowledgment

My thanks to Jeff Snow for bringing to my attention the listing on eBay in July 2019 of several works by Richard Frush.

Sources

  • Arizona Daily Star (Tucson, Arizona): 7 Sep 1990 54; 4 Dec 1992, 66; 9 Apr 1993, 88.
  • Guadalajara Reporter, 24 July 1976, 20; 19 Feb 1977; 18; 5 March 1977, 17; 10 Dec 1977, 19.
  • The Taos News (Taos, New Mexico), 5 Mar 1981, 20.
  • Trinidad Times Independent (Colorado). 2008. Richard Frush (Obituary) 10 January 2008.

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.

Related posts:

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

Apr 182019
 

Novelist Joan Van Every Frost, born 28 Feb 1929 in Los Angeles, California, lived in Jocotepec from 1966 to 2012. She died at age 83 on 6 June 2012 in Santa Barbara, California. Her father, Dale Van Every, was a famous writer and screenwriter most active in the 1920s and 1930s.

Joan gained an undergraduate degree in English from the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1951 and a librarian certificate from the University of California at Berkeley. She served as a librarian after the second world war on US military bases in France and Germany, and was later the Head Librarian of the Santa Monica Public Library for several years.

Joan Van Every (then 35) married artist and photographer John Frost (41) on 26 September 1964 in San Bernadino, California. In 1966, the couple relocated to Mexico, living for a short time in Uruapan in Michoacán, before establishing their permanent home and John’s photographic studio in Jocotepec on Lake Chapala. John maintained his commercial photography studio (specializing in aerial photography) in their home for more than 40 years.

Prior to finding their home in the village, the couple spent 6 weeks at the historic La Quinta inn in Jocotepec. Sadly, La Quinta, which had been an inn ever since 1824 and was one of a small number of truly historic buildings in the town, was wantonly destroyed in the 1990s.

frost-joan-ca-2008
Joan was an indefatigable supporter of numerous charitable organizations at Lakeside, including the pioneering Centro de Salud in Jocotepec, the Lakeside School for the Deaf. For many years, she helped coordinate medical consultations and surgeries for Chapala-area children via the Shriners organization. Joan  was also the co-founder in the 1970s of Amigos de Salud (which in 1993 became the Programa Pro Niños Incapacitados del Lago), and was a co-founder of the Lakeside region’s major annual fund-raising event: the Ajijic Chili Cook-off.

Using her married name of Joan Van Every Frost, Joan wrote six novels, several of them set in Mexico.

frost-joan-van-every-covers
Her first novel, This Fiery Promise (Leisure Books, 1978), dedicated to Tam, is a historical romance set at the start of the Mexican Revolution. It tells the fiery adventures of a horse-loving American girl who marries a rich, much older Mexican hacienda-owner. Their lives become entangled in the Revolution, and she eventually flees by joining a circus. The novel covers lots of territory from Santa Barbara (California) to Nayarit, Guadalajara, Colima and the port of Manzanillo.

Lisa (New York: Leisure Books, 1979) is dedicated “For John, with all my love”. This historical romance, set in 1880s Britain, unravels the complex relationships of a dysfunctional family, in the midst of scenes involving horses, fires, medical doctors, and class differences.

Her third novel includes scenes set in Guadalajara and at Lake Chapala. A Masque of Chameleons (Fawcett 1981) looks at the adventures and misadventures befalling a troupe of traveling actors in mid-nineteenth century Mexico. The theater troupe withstands lots of internal intrigue and external pressures as it tours Mexico, from Veracruz, Puebla, Mexico City and Cuernavaca to Morelia, Zacatecas, Aguascalientes, Guadalajara and Lake Chapala. This novel displays a sound background knowledge of Mexican history and is engagingly written.

This is how Frost first describes the troupe’s arrival at Lake Chapala: “They finally came to a large body of water that stretched as far as they could see to the west, like an inland sea the color of a silver coin. Across the lake were green, brush-covered mountains, ancient dead volcanoes that had thrust themselves up when the world was still young to form this pocket cradling the endless lake.” ( p 228)

In Kings of the Sea (Fawcett, 1982), the publisher’s blurb claims that Gideon Hand is determined to endure all hardships as he struggles to forge a shipbuilding dynasty and to possess the woman he loves but cannot marry. Genius and passion hold sway in this sweeping saga of a shipbuilding dynasty.

Frost’s fifth novel, Portrait in Black (Fawcett 1985) has a Santa Barbara portrait painter Crystal Perry as its main protagonist. Perry not only paints portraits of Santa Barbara’s upper crust, but also paints horses, and she is quickly dragged into a web of extortion and murder.

Silvershine (Fawcett 1987) is set in Mexico, and looks at the drugs scene in the glittering Los Dorados hotel in Manzanillo, where swimwear designer Blaise Cory has opened a new boutique. A minor part of the action is set in Oaxaca (at Mitla). This is a tale of smuggling, money and corruption. The Los Dorados hotel is clearly based on Manzanillo’s famed Las Hadas hotel complex.

All of Joan Van Every Frost’s novels are well-crafted, and enjoyable light reading. While long out-of-print, copies are readily available via used books sites such as http://abebooks.com.

Joan was an active correspondent for the Guadalajara Reporter for many years. She wrote her first column for the paper in August 1975 and ended a column the following year by writing that, “There may be many irritations to living in a foreign country, but they dwindle to insignificance when we can revel in golden days, sunsets blazing red on towering thunderheads, and the comforting splash of rain as we lie warm in our beds at night.”

This profile was originally published on 22 December 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.

Apr 112019
 
B. J. Kline. 1985. Sunday Night in Puerto Vallarta. (El Ojo del Lago)

Artist and art lecturer Buddy Ryan Kline (usually known as B. R. Kline) lived and painted in Ajijic in the 1980s. Kline was born on 22 August 1948 in Prince Edward, Virginia; his mother was a painter and his father a musician. Kline attended Falls Church High School and then George Mason High School (also in Falls Church) before studying art at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia.

His studies were interrupted in 1967 by the Vietnam War. During the war, Kline served with the U.S. Army Band at Fort Myer, Virginia, from 1967 to 1970. This is where he first met Dr. William St. John. The two men became inseparable companions and subsequently made a “good will tour” to some 91 countries. Kline painted his way around the world and ended up with 91 paintings, each representing a country he had visited.

B. J. Kline. 1985. Sunday Night in Puerto Vallarta. (El Ojo del Lago)

B. J. Kline. 1985. Sunday Night in Puerto Vallarta. (El Ojo del Lago)

Kline first arrived at Lake Chapala in 1973 when he spent nine months in Mexico. He returned to Mexico in the winters of 1978-1980 and moved to Lake Chapala to live  in 1983. Since leaving Lake Chapala in 1992, Kline has made his home in Dallas.

Klien has held formal exhibitions in Virginia and Washington D.C. and has participated in numerous group shows in the Dallas-Fort Worth area of Texas. He lectured and held impromptu exhibitions in many different countries during his world travels.

By the mid-1980s, Kline was working from his home-studio at Aquiles Serdan #3 in Ajijic and doing much of the commercial art for El Ojo del Lago (see image above). A pen and ink line drawing by Kline was chosen by June Summers for the cover of her short, self-published book about the area.

B. J. Kline. 1988. Portrait of Neill James (courtesy Lake Chapala Society)

B. J. Kline. 1988. Portrait of Neill James (courtesy Lake Chapala Society)

Kline painted this portrait of American author-traveler-benefactor Neill James for the Lake Chapala Society (which occupies her former home and gardens) in 1988.

Kline was one of the large group of Lakeside painters whose work was included in a group exhibit in May 1985 at the Club Campestre La Hacienda (km 30, Guadalajara-Chapala highway). Other artists represented in that show included Daphne Aluta, Eugenia Bolduc, Jean Caragonne, Donald Demerest, Laura Goeglein, Hubert Harmon, Jo Kreig, Carla W. Manger, Emily Meeker, Sydney Moehlman, Tiu Pessa, De Nyse Turner Pinkerton, Eleanor Smart and Xavier Pérez.

In 1990, Kline held a solo exhibition of his “newest and most vibrant art style” at the Studio Art Gallery in San Antonio Tlayacapan. It was the last show to be held in the gallery, which had been run by Luisa Julian de Arechiga and her husband.

During his time in Ajijic, Kline taught art and had a significant impact on the career of talented local Ajijic artist Efrén González, who also benefited from the artistic wisdom of Sid Schwartzman.

Kline is a member of the McKinney Avenue Contemporary (The MAC) Art Museum & Gallery in Dallas, Texas, and work by Kline won a Critic’s Choice Award in the 2005 Dallas Center for Contemporary Art Membership Show. His work “Under a Spell”, exhibited in July 2010 in a show entitled “Fictional” at The Bath House Cultural Center in Dallas, was also a people’s favorite. As one critic wrote, “there’s not a color out of place there in that melange of shapes and tones. Not one of those hues dominates. They are, in their unique fashions, just right.”

Kline’s work varies greatly in style but is invariably both interesting and highly collectible.

Sources:

  • El Informador, 4 May 1985.
  • El Ojo del Lago, Jan 1985, May 1990.
  • J. R. Compton. 2010. “Difficult Work“, Dallas Arts Review.

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

Apr 042019
 

Canadian poet Al Purdy was at the peak of his creative powers when he followed in the footsteps of his idol D. H. Lawrence and visited Lake Chapala in the late 1970s. Since 1923, many Lawrence fans had made their own pilgrimage to Chapala to see first-hand what inspired their great hero. However, Purdy is surely the most famous of all these admirers to do so. Purdy visited Lake Chapala more than once, though the precise timing of his multiple visits has proved impossible to establish with certainty.

His visits to Chapala left their mark on Purdy. In addition to a travel piece about the area, he published a hand-signed, individually-numbered, one-poem “book” entitled The D. H. Lawrence House at Chapala. This collector’s item, a single broadside in an elegant gilt-stamped folder, was published by The Paget Press in 1980, in a limited edition of 44 copies. The book includes a photograph, taken by Purdy’s wife, Eurithe, of the plumed serpent tile work above the door of the Lawrence house at Chapala.

According to David Bidini, Purdy’s travel article about Chapala was one of only three items the great poet kept in full view on the wall of his studio in Ameliasburgh, southern Ontario. The other two items were “a 1990 flyer celebrating Al Purdy Day” and “a New Canadian Library poster featuring its Famous Canadian Writer titles, many of them Purdy’s.” However, the photos of Purdy’s studio shown in the full length documentary Al Purdy was Here paint a different picture, one of a cluttered studio with photos, posters and writings vying for space on crowded walls hemmed in by overflowing bookshelves. His filing system, such as it was, comprised folders stuffed into cardboard boxes.

Statue of Purdy in Queen's Park, Toronto. Photo: Marisa Burton.

Statue of Al Purdy in Queen’s Park, Toronto. Bronze, 2008. Photo: Marisa Burton.

Purdy was a massive fan of Lawrence, and a bust of the English author had a prominent position on his desk. The English novelist was seemingly listening to every click-clack of Purdy’s typewriter and watching his every key stroke. Like his idol, Purdy had a reputation for being somewhat cantankerous and combative, especially to outsiders. Unlike the sickly Lawrence, Purdy was taller, heavier, healthier and outwardly happier. The New York Times obituary for Purdy summed him up as “a lanky writer whose brash, freewheeling ways masked a love for language”

Alfred Wellington Purdy was born on 30 December 1918 at Wooler, Ontario, and died 21 April 2000 in Victoria, British Columbia. His pathway to poetry was unconventional. He left high school after only two years (but not before selling his first poem to the high-school magazine, Spotlight, for a dollar), rode the rails during the Great Depression, and took a variety of menial jobs in British Columbia before joining the Royal Canadian Air Force (R.C.A.F.) when the second world war broke out.

Purdy married Mary Jane Eurithe Parkhurst in 1941. After six years in the R.C.A.F., Purdy and his wife settled in British Columbia. In 1956, they moved back east, first to Montreal and then to Ameliasburgh in southern Ontario. This was where Purdy honed his literary skills and became acknowledged as a “poet of the people”. Growing acclaim for his work won him several Canada Council Grants, enabling travel to write in locales ranging from British Columbia and Baffin Island (1965) to Greece (1967). In later life, in addition to visiting Mexico on several occasions, the Purdys divided their time between Ameliasburgh and Sydney (on Vancouver Island).

During his long writing career, Purdy published more than 30 books of poetry, a novel (Splinter in the Heart, 1990) and an autobiography (Reaching for the Beaufort Sea, 1993) plus dozens of radio plays, dramas and book reviews. His best known poetry collections include The Cariboo Horses, which won him a Governor General’s Award for poetry in 1965, The Stone Bird (1981), Piling Blood (1984), and The Collected Poems of Al Purdy, 1956-1986, which earned him a second Governor General’s Award in 1986. Purdy was awarded the Order of Canada in 1982 and the Order of Ontario in 1987.

In her foreword to a collection of Purdy’s poems, Margaret Atwood praised how “Purdy is always questioning, always probing, and among those things that he questions and probes are himself and his own poetic methods. In a Purdy poem, high diction can meet the scrawl on the washroom wall, and as in a collision between matter and anti-matter, both explode.” According to a much earlier CBC radio program Introducing Al Purdy (1967), “what he said startled people. His unconventional works poeticized barroom brawls, hockey players and homemade beer. Al Purdy’s work forced Canadians to re-evaluate their understanding of poetry and themselves.”

Purdy made numerous trips to Mexico between the early 1970s and the late 1980s. He was quick to admit he loved the country. Unimpressed by an editorial in the Globe and Mail to the effect that Mexicans were not especially friendly, Purdy wrote to say that it was necessary to draw a distinction between the Mexican people who were “as friendly and cordial as any you could wish to meet” and the less friendly attitudes of Mexican police and officialdom.

Purdy used his trips to Lake Chapala as part of a creative process to probe the connections between Lawrence and Chapala. In 1979, he wrote to fellow Canadian poet Earle Birney (who had composed poetry at Lake Chapala in the 1950s) describing how he had taken a look at Lawrence’s house in Chapala, “a peeling yellow-stucco two-storey place, with a large section of coloured tiles depicting a plumed serpent, the only trace of Lawrence evident” and was working on “a coupla poems… one of which might turn out to be something.”

Several of Purdy’s later poems have explicit links to Mexico, D. H. Lawrence and Chapala. These include “D. H. Lawrence at Lake Chapala,” a slightly modified version of the poem used for the single-page book The D. H. Lawrence House at Chapala, published in 1980. “D. H. Lawrence at Lake Chapala” was included in The Stone Bird (1981) and in Beyond Remembering: the collected poems of Al Purdy. The poem reveals at least as much about Purdy and his time at Lake Chapala as it does about Lawrence. The poem opens,

Try to simplify your life
you cannot
try to live a new life
and the old one complicates the new . . .

Other Purdy poems about Lawrence include “Death of DHL,” “Lawrence’s Pictures,” “I Think of John Clare” and “Lawrence to Laurence.”

In 1996, Purdy published In Mexico, a hand-printed limited edition of an 80-page poem based on his travels to Mexico with Eurithe, illustrated with 10 fabulous wood engravings by Alan H. Stein.

Purdy’s life-long love of Lawrence culminated in a joint limited edition work with Doug Beardsley entitled No One Else Is Lawrence! A Dozen of D.H. Lawrence’s Best Poems (1998).

Ameliasburgh, his home for so many years, has embraced its fame as the place where Purdy produced his finest poems. In 2001, the local library was renamed the Al Purdy Library. His name has also been given to the street that leads to the town cemetery (and his tombstone). Purdy’s A-frame, with its separate writing studio, overlooking the lake, has been restored and now operates a summer residency program for aspiring writers.

Al Purdy’s papers are divided between several university archives, with the largest collection held by Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.

Acknowledgments

I am very grateful for the help kindly offered by Eurithe Purdy in clarifying the chronology of her visits to Mexico with her husband.

Sources

  • Doug Beardsley and Al Purdy (introduction and commentary). 1998. No One Else Is Lawrence! A Dozen of D.H. Lawrence’s Best Poems. Harbour Publishing, Madeira Park, B.C.
  • David Bidini. 2009. “Visit to poet Al Purdy’s home stirs up more than a few old ghosts.” National Post, 30 October 2009.
  • Nicholas Bradley (ed). 2014. We go far back in time: the letters of Earle Birney and Al Purdy, 1947-1987. Harbour Publishing, Madeira Park, B.C.
  • James Brooke. 2000. “Al Purdy, Poet, Is Dead at 81; A Renowned Voice in Canada.” New York Times, 26 April 2000.
  • Al Purdy was Here. 90-minute documentary. Available via iTunes.
  • Al Purdy. 1976. Letter to the editor, Globe and Mail, 26 April 1976, 6.
  • Al Purdy. 1980. The D. H. Lawrence house at Chapala. The Paget Press.
  • Al Purdy. 1981. The Stone Bird. McClelland and Stewart.
  • Al Purdy. 1996. In Mexico. Church Street Press, Parry Sound, Ontario, Canada.
  • Al Purdy. 2000. Beyond Remembering – The Collected Poems of Al Purdy. Harbour Publishing, Madeira Park, B.C. (Forewords by Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje).
  • Jeffrey Aaron Weingarten. 2013. Lyric Historiography in Canadian Modernist Poetry, 1962-1981. PhD Thesis, McGill University, 101-2.

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

Mar 212019
 

Canadian poet Al Purdy visited Lake Chapala more than once in the late 1970s. Purdy spent more than a month in Ajijic over the winter of 1978-79 and later had a short travel piece entitled “Let There Be Light – Perhaps” accepted by Leisureways.

The quotes incorporated in the following summary of that piece come from the manuscript version of the article in the Purdy archives at Queen’s University in London, Ontario.

Statue of Purdy in Queen's Park, Toronto. Photo: Marisa Burton.

Statue of Purdy in Queen’s Park, Toronto. Photo: Marisa Burton.

Purdy thought that Chapala was “a sprawling untidy settlement,” where “a real estate boom, perhaps twenty years ago,” followed by a bust had left “half—built houses on the outskirts and red brick streets running nowhere.” Purdy summed the town up as “half ghost town and half a hive of geriatric tourists and the native Mexicans.”

As for the tourists, they were “mostly very old” and had “made their pile in New York or wherever when they were younger, and now come here to play bridge, soak up the sun and live the good life, wading thru sunshine instead of snow.”

Purdy wanted to soak his “arthritic knee in hot springs at San Juan Cosala then take off for places the tourists haven’t found yet.” They had trouble finding living quarters for a month “in an area that is completely jammed.”

Hank Edwards, a painter friend who had built a house in Ajijic, suggested they visit “La Russe” (Zara) because he had heard that her lakeside cottage was unoccupied. However, a meeting to “Save the Lake” was in progress on Zara’s patio, preparing the text of a telegram to send to the state governor protesting the dire situation of the lake. The following day, Purdy and his wife viewed the cottage only to discover that it was “a pretty crummy joint.” They were eventually able to “rent a small apartment on the mountain slope above Ajijic.”

During their time in Ajijic, Purdy viewed the D. H. Lawrence house in Chapala – “a sprawl of brick and stucco mansion, complete with falling plaster” – on the market at that time for $75,000.

Not surprisingly, given that it was more than fifty years since Lawrence had been there, Purdy was unable to find any trace of Lawrence in the building, but enjoyed letting his imagination picture the author in the building: “… there is a wrought iron spiral staircase, ending at upstairs bedrooms, that I’m sure Lawrence must have climbed; and an immense glass chandelier glittering its thousand suns in the living room, and which at one time must have reflected Lawrence’s own blue eyes.”

Actually, the house had only a single story when Lawrence rented it and the deficient electricity supply at the time would have necessitated candles in the chandelier.

Lunching at the Posada Ajijic, Purdy and his wife chatted to a pair of elderly American ladies who knew La Russe and recounted stories of her dance career (in Europe and elsewhere), her “brother”, and Zara’s attempt to star in a ballet she had written.

Purdy commented on the great Mexican muralists, Orozco and Rivera, and how the “cultured English novelists, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh and Aldous Huxley” who had visited Mexico, all “hated the place”, before turning his attention to how “D.H. Lawrence was alternately fascinated and repelled by Mexico with its basically Indian population, whose tradition of blood stretches back to the Aztecs and long before. Mayan and Aztec gods were deities of violence and death, the dark side of life.”

Despite the roads, roadkill, police, and the sketchy electricity supply, Purdy loved Mexico.

Prefacing a conversation he overheard while soaking in the mineral baths of San Juan Cosalá, Purdy described the scene in lively prose: “The white Aztec sun blazed down; brilliant red and purple flowers trembled on the fringes of vision; the blue lake was incandescent in its multiple reflections. Human bodies of all sizes, sexes and degrees of fatness lounged in and around the several pools, their temperatures graduated according to personal inclination.”

The hills were dormant in the winter dry season but on the “luxuriant green” lakeshore, “Mexican kids play their game in the dust, gabbing together; fat mothers feed their babies, thin mothers feed their babies; old men totter thru the cobbled streets, a flash of their eyes responding to friends’ flash of their eyes in greeting.”

Purdy was an astute, sensitive observer of Mexico and it is Lake Chapala’s gain that this great Canadian poet chose to follow in the footsteps of D. H. Lawrence and spend some time here.

Note

All quotes come from the manuscript version of “Let There Be Light – Perhaps” in the Queen’s University Purdy Archive (CA ON00239 F02017-S06-f0003 – “Article on Chapala, Mexico accepted for Leisureways Magazine”). I have so far failed to locate any published version of this article, accepted by Leisureways (according to Purdy’s notes) in about 1979-1980. The first edition of Leisureways was published by the Ontario Motor League in 1981. It is likely that Purdy’s article actually appeared in the final (1980-81) volume of Canadian Motorist, the publication’s name prior to its rebranding.

Acknowledgment

I am very grateful to Queen’s University archivist Heather Home and her administrative assistant, Lisa Gervais, for their help in supplying copies of materials from the university’s Purdy Archive.

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

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 212019
 

Alice Janice (“Jan”) Dunlap, who lived in Ajijic from 1967-1998, was born on 15 June 1927 in Addison, Texas, and died in Los Angeles, California, on 19 October 2018. Jan was one of eleven children born to Clinton Adolphus Dunlap and his wife Janice Blackburn and was suitably thrilled later in life when she discovered that she was a descendant of an aide to U.S. President George Washington.

Jan studied to be sociologist and was a member of the American Association of University Women (AAUW). She had a son, Michael, from her first marriage (when only a teenager), and four children with Ramón Rivas Jr. from her third marriage. She met Rivas, from Puerto Rico, when both were studying at the Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Texas in the early 1950s. The couple lived for a decade in Puerto Rico, where on one occasion Jan met Fidel Castro.

Later, when Jan was studying at the University of Texas at El Paso, she met and married artist Wesley Penn. Penn had friends who lived at Lake Chapala and suggested that they live in Mexico. Jan quickly agreed when she learned that Mexico wanted more English teachers ahead of hosting the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.

The couple decamped to Ajijic, with Jan’s four children. Tragically, Penn was killed in 1970 when the car he was driving was hit by a bus on the Chapala-Guadalajara highway. Jan and her children remained in Ajijic where she became one of the village’s more colorful and warm-hearted characters of the 1970s and 1980s. Jan felt as though nobody was a stranger and believed that anyone in need was worthy of help and assistance.

Known to everyone in Ajijic as “Big Mama”, Jan ran a succession of restaurant-bars, boutiques and galleries, including El Tejabán, the Blackfoot Contessa Boutique, the Wes Penn Gallery, Big Mama’s (on 16 de Septiembre) and El Tapanco. Jan was especially proud of having arranged an exhibit of Ruth Anaya paintings in El Tejabán that got the gallery (and Ajijic) listed in Who’s Who in American Art. Jan was the “Grand Dame” of the “Rowdy Bunch” which contributed its positive energy to many Ajijic events.

Declining health forced Jan and her husband, Michael Shapiro, to move back to the States in 1998. Shortly afterwards, Jan founded Grandmothers Against Smoking, a campaign to help persuade young people not to smoke.

Jan finally realized one of her long-term dreams in 2017 when she published, shortly after her 90th birthday (and with a little help from me) her debut novel, Dilemma, an exciting tale about a drug-dealing cartel capo and a beautiful, youthful female DEA agent. The novel is loosely based on Ajijic gossip and her personal experiences in Mexico.

The novel, set mainly at Lake Chapala in Mexico, takes us back to the 1970s. Natalie, a beautiful young DEA agent, is sent to investigate an alleged king-pin in the drugs world who lives in Ajijic. Her life soon becomes far more complicated than she bargained for. The positive reviews on Amazon for this tale of international romance, drugs and intrigue speak for themselves.

The striking artwork used for the cover is by B.C.-based artist Oliver Rivas, one of Jan’s grandsons.

Jan also completed several other works including a novel entitled With Money Dances the Dog, and associated screenplay, based on an infamous series of murders in Ajijic in the mid-1970s.

Jan was predeceased by two of her five children: Janina Rivas died in Mexico following a dog bite in 1973; Ricardo Rivas died in 2015. She leaves behind her husband, Michael, and three sons – Michael, Ramón and Roberto – as well as many grandchildren, great grandchildren and great-great grandchildren.

Sources

  • Big Spring Daily Herald, Big Spring, Texas: 13 February 1935, 8.
  • Guadalajara Reporter: 13 Dec 1975; 17 Jan 1976; 31 Jan 1976; 28 Feb 1976; 10 Sep 1977, 19; 15 Oct 1983.
  • Henrietta Clay County Leader, Henrietta, Texas: 11 June 1970.

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

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.

Jan 312019
 

From way back when, visiting artists such as surrealist painter Sylvia Fein in the 1940s offered students in Ajijic art materials and encouragement. In 1954, authoress Neill James, almost a decade after she had moved to Ajijic to recuperate from a serious climbing accident, started a tutoring program for local youngsters. Children who worked hard were given art materials to paint and draw. This was the beginning of Ajijic’s famous Children’s Art Program (CAP).

Early classes combined reading and writing with art. James became so committed to the project that the following year she opened a public library, donating the building to the village. She later opened a second library. She was sufficiently impressed by the efforts and creativity of several young artists that she arranged for them to continue their art education by attending classes in San Miguel de Allende.

To its eternal credit, the Children’s Art Program provided (and continues to provide) one of the stronger bridges between the expatriate “colony” and the local community. Almost all families in Ajijic have benefited from the program at one time or another. As the program expanded, greater organizational skills were required and the Lake Chapala Society stepped in to offer its support to help run the libraries and the art classes.

Javier Zaragoza and Jesús López Vega. 2012. Children's Art Program mural, Lake Chapala Society.

Javier Zaragoza and Jesús López Vega. 2012. Children’s Art Program mural, Lake Chapala Society.

For most of the first three decades of the Children’s Art Program, James was ably assisted by Angelita Aldana Padilla. One of Aldana’s nephews, Florentino Padilla (who lived from about 1943 to 2010) was one of the first students to be given a scholarship by James to study in San Miguel de Allende from 1960 to 1962.

On his return to Ajijic, Padilla gave back by teaching the next generation of CAP students. He helped promote the sale of the children’s “bright, charming paintings” to raise funds for materials and supplies. In 1964, for example, Padilla and Paul Carson (the then president of the Lake Chapala Society) arranged an exhibition-sale at the Instituto Cultural Mexicano-NorteAmericano in Guadalajara of over 50 paintings by youngsters who had been taught at the Biblioteca. Nearly all the paintings sold. Padilla’s niece, Lucia Padilla Gutierrez, is also a gifted artist who attended CAP classes, and her own son became the third generation of this particular family to benefit from the program.

Many other later CAP alumni, including Javier Zaragoza and Jesús López Vega, have also given back to the program by teaching classes.

Every time CAP artwork was sold, a healthy percentage went to the individual student artist, as it still does today. In the 1970s, regular shows of CAP art were held in Ajijic. For example, in 1973, an exhibition of student work was held at the Tejabán Restaurant in Ajijic (then run by Jan Dunlap and Manuel Urzua). The acclaimed American photographer Sylvia Salmi (who had retired to Ajijic a decade earlier) and Peggy Duffield helped promote and organize the show.

The following year, Betty Lou and John Rip, who were frequent visitors to Lake Chapala, purchased CAP paintings to decorate all 44 rooms of their Mayan Motor Inn in Laredo, Texas.

For a variety of reasons, including Neill James’ advancing age and ill health, the CAP ran out of steam in the late 1970s and there were no regular art classes for children from 1979 to 1984. Classes were revived – initially during summer vacation and shortly thereafter year-round – thanks to the joint efforts of the Lake Chapala Society and the Ajijic Society of the Arts and the tireless endeavors of Mildred Boyd, an American writer and volunteer, who stepped forward at just the right time. Boyd, who died in 2010, dedicated thousands of hours of selfless service to the cause of CAP.

When Boyd came across a stash of long-forgotten works done by students who had been in the program decades earlier, she (with the help of one of her daughters, Judy) assembled a heritage exhibition that included early works by several children who had gone on to become successful professional artists.

The Legacy Art Collection (paintings and other works, some dating back to the 1950s, by children in the Children’s Art Program), the patrimony of all the people of Ajijic, is now in the care of the Lake Chapala Society. The collection is being catalogued and around 400 individual items can be viewed online via this online database.

Boyd’s two daughters are supporting LCS attempts to digitize, catalog and preserve hundreds of the better paintings and hope that regular exhibits in the future will showcase the extraordinary artistic talents of so many local families.

The first major retrospective, spanning more than 50 years of paintings from the program, was held at the Centro Cultural Ajijic in October 2014. The 60th Anniversary exhibit featured 130 works by CAP alumni. The “legacy artists” included José Abarca, Antonio Cardenas, Efren Gonzalez, Ricardo Gonzalez, Antonio Lopéz Vega, Jesús Lopéz Vega, Bruno Mariscal, Juan Navarro, Juan Olivarez, Lucia Padilla, Daniel Palma, Lucia Padilla, Javier Ramos, Victor Romero and Javier Zaragoza.

Frank Wise and Mildred Boyd with Children’s Art Program students. Credit: Lizz/Judy Boyd.

The Children’s Art Program is commemorated in a colorful mural at the Lake Chapala Society entitled “Six Decades of Children’s Art” (“Seis décadas de arte infantil.” The mural, financed by the Ajijic Society of the Arts (ASA) and painted by program alumni Jesús López Vega and Javier Zaragoza, was unveiled in March 2012 and pays special homage to the three remarkable women who ensured the program’s success: Neill James, Angelita Aldana Padilla and Mildred Boyd.

Today, between 50 and 70 local children participate each week in art classes given by CAP. Both CAP and the children’s library remain integral parts of the links between the Lake Chapala Society and the local community. Ironically, in spite of her contributions, and the fact that she gifted her own home to the Lake Chapala Society, Neill James was never a member of that organization, preferring to support Mexican causes rather than expatriate ones.

Artists of note who began their art careers by taking classes in the Children’s Art Program include José Abarca; Armando Aguilar; Luis Anselmo Avalos Rochín; Antonio Cardenas Perales; José Manuel Castañeda; Efren González; Ricardo Gonzalez; Antonio López Vega; Jesús López Vega; Bruno Mariscal; Luis Enrique Martínez Hernández; Dionicio Morales López; Juan Navarro; Juan Olivarez; Florentino Padilla; Lucia Padilla Gutierrez; Daniel Palma; Javier Ramos; Victor Romero; Javier Zaragoza.

The Children’s Art Program can always use additional help. To donate time, funds or resources, contact the organizers.

Sources

  • Mildred Boyd. 2001. “Children’s Art Alive and Well in Ajijic!”, El Ojo del Lago, Vol 17, #10 (June 2001).
  • Guadalajara Reporter: 24 Sep 1964, 10; 1 Oct 1964; 10 Nov 1973; 16 March 1974.

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

Jan 242019
 

While living in Ajijic in the early 1970s, Wendell Phillips Jr. and his good friend Ray Rigby co-wrote a screenplay, Ringer, that they subsequently sold to Hollywood.

Richard Wendell Phillips Jr., the son of a New York stage actor, Wendell K. Phillips (1907-1991), and his first wife, Odielein Pearce, was born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in 1929 and died on 2 October 2010. After graduating from Staunton Military Academy in Virginia in 1948, he planned to enter the U. S. Military academy at West Point. He later became an actor and played an uncredited part as a patient in Lilith (1964), written and directed by Robert Rossen.

By the early 1970s he was living in Ajijic. Announcements of his marriage to Mercedes Boon of Ajijic in 1972 described Phillips as “of Los Angeles and Ajijic.” The marriage ceremony was held in Chapala, and the newlyweds planned to divide their time between their homes in Mexico and Los Angeles.

Mercedes Boon came from a wealthy family in Cincinnati. She attended Hillsdale School in Cincinnati, graduated from Stephens College, studied photography in Los Angeles and briefly served the armed forces as an American Red Cross staff assistant in Europe before she first visited Ajijic in her early 20s, in about 1950. She subsequently became a resident of the village for almost 20 years and ran various businesses there, including a gift and handicrafts store called Decoraciones del Hogar on the main highway. Boon died on 7 February 1976, leaving her husband, mother (Mrs Dorothy Boon Early) and a cousin (Reni Rice).

Writer Jerry Murray, who was living in Ajijic in the 1970s, working for Earl Kemp and his Greenleaf Press, later recalled both Phillips and Mercedes Boon as belonging to the cast of colorful characters that helped enliven life in Ajijic. Other names appearing in Murray’s fond memoir of those lusty times, published many years later, included Pete Peterson, Trudy Campbell, Peggy Neal, Stogie, Jan [Dunlap], Margo [Thomas], Neill James, “Madame Zara”, [Don] Hogan and Susie Nissen.

Wendell Phillips Jr. was friends with British author Ray Rigby (then living in San Antonio Tlayacapan) and the two collaborated to write a TV script entitled Ringer. In 1973, the two men traveled to Universal Studios in Hollywood to complete the sale of their full length pilot TV film.

Phillips was also co-author of another work earlier that year. Working with Burton Brinckerhoff, Phillips copyrighted a screenplay entitled The red-roof odyssey in February 1973. Sadly, there is no evidence that either Ringer or The red-roof odyssey ever actually made it into production.

Sources

  • The Cincinnati Enquirer, 31 August 1943, 8; 21 Oct 1945, 18; 22 Dec 1950 13; 12 September 1972; 17; 12 February 1976.
  • Guadalajara Reporter, 14 Feb 1976.
  • The Kablegram, Staunton, Virginia, 28 May 1948, 4.
  • Jerry Murray. “The Devil’s Weed, Orgasmic Days, y Laguna Lust”, published in Earl Kemp’s Efanzine, Vol. 1 No. 3 (July 2002).

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

Dec 202018
 

After 1974, when Neill James, the Grande Dame of Ajijic, closed her store and retired, the wonderful gardens of her home – Quinta Tzintzuntzan – were no longer normally open to the public.

However, in 1977, James agreed to open her grounds every Sunday afternoon as an art garden (jardín del arte) for a new artists’ group, the Young Painters of Ajijic (Jovenes Pintores de Ajijic). Most of these young artists had started out by taking the free weekly classes at the children’s libraries James had started. Those classes were the very beginning of the very successful Children’s Art Program, now run by the Lake Chapala Society.

Pintores Jovenes de Ajijic. Credit: Dionicio Morales.

Pintores Jovenes de Ajijic. Standing (l to r): Javier Garabito Tovar, ?, ?, Dionicio Morales López, José Manuel Castañeda; seated: Félix Vargas. Credit: Dionicio Morales.

The members of Young Artists of Ajijic included organizer Dionicio Morales López, Antonio López Vega, Daniel Palma Pérez, Julián Pulido Pedrosa, José Manuel Castañeda, Alejandro Martínez and Victoria Corona.

The first show by the Young Painters of Ajijic was held from 11.30am to 4.30pm on Sunday 28 August 1977. The show included oils, acrylics, watercolors, charcoal drawings and prints, and the artists had combined sales totaling over $12,000 pesos ($550). Exhibitors at the event, besides those named above, included Antonio Cárdenas Perales and Victor Romero. Entertainment was provided by the Folkloric Dance Group of Ajijic and the wind music group of Luis López.

Poster for inaugural event [Handwritten year should be 1977]

Poster for inaugural event [Handwritten year should be ’77]

The Sunday “garden of art” shows were a regular weekly event for some time. The first non-Mexicans to exhibit with the group were Diana Powell and Sid Schwartzman.

The following year, in mid-March, the artists held what was billed as Ajijic’s “first annual cultural week” in the gardens, with art exhibits, guitar concerts and ballet recitals, among other attractions. On this occasion, the entertainment included the Folkloric Dance Group of the University of Guadalajara (directed by Rafael Zamarripa), concerts performed by the U. de G.’s School of Music and a group conducted by Javier Garabito Tovar (standing on the left of the photo), as well as a stage play – “El Demonio Azul” (The Blue Devil) – directed by Félix Vargas (seated in the wheelchair in the photo).

Despite hopes for a repeat event the following year, sadly the 1978 week-long show was the only “Ajijic cultural week” ever held.

The Young Artists Group was the forerunner of the Asociación de Artistas de Ajijic (AAA).

Acknowledgment

My sincere thanks to Dionicio Morales and Antonio López Vega for generously sharing their memories of the Ajijic Young Artists Group.

Sources

  • Guadalajara Reporter, 13 August 1977, 10 September 1977, 8 April 1978.

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 062018
 

There was a wave of positive energy for the arts in Ajijic either side of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics and its related cultural activities in Mexico City and Guadalajara. Perhaps the largest single art fair held in Ajijic during these years was the Fiesta de Arte held at Calle 16 de Septiembre #33, the home and garden of art patrons Frances and Ned Windham.

Invitation card for Fiesta de Arte

Invitation card for 1971 Fiesta de Arte

The Fiesta de Arte was held on Saturday 15 May 1971. Planning for the show, originally called the “First Lakeside Artists Fair” was well underway by April. The organizers were John K. Peterson and Peter Huf, who enlisted the help of Beth Avery, Donald Hogan (who as murdered a few months later) and several other artists. They expected about 20 artists to take part.

A week before the show, the advance publicity in the Guadalajara Reporter named 29 artists whose work – paintings, photography, block prints, serigraphs and sculptures – would be on show and said that more than 500 people were expected to attend the one-day event.

Reports after the Fair show that the projected numbers were surpassed. While almost all the exhibitors were foreign artists, there was one especially interesting local artist: Fernando García, a self-taught carver.

García was an employee of Robert de Boton, husband of internationally-acclaimed painter Alice de Boton. When French-born Robert retired from biochemistry, the couple moved to Mexico where Robert began to dabble in carving and sculpture. When García expressed an interest in carving, Robert encouraged him to see what he could do. García worked by candlelight late into the night for several weeks and completed several “small primitives of extraordinary beauty and sensitivity”, all of which sold instantly.

The list of exhibitors at the Fiesta del Art included Daphne Aluta; Mario Aluta; Beth Avary; Charles Blodgett; Antonio Cárdenas; Alan Davoll; Alice de Boton; Robert de Boton; Tom Faloon; John Frost; Fernando García; Dorothy Goldner; Burt Hawley; Peter Huf; Eunice Hunt; Lona Isoard; Michael Heinichen; John Maybra Kilpatrick; Gail Michel; Bert Miller; Robert Neathery; John K. Peterson; Stuart Phillips; Hudson Rose; Mary Rose; Jesús Santana; Walt Shou; Frances Showalter; Sloane; Eleanor Smart; Robert Snodgrass; and Agustín Velarde.

Sources

  • Guadalajara Reporter: 3 April 1971; 24 April 1971; 8 May 1971; 22 May 1971; 5 June 1971.

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

Nov 012018
 

Josefa, the fashion designer credited with showcasing Mexican styles on the world haute couture stage, lived and worked for many years at Lake Chapala. She successfully melded indigenous Mexican colors and elements with functional design to produce elegant and original dresses and blouses. Josefa designs were never mass-produced but made by local women in small villages near Guadalajara.

Design by Josefa

Design by Josefa

Josefa Ibarra and her business partner, Ana Villa, founded a brand known as El Aguila Descalza (The Barefoot Eagle). Based in Tlaquepaque, The Barefoot Eagle opened retail stores in several major Mexican cities and one in Boston, while simultaneously supplying numerous high-end department and fashion stores in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Josefa followed her own intuition as regards fashion and her success resulted from a series of serendipitous encounters. She was living in Puerto Vallarta when she got her first lucky break, which involved Elizabeth Taylor, in 1963. Taylor’s lover, Richard Burton, was there at the time because John Huston had chosen Puerto Vallarta, then just a small village, for filming The Night of the Iguana (which co-starred Ava Gardner).

One afternoon, in a break from filming, the cast and crew, accompanied by Taylor, were wandering around the village when, outside a typical small dwelling, they came across a selection of beautiful dresses hanging from the branches of a tree. The house belonged to Josefa, and the visitors bought every last one of her dresses. The famous actress subsequently added numerous Josefa designs to her wardrobe during repeated visits to Puerto Vallarta over the next decade.

Josefa’s second lucky break, shortly afterwards, was to meet Boston-born Ana Konstandin, when she was on vacation in Puerto Vallarta. (After Konstantin moved to Guadalajara to run The Barefoot Eagle, she married Edmondo Villa and changed her name to Ana Villa.)

Ana, who had graduated from the Academy Moderne of Fashion in Boston, had an eye for style and was a buyer for Filene’s Department Store in Boston. She also fell in love with Josefa’s designs and realized that this was a unique business opportunity. The two ladies got on really well together and had complementary skill sets. They founded El Aguila Descalza (The Barefoot Eagle), choosing Tlaquepaque for its headquarters. According to Chris Adams, who married Ana Villa’s sister and helped establish The Barefoot Eagle’s presence in Boston, this was in 1963.

The business grew rapidly and soon became Mexico’s leading producer of internationally famous high fashion women’s apparel. Adams provides a detailed case study of The Barefoot Eagle in his book, Up Your Sales in Any Economy. At its peak, the company employed several hundred women in three outlying villages to undertake all the embroidery and decoration, with everything done by hand to maintain the artesanal quality. Most of the cotton fabric used came from Mexico City; the steadfast dyes were imported.

Exhibition of designs by Josefa

Exhibition of Mexican textiles and designs by Josefa

The Barefoot Eagle opened its own retail stores in several major Mexican cities: Acapulco, Cancún, Manzanillo, Mexico City, Puerto Vallarta, Monterrey, San Miguel de Allende, Tijuana, and Zihuatanejo. It also opened one in Boston’s famous Faneuil Hall Marketplace. Overseas stores that stocked Josefa designs included Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Lord & Taylor and Macy’s, in addition to specialist boutiques in Denmark, England, the Netherlands and France.

The celebrity effect was contagious. Among those photographed wearing Josefa dresses or blouses were Elizabeth Taylor, Lady Bird Johnson (who was featured wearing a Josefa dress on the cover of Ladies Home Journal), Glenda Jackson (in Touch of Class), Sofia Loren, Diana Ross, Loretta Young, Princess Grace of Monaco, Nancy Reagan, Deborah Kerr and Farah Diba, the wife of the former Shah of Iran.

According to journalist Sheryl Kornman, Josefa was just “as exciting, as articulate, as vivid as the costumes she designs.” Kornman described Josefa as casually dressed, wearing a “flimsy blue and red short shift” with her “long brown hair in a braid tossed forward over one shoulder,” and sandals on her feet. The designer said she had started by making jewelry in Puerto Vallarta a little more than a decade earlier before beginning to sew her own clothes and making some for friends. She then taught her “house girl” and others how to sew, and began to produce designs inspired by indigenous Huichol and Oaxacan handicrafts and art.

By 1970, Josefa and her husband were living in Santa Fe, New Mexico, from where she returned to Guadalajara at least twice a year, timing the visits to prepare for a summer line released in April and a fall/winter line released a few months later.

Josefa was the first Mexican dress designer to have her work grace the cover of Vogue Paris. Models showing off her designs also featured on several covers of Vogue and McCalls. Interestingly, not long afterwards, another designer – Gail Michel de Guzmán – who lived at Lake Chapala at the same time as Josefa, had her own work featured in Vogue Paris.

According to Adams, Josefa considered it a compliment that she was the most copied designer in Mexico. Adams played a part in the commercialization of The Barefoot Eagle brand, producing a factsheet and sales pointers for all the salespeople in the various retail stores. Among other things, salespeople were instructed to ensure that prospective clients understood that even if they thought the items were pricey, they were definitely worth every centavo because they were hand-embroidered designer creations and works of art.

Label in Josefa blouse

Label in Josefa blouse

The company continued to grow. Josefa was one of the first designers in Mexico to establish and supply a large-scale export market. Several earlier designers, such as Jim and Rita Tillet, had successfully established smaller operations and exported Mexican fashions, though they never succeeded in scaling up production to the levels reached by The Barefoot Eagle. Others, such as American Charmin Schlossman, who lived in Ajijic in the 1940s, took their creativity back home and established successful firms north of the border.

The Barefoot Eagle filed a U.S. federal trademark registration in 1982 for its “clothing products,” described as “Belts, Blouses, Caftans, Dresses, Hats, Jackets, Pants, Ponchos, Shirts, Shoes, Skirts and Vests.”

The extraordinary export success of Josefa was recognized by Mexico’s federal government which awarded her company a National Export Prize seven years in a row.

The extraordinary quality of Josefa’s designs and workmanship has led to her work being included in several important exhibitions. The largest single exhibition (250 designs) was held at the Museo de la Indumentaria Luis Marquez Romay in Mexico City in 2004. This stunning exhibit of Josefa’s manta kaftans in distinctive Mexican textures and colors (turquoise, green, fuchsia, rose and yellow), decorated with embroidered flowers, designs influenced by Mexico’s indigenous peoples, butterflies and geometric patterns, together with silk threads and sequins, was a kaleidoscope of color.

Exhibition of designs by Josefa

Exhibition of Mexican textiles and designs by Josefa

In 2009, another exhibition, “México de autor, historia en color” showcased Josefa’s designs alongside indigenous textile items from the Mapelli collection of the Mexico City Popular Art Museum (Museo de Arte Popular de la Ciudad de México). Curated by Mario Méndez, that show ran from January through March. The juxtaposition of fashion designs with indigenous textiles emphasized what they had in common and how one influenced the other. Josefa’s “Mexicanized” designs, celebrating bright colors, owed much to, and simultaneously increased the appeal of indigenous textile patterns and clothing.

Born circa 1924?

Relatively little is known for sure about her life story outside fashion. Adams described Josefa as Mexican born and residing in Tlaquepaque and the state of Oregon. According to a 2004 news piece, Josefa claimed to have been born in Chihuahua more than 80 years ago, while friends claimed she had arrived in Puerto Vallarta 30 years ago from the state of Oregon.

Josefa lived at Lake Chapala for many years in the 1970s and 1980s. Her home (with a room converted for a design studio) was in El Limón, just west of San Juan Cosalá. The en-suite in her imaginatively decorated residence featured a special hand-made foot bath, probably the work of her friend Jorge Wilmot, and likely much used given that Josefa was accustomed to going barefoot most of the day.

After becoming successful, Josefa traveled widely, but in retirement, she experienced both health and financial problems. While she felt forced out of retirement by her financial situation, she was unable to resume her fashion design work on account of her health issues. She enlisted the help of a nephew in the U.S. but he chose to sell her property and put his famous designer aunt into a nursing home.

In 2008, a fashion fund raiser was held to help pay for her medical treatment.

Josefa Ibarra, artist, entrepreneur and mother of Mexican fashion, died in about 2010. Her decision to develop folkloric “Neo-Mexican” designs and her insistence on incorporating artesanal workmanship prodded Mexican fashion design into a direction still evident today.

There is continued international interest in Josefa’s designs. For example, her work was showcased north of the border in a December 2016 exhibit, “La Familia”, at Friends of Georgetown History (6206 Carleton Ave S) in Seattle, Washington. The show was of selected pieces from the collection of Allan Phillips, a grandson of Josefa’s sister, Olivia.

In 2017, Mexico was the featured country at the VII Congreso Bienal Latinoamericano de Moda in Cartagena, Colombia. An accompanying exhibit took a retrospective look at the history of Mexico’s fashion industry, and highlighted the role of Josefa – “an icon of national fashion design” – in setting what was then a nascent industry on the path to global success. The exhibit included contemporary work by students from the Universidad de Guadalajara that echoed the path laid down by Josefa.

Josefa’s legacy lives on. Her story has been shared with succeeding generations of fashion students in Mexico and she is often referred to as “the mother of Mexican fashion” or as “Mexico’s Coco Chanel”. Students are taught that it is perfectly possible (indeed fashionably current) – and profitable – to integrate indigenous, local design into the global fashion scene.

Please contact me if you can supply biographical details about Josefa.

Acknowledgment

  • My sincere thanks to Sherry Hudson for her assistance with compiling this profile.

Sources

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

Sep 202018
 

The artist Sid Sklar exhibited at Lake Chapala in April 1989. The images show two very different works by this artist. I have been unable to pin down any biographical details about Sid Sklar, so I’m hoping that some alert reader will supply me with more clues about his  life and work.

Sklar’s 1989 exhibit was at the Art Studio Gallery in San Antonio Tlayacapan, a gallery run by Luisa Julian de Arechiga and her husband. The brief note about the exhibit suggests that Sklar lived in Guadalajara.

Sid Sklar. Undated. Untitled.

Sid Sklar. Undated. Untitled.

I have found only tiny snippets of information related to Sid (presumably Sidney) Sklar, though am unable to say whether or not they necessarily refer to the same person. There are three or four people in the U.S. who would have been about the right age at the time, living in several different states.

The most detailed account on line is of a visually-impaired artist named Sid Sklar who was one of the first people in the world to have a successful cornea transplant (in the early 1940s). It seems, though, that he only took up art (with watercolors) in the 1990s, following a terrible accident when he was hit at a toll booth by a hit-and-run driver. The extraordinary story of this Sid Sklar has been told by journalist Beverly Antel. Given the dates, this does not appear to be the correct Sid Sklar for the Chapala exhibition.

Sid Sklar. 1973. Untitled.

Sid Sklar. 1973. Untitled.

The first of the two Sidney Sklar references that may refer to the right person comes from Baltimore in 1976, where a review of a show of works by members of Artists Equity at the Turner Auditorium Gallery of the Johns Hopkins Medical School included “Midsummer”, in which “Sidney Sklar exhibits masterful control over batik.”

The second reference comes from Ottawa, Canada, in 1981. A display ad for a new collection of jewelry on sale at The Bay (Hudson’s Bay Company) in Ottawa lists a Sid Sklar among the designers of the “The Signature Collection by Universe International.”

If anyone can help identify the correct Sid Sklar or tell me any more about him, please get in touch via the comments section.

Acknowledgment

My thanks to Ricardo Santana for bringing Sid Sklar to my attention and for his kind permission to reproduce the images used in this post.

Sources

  • Beverly Antel. 2009. “Seeing Life With The Eyes Of A Child.” National Keratoconus Foundation, Feb 2009.
  • The Baltimore Sun (Baltimore, Maryland), 29 Apr 1976, 27.
  • The Ottawa Citizen (Canada) 17 Nov 1981, 53.

Other Art Mysteries:

Aug 302018
 

Mexican-born Virginia Downs (1914-2005) was the third wife of William (“Bill”) Colfax Miller. After their marriage in November 1969, the Millers lived in Cuernavaca, where they co-owned an art gallery, before moving first to the U.S. for a year and then, in about 1982, to Lake Chapala, where Virginia Miller was a prolific writer of articles about Mexico for local English-language publications.

Virginia Downs was born into a wealthy American family in Guadalajara on 11 March 1914 and died in that same city on 16 November 2005. Her grandfather, Alfred Ryder Downs, had been a successful miner in Alaska before moving to Mexico, where he built up a business empire as owner of the American Bank of Guadalajara, a Ford Agency and (allegedly) the first gas station in Guadalajara. He bought land on the then northern outskirts of the city that he subsequently developed at the start of the 20th century as Colonia Seattle. Modeled on an American garden city, this area initially had 57 homes and its own electric and water plants.

Virginia was only nine days old when her family fled Guadalajara for the U.S., fearing for their lives as the Mexican Revolution engulfed the city and most Americans were forced to flee. Grandfather Downs returned a few years later and resumed his business interests. Virginia’s family also returned, and she attended school in Guadalajara before completing her high school education at Grey Castle (which later became San Diego High School) in California, after which she majored in foreign languages at the University of California Los Angeles.

After graduating, Downs worked in the U.S. Civil Service. She worked 5 years in Hawaii, two years in Japan and a year in Frankfurt before spending 15 years in Paris, where she worked as a researcher and writer for the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff European Command. When NATO personnel were ordered out of France in 1967 by President Charles de Gaulle, she returned to the U.S.

Failing to find suitable work in Los Angeles, she moved back to Mexico, living first in Oaxaca, then San Miguel de Allende (where she took art classes), and then to the Cortés house in Cuernavaca. It was in Cuernavaca that she met and married Bill Miller.

During their time in Cuernavaca, Virginia was a columnist for the local daily El Diario de Morelos and the couple opened the Akari Art Gallery, the city’s first major art gallery. The couple were friends of many famous Mexican artists, including Alfaro David Siqueiros who gave them a personally-inscribed heliographic copy of a drawing entitled “La Niña Madre”. This drawing was used by Excelsior, the national daily, during its campaign to get Mother’s Day officially celebrated in Mexico.

The Atari Gallery was one of the venues for a group show by Clique Ajijic in February 1976. The Clique Ajijic was comprised of eight Ajijic artists: Tom FaloonHubert Harmon, Todd (“Rocky”) Karns, Gail Michaels, John Peterson, Synnove (Shaffer) PettersenAdolfo Riestra and Sidney Schwartzman.

Among the other “Ajijicans” attending the opening in Cuernavaca were Peggy Koll, Margo Thomas, and Bruce and Patricia Wightman.

In Ajijic, in addition to her regular contributions to El Ojo del Lago (The Eye of the Lake) and other local publications, Virginia Miller self-published South of Yesterday (2001), a family history, subsequently translated into Spanish as Al Sur del Ayer (2004). She described the book as “the story of my mother’s life as a bride coming to a strange land. The book flows through the charmed life of an American living in Guadalajara in the early nineteen hundreds into the violence of the Revolution, escape from and return to a much-beloved Mexico.”

Sources

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

Aug 092018
 

Chapala-born Jorge Seimandi Ramírez was a highly-respected art educator at the University of Guadalajara for more than 40 years. He was not interested in the commercial side of art and his own work was rarely sold or exhibited.

Seimandi was born in Chapala on 2 February 1929, the son of Italian-born businessman Juan Seimandi and his wife, Refugio Ramírez, a local Chapala girl. Jorge Seimandi studied art at the Escuela de Bellas Artes in Guadalajara from 1947 to 1950. His teachers included Ixca Farías, Leopoldo Bancalari and Rubén Mora Gálvez.

Recognized for his proficiency in both oils and watercolors, Seimandi painted still lifes, figurative studies, portraits and landscapes, some of which were exhibited in the 1950s.

Jorge Seimandi. Undated still life. Photo credit: A. Hinojosa/Informador.

Jorge Seimandi. Undated still life. Photo credit: A. Hinojosa/Informador.

His work was exhibited at the Exhibition of the School of Fine Arts (Exposición Anual de la Escuela de Bellas Artes) in Guadalajara in 1949 (where he won a “diploma of recognition”); in two shows at the city’s Galerías Degollado, in 1957 and 1958;and at at the Mexican-North American Cultural Institute (Instituto Cultural Mexicano Norteamericano de Jalisco). Seimandi  held solo shows at the Escuela de Artes Plásticas (1970; 1994) and at the Galería Jorge Martínez (1998).

Along with Alfonso de Lara Gallardo, Jorge Navarro Hernández and others, Seimandi was an active member of Grupo Integración, a loose collective of modernistic artists founded in 1966.

Seimandi was never a full-time professional painter but pursued art in his spare time while earning a qualification in law. He was appointed head of the Jalisco State Tourism Office in 1957. He taught art and art history at the University of Guadalajara’s Escuela de Bellas Artes (Fine Arts School) from 1953 to 1981, where he inspired the next generation of artists. He directed the school from 1978-1981. He was also appointed Professor of Drawing for the Jalisco State Primary Schools, a position that enabled him to research basic education in drawing.

Following his death in Guadalajara on 2 October 2013, at the age of 84, his family announced their intention to compile a complete catalog his works, many of which he gave to friends, and to arrange a retrospective exhibition at the University of Guadalajara’s Museo de las Artes. If they are successful, this will be a show worth seeing!

Sources:

  • El Informador: 25 April 1970; 26 June 1994; 25 Nov 1998; 28 Nov 1998.
  • Thamara Villaseñor. 2013. “Seimandi y su pasión por la pintura.” El Informador, 1 Dec 2013, 11-B.

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.

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