Sep 192019
 

Accomplished amateur artist Sid Miller painted and sculpted in Ajijic from 1982 to shortly before his death in 1998. His work was included in numerous local exhibitions, alongside that of friends such as Georg Rauch and Peter and Carole D’Addio.

Miller was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1912 to a Lithuanian Jewish couple who had met in New York; he was the youngest of six children. To help pay his tuition while studying politics and history at Brooklyn College, he made stained glass vent covers. When revisiting Brooklyn almost thirty years later in 1961, he was delighted to see that many of his decorative vents were still in place.

He was also a fine musician who, in his youth, played the clarinet and saxophone in jazz bands. While still in his twenties, Miller had played in bands on Hudson River boats, as well as in the Catskills and the Caribbean.

Miller met his future wife on a blind date in San Francisco in 1944, while awaiting being shipped out to Japan. She was a teacher, born in Detroit to parents of Hungarian heritage. They married three weeks later, barely a week before he left San Francisco to serve in Japan for 18 months.

The departure for the Far East was somewhat unexpected given that Miller had been preparing originally for a mission in Spain by taking intensive Spanish classes. The Spanish he acquired at this time proved to be extremely useful later in his life when he created a life in Mexico.

During his time in Asia, Miller sent regular letters back home, decorated with informal drawings. (This brings to mind the charming decorated envelopes used by Tink Strother when writing to her husband, Vane, while he was serving in the U.S. military.)

It was while serving with the U.S. Air Corps in the Pacific, in New Guinea, that Miller first began to carve wooden sculptures, selecting the female form as his preferred subject matter. Some of these sculptures, especially the ones of mother and child, are beautifully observed and executed.

After is safe return from the war, Miller and his wife settled in the San Fernando Valley, where he slowly built up a career, graduating from selling vacuum cleaners to marketing furniture and interior decorative items. Miller eventually established his own independent interior design business. Among his more noteworthy clients were the singer June Wayne (very popular at the time) and O. J. Simpson when he was married to his first wife.

Miller and his wife first visited Mexico in the 1950s, sightseeing in Mexico City and Acapulco. In the early 1970s, they visited Europe. Miller lost his wife, who worked as a teacher at private schools for emotionally disturbed children, owing to an unfortunate accident. A diabetic, she stepped on a tack while barefoot, acquired a serious infection, and died less than a year later in 1978.

Sid Miller and his wife at home in Ajijic.( Courtesy Judy Miller)

Photo of Sid Miller at his home in Ajijic. (courtesy Judy Miller)

Four years losing his wife, Miller moved to Mexico. He lived first in Vista del Lago, the subdivision east of Chapala that attracted a disproportionate number of retired military, before moving to Canacinta, just west of Ajijic. In 1988 he bought a house at the entrance to Villa Nova which he remodeled almost immediately to include a second bedroom and a casita. This home provided a wonderful backdrop for his art and was the perfect place for entertaining.

Sid Miller. Home in Ajijic. (courtesy Judy Miller)

Sid Miller’s own painting of his home in Ajijic. (courtesy Judy Miller)

A short man, Miller had something of the air of a distracted Einstein about him in his later years, an impression only heightened by his disheveled white hair; family photos support this uncanny resemblance.

Miller was an incredibly talented and creative individual. He was never made any effort to commercialize his art and gave away many of his original pieces as gifts to friends and family. Because he used what materials were at hand, including cardboard and off-cuts of wood, some of his work has not aged well. Nowhere is his propensity to use surplus materials more evident than in his highly-original irregular polygonal shapes and frames. Miller never had any formal art training and it took him about six weeks on average to complete one of his sculptures.

Sid Miller. UNtitled abstract. (Courtesy Ricardo Santana)

Sid Miller. Untitled abstract. (Courtesy Ricardo Santana)

Given the choice, he preferred sculpture to painting, saying in an interview in 1986 that he couldn’t paint but had “a natural inclination for the three dimensional figure.” “Sculpting”, he said, “relaxes me, it keeps me alive and young.”

His sculpture exhibits at Lake Chapala included a solo show at the Art Studio Galeria in San Antonio Tlayacapan in March 1989. The accompanying promotional blurb praised his originality: “Sidney is as colorful as his work.”

Miller’s daughter, Judy Miller, retired to Ajijic a few years ago. She is also a distinguished artist whose preferred medium in retirement is pastels. Judy is a Master Circle Pastelist with the International Association of Pastel Societies (IAPS). Her artistic career, however, was as a ceramicist. After studying at U.C.L.A. and U.C. Berkeley in the early 1970s, she began working as a professional ceramicist, eventually making more than 50,000 hand-colored plates – depicting emotionally-engaged scenes from life – before retiring in 2002. This career stemmed from necessity and serendipity. When she moved into her first apartment, she had no tableware and decided to make her own plates, decorated with scenes from her past.

Both her ceramics and her superb pastels have been featured in numerous exhibits in the U.S. and elsewhere.

For more about her work, please visit her website.

Acknowledgment

  • My sincere thanks to Judy Miller for graciously sharing family memories with me and showing me many examples of her father’s varied work. My thanks, too, to Ricardo Santana for showing me several works by Sid Miller that are in his private collection.

Sources

  • Anon. “Portrait of the Artist”, El Ojo del Lago, April 1986.
  • El Ojo del Lago, March 1989.

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.

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.

Nov 292018
 

Dorothy Garlock (1919-2018), the best-selling American author of romantic novels, used Lake Chapala as a setting for parts of Amber-eyed Man, first published in 1982.

Garlock, who also used the pen names Johanna Phillips, Dorothy Phillips and Dorothy Glenn, wrote more than 50 novels in total. She was born in Grand Saline, Texas, on 22 June 1919 and died in Clear Lake, Iowa, on 6 April 2018.

It is unclear how much personal knowledge the author had of Chapala but she had the reputation throughout her writing career of being a meticulous fact checker.

In Amber-eyed Man, originally written under the nom de plume Johanna Phillips, “When chance forces Meredith Moore to seek refuge at Ward Sanderson’s Mexican estate, she thinks the worst is behind her. But her host, magnetic and mysterious, is alternately cold, then kind. Winning the trust of Ward’s small daughter and invalid bother, Meredith discovers the warmth that she, a foster child, never knew. Yet is it Ward’s love she craves, and the passion smoldering in the depths of his amber eyes …”

Early in the novel, Ward explains to his young daughter that, “There’s an American colony in Chapala. They bring in American movies occasionally.” His right-hand man, Luis Calderón, later asks Meredith if “Perhaps you would be interested in joining me to see the surrounding countryside. Lake Chapala is very beautiful, you know.”

Subsequently it emerges that “the estate there at Chapala was a lettuce ranch that employed a large number of people.” This sounds like pure invention; I have never come across any other reference to a lettuce farm in the Lake Chapala area, certainly not one large enough to employ a large number of workers.

Returning to the novel, Ward was immensely wealthy and “divided his time between the Rancho de Margarieta (sic!), the lettuce ranch at Chapala, Tulsa, and the plant in Guadalajara.” The latter is an electronics plant. Bearing in mind that the book was written in 1982, this signaled the start of the Guadalajara region’s reputation as Mexico’s Silicon Valley.

Much later in the story, Ward and Meredith returned to “the hacienda in Chapala.”

In combination with a second novel – The Planting Season (1984) – Amber-eyed Man was reprinted in 2008 as Promisegivers.

Garlock’s books were incredibly popular. Translated into 18 languages, she sold an estimated 20 million print copies in total. Seven of her books made the New York Times best seller list and Garlock was named one of the ten most popular writers of women’s fiction for four consecutive years from 1985 to 1988.

Like Barbara Bickmore, Garlock did not set out to have a writing career at a young age. She worked as a reporter and bookkeeper for the Clear Lake Mirror Reporter for 14 years and only began her writing career when she and her husband traveled to the southern U.S. in 1976 to escape the northern winter.

She later recalled that she became so bored on the trip that she bought a second-hand manual typewriter for $50 and drafted an entire book before she returned home. She had completed three more before entering one in a local contest. She won the contest, after which one of the judges, an agent, sold the rights to it and her other completed manuscripts to a New York publisher. Garlock never looked back.

Garlock’s books include: Love and Cherish (1980); The Searching Hearts (1982); Glorious Dawn (1982); A Love for All Time (1983); Homeplace (1991); A Gentle Giving (1993); Tenderness (1993); Forever Victoria (1993); She Wanted Red Velvet (1996); This Loving Land (1996); More Than Memory (2001); Train from Marietta (2006); On Tall Pine Lake (2007); Will You Still Be Mine? (2007); The moon looked down (2009).

Sources

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

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.

Oct 252018
 

Mildred Boyd, author of several young adult non-fiction books, lived at Lake Chapala for almost 30 years, from 1983 to 2010. While living in Ajijic she contributed numerous non-fiction pieces to local newspapers and magazines. Boyd’s numerous contributions to the local arts scene included valuable long-term support for the Lake Chapala Society’s Children’s Art Program.

Mildred Bernice Worthy (Boyd) was born in Ranger, Texas on 20 April 1921 and died on 10 February 2010 in Cuenca, Ecuador.

After graduating from high school in Holdenville, Oklahoma, at age 16 Boyd joined Billy Rose’s roadshow – at Casa Mañana in Fort Worth – as a showgirl. She toured with Rose’s troupe across the country and was in his show when it opened in New York at the Diamond Horseshoe supper club on Broadway.

Boyd subsequently worked as a model (her photo adorned Coca Cola billboards nationwide) and did some acting before marrying Carney William Boyd (1920-1986) on 6 March 1940 in Denton, Texas. The couple established their home in Olney, Texas, where they raised four children.

Javier Zaragoza. 2012. Portrait of Mildred Boyd (detail).

Javier Zaragoza. 2012. Portrait of Mildred Boyd (detail).

During the second world war, Boyd designed aviation parts and undertook research into alternative materials for use in aircraft manufacturing. After the war, she earned her pilot’s license (before she could drive a car) and joined the Civil Air Patrol.

During the 1950s, Boyd worked for Convair Aviation (later General Dynamics) on the design of the B-58 bomber and studied engineering at Texas Christian University. She later patented a coaxial cable and helped design missile guidance systems for Sperry Rand, the Minute-Man missile at Hercules Power, “smart” torpedoes for Gould Systems and the first hand-held calculators for Hewlett-Packard.

Her love of writing surfaced while studying at Texas Christian University. In the 1960s, Boyd authored five non-fiction books for the young adult market, all published by Criterion Press in New York: History in harness: the story of horses (1965); Black flags and pieces of eight (1965); Rulers in petticoats (1966); The Silent Cities: Civilizations lost and found (1966) and Man, myth, and magic (1969). Boyd’s first visit to Mexico was apparently a research trip to Chichen Itza on the Yucatán Peninsula collecting material (which in the event was never used) for The Silent Cities.

After she retired, Boyd opted to escape northern winters and move to Mexico. Like many others before her, she spent a few days at the Posada Ajijic and quickly realized that Ajijic, with its growing English-speaking community and amenities, was an excellent fit. Boyd loved books and used her regular twice-yearly trips north of the border to amass a substantial private research library at her new home.

Volunteers Frank Wise and Mildred Boyd with Children’s Art Program students.

Boyd was very active in Lakeside’s community life. She volunteered at the Lake Chapala Society library and served two terms as president of the Ajijic Society of the Arts (ASA), where she regularly exhibited her own collages, watercolors and jewelry.

From the early 1990s, Boyd began to contribute articles to the local monthly El Ojo del Lago. She became a regular columnist: her “Magnificent Mexico” series occupied the magazine’s centerfold for more than a decade, covering topics from Aztec feather art and hummingbirds to Mexican weavers and mariachi music. Her writing won numerous local awards and she won several community awards for her volunteer work.

Another of her noteworthy roles in Ajijic was running the Lake Chapala Society’s Children’s Art Program for more than 20 years. This program, founded by Neill James in 1954, offers Saturday art classes to young people and also arranges art scholarships for further study.

At one point, Boyd was the only volunteer keeping the program going. When she came across a collection of works done by students who had benefited from the program decades earlier, she assembled a heritage exhibition that included early works by several children who had gone on to become successful professional artists.

Selected works from this heritage collection have been exhibited at the Lake Chapala Society, the Ajijic Cultural Center and the Centro Cultural González Gallo in Chapala, as well as at the Casa Museo Allende in San Miguel de Allende in 2006. Boyd was especially thrilled with the San Miguel show since its opening night coincided with her 85th birthday and she had always wanted the children’s art to reach a much wider audience than Lakeside.

With the help of Jesús López Vega (an alumni of the program) and others, Boyd ensured that the Children’s Art Program was revitalized following the death of its original benefactor, Neill James. Today, as many as 100 eager young artists attend the weekly Saturday classes.

Acknowledgment and photo credits

My thanks to Lizz Drummond and Judy Boyd for their help in compiling this profile of their mother and for generously allowing the use of photos from their personal collection.

Sources

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 162018
 

Writer, actor and cinematographer William Colfax Miller (1911-1995) had worked in the film industry in Hollywood and Mexico, before he moved to Lake Chapala with his third wife, Virginia Downs Miller (1914-2005), in the early 1980s.

Miller was born on 29 May 1911 in South Dakota. He moved to Chicago after graduating from high school in 1928 to attend the Armour Institute of Technology where he majored in chemical engineering.

William C. Miller in Spain, 1938. Credit: Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives.

William C. Miller in Spain, 1938. Credit: Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives.

His interest in the film industry soon took him to Hollywood where he worked for several movie studios until January 1938 when he left the U.S. to go to Europe and fight in the Spanish Civil War. While participating in the 3,000-strong Abraham Lincoln Brigade of American volunteers fighting fascism in the Battle of the Ebro, Miller was diagnosed with tuberculosis and removed from combat. He returned to the U.S. a year later, after working on a war documentary for the Spanish Communist Party’s film office.

Later in life, Miller claimed to have left the U.S. in 1939 because he was a Marxist, and was therefore no longer welcomed in Hollywood. He decided to move to Mexico because he had heard that, having being a commander with the Lincoln Brigade, he could be made a General in the Mexican Army. This turned out not to be true, but Miller remained in Mexico anyway. Miller’s claim to have been a commander in Spain was equally untrue; this was a classic cross-border promotion. While not in any way diminishing Miller’s contribution to the Spanish Civil War, the archives of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade show that Miller’s rank in the volunteers never rose above “soldado”, the lowest rank possible.

Equally, Diana Anhalt relates in her book about American political expatriates in Mexico how Miller wrote to her a few years before he died claiming personal involvement in the first attempt on Trotsky’s life in Mexico City in May 1940, an attempt led by artist David Alfaro Siqueiros who later became a personal friend of Miller and his third wife. However, when Anhalt phoned Miller to double-check the details, he back-tracked on this claim and admitted that he “had never actually participated in the attempt but, yes, he had known about it”.

Soon after he moved to Mexico, Miller met then-president Lázaro Cárdenas who hired him as his official photographer to film a series of short documentaries during the final year of his administration. Miller then began combining work as a cinematographer with roles in acting and directing.

Miller claimed to have participated in more than 150 films in Mexico; this may or may not be an exaggeration. Unfortunately, for some of the claims made in earlier biographies, independent corroboration is lacking. It has proved impossible to verify, for example, the claim made in regard to Forgotten Village (1941) that “Bill commandeered an entire village, persuading the people to be photographed and adapting the script.” (El Ojo del Lago, July 1989).

As an actor, Miller apparently appeared in Soy Puro Mexicano (1942) and Espionaje en el Golfo (1943). He worked behind the camera on Luis Buñuel’s Subida al Cielo (1951) and was assistant director on the the award-winning documentary Walls of Fire (1971). Miller was also one of the photographers employed to work on a documentary film given the working title of The Spanish Republicans In Mexico. While it is unclear if this film was ever completed, the Brownsville Herald in November 1943 reported that Miller’s specialist contribution to this project was “agricultural documentary photography” to complement the “industrial photography” supplied by Walter Reuter, a well-known German photographer who was resident in Mexico City.

Miller was credited as “Technical Director” for the satirical comedy El Brazo Fuerte (1957), filmed by Walter Reuter in the picturesque small village of Erongaricuaro on the shores of Lake Pátzcuaro. This film won prizes at the Cannes Film Festival but was not released in Mexico until 1975.

Miller also apparently worked with Pathé Newsreel, published a Mexican Motion Picture Directory and recorded numerous talking books, as well as being appointed Director of Cinephotography for the Mexico City Olympics in 1968.

Miller was married three times. His first marriage, in Hollywood in 1932 to Ruth Elizabeth Timberlake (1911-1940), ended with her death in 1940; they had one daughter. In 1948, Miller married Roseann Sparks (1923-1968) in Atizapan de Zaragoza on the outskirts of Mexico City in 1948; they lived in Cuernavaca and had a son and two daughters. In November 1969, a year after he lost his second wife, Miller married Virginia Downs. The couple lived in Cuernavaca and opened the Akari Gallery, the city’s first major art gallery, before moving to Lake Chapala.

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.

William Colfax Miller, who led a rich, varied and productive life, died on 15 September 1995.

Sources:

  • Diana Anhalt. 2001. A Gathering of Fugitives. American Political Expatriates in Mexico 1948-1965. Archer Books.
  • Anon. 2005. “William Colfax Miller.” The Volunteer (Journal of the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade) Vol XXVII, No 3 (September 2005), 22.
  • Anon. “William Colfax Miller.” Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives.
  • El Ojo del Lago: August 1985, July 1989.
  • The Brownsville Herald (Texas): 19 Nov 1943, 15.

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.

Jun 212018
 

Ajijic has certainly attracted more than its fair share of strange and colorful characters over the years but perhaps nobody with quite so many true tales to spin as serial prankster Jim Moran.

By the time Moran “retired” to Ajijic, he was almost 80 years old and had put his pranks behind him. Tall, rotund, with a flowing white beard and a deliberate walk, he focused on his photography, art, writing and classical guitar playing.

James Sterling Moran (1908-1999) was one of the most original publicists and press agents in the U.S., pulling one stunt after another to boost the products, services or politicians he sought to promote. Moran never attended college but held a wide variety of jobs from tour guide to airline executive and radio studio manager. In 1989, Time called him, “the supreme master of that most singular marketing device–the publicity stunt.”

In chronological order, Moran’s most noteworthy pranks, many based on acting out old sayings, included selling a refrigerator to an Inuit in Alaska on behalf of General Electric (1938); spending 10 days to find a needle in a haystack to promote a real estate development (1939); leading a bull through a china shop on 5th Avenue in New York City (1940); changing horses mid-stream in the Truckee River, Nevada, during the 1944 US Presidential election; sitting on an ostrich egg for 19 days, until it hatched, to promote the film The Egg and I (1946); and opening an embassy in Washington D.C. for the fictitious country of Grand Duchy of Fenwick to advertise The Mouse That Roared (1959).

His best-known outright hoax was to paint an abstract – “the worst thing I could think of” – and get a friend to submit it to a Los Angeles Art Association show in November 1946 as the work of a previously-unknown artist, “Naromji”. The work, entitled “Three out of Five”, was accepted for an exhibition of abstract art.

Woman holding Naromji's "Three out of Five". (Life archive)

Woman holding Naromji’s “Three out of Five”. (Life archive)

The Los Angeles Times described it as “an astonishing conglomeration of paint, chalk, magazine cut-outs and carmine fingernail polish.” At the end of the month, Moran stepped forward to claim authorship, pointing out that Naromji was Moran spelled backwards, with a ‘ji’ added for confusion and that “Three out of Five” was the name of a hair restorer, since abstract painting always made him want to tear out his hair.

Moran wrote several books, including Sophocles, the Hyena: a fable (1954). The first edition was illustrated by Roger Duvoisin, but a later edition featured illustrations by Andy Warhol. Moran also wrote Why Men Shouldn’t Marry (1969); How I became an authority on Sex (1973) and The Wonders of Magic Squares (1982).

Jim Moran. Sophocles the Hyena. 1954. Illustrated by Andy Warhol.

Jim Moran. Sophocles the Hyena. Illustrated by Andy Warhol.

In Ajijic, the multi-talented and highly imaginative Moran was known as a writer, artist and photographer, as well as a skilled classical guitar player.

In 1986, the Galeria Gentes, run by master lithographer Bill Gentes, held a one-person exhibit of Moran’s artwork. The show was comprised of about 100 works by “Naromji”. A contemporary reviewer found that, “His use of brilliant color gives the works an alluring touch. His birds and other serious subjects are strikingly beautiful, while most of the rest convey something of the cosmic giggle to be expected from Jim Moran the prankster.”

Ajijic watercolorist Enrique Velázquez remembers Jim Moran with great affection. He recalls Moran as having lived in Ajijic for several years from the mid-1980s into the 1990s. Velázquez prepared a series of stunningly beautiful illustrations for a children’s book by Moran entitled Linda and the Magic Dream Bubble, a work that was apparently never published.

Acknowledgment

  • My sincere thanks to Ajijic watercolorist Enrique Velasquez for first bringing Jim Moran’s artistic side to my attention.

Sources

  • Anon. 1986. “Portrait of the Artist” (Jim Moran). El Ojo del Lago, March 1986.
  • Ezra Goodman. “High Priest of Hoopla.” The New York Times, 14 December 1947.
  • Los Angeles Times. 1946. “Gagster’s masterpiece hung as authentic art.” Los Angeles Times, 30 Nov 1946.
  • Douglas Martin. 1999. “James S. Moran Dies at 91; Master of the Publicity Stunt” (Obituary), New York Times, 24 October 1999.
  • Christopher Reed. 1999. “Jim Moran” (obituary), The Guardian, 1 December 1999.

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 262018
 

The talented visual artist Sidney Schwartzman was born in New York City on 2 June 1917 and lived almost thirty years in Ajijic from about 1973 until his death there, at the age of 84, on 27 March 2002.

Schwartzman, the son of two Russian-born immigrants, grew up in New York and was a member of the honor society, Arista, at a public high school (the Thomas Jefferson High School, according to The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, though he told his son he attended the Dewitt Clinton High School).

In an interview late in life, Schwartzman recounted how especially proud he was that, at age 8, one of his paintings (of a circus) had been chosen for a school art exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

He initially wanted to be a writer but thought the school’s writer’s club snobbish, so joined the art club instead. He later took drawing and paintings private lessons and decided to dedicate himself to his art. He painted his first nude while in high school and took art classes at the New York Adult Evening School of Art and the Art Students League with American illustrator and painter Churchill Ettinger (1903-1984). While living in New York, Schwartzman also taught children and the physically challenged under the auspices of the Works Progress/Projects Administration.

Schwartzman, a conscientious objector, was imprisoned for about a year during World War II for declining to serve in the military. He had married Elizabeth Mary Murphy and Schwartzman was released on parole shortly after the birth of their son, David, in June 1944.

Sidney Schwartzman. 2001. Study in Color. Reproduced by kind permission of David Schwartzman.

Sidney Schwartzman. 2001. Study in Color. Reproduced by kind permission of David Schwartzman.

In about 1946, Schwartzman moved to Washington D.C. where he worked as a night janitor (and sometimes watchman) at the Corcoran School of Art while taking classes there under the Hungarian-born artist Eugen Weisz (1890-1954). Schwartzman was encouraged to experiment with different styles and his vibrantly-colored landscapes and nudes began to sell. He also held his first solo exhibition at about this time either in Bethesda or Arlington, Virginia (the family records are unclear on this point).

From 1948 to 1959 Schwartzman lived in Woodstock, Vermont. Each time he moved he left behind most or all of his completed paintings and started a new phase in his artistic career. This has made it very difficult to document his lifetime’s work, though each phase stimulated fresh artistic exploration and discovery.

In 1957, he was lucky to survive a single vehicle accident in Woodstock, in which his brother-in-law Stanley Murphy was killed instantly. Schwartzman, who had been driving, was devastated by this loss.

Two years later, in August 1959, Schwartzman was one of a very large number of artists exhibiting at the annual Cracker Barrel Bazaar art show in the village of Newbury, Vermont, alongside such distinguished painters and illustrators as Norman Rockwell and Maxfield Parrish.

In 1959, Schwartzman moved to Los Angeles, California, where he lived and worked for about a decade. He had a job with TV Fanfare Publications and appears to have lost interest in painting (for the only time in his life) for a few years. He then took a small studio in Hollywood where he painted ten major, large paintings many of which are still in the family, before moving to Sunset Boulevard in Echo Park where he later opened (with son David as partner) the Woodstock Gallery .

Work from this time formed the basis for the joint show he held at this gallery in 1972, with friend Tom Darro, entitled “Life Drawings”.  The exhibition was later repeated at the Livingstone Evans Gallery, on North La Cienega Boulevard in the same city. The gallery was not a financial success and Schwartzman decided to abandon Los Angeles and visit Mexico. His mother-in-law had lived for a short time in Ajijic in the 1950s, so Schwartzman headed for Lake Chapala.

Sid Schwartzman. Reproduced by kind permission of Synnove Pettersen.

Sid Schwartzman. Untitled. Reproduced by kind permission of Synnove Pettersen.

Productive years in Ajijic

Schwartzman, whose eyesight was failing, arrived in Ajijic in about 1973, after living for a few months in Jocotepec. In Ajijic he shared the “Mill House”, at the foot of Flores Magón street near the lake, with fellow artists John K. Peterson and Ernesto Butterlin. After successful cataract surgery, the mustachioed, bushy-haired Schwartzman became artistically active again, producing numerous pencil sketches and paintings of nudes. He made fairly frequent trips back to Los Angeles, and brought some of his American work back with him to Ajijic. These trips also enabled him to renew his Mexican tourist papers every six months.

He shared a studio from about 1974 with Daniel Palma at Constitución #45A, Ajijic. He also had a studio for a time in the building that is now the office of the Lake Chapala Society. Initially, Schwartzman was not a frequent exhibitor, concerned that his prolific output of nudes might antagonize some viewers.

Schwartzman held an auction of his paintings and sketches at El Tejaban (Zaragoza #1) in Ajijic, on 17 November 1974. The pieces included “figurative sketches, mixed media and oils”, with reserve prices ranging from 250 to 9000 pesos.

The following month, he participated in another art auction, this time at the home of Frank and Rowene Kirkpatrick in San Antonio Tlayacapan, with the proceeds going to local charities. Other artists whose work was auctioned on that occasion included Rowene Kirkpatrick; Rocky Karns and Antonio Santibañez.

Portrait of Sidney Schwartzman. Reproduced by kind permission of David Schwartzman.

Portrait of Sidney Schwartzman. Reproduced by kind permission of David Schwartzman.

Schwartzman was a member of Clique Ajijic, a grouping of eight artists that held several group shows in 1975 and 1976: in Ajijic, Chapala, Guadalajara, Manzanillo and Cuernavaca. The other members of this very talented Mexican Group of Eight were  Tom Faloon, Hubert Harmon,  Todd (“Rocky”) Karns, Gail Michaels, John K. Peterson, Synnove (Shaffer) Pettersen, and Adolfo Riestra. Pettersen, the youngest of the group, credits Schwartzman, whom she recalls as easy-going but serious about art, with being very encouraging of her own artistic efforts.

According to a review of a group show in Guadalajara in 1975, Schwartzman had also exhibited his mixed media works in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington D.C. and Boston. Fregoso added that his canvasses, influenced by Schwartzman’s time in Vermont, had “an incomparable beauty” that invited refection.

Schwartzman was especially encouraging to several young Ajijic-born artists, including Efrén González, Antonio López Vega, Jesús López Vega, Dionicio Morales, Daniel Palma and the late Julian Pulido, all of whom became successful artists or art teachers. Schwartzman’s legacy lives on through their efforts.

In the early 1980s he shared a studio at the intersection of Zaragoza and Colón, first with Julian Pulido and later with Dionicio Morales.

In the late 1980s, with the help of local art patron Sally Sellars, who purchased several of his works, Schwartzman opened his own gallery in Ajijic where several noteworthy shows were held. Among those whose work was exhibited at the gallery were American CIA agent Mitch Marr Jr., local Ajijic-born artist Efren González, the talented mixed media and textile artist Hey Frey, and the former Hollywood star Todd (“Rocky”) Karns. The Karns exhibit opened on 10 December 1988.

The Sellars-Schwartzman Galería, at Felipe Angeles #12 in Ajijic, held annual auctions to benefit Oak Hill School (Ajijic’s only bilingual school at the time) and the galley remained the artist’s main working space until shortly before his death.

In 1980 Schwartzman married his Ajijic girlfriend Regina Galindo, taking on the responsibility of helping raise her four daughters, one of whom later married local Ajijic artist and muralist Efrén González. Schwartzman and Regina had two children of their own, both boys. [Born ca 1981 and 1984]

After 1990, the Casa de la Cultura in Ajijic held annual exhibitions of works by “invited members”. Schwartzman’s last showing of a painting in Ajijic was in one of these shows in November 1996. On display was Trapeze, an early “visual jazz” painting that collector Patrick Dudensing had given back to Schwartzman.

Dudensing had previously submitted Trapeze to a Special Collectors’ Show in 1994 at the South Shore Art Center in Cohasset, Massachusetts. Schwartzman was justly proud of the fact that his work had hung there alongside a Fernand Léger and not far from a Miró, a Picasso and a Chagall!

Schwartzman’s eldest son, David, arranged a posthumous show of his father’s works (paintings and drawings) at the Library in Woodstock, Vermont, in September 2013. In an interview at the time, David noted that his father “painted in an impressionistic – expressionistic style from the start of his professional career”, and that “He was infatuated with color theory and was considered a painter’s painter.”

Acknowledgments

I am greatly indebted to David Schwartzman, who is working on a book about his father, for sharing his knowledge and research. My sincere thanks, also, to Alan Bowers, Dionicio Morales and Synnove Pettersen for sharing with me their personal memories of Sidney Schwartzman.

Sources

  • The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 9 Apr 1930, 17.
  • The Burlington Free Press (Vermont), 9 Oct 1957, 1; 6 Jul 1959, 7.
  • Martha Fregoso. 1975. “La Galeria OM y el Buen Gusto en Exposiciones, Esta Vez Ocho Pintores de Ajijic.” El Diario de Guadalajara, 24 Oct 1975.
  • Guadalajara Reporter: 9 Nov 1974; 4 Jan 1975.
  • The Los Angeles Times: 24 Sep 1972, 481; 07 Jan 1973, 420.
  • El Ojo del Lago. 1986. “Portrait of the Artist.” El Ojo del Lago, January 1986.
  • Jackie Hodges. “Focus On Art: Sid Schwartzman“. El Ojo del Lago, ca 2000.

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

 Posted by at 5:12 am  Tagged with:
Mar 222018
 

Visual artist and architectural designer Tom (“Tomas”) Faloon first arrived in Ajijic in 1970 and lived and worked in the village for more than forty years.

John Thomas Faloon was born on 30 January 1943 in New York City. After graduating in 1960 from Oakwood Friends School, a Quaker college preparatory school in Poughkeepsie, New York, he enrolled in Rutgers University. He traveled to Florence, Italy, to study art the following year, returning with fluent Italian and a determination to pursue art as a career. In the summer of 1962, he took a summer course at the Douglass College campus of Rutgers with the renowned modern artist Roy Lichtenstein. Faloon transferred to the University of Mississippi, “where the faculty of the time was young and progressive”.

Tom Faloon, 1965 (Univ. of Mississippi Yearbook)

Tom Faloon, 1965 (Univ. of Mississippi Yearbook)

Faloon had only just arrived on the Mississippi campus when the Ole Miss race riot of 1962 erupted, following the enrollment of the university’s first black student, James Meredith, a military veteran with strong academic credentials. Faloon recalled becoming an active participant in the anti-racist movement, involved in preparing anti-racist posters and paintings.After he completed his degree in Fine Arts (Painting) in 1965, Faloon transferred to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.

On 30 July 1966, Faloon married Shannon Elizabeth Rodes in Melbourne, Florida. The couple had two young daughters. Faloon began working for his father’s agricultural chemical firm in Clarksville, Mississippi, but soon decided that the environmental impacts of agrochemicals often outweighed their benefits. He and his wife had first visited Ajijic over the winter of 1967/68 and, in 1970, Faloon gave up his position in the family business to live at Lake Chapala full-time, focus on his art and raise his children in a welcoming, friendly, eclectic community.

Roy Lichtenstein. 1962. (The Central New Jersey Home News)

(l to r): Tom Faloon, Mrs Everett Sherrill, Roy Lichtenstein. 1962. (The Central New Jersey Home News)

The family lived for a short time at La Villa Apartments (on Javier Mina) in Ajijic before purchasing a home on Donato Guerra. Described as “a serious 28-yr-old artist who studied in New York and Italy”, Tom “comes fully equipped: talent, a stunning Cherokee Indian-Irish wife named Shannon, two girl children and two dogs.” (Guadalajara Reporter, 6 March 1971.)

Faloon quickly made friends with his Mexican neighbors and became seamlessly integrated into local life, developing a particular love of Mexican handicrafts, folk traditions and design.

In May 1971, he was one of the large number of artists exhibiting in the “Fiesta of Art” group show held at the residence of Mr and Mrs E. D. Windham (Calle 16 de Septiembre #33). Other artists at that show included Daphne Aluta; Mario Aluta; Beth Avary; Charles Blodgett; Antonio Cárdenas; Alan Davoll; Alice de Boton; Robert de Boton; John Frost; Dorothy Goldner; Burt Hawley; Peter Huf; Eunice (Hunt) Huf; Lona Isoard; Michael Heinichen; John Maybra Kilpatrick; Gail Michael; Bert Miller; Robert Neathery; John K. Peterson; Stuart Phillips; Hudson Rose; Mary Rose; Jesús Santana; Walt Shou; Eleanor Smart; Robert Snodgrass; and Agustín Velarde.

This example of his work was published in A Cookbook with Color Reproductions by Artists from the Galería (1972).

Tom Faloon. ca 1972. "La Mujer"

Tom Faloon. ca 1972. “La Mujer”

Tomás, as he was known in Ajijic, remained in the village after he and Shannon separated in 1973. (They divorced in 1979.)

Faloon was an active member of the “Clique Ajijic” which existed for 3 or 4 years in the mid 1970s. This group held exhibitions in Ajijic, Chapala, Guadalajara, Manzanillo and Cuernavaca. The other members of this very talented Mexican Group of Eight were Hubert Harmon,  Todd (“Rocky”) Karns, Gail Michaels, John K. Peterson, Synnove (Shaffer) Pettersen, Adolfo Riestra, and Sidney Schwartzman.

Faloon’s paintings were mostly abstract or impressionist. He participated in several local exhibitions and one of his paintings was purchased for the permanent collection of a museum in Memphis, Tennessee.

Recognizing that art sales might not earn him sufficient income, in the 1980s Faloon began working on remodeling and redesigning traditional village homes. His own artwork took a back seat (though he continued to paint occasionally and complete mixed media works) as he quickly found he was in his element working on homes, undertaking projects that combined his interests in architecture, design and craftsmanship with his love of Mexican materials and handicrafts. Most of the many homes that Faloon lovingly transformed incorporated some whimsical elements: “las locuras de Tomás” as he called them.

Faloon, fluently bilingual, was a generous, kind and sensitive individual, and always wiling to help causes close to his heart, including those related to the environment and animal welfare. He was a great supporter of Mexican artisans and their colorful, creative folk art.

Faloon met his soul mate, Carlos Rodriguez Miranda, in the mid-1970s. Their partnership lasted until Faloon’s untimely passing on 5 August 2014 from complications following what should have been a routine surgery in a hospital in Guadalajara.

In her obituary for him, Dale Hoyt Palfrey was absolutely correct to call Tom Faloon an “icon of Ajijic’s expat community” and “one of the community’s most prominent and endearing long-time foreign residents.”

Acknowledgment

My sincere thanks to the late Tom Faloon for his encouragement with this project and for so generously sharing his knowledge and memories of the Ajijic art community with me in February 2014.

Sources

  • Clarion-Ledger (Jackson, Mississippi) 16 April 1965, 44.
  • La Galería del Lago de Chapala. 1972. A Cookbook with Color Reproductions by Artists from the Galería. 1972. (Ajijic, Mexico: La Galería del Lago de Chapala).
  • Guadalajara Reporter, 6 March 1971.
  • Lake Chapala Society, Oral History project: “Tom Faloon” (video).
  • Dale Hoyt Palfrey. 2014. “Remembering Tomás Faloon, icon of Ajijic’s expat community”, Guadalajara Reporter, 29 November 2014
  • Poughkeepsie Journal (Poughkeepsie, New York) 26 June 1960, 4B.

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

Mar 082018
 

Fun-loving journalist Kate Karns, who has written many entertaining columns and articles about Ajijic over the years, lived in the village from 1971 to 2013. Karns was the local correspondent for the Mexico City News for several years immediately after Katie Goodridge Ingram. She also ran an art gallery for a time on Calle Colón, the main north-south street leading to the pier.

Katherine Julia Flaten (her maiden name) was born in Hennepin, Minnesota, on 25 September 1921. Curiously, the record of her marriage in 1944 to actor Todd “Rocky” Karns, when both were serving in the U.S. military in New Mexico, spells her first name Catherine with a “C”! She was court-martialed and reassigned shortly after marriage, not because of any spelling error, but because she had had the temerity, while serving in the ranks, to marry an officer.

Heading of article by Kate Karns, El Ojo del Lago, Nov 2013

Heading of article by Kate Karns, El Ojo del Lago, Nov 2013

Prior to the war, Kate was well on her way to becoming a Hollywood actress. She performed in high school shows in Milwaukee, studied drama at the University of Minnesota and attended the Maria Ouspenskaya acting school in Hollywood. Tod Jonson, who also lived in Hollywood for years before moving to Ajijic, has said that “Katy Karns, a talent in her own right, had been under contract to Paramount Studios and was a member of the Golden Circle of Players on their studio lot.”

Unfortunately for Kate’s career, the war intervened. She returned home to Milwaukee where she later joined the Army and was trained to fix radios. After the war, Kate and Rocky started a family and lived in Hollywood where Rocky built his acting career, eventually retiring from movies and television to work for the North American Philips Corporation.

Following some prompting by Kate, a profile of her family was published in the September 1950 edition of the Ladies Home Journal in its series, “How America Lives”. Not long afterwards, the magazine published an article featuring Kate modeling some elegant clothing.

When Rocky retired in 1971, the couple moved to Ajijic. Kate had been working for a fabric weaving business in the village for some time before federal authorities realized she lacked any work permit and ordered her to leave the country. She was soon able to sort out her paperwork and return. Kate also worked for seven years in local real estate, found time to be President of Lakeside Little Theater (in 1983/4), and combined family life and all this with writing and being the local correspondent for the Mexico City News.

Kate’s writing is always well-observed and often humorous, with many references to her own experiences in adapting to life in Mexico and to the myriad of quirky characters that Ajijic seems to have attracted in the 1970s.

One of my all-time favorite lines from Kate Karns is her description of the small town of Jamay, on the north shore of the lake, mid-way between Ocotlán and La Barca, in 1988 as “like a running sore; its feet in mud and garbage, its head covered by torn corrugated tarpaper held up precariously by half-finished grey cement-block walls and disintegrating bricks.” Jamay is very different now, but in 1988, her words were only a slight exaggeration.

Kate Karns, who has, with good reason, been critical of those in-comers who fail to learn any Spanish or make any real effort to integrate into the local community, continues to hold the highest regard for the people of Mexico in general, and of Ajijic in particular.

Her husband, Rocky Karns, passed away in February 2000. The couple had enjoyed 54 years of marriage. Kate continued to live in Ajijic until 2013 when she moved to Ellensburg in Washington state to be closer to her children and grandchildren.

The incomparable Kate Karns died on 11 December 2018, at the age of 97.

Sources:

  • Lakeside Little Theater (website). Undated. “LLT’s Beginnings… to Honor a Glorious Past” (interview with Tod Jonson).
  • Anon. 1950. “How America Lives: Meet the Karns of California – Todd and Katherine Karns”, Ladies Home Journal, September 1950.
  • Jeanne Chaussee. 2011. “Laguna Chapalac”, Guadalajara Reporter, 30 September 2011.
  • Kate Karns. 1988. “Kate Karns in Lake Chapala”, Mexico City News, 3 July 1988, p16.
  • Michael Warren. 2015. “Lakeside Little Theater 50th Jubilee Season!” El Ojo del Lago, March 2015.

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.

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