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.

Jul 182019
 

Martín Casillas de Alba‘s second novel, Las batallas del general, was published in 2002 as the second in a proposed trilogy about Lake Chapala. The first novel in the series was Confesiones de Maclovia (1995), the third novel remains unpublished.

Inspired by the life of General Ramón Corona, born near Tuxcueca on the southern shore of the lake, Casillas examines Corona’s actions, motives and achievements as he moved from the humble family into which he was born into the military and political elite.

Ramón Corona Madrigal (1837-1889) was born on 18 October 1837 in Puruagua, a small settlement east of Tuxcueca, Jalisco. Corona, a liberal, joined the army and fought on the winning side against the conservatives during the War of Reform (1857-1861). During the Second French intervention (1861-1867), Corona commanded the 8000-strong, pro-Republic, Army of the west, which played an important part in finally defeating the French. When Maximilian finally surrendered in May 1867, he did so to Corona, formally handing over his sword.

At about this time, Corona met and married Mary Anne McEntee. McEntee, born in New York in 1844 to Irish immigrants, had been previously married to a much older wealthy Californian and was a woman of independent means. Corona and his wife had seven children.

Even after Maximilian’s execution in 1867 and the expulsion of French troops, guerilla warfare continued in the west with opportunist Manuel Lozada, the “Tiger of Álica,” fighting to gain territorial control over the region west of Guadalajara. Corona and Lozada battled each other for months before Corona finally defeated Lozada at the bloody Battle of La Mojonera (near Guadalajara) on 28 January 1873. More than 3000 of Lozada’s men died on the battlefield that day; the rest fled for the hills. Lozada was eventually captured and executed a few months later.

The following year, President Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada appointed Corona as the head of Mexico’s diplomatic mission to Spain. Corona and his wife remained in Madrid for a decade before returning to Guadalajara.

In 1887, Corona was elected governor of the state of Jalisco, on a progressive, modernist agenda. During his time in office, prominent local businessmen funded the opening of a state pawn shop (Monte de Piedad), a Chamber of Commerce was established and a system of state (as opposed to municipal) primary schools put in place. Corona presided over the celebrations when the railroad finally reached Guadalajara for the first time in 1888. Corona’s governorship came to an abrupt end when he was attacked in the street on 10 November 1889 by mentally-unstable Primitivo Ron. Corona died the following day.

In Casillas’ novel, José María Reyes, a modern-day writer, has decided to make General Ramón Corona the subject of his next historical novel. Reyes sets out from Mexico City to spend some time in Guadalajara, Lake Chapala and surrounding places to follow in Corona’s footsteps and try to get himself inside the general’s head.

By chance, while admiring the Orozco frescoes in the Instituto Cultural Cabañas, Reyes bumps into Alma Mahler. He is enchanted, immediately gives her a French nickname, Peau Douce (“soft skin”), and they quickly become friends and, not long afterwards – at La Nueva Posada in Ajijic – lovers.

[Reyes] knew that Chapala inevitably produces the desired effect: on the shore, on the edge of the lake, nobody knows why, but women – and men as well – let themselves be more easily seduced. No one knows why, but that is what happens.”

The novel interweaves the love story of Reyes and Mahler with the lives of Ramón Corona and his American wife with great skill and dexterity, as the pairs of protagonists fight their (very varied) battles. Certain parallels can be drawn between the two couples, including their move from Mexico to Spain and back.

There are some excellent descriptive passages about Lake Chapala and Ramón Corona’s life story is told with impressive historical accuracy. Readers who lack any background in Mexican history need not worry. The motives, actions and events described in this book stay close to the established historical versions of what transpired.

The links between this novel and Confesiones de Maclovia (the first volume in the intended trilogy) are readily apparent. Both novels have many connections to Lake Chapala. In addition, in both books it becomes evident that Maclovia was something of a clairvoyant. She reads tarot cards for Ramón Corona in Guadalajara at a fair to benefit the orphans of the Hospicio Cabañas (now the Instituto Cultural Cabañas) and foretells that he will be the subject of treachery. Not long afterwards, Primitivo Ron attacks and fatally wounds the general as he is on his way to the theater.

One trivial anomaly between the books is that the date of the tarot card reading is given as August 1889 in Confesiones de Maclovia and as one month later in Las batallas del general.

This well-produced book is an educational, entertaining and thought-provoking read.

Sources

  • Martín Casillas de Alba. 1995. Confesiones de Maclovia. Mexico City: Ediciones del Equilibrista.
  • Martín Casillas de Alba. 2002. Las batallas del general. Mexico City: Editorial Planeta.

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 5:31 am  Tagged with:
Jul 042019
 

Confesiones de Maclovia, Martín Casillas de Alba‘s first novel, was inspired by the life of his grandmother who lived much of her adult life in Chapala, including several years in the Hotel Nido, prior to her death in October 1933.

Some seventy years later, the novel’s author-narrator travels to Chapala in the hopes of unraveling more about the life of his long-departed grandmother. In the process he uncovers a cache of documents in a storage room at the Hotel Nido. It includes three notebooks recording the details of an extended series of interviews Maclovia (“Cova”) had given to Juan Bautista (who was planning to write a book about her) in the period February-September 1933, her last months before he accompanied her to Mexico City where she died. The majority of the novel is based on these fictional notebooks.

There are many poignant descriptions of Chapala as it used to be, and of significant events in Cova’s life. Cova, born in Tapalpa in 1859, grew up in a distinguished Guadalajara family, the Cañedos, and flitted between the family’s town house in the center of Guadalajara and their hacienda, the Hacienda El Cabezón, near Ameca.

At the time Cova was growing up in Guadalajara the city was developing a vibrant cultural scene. Among the leaders of the artistic and literary circles in which Cova moved was Brazilian violinist and painter Felix Bernadelli (1862-1908). Prior to the Mexican Revolution, with Bernardelli leading the way, Guadalajara was Mexico’s artistic frontier, significantly ahead of Mexico City in terms of experimentation and creativity, leading contemporary Mexican writer and diplomat Eduardo Gibbon to christen the city the “Florence of Mexico”.

Other members of the intellectual and artist elite in Guadalajara at the time included Gerardo Murillo (better known as Dr. Atl), Roberto Montenegro, Luis de la Torre, Jorge Enciso, Rafael Ponce de León and José María Lupercio, who became one of Mexico’s best-known photographers.

Poet José Juan Tablada visited Guadalajara in 1894. He stayed initially at the Hotel Francés before being invited to stay at the home of Rafael de Alba, a brother of Guillermo de Alba (who later married Cova). When Cova first met Tablada, she was struck by his eccentricity. Tablada, for his part, was awe struck by her beauty. (Tablada, incidentally, returned many times to Jalisco and some years later, in 1914, lamented the ruination of Chapala in an opinion piece in El Mundo Ilustrado.)

Guillermo de Alba, short, slim and mustachioed, had also been captivated by Cova’s beauty. When he moved to Chicago to advance his knowledge of architecture under the leading lights of the Chicago School, such as Frank Sullivan, he began a lengthy correspondence with Cova. By the time he returned to Mexico in about 1897, he had already proposed marriage to her, and she had accepted.

The timeline in the novel at this point appears to conflict with the known historical time frame for when de Alba designed and built the Hotel Arzapalo in Chapala. The hotel opened in 1898; it was therefore presumably designed and built no later than 1896-1897. Casillas’ fictional version has de Alba still living in Chicago in 1897. In the novel, Cova recalls how she had finally said “yes” in 1899, and that, at that time, Guillermo “still had to return to Chicago to complete his career.”

Guillermo and Cova married in Chapala on 27 January 1900; she was 40 years old at the time, he was 25. The couple’s only daughter, Guillermina {“Mina”} de Alba y Cañedo (Martín Casillas’ mother), was born in Guadalajara on 9 January 1902.

Guillermo and Cova were married for more than thirty years. Guillermo built a modest but architecturally stunning family home, Mi Pullman, in the heart of Chapala. The housewarming was held in 1906. The building, lovingly and faithfully restored a century later by an English owner, remains an important part of the town’s cultural heritage. (The story of the restoration is told in detail on MexConnect.com).

Guillermo’s final building project was his crowning achievement as an architect. The imposing, impressive Chapala Railroad Station (now the Centro Cultural González Gallo) opened in 1920 but proved to be Guillermo’s downfall. His debts were mounting and his sources of income were drying up.

Guillermo and Cova lived their final decade far apart: Guillermo sold the family home in Chapala in 1924 and moved to Mexico City in 1926 leaving Cova and their daughter in Chapala. Cova tried to make ends meet by turning Villa Guillermina, the family’s Guadalajara residence, into a boarding house but ended up living the final years of her life in the Hotel Nido. She died in Mexico City (where she had gone to seek medical treatment) in 1933, only a few months after her daughter, Mina, had married José Luis Casillas y Cruz in Chapala.

Confesiones de Maclovia is a fascinating read on several levels. It includes some noteworthy descriptive passages relating to life in Chapala at the start of the 20th century. The novel’s exploration of the possible motives behind the slow breakdown of their relationship, Cova’s withdrawal from her previously active social life towards an almost reclusive existence in the Hotel Nido, and of the reasons why Guillermo de Alba fled for Mexico City, are all especially interesting and thought-provoking. They hold messages that are timeless and all too often ignored.

Sources

  • Martín Casillas de Alba. 1994. La Villa de Chapala (1895-1933). Mexico City: Banca Promex; Martín Casillas de Alba, 2004. ¡Salvemos a Chapala! Mexico City: Editorial Diana.
  • Martín Casillas de Alba. 1995. Confesiones de Maclovia. Mexico City: Ediciones del Equilibrista.
  • Martín Casillas de Alba. 2002. Las batallas del general. Mexico City: Editorial Planeta.
  • José Juan Tablada. 1914. “La ruina de Chapala”. El Mundo Ilustrado, 8 March 1914, 6.

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

 Posted by at 5:31 am  Tagged with:
Jun 202019
 

Martín Casillas de Alba, whose published works range from journalism and non-fiction to Shakespearean analysis, has published several Spanish language books related to Chapala, including two outstanding full-length novels. His family has lengthy and important connections to Chapala.

His grandfather was the architect Guillermo de Alba (1874-1935). Between 1895 and 1920, de Alba designed numerous fine buildings in Chapala, including the Hotel Arzapalo, the town’s first modern hotel, which opened its doors in 1898, a second hotel, the Palmera (part of which is now the Presidencia Municipal) in 1907, several private residences, and the iconic Chapala Railroad Station (now the Instituto Cultural González Gallo), completed in 1920. He also completed numerous commissions in Guadalajara, including the city’s first high-rise hotel, the Hotel Fenix (1912), and several fine homes for the city’s elite.

In 1900, Guillermo de Alba married Maclovia (“Cova”) Cañedo y González Hermosillo. The couple’s only daughter, Guillermina (“Mina”) de Alba y Cañedo (Martín Casillas’ mother), was born in Guadalajara on 9 January 1902. She married José Luis Casillas y Cruz in Chapala in 1933. Their civil ceremony was held aboard a boat, Bremen, in the middle of the lake.

Mina and José Luis had three children, including architect Andrés Casillas de Alba (who clearly inherited his grandfather’s genes and won the Premio Jalisco Arquitectura, 2017) and author and publisher Martín Luis Casillas de Alba, who was born in Mexico City in 1941.

Martín Casillas de Alba. Credit: El Informador.

Martín Casillas completed his high school education in Colegio Cervantes Costa Rica (despite its name, a Marist school in Guadalajara) and then studied chemical engineering at ITESO, the Jesuit university in Guadalajara. He admitted later in life that he had chosen the wrong subject for his degree and should have chosen to study English literature. He graduated in 1963 and then took postgraduate courses in applied mathematics at the University of Freiburg, Germany (1964-65).

After returning to Mexico he worked for IBM de México for 12 years as head of public relations and assistant to the company’s president. In 1974, Casillas was the founding editor of Nonotza, the in-house magazine of IBM de México. Nonotza, published until 1994, was a quarterly magazine disseminating the latest scientific, technological and cultural developments. Casillas relinquished his editorship in 1976 to pursue other interests.

In 1976, Casillas took a storytelling workshop with innovative Guatemalan writer Augusto Monterroso (1921-2003) who was born in Honduras but lived most of his adult life in exile in Mexico City.

Casillas returned to the world of scientific publishing in 1978 when he was made editorial director for Ciencia y Desarrollo, the magazine of Conacyt, the National Science and Technology Council, a post he retained until 1980.

In 1980, Casillas founded his own publishing company, Martín Casillas Editores. Within the next five years he published more than 100 titles of Mexican literature. In 1986, he began publishing La Plaza and El Inversionista. La Plaza, published in Guadalajara, was a literary and cultural monthly subtitled “Crónicas de la Vida Cultural de Guadalajara.” One of the many fascinating articles in this sadly short-lived publication was a transcription by Martín Casillas of his mother’s account of her own wedding. In the previous issue, Casillas’ sister, Mina Casillas, had reviewed the Posada Ajijic.

El Inversionista was a Mexico City business publication. In 1988, Casillas was one of the founders of the national financial daily El Economista; he began a regular column, “Juego de espejos”, and remained the paper’s managing editor until May 1994.

In the next decade he focused on writing several books, starting with La Villa de Chapala (1895-1933), published in 1994, a non-fiction account of some of the personalities and stories associated with Chapala’s transformation into a tourist destination. Much of the same material was incorporated into his later work, ¡Salvemos a Chapala! (2004).

In 1995 he published his first novel, Confesiones de Maclovia (Confessions of Maclovia). Inspired by the life of his grandmother, Cova, this was planned as the first book in a trilogy related to Lake Chapala. The second volume in the proposed trilogy was released in 2002. In Las batallas del general, Casillas spins a fictionalized account of the life, loves and actions of General Ramón Corona. Corona was born in Puruagua, near Tuxcueca on the south shore of the lake, and was governor of the state of Jalisco at the time of his assassination in 1889. The final volume in the trilogy, which was never published, was provisionally entitled Los invitados de honor and was to be based on the events surrounding the gala opening of the Chapala railroad station (designed by the author’s grandfather) on 8 April 1920.

In 2008, after taking a workshop in England with Richard Olivier, the son of famous British actor Sir Laurence Olivier, about Transformational Leadership (based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest), Casillas began teaching at ITAM (Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México), a private university with an outstanding business school and widely regarded as one of Mexico’s top “think tanks”. Casillas taught an Executive Development course there about leadership, based on lessons from Shakespeare. He has since given dozens of similar courses, workshops and lectures looking at the leadership lessons that can be learned from studying works such as Henry V, The Tempest and Julius Caesar. Casillas has also written, edited and published more than 40 works on Shakespeare and his plays.

In 2015, the Fondo de Cultura Económica (FCE), a Spanish language non-profit publishing group partly funded by the Mexican government, appointed Casillas as the head of its subsidiary in Spain.

Martín Casillas de Alba’s autobiographical Fe de erratas en la vida de un editor was published in 2017.

We will take a closer look, in later posts, at the two Spanish language novels written by Martín Casillas de Alba that are related to Lake Chapala.

Sources

  • Marcela Alejandra Duharte Solís. 2017. “Divulgación y tecnología en México: la revista Nonotza” in Reflexiones Marginales, Año 6, #41 (Oct-Nov 2017).
  • Martín Casillas de Alba. 1994. La Villa de Chapala (1895-1933). Mexico City: Banca Promex; Martín Casillas de Alba, 2004. ¡Salvemos a Chapala! Mexico City: Editorial Diana.
  • Martín Casillas de Alba. 1995. Confesiones de Maclovia. Mexico City: Ediciones del Equilibrista.
  • Martín Casillas de Alba. 2002. Las batallas del general. Mexico City: Editorial Planeta.
  • Martín Casillas de Alba. 2017. Fe de erratas en la vida de un editor (Mexico City: Bonilla Artigas Editores).

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 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.

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.

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

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.

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.

May 102018
 

Among those active in the Lakeside Little Theater twenty-plus years ago was Norman Schnall (1923-2003) who moved to Ajijic with his wife, Claire, in 1998.

Schnall’s professional name as a film and television actor was Norman Burton. As a stage and screen actor, Schnall appeared in more than 40 movies, including Pretty Boy Floyd (1960), Planet of the Apes (1968), Diamonds Are Forever (1971), Save the Tiger (1973), The Towering Inferno (1974) and Bloodsport (1988), as well as in dozens of TV programs.

Schnall was born in the Bronx, New York (of Russian and Austrian parents) on 5 December 1923. He was a good friend of Beat authors Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsburg, and is the basis for the character “Normie Krall” in Kerouac’s masterwork, Visions of Cody (1973).

Other Beat Era artists and authors with links to Lake Chapala include George Abend, Ernest Alexander, Clayton Eshleman, Jack Gilbert, Don Martin, Anne McKeever, Arthur Monroe, Ned Polsky, Alexander Trocchi, Stanley Twardowicz, ruth weiss, and Al Young.

Schnall studied at the Actors Studio in New York in the 1950s under Lee Strasberg and appeared in several Broadway plays including The Wedding Breakfast, Sound of Hunting and Anna Christie. He became a devotee of the method school of acting, and later taught method acting in Lakeside, California.

Norman Schnall as Felix Leiter.

Norman Schnall as Felix Leiter.

His first film role was a minor part in Fright (1956). He appeared in over 40 movies and dozens of television programs during the 1960s and 1970s. Perhaps his best known role on screen was as the villain Felix Leiter in the James Bond movie Diamonds Are Forever. Movie trivia buffs will know that Schnall played the gorilla Hunt Leader in the science fiction film Planet of the Apes.

After retiring, Schnall and his wife lived for some time in Prescott, Arizona, before moving to Ajijic.

Schnall was also reputed to be a fine artist and painter, though I have not yet seen any of his work.

In November 2003, Schnall was killed in an auto accident in the U.S. while on his way back to his home in Ajijic.

Sources

  • IMDB entry. https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0123680/ [28 April 2018]
  • Dave Moore (compiler). 2010. “Character Key to Kerouac’s Duluoz Legend.” http://www.beatbookcovers.com/kercomp/ [28 April 2018]

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

 Posted by at 6:07 am  Tagged with:
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 152018
 

Canadian artist John Russell Richmond (1926–2013) began drawing and painting as a child, “around the time that he was learning to hold a crayon without eating it.” He was still producing highly original work at Lake Chapala well into his eighties.

John Richmond

John Richmond

Richmond was a painter, illustrator, muralist, educator and author. He was born in Toronto on 25 October 1926 and died in Lindsay, Ontario, on 17 January 2013.

He retired from his position at the Ontario College of Art & Design in 1991 to divide his time between Ontario and Ajijic. Richmond was a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts, the Canadian Society of Painters in Watercolour, the Ontario Society of Artists and the Arts and Letters Club.

Richmond wrote and/or illustrated numerous publications, including Gambit (1958); Around Toronto (1969); Discover Toronto (1976); and the “Discover Ontario” series of whimsical maps and columns, published in Toronto Calendar Magazine in the 1970s. Together with his wife, Lorraine Surcouf, he also published A Tearful Tour of Toronto’s Riviera of Yesteryear (1961).

John Richmond also undertook mural commissions and was responsible for works in the original Maple Leaf Gardens and the former Air Canada Centre (both in Toronto), and the Public Library in the township of Uxbridge where Richmond made his home and studio. Richmond was a founding member of the Uxbridge Celebration of the Arts.

Richmond’s art was exhibited widely during his lifetime in Canada, and later in Mexico, where he adopted the art name Juan Compo.

Juan Compo (John Richmond). Tree Goddess.

Juan Compo (John Richmond). Tree Goddess.

As Juan Compo, in Ajijic, he produced an impressive series of mixed-media images of imaginary ancient American goddesses as well as more traditional paintings.

Juan Compo (John Richmond). Moon Goddess.

Juan Compo (John Richmond). Moon Goddess.

This 5-minute YouTube video is a good introduction to his project.

Like many artists before and since, living at Lake Chapala jolted this artist of talent into an entirely fresh, creative phase of his career. His stated ambition was “to raise awareness of The Ancient American Goddess among all inhabitants of both American continents, North and South.”

Sources

  • Anon. 2013. John Russell Richmond (obituary). The Globe and Mail, 22 January 2013.
  • Anon. “Focus on Art.” Ojo del Lago, February 2003.
  • Anon. 2013. John Russell Richmond – Obituary. Toronto Star, 22 January 2013.
  • Juan Compo. “Ancient American Goddess Art by Juan Compo“, MexConnect. 1 August 2008.
  • Juan Compo. “Ancient American Imaginary Goddesses.” (artist’s former website)
  • Shelagh Damus. 2013. “Artist John Richmond dies at 86.” The Uxbridge Cosmos, 31 January 2013, p12.

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.

Jan 292018
 

Roscoe (“Rocky”) Karns lived in Ajijic with his wife (Kate Karns) and family from 1971 until his death on 5 February 2000. Karns had retired from careers in acting and sales and devoted himself in Ajijic to his painting and working as producer and director on shows at the Lakeside Little Theater.

Roscoe (“Rocky”) Todd Karns Jr., was born in Hollywood, California, on 15 January 1921, to character actor and comedian Roscoe Karns and his wife Mary Fraso.

Rocky Karns as Harry Bailey

Todd Karns as Harry Bailey

Karns’ movie career was interrupted by four years service in the Army during World War II.

After the war, when Rocky was assigned to work in Los Angeles as a military recruiter, he and his wife, Kate, established their home in Hollywood and Rocky began to build his acting career even as they started a family.

Rocky’s most significant movie role was as “Harry Bailey” in the classic Christmas holiday movie It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), starring Jimmy Stewart (playing Harry’s elder brother “George Bailey”) and Donna Reed.

The movie was nominated for five Academy Awards including best picture. Though it did not do terribly well when it was released, it has gained popularity in recent years and has now made the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 best American films ever made.

Todd Karns. Moulin Rouge. (sold 2012 at Capo Auction)

Todd Karns. Moulin Rouge. (sold at Capo Auction, 2012)

Karns had minor roles on several other films, including My Foolish Heart (1949), It’s a Small World (1950, Battle Zone (1952), Invaders from Mars (1953), China Venture (1953) and The Caine Mutiny (1954).

He also worked in television, co-starring with Helen Chapman in a sitcom entitled Jackson and Jill (1949). In 1950, he also worked alongside his father, the star of a popular cop series, Rocky King, Private Detective.

Karns retired from acting in about 1954 and began a 17-year career in sales and public relations for the North American Philips Corporation, eventually becoming its West Coast manager. In 1971, Karns retired from the company and moved to Ajijic. During his “retirement”, Karns focused on his painting, and on directing local theater shows.

Todd Karns. Circus. (sold 2012 at Capo Auction)

Todd Karns. Circus. (sold at Capo Auction, 2012)

Karns directed numerous plays at the Lakeside Little Theater (LLT) , beginning in 1973 with Barefoot In The Park and The Pleasure of his Company. Other plays directed by Karns at LLT included the comedies Sauce For The Goose, Squabbles, Marriage-Go-Round, Noel Coward In Two Keys, The Gin Game and Last Of The Red Hot Lovers, as well as the fantasy A Visit To A Small Planet, the thriller Wait Until Dark, and the drama On Golden Pond.

Karns’ art career in Ajijic enjoyed similar success. Karns had begun painting shortly after the end of World War II.

Todd Karns. 1971. Street scene. Reproduced by kind permission of Katie Cantu.

Todd Karns. 1971. Street scene. Reproduced by kind permission of Katie Cantu.

After moving to Ajijic, Karns soon began to exhibit and sell his art at local shows. In December 1974, for example, one of his paintings was auctioned in a charity fund-raiser organized at the San Antonio Tlayacapan home of Frank and Rowene Kirkpatrick, alongside works by Rowene Kirkpatrick, Sidney Schwartzman and Antonio Santibañez.

In March the following year Karns joined Gail Michaels and Synnove Shaffer (Pettersen) for a three-person show at the Villa Montecarlo in Chapala.

Karns was an active participant in the Clique Ajijic, a group of eight artists who formed a loosely-organized collective for three or four years in the mid-1970s. The other members of Clique Ajijic were Sidney Schwartzman, Adolfo Riestra, Gail Michaels, Hubert Harmon, Synnove (Shaffer) Pettersen, Tom Faloon and John K. Peterson (the only member of Clique Ajijic who had been a member of the earlier Grupo 68).

In December 1976, Karns had work in a group show organized by Katie Goodridge Ingram for the Jalisco Department of Bellas Artes and Tourism, held at Plaza de la Hermandad (IMPI building) in Puerto Vallarta. The show ran from 4-21 December and also included works by Jean Caragonne; Conrado Contreras; Daniel de Simone; John Frost; Richard Frush; Hubert Harmon; Jim Marthai; Gail Michel; Bob Neathery; David Olaf; John K. Peterson; Georg Rauch; and Sylvia Salmi.

In 1989, Karns was accorded the honor of a solo show by Sidney Schwartzman, owner of the Schwartzman Galería in Ajijic. Karns was quite a prolific artist and his works, with their charming naiveté, do occasionally turn up in online auctions.

This is an outline profile. Contact us if you would like to learn more about this particular artist or have information to share.

Sources:

  • El Ojo del Lago: March 1985; January 1989.
  • Guadalajara Reporter: 4 January 1975; 15 March 1975; 28 February 1976.
  • anta Cruz Sentinel. “Local Theatre Attractions”, Santa Cruz Sentinel (California), 9 March 1941, p 10.
  • Vincent Terrace. 2011. Encyclopedia of Television Shows, 1925 through 2010. McFarland & Company.

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.

Nov 202017
 

Internationally renowned sculptor Felipe Castañeda was born on the shores of Lake Chapala. He was born on 16 December 1933 in La Palma (in the municipality then called San Pedro Caro, now Venustiano Carranza) at the south-east corner of Lake Chapala, where pre-Columbian artifacts are common. Castañeda’s lifetime in art shows the influence of millennia of sculptural techniques and creativity.

Felipe Castañeda. Kneeling Woman. date unknown

Felipe Castañeda. 1982. Untitled (Kneeling Woman).

Castañeda moved to Mexico City as a young man. In 1958, he entered La Esmeralda Painting and Sculpture Academy of the National Institute of Fine Arts in Mexico City where he took classes in drawing, modeling, carving and constructive drawing. He quickly became especially proficient at carving and sculpting.

In 1962, after he married his wife Martha, Castañeda began working for the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. He also became assistant to the Costa Rican-born Mexican artist Francisco Zúñiga (1912-1998), a world renowned sculptor and the single greatest influence on Castañeda’s artistic career.

By 1966, Castañeda was already molding incredibly detailed plaster and clay sculptures when he turned his hand to working in stone. He now works mainly in marble, onyx and bronze. Many of his sculptures depict the female form, whether wife, mother, lover or friend. Castaneda’s harem of perfectly proportioned women are simultaneously both mysterious and provocative.

Castañeda held his first one-man show in 1970 at the Sala de Arte (Gobierno del Estado de Nuevo León) in Monterrey, México.

Felipe Castañeda. Gracia. date unknown

Felipe Castañeda. 1986. “Gracia”.

His major solo exhibitions include Galería Mer-Kup, Mexico City (1977); Mexican Art International, La joya, California (1978); Princes Hotel, Acapulco, Guerrero (1988); Hotel Pierre Marqués, Acapulco, Guerrero, (1980); Art Expo, New York (1983, 1984, 1985); Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, Mexico City (1988); 30 Años Galería de Arte Misrachi, Mexico City (1990); Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, Morelia, Michoacán (1991); Club Britania, Morelia, Michoacán (1991); the B. Lewin Galleries, Palm Springs, California (1982, 1983, 1986, 1989, 1990, 1992, 1994); Le Kae Galleries, Scottsdale, Arizona (1995); Instituto Cultural Mexicano Israel-IbereoAmerica, Mexico (1996); Galeria Lourdes, Chumacero, Mexico (1997); Museo de la Isla de Cozumel, Mexico (1997); Mexican Cultural Institute, Los Angeles, California (1998); Whitney Gallery, Laguna Beach, California (1999); Alvarez Gallery, Laguna Beach, California (1999); “New Gallery Artist Exhibition,” Eleonore Austerer Gallery, San Francisco, California (1999); and the Anderson Art Gallery, Sunset Beach, California (2000).

Among Castañeda’s group exhibitions are numerous shows in Morelia (Michoacán), Zacatecas, San Salvador (El Salvador), San Francisco (California); and Palm Springs (California).

Castañeda, who has received awards for his work from UNICEF (1980), Israel (1996) and from the International Academy of Modern Art in Rome (1998), currently lives and works in Morelia, Michoacán. This 4-minute YouTube video (in Spanish) shows the artist at work in his studio:

Commissioned public sculptures by Castañeda can be seen in a number of Mexican cities, as well as in Palm Springs, California. Examples of his work are in the permanent collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Art History in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, among many others.

Sources:

  • Felipe Castañeda (Gallery BIBA, Palm Beach, Florida)
  • Felipe Castaneda (Artnet)
  • Felipe Castaneda (Artistic Gallery)
  • Felipe Castañeda Jaramillo (Bio on his website “Estudio de la Calzada”) – http://www.espejel.com/estudiocalzada/bio.htm [20 Nov 2017]

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

Sep 252017
 

Designer, craftsman and bon viveur Russell Seeley Bayly (1919-2013) lived in Jocotepec, at the western end of Lake Chapala, for close to forty years. He became a good personal friend, though I now regret not having recorded him as he reminisced about his life, loves and adventures.

Bayly was born in Los Angeles, Calfornia on 5 May 1919. He grew up in a privileged family, wealthy enough to have its own stables and horse trainer in addition to a butler, cook, housekeeper, maids, gardeners and a seamstress. Bayly’s father, Roy D. Bayly, was a successful financier and stock broker who had commissioned noted California architect Reginald Davis Johnson to build a Virginia-style home on nine acres of property in Flintridge, near Pasadena. Bayly Sr. was a co-founder of the Flintridge Riding Club and his children, including Russell, were all accomplished riders, winning ribbons and trophies for riding and jumping.

“Russ” Bayly was in the class of ’34 at Polytechnic School before attending Midland School. He graduated from this small boarding school near Los Olivos in 1938. Among his life-long friends was the artist-photographer John Frost, who also attended Midland. Not altogether coincidentally, Frost and his wife – the author Joan Van Every Frost – moved to Jocotepec shortly before Bayly did the same.

Bayly enlisted in the U.S. military on 7 January 1942, after two years of college at the University of Virginia, and giving his previous occupation as “fisherman, oysterman.” He served in the U.S. cavalry during the second world war but his wartime experiences left him with severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Russell Bayly relaxing at home with his neighbor Tad Davidson (Lady Mary Fleming), August 2008. Photo by Tony Burton.

Russell Bayly, aged 89, relaxing at home with his neighbor Tad Davidson (Lady Mary Fleming), August 2008. Photo by Tony Burton.

After the war, Bayly attended the highly regarded Chouinard Art Institute (Chouinard School of Art and Design) in Los Angeles. He married Joan Virginia Young  in 1947, and the couple had four children: Russell Warder (1948-2016), David Hostetter (1951) Brooks (1952), and daughter Neville (1954).

In the 1950s, while working as a painting contractor, Bayly found recognition as a designer, primarily of furniture. For example, his work was highlighted in a national exhibition of Californian design first held at the Pasadena Art Museum from 12 January to 23 February 1958. Over the years, Bayly filed for several patents relating to original furniture designs. These almost certainly included the “prototype chair in steel, teak and fabric”, shown in a photograph that appeared in California Design in 1965. A matching ottoman was also available.

In the mid-1960s, the well-known industrial designer Victor J. Papanek, who had been at design school with Bayly, offered him a position as associate professor of design at Purdue University. Bayly taught there for four years, ending in 1971.

Bayly and his wife, Bee, moved to Jocotepec in late 1971, and rented a house there while beginning construction of their own home. While the Guadalajara Reporter for 20 July 1974 reports that Russell and his wife Bee had just entertained friends to a farewell party, prior to Russell “returning to his college teaching position in California”, Russell was no longer teaching by that time, though he did return to Los Alamos, California, and subsequently Santa Barbara, to make a living. Bayly regularly returned to Jocotepec prior to becoming a full-time resident of the town in the 1980s.

During his years in Jocotepec, he designed and oversaw the construction of several homes in the town, including the modernist, open-plan, steel-beamed hexagonal building that was his home for the last thirty years of his life. Built on a small corner lot overlooking the town and lake, the design was based on a series of hexagons with full-height living areas, floor-to-ceiling glass windows onto an immaculate garden, and a mezzanine that afforded a panoramic view across the lake. It also had a fully-equipped workshop for working metal and wood. Bayly was a skilled craftsman and took particularly delight in crafting the most exquisite furniture and small boxes, often utilizing rare scraps of exotic woods that he had found abandoned in some lumber yard.

Bayly. Photo taken in Jocotepec, August 2007 by Tony Burton.

Chairs and table designed by Russell Bayly. Photo taken in Jocotepec, August 2007 by Tony Burton.

Bayly’s former home, at Hidalgo Nte. #150, was his crowning achievement in terms of architecture and design. He personally designed and built all the bespoke furniture and fittings throughout the home, achieving a simple elegance that would have been worthy of inclusion in Architectural Digest.

Bayly imported a vintage VW “Combi” van from California, converted it into a no-frills camper, and used it to travel all over Mexico. Every few years he would take a lengthy overseas trip: to Europe, Africa or Asia.

In later life, Bayly helped me run several lengthy ecotourist trips through western Mexico, trips that inevitably involved lots of dirt road driving (which he loved). He always kept a camping chair, bottle of white wine (suitably cooled) and a couple of glasses in his van. One of my abiding memories from the many trips we did together is of him carrying these items to the top of a little-known pyramid in Michoacán so that he could sit, relax and sip his wine while enjoying the scenery and brilliant sunset.

Bayly had worked in so many different jobs at some point in his lifetime (lumberjack, educator, tuna fisherman, steel mill) that he was able to entertain guests at dinner parties with a seamless, and seemingly endless, stream of stories, all told with good humor and great insight. Bayly was a conversationalist, raconteur and bon viveur second to none.

Even in his final years, as his daily siestas became longer, Bayly remained willing to ferry groups of paragliders into the hills near Jocotepec as they sought the best launch spots, secure in the knowledge that he would manage to find them again wherever they landed and drive them safely back to civilization.

Having done what he could to make the world a better place, Bayly died on 23 February 2013.

Acknowledgment

  • My sincere thanks to Brooks Bayly for kindly sharing memories and details of his father’s life.

Sources:

  • California Design 9 (1965)
  • Catalog of national exhibition first held at the Pasadena Art Museum, Pasadena, Calif., January 12-February 23, 1958. (Designers include: Russell S. Bayly Associates, Martin Borenstein, Robert E. Brown, Garry M. Carthew, Danny Ho Fong, William A. Kalpe, and Roger Kennedy.)
  • Guadalajara Reporter, 20 July 1974.
  • OakTree Times (magazine of the Polytechnic School Community), Spring/Summer 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.

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