In the early 1960s, Grant Risdon, a student at San Francisco Art Institute, lived in Chapala for some time. Risdon, a larger than life character, became friends with guitarist Jim Byers, and the two men rented rooms in El Manglar, the extensive lakeside estate in San Antonio Tlayacapan.
Scott Hampson, who visited his half-sister Beverly Johnson in Ajijic over the winter of 1963-64, shared his tales of his own adventures with Grant Risdon:
By that time I had two close friends who kept me company out at Manglar. One, the one I was closest to, was Tony Bateman…. He and I and a friend named Grant stole two very expensive early era inflatable boats from two explorer tourists who were en-route back from South America. They were staying at a lakefront hotel in town and had the boats out on their deck. We stored them at Manglar and took midnight floats out on the lake, which was the only time one could float stolen boats…. One late night in the graveyard we unbuckled the crypt of an important ancient citizen, a priest perhaps. When we got the lid off and shone our flashlight inside we saw the skeleton, screamed, and took off running like contestants in a 100 yard dash.”
A year earlier, an encounter with Risdon and Byers had left an indelible impression on Doctor Avis, as recounted by Dayton Lummis in Spaceships and Liquor: Venus and Mars Are All Right Tonight. According to Lummis: “Ajijic was then, 1962, just barely beginning to be discovered, mostly by a few beatniks and adventurers” when Doctor Avis got out of the army and decided to stay there a few days:
Not long after getting off the bus in Ajijic he fell in with two American chaps, Jim Byers and Grant Risdon from Chicago, who playfully called himself “Pancho Napoleon Anaya… These two chaps directed the Doctor to some cheap lodging and then suggested they buy some of the locally available and very cheap marijuana, or mota, to assist them in getting through the afternoon…”
Risdon’s moniker reflected the fact that he had been informally adopted by the prominent Anaya family in Chapala.
Risdon, who was born in Monterey, California, in about 1943, started life with an abusive father and, while still a child, lost his mother to a heroin overdose. Brought up by his grandfather in Jamesburg, near Cachagua, RIsdon eventually graduated from Carmel High and served briefly in the US Marines before moving to Lake Chapala.
His art education had begun with Monterey painter Buck Warshawsky, and his early works were sufficiently original to be greatly admired by Jack Swanson, a renowned cowboy painter living in Carmel Valley. Swanson awarded him the top prize in an art contest at the Trail & Saddle Club for a painted three-panel door.
The only Risdon artworks known to have been published are the “brilliant illustrations (Aztec Design)” linoleum block prints he produced for a hand bound book of poems by Richard Denner, published in 1968.
Risdon sold pastel drawings of ships in local galleries, and often painted scenes of the Civil War, the Old West and Native Americans. Adorning the Cachagua General Store for years was one of his “Indian Surrealism” pieces: an image of a canoe under a full moon, with its Native American rower only visible as a reflection in the water.
In 1981, following a violent altercation with a naked man, Risdon fled police to hide out in a cave in Los Padres National Forest for the next three years, before returning to the scene of the crime to turn himself in. Or did he? Risdon was a brilliant raconteur but, according to many friends and journalists, was liberal with the truth and often embellished his stories for dramatic effect. Years later, Conall Jones, a New York filmmaker, produced a 20-minute documentary short, An Unwanted Man (2014), about Risdon’s years on the lam. [link is to trailer]
Friends considered Risdon “a sensitive soul who loved horses, painted Western-style art and pursued history and culture with almost as much passion as he did pretty women.” He always retained very fond memories of Lake Chapala and Mexico. In the words of one journalist:
Reliving those memories behind the General Store, Risdon clacks his castanets and sings “El Lechero,” a Mexican folk song about a handsome milkman. The nostalgia begins to flow like tequila: how he tangoed with beautiful women in the Guadalajara dance halls, received a presidential smile during Jonn F. Kennedy’s visit to Mexico, and learned spirituality from the Huichol Indians of Jalisco.
– “Honey, that place – ” he says with a dreamy smile, “that is the most beautiful time in my life.”
Risdon, who returned briefly to Chapala in about 2014, died in Cachagua, California, in 2018.
The story of El Manglar is told in chapter 34 of If Walls Could Talk: Chapala’s Historic Buildings and Their Former Occupants.
Several chapters of Foreign Footprints in Ajijic: Decades of Change in a Mexican Village look at Ajijic’s vibrant art community and its 1960s’ drugs scene.
- Kera Abraham. 2010. “The improbable and irresistible saga of Cachagua’s living legend, Grant Risdon.” Monterey County Weekly, 29 April 2010.
- Jim Byers, personal communications, August 2015.
- Richard Denner. 1968. Poemes. D-Press (Ketchikan, Alaska).
- Scott Hampson. 2016. Unpublished document dated December 2016 titled “BEVERLY AND MEXICO 63-64″, sent to me December 2020:
- Dayton Lummis. 2011. Spaceships and Liquor: Venus and Mars Are All Right Tonight. iUniverse, 159-160.
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.
Tony Burton’s books include “Lake Chapala: A Postcard History” (2022), “Foreign Footprints in Ajijic” (2022), “If Walls Could Talk: Chapala’s historic buildings and their former occupants” (2020), (available in translation as “Si Las Paredes Hablaran”), “Mexican Kaleidoscope” (2016), and “Lake Chapala Through the Ages” (2008).