Thurston Wells Munson was in his eighties when he decided to have a winter studio in Chapala in 1988. Munson had already enjoyed an extraordinarily varied artistic career since first studying art in his teens.
“Tee” Munson was born in Greenfield, Massachusetts, on 24 April 1906 and died there at the age of 92 on 7 October 1998.
In 1923 he used funds earned as a deckhand on a ship to Guatemala to take art courses at the Museum School of Art in Philadelphia. Then, a prize for an early work paid for a trip to Paris where he met Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemingway. Poker winnings and the sale of a portrait enabled Munson to travel to North Africa. In 1928 he traveled to Bombay (Mumbai), India, crossed through the Khyber Pass and was commissioned to paint life-sized portraits of the British commissioner in Srinagar and his three predecessors. (Munson published a booklet of some of his portraits in 1991.)
Back in Paris in 1929 he opened his first studio and held a solo show in the city before moving back to the US later that year. The following year Munson and his brother, Calude, held a joint show at the Artist’s Guild of Springfield, described by one reviewer as “a varied and pleasant show of paintings in oil and water-color.”
After his plans to turn a stone mill in Greenfield into an art school failed during the Depression, Munson stayed afloat financially by boxing professionally, hustling at pool, and painting large canvass ‘murals’ for the walls of hotels and restaurants. These included an exotic painting (more of which later) for Adajian’s restaurant on Asylum Street in Hartford, Connecticut.Munson held a solo show of artworks in New York in 1934, before turning his attention to architecture and designing nightclubs from New York to Maine.
In the early 1950s, Munson had two studios in Massachusetts (in Springfield and Rockport) and was a member of the Rockport Art Association. By 1952 he had become a partner in the Springfield architectural and engineering firm of Munson & Mallis. He remodeled a two-family Victorian house in Springfield in the style of Frank Lloyd Wright. The “Thurston Munson home” at 60 Byers Street now features prominently on the walking tour of the Springfield Preservation Trust. Featured in architecture magazines, people either loved it or hated it.
In this productive period, Munson designed sets for Berkshire Ballet productions and completed numerous portraits of players inducted into the original Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield. He also designed churches throughout New England, became president of the Society of American Registered Architects, and created a magnificent 92-foot mosaic for the Church of the Holy Cross in Portland, Maine, comprised of more than 235,000 pieces of Venetian glass.
He told a journalist in 1988 that he had purchased a winter home on Lake Chapala where he planned to spend five months each year “doing nothing but paint…. There will be no telephone. It is my answer to the many who have criticized me for not producing more of the sort of thing that was my early intent. But the Depression came along, together with three children and a complete collection of economic problems.”
At about this time Munson asked for help in locating the various canvass murals he had done for Greenfield Schools, pointing out that they now had a significant economic value since his wall-sized canvasses were priced at $200 a square foot. He offered to maintain them (unrolled) in his Chapala studio until Greenfield found a suitable place to display them.
The fourteen ‘murals’ in Adajian’s restaurant, an upmarket restaurant which opened in 1947, remained on show for almost forty years; they continued to interest patrons and art classes used to go there to study them. Described variously as fantasy or surrealistic, they depicted tales from the Arabian Nights. After the restaurant closed in 1986, Munson restored them for display in a gallery in Greenfield. Since 2004 they have been held in storage at National Library Relocations in Three Rivers.
Several chapters of Foreign Footprints in Ajijic: Decades of Change in a Mexican Village explore the history of the vibrant art community of Ajijic.
If you have a painting by Thurston Munson or can offer more details about his time in Chapala, please get in touch!
- Springfield Republican: 2 December 1929.
- Sonofa Bourbeau. “Thurston Wells Munson Sr.” (obituary) Based on obituary in The Day, 10 October 1998.
- The Recorder (Greenfield, Massachusetts): 24 August 1988, 5; 30 December 1988, 3.
- Jane E. Dee. 2018. “Adajian’s Restaurant: After 20 Years In Storage, Murals Still Captivate.” Hartford Courant News, 27 July 2018.
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).