Jun 082023

Juan (‘Juanito’) Olivarez Sánchez was born in Ajijic on 12 July 1944 and died there at the age of 77 on 28 May 2022.

Like numerous other local artists in Ajijic, Olivarez’ interest in art began as a student of the Children’s Art Program (CAP) started by Neill James. Olivarez was among the first generation of students to benefit from CAP which began in the mid-1950s.In the 1960s, Olivarez helped teach the next generation of youngsters. Later students of Juan Olivarez included, in the early 1990s, Bruno Mariscal, described by Lyn Adams as: “Truly a jack-of-all-trades, this talented man is also a well-known rotulista or sign painter. His padrino, Juan Olivarez, started training him in this craft when he was around 18 years old.”

Olivarez’ considerable artistic talent was recognized by the highly experienced art educator Jack Rutherford, a professional Californian artist then living in Ajijic with his wife and their four children. Rutherford was instrumental in arranging for Olivarez to spend several weeks in Studio City (then Ajijic’s sister city) in 1970. Rutherford persuaded Studio City Chamber of Commerce to sponsor Olivarez and to find him a family to board with while he took art classes. Rutherford and his family drove Olivarez up to Studio City, where he was a house guest of the Heckers; Mrs Robert Hecker was a fellow art student. A lively welcome reception in Studio City was held in honor of Olivarez’ arrival before the Rutherford family carried on to spend the summer in Laguna Beach.

Juan Olivarez. Untitled landscape. Coll-JLV

Juan Olivarez. c 1960. Untitled landscape in the Neill James Collection. Reproduced by kind permission of his family.

Jesús López Vega informed me that Olivarez was a member of the “Jardín del Arte,” a group of young local artists at the start of the 1970s, which later became known as “Asociación de Artistas de Ajijic.” This group was a forerunner of the “Ajijic Society of the Arts” (which continues to this day), the largest organization of its kind for artists (Mexican and foreign) in the area.

By 1975, Olivarez was directing a gallery in Ajijic, the Galería de los Artistas Cooperativos, a sign of the bustling art scene in the village at the time. Competing with the long-running Galería del Lago, the Galería de los Artistas Cooperativos was located at 16 de Septiembre #9. It opened on 14 December 1975 with a solo show of 25 works by Frank Barton, an American artist then living in Ajijic, fresh off a successful show in Mexico City.

Olivarez had become interested in photography from a relatively early age, initially acquiring a simple Kodak camera to help him develop his drawing technique, and then discovering the lure of photography as a hobby. He was probably the first native-born photographer to become Ajijic’s unofficial village photographer, taking over this role from, among others, Beverly Johnson.

Juan Olivarez. El Charracate. Reproduced by kind permission of Tom Thompson.

Juan Olivarez. El Charracate. Reproduced by kind permission of Tom Thompson.

Olivarez photographed hundreds of family gatherings, parties and special occasions, and amassed an extensive collection of photographs of Ajijic, covering a very wide range of subjects and events, many of them no longer celebrated in quite the way they once were. Late in life, recounting his experiences to journalist Sofía Medeles, he explained how his photos had originally cost only 50 centavos each. His photographic business was unable to survive the advent of the smartphone, which replaced conventional cameras.

Alongside his photography, Olivarez continued to paint small pictures and do some commercial sign painting. Many of his paintings remain in possession of his family and I hope to add additional images of his work to this profile shortly.

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Several chapters of Foreign Footprints in Ajijic: Decades of Change in a Mexican Village offer more details about the history of the artistic community in Ajijic.


  • Lyn Adams. 2007. “The gallery and art of Bruno Mariscal.” MexConnect.com
  • Sofía Medeles. 2022. “Remembering Juan “Juanito” Olivares, prolific photographer of Ajijic.” Semanario Laguna, 15 de junio de 2022.
  • The Van Nuys News: 26 Jun 1970, 17.
  • Guadalajara Reporter: 13 Dec 1975.

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.

  6 Responses to “Juan Olivarez: Ajijic artist turned village photographer”

  1. Tony, I have a great painting by Juan of El Charracate (Venicio (?) Flores) . The original owner of our adobe home.. I am traveling at the moment but will share a photo of the work when I return home..as always, thanks for the great work on your part!

  2. of all things this took me back to lake side in 1970s–0miss that world often

    • Bill, I wasn’t there in the 1970s (my first visit was in 1980), but I know just what you mean! Be well, Tony.

  3. Mi nombre es Judith, hija menor de Juan Olivarez, agradezco esta página en honor a mi padre, dejo mucha huella, murales, cuadros, fotografías, mi papá se caracterizó por su sencillez y gusto por el arte toda su vida.
    Estoy a sus órdenes en algo que pueda apoyarles para seguir conservando y las generaciones siguientes conozcan la obra de mi papá.

    • Estimada Judith, Muchas gracias por sus amables palabras. He deletreado el apellido de su padre como “Olivares” pero noto que su apellido paterno es “Olivarez” (con zeta). ¿Tengo el nombre de su padre correcto (como en su pasaporte o certificado de nacimiento)? Me complace corregir eso y cualquier otro error que encuentre. También me encantaría aprender más sobre la galería que dirigía, incluso cuánto tiempo duró y qué artistas tuvieron exposiciones allí.
      Y me gustaría mucho incluir algunos ejemplos más de su trabajo, incluidas sus fotografías, si puede compartir algunas fotos a través de este correo electrónico.

    • Al hilo de este comentario, su hija ha confirmado que la ortografía correcta del apellido de su padre es ‘Olivarez’, no ‘Olivares’ como aparece en diversas fuentes. La publicación original ha sido actualizada para reflejar esto.

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