May 232024

Canadian artist Frank Leonard Brooks (1911-2011), usually known simply as Leonard Brooks, was a painter and textile artist who made his home in San Miguel de Allende for more than fifty years.

He and his wife, Reva, a photographer, occasionally visited Chapala, but never for any extended period of time. It was something of a surprise to me, therefore, when this interesting collage acrylic on canvas painting titled “Chapala,” painted by Leonard in 1978, came up at auction in Los Angeles in 2020.

1978. Chapala. Credit: Abeil Auction.

Leonard Brooks. 1978. Chapala. Credit: Abeil Auction.

How did the Brookses come to live in San Miguel de Allende? They arrived in 1947 to teach at the city’s first school of Fine Arts, then being run by American artist Stirling Dickinson, who had established himself in the city a decade earlier. Leonard Brooks, born in England, had finished a stint as a war artist, and he and Riva only intended to stay for a year, while they worked out what to do next, but fell in love with Mexico and with San Miguel de Allende. For half a century, they helped San Miguel de Allende develop its vibrant art and music scene, now deservedly famous nationwide.

A series of exhibitions of Leonard’s paintings in the 1950s received favorable reviews. Paintings by Leonard and prints of Reva’s photos were bought by many famous visitors to San Miguel, including film director John Huston. While Leonard’s early paintings were usually representational, many of his later paintings were impressionist or abstract. They included collage acrylics, many inspired by his San Miguel studio and garden.

Reva was chosen by The San Francisco Museum of Art in 1975 as one of the top fifty female photographers of all time. Her work was recognized and admired by such famous exponents of her art as Ansel Adams and Edward Weston.

Leonard made periodic visits to Canada to exhibit and sell his paintings at galleries in Vancouver and Toronto. From the late 1960s onward, his paintings, tapestries and collages were featured in several hugely successful exhibitions. In 1998, both Leonard and Reva had hugely successful solo shows in Canada, in Toronto and Kingston, respectively.

Leonard also wrote several best-selling books on painting techniques, and found time to illustrate two articles in the popular monthly Ford Times, including an article about Mexico in December 1953.

Back in San Miguel, Leonard was not only an artist and one of the founding partners of the city’s first specialist art gallery, he was also a highly accomplished musician who played first violin with the Guanajuato Symphony Orchestra. In the 1960s, Leonard started offering free music lessons to local children, and subsequently headed the music program at the San Miguel Cultural Center for 25 years. Among the many local youngsters encouraged by Leonard to play the violin were Daniel Aguascalientes and his five brothers, who later formed Hermanos Aguascalientes y sus violines internacionales.

Leonard and Reva Brooks made a truly extraordinary contribution to San Miguel de Allende. Their joint art and photography collection is now managed by Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.

Other artists with strong ties to both Chapala and San Miguel de Allende

Californian Priscilla (“Pris”) Frazer (1907-1973) first traveled to Mexico in 1955 to study with James Pinto at the Instituto Allende in San Miguel de Allende.

William (“Bill”) Gentes (1917-2000) studied at the Instituto in 1968, before living for many years in Chapala.

Canadian artist Duncan de Kergommeaux (born 1927) won a Canada Council Grant in 1958 to travel in Mexico and study at the Instituto Allende.

Tully Judson Petty Jr. (1928-1992) attended San Miguel de Allende School of Fine Arts in 1948 and lived in Ajijic in the mid-1960s.

Chicago painter Harry Mintz (1907-2002) taught at the Bellas Artes school in San Miguel in 1958, where he met and fell in love with Rosabelle Vita Truglio, a visiting summer student; they later lived and painted in Chapala.

Betty Binkley (1914-1978) lived in Chapala in the 1940s and lived her later years in San Miguel.

George Rae Marsh (Williams), aka Georgia Cogswell (1925-1997), and her first husband, the novelist Willard Marsh, spent time in both Ajijic and San Miguel. After Willard’s death, George Rae married sci-fi writer Theodore Rose Cogswell (1918-1987) in San Miguel; they then divided their time between Ajijic, San Miguel de Allende and the U.S.

Bob Somerlott, a well-respected writer of both fiction and non-fiction, lived intermittently at Ajijic in the 1960s before moving to San Miguel de Allende, where he resided for almost forty years.

Auguste Killat Foust (1915-2010), better known as Gustel Foust, lived five years in San Miguel before moving to Guadalajara and then Ajijic, where she lived from 1978 to 1984.

At least four artists born in Ajijic—Florentino Padilla (c 1943-2010), Javier Zaragoza (born 1944), Antonio Cárdenas Perales (born 1945), and Antonio López Vega (born 1953)—studied in San Miguel de Allende. All four had started painting in the free art classes (now known as the Children’s Art Program) begun in Ajijic by Neill James in the 1950s; James recognized their talents, lobbied on their behalf, and—along with other sponsors—helped fund their studies.


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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.

Comments, corrections and additional material are welcome, whether via comments or email.

  One Response to “Canadian artist Leonard Brooks, one of many links between San Miguel de Allende and Lake Chapala”

  1. multi-talented is an understatement.

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