Nov 222018

Ajijic author (or as she preferred “authoress”) Neill James included several paragraphs about artists in her article “I Live in Ajijic”, first published in October 1945.

These names were a useful starting point for me when I began researching the artists and authors associated with Lake Chapala. Over the past decade, I have looked into the lives and works of all of the artists named by James and have now published short profiles of all but one of them.

The standout, and noteworthy exception, is “Lillian Bruner.” The reason I haven’t yet written about her is very simple: despite intensive searches, and trying a variety of alternative spellings, I have turned up absolutely nothing of value about her or her art!

James’ description of her is engagingly brief:

  • “Pretty blonde Lillian Bruner, a Greek muralist, tarried for a brief visit.”

Your help is needed, please. I’ve had a soft spot for pretty blondes ~ and have been hoping to find this particular pretty blonde – for a long time. Can anyone offer any clues as to the real identity, life or work of “Lillian Bruner”?


  • Neill James. 1945. “I Live in Ajijic.” Modern Mexico (Washington D.C.), Vol. 18 #5 (October 1945), 26-27.

Other Art Mysteries

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

Oct 062016

The artist John Langley Howard (1902-1999), known to friends as “Lang”, is considered one of the finest painters of his time in the San Francisco Bay are.

In 1934, he was one of the group of artists commissioned as part of the New Deal Public Works Art Project to paint murals in the Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill overlooking the city. Howard chose to depict his Marxist-inspired view of industrial society. While this was the only mural he ever painted, it became not only his most viewed work, but is also considered to be “one of the finest examples of social idealism in San Francisco art”.

John Langley Howard. Detail of mural in Coit Tower, San Francisco.

John Langley Howard. Detail of mural in Coit Tower, San Francisco.

Howard is one of several San Francisco artists with links to Ajijic. Allan Temko, author of an obituary of Howard on the SFGate website, writes that,

“Mr. Howard was a wanderer. He lived in more than 20 different places in the course of his long career, ranging from several periods in San Francisco, north and south of the Bay Area from Calistoga to Monterey, from Santa Fe, N.M., to Brownsville, Texas, from Ajijic in Mexico to Greece, as well as New York and London.”

While the duration and circumstances of his visit to Ajijic in 1951 are unclear, it was in the company of his second wife, the sculptor Blanche Phillips Howard (1908-1979), and marked a turning point in his career. “Mountain Air” (below) may have been painted at about this time.

John Langley Howard. Mountain Air. (Mexico) Date unknown.

John Langley Howard. Mountain Air. (Mexico?) Date unknown.

“Lang” was born into a family of architects and artists in Montclair, New Jersey, on 5 February 1902. He was only an infant when his family moved to California, where his father was the architect of the campus of the University of California at Berkeley, and many other major buildings in the state.

John Langley Howard studied engineering at Berkeley (1920-23) before taking art classes at the Art Students’ League in New York (1923-24) and in Paris, France. In 1924, he left art school and married Adeline Day. He held his first solo exhibition, at The Modern Gallery, San Francisco, in 1927.

During the second world war, Howard worked as a ship drafter and air raid warden. He divorced Adeline in 1949 and the following year was teaching at the California School of Fine Arts. He married Blanche Phillips, a sculptor, in 1951 and moved to Mexico that same year.

John Langley Howard. ca 1951. Trinity. Reproduced by kind permission of Michael Agostino.

John Langley Howard. ca 1951. Trinity. Reproduced by kind permission of Michael Agostino.

His acrylic on board “Trinity” was shown in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Annual of Contemporary American Painting in New York, open to the public from November 1951 to January 1952.

Prior to Mexico, Howard had experimented with Abstract Expressionism. Back in San Francisco by 1952, Howard’s art took on a much more eco-activist stance with a painting called The Rape of the Earth. The three panels of The Rape of the Earth “successively portray the stormy formation of the planet amid lightning flashes, its spoliation by machines in a tremendous scene of technocratic destruction, and, finally, the ravaged land returning to a natural state, still befouled by mechanical wreckage, but eventually to be healed and cleansed.” [Temko, 1999]

Howard’s massive triptych – “In the Beginning, “Rape of the Land” and “Back to Nature” – dating from 1976, is in the collection of the San Francisco General Hospital.

From 1953 to 1965, Howard illustrated numerous covers for Scientific American magazine, and also taught for a year at the Pratt Institute Art School in Brooklyn, New York. Howard lived in Europe during the late 1960s, returning to California in 1970. John Langley Howard passed away in 1999 at his home in San Francisco at the age of 97.

“I think of painting as poetry and I think of myself as a representational poet. I want to describe my subject minutely, but I also way to describe my emotional response to it… what I’m doing is making a self-portrait in a peculiar kind of way.” – John Langley Howard

Examples of Howard’s art, which won numerous awards, are in the collections of the California Palace of the Legion of Honor; the City of San Francisco; the IBM Building, New York; The Oakland Museum; The Phillips Collection, Washington D.C.; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Security Pacific National Bank Headquarters, Los Angeles; the Springfield Museum of Fine Arts; and the University of Utah.

His major exhibitions included Modern Gallery, San Francisco (1927); Beaux Arts Gallery and East-West Gallery, both in San Francisco (1928); the San Francisco Art Association (1928-1951); Paul Elder Gallery, San Francisco (1935); Cincinnati Art Museum, Ohio (1936); Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco (1936, 1939); 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition, Department of Fine Arts, Treasure Island (1939); Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh (1941, 1952); Corcoran Gallery, Washington D.C. (1943); M. H. de Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco, CA (1943); 1946-47 Whitney Museum, New York (1946-1947); Santa Barbara Museum of Art (1956); Capricorn Asunder Gallery, San Francisco (1973); Lawson Galleries, San Francisco (1974); San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Rental Gallery (1982); California Academy of Sciences (1983); Monterey Museum of Art, California (1983); Martina Hamilton Gallery, New York (1987); Tobey C. Moss Gallery, California (1989, 1992, 1993); M. H. de Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco (1991).

He had at least two two-person shows with his wife, Blanche Phillips Howard. The first (“Capricorn Asunder”) was held at the San Francisco Art Commission Gallery in 1973 and the second at the Bank of America Center in San Francisco in 1975.


My thanks to Michael Agostino (see his valuable comments on Blanche Phillips Howard) for prompting me to update this profile in July 2019.


The U.S.-born John Langley Howard described in this post should not be confused with the U.K.-born violinist, John Langley. The latter was a long-time resident of Ajijic and was photographed for Leonard McCombe’s 1957 Life magazine article about the village.


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

Sep 222016

Lothar Wuerslin and his wife, Ann, lived in Ajijic in the late 1950s, from 1956 to about 1959. They stayed until their savings ran out and then returned to New York.

Their time at Lake Chapala changed their lives in more ways than one. First, their eldest son, Christopher (who late in his life became a chef, writer and photographer) was born in Mexico on 21 March 1956. Then, Lothar, who had been busy preparing enough paintings for a solo show on his return to New York, discovered sculpting. Thus began an entirely new chapter in his artistic career. Ann was also an artist, as well as a poet.

Lothar Hellmut Wuerslin was born in Auggen, Germany, on 3 March 1927 to a French father and his German wife. Before Lothar’s third birthday, the family emigrated to the U.S. (1929). He served in the U.S. Army from July 1945 to November 1946. In 1951 he entered the University of New Hampshire to study art, and met Ann. Lothar also studied at the Boston Museum school of art. The young couple moved to New York where a succession of part-time jobs (including painting fire escapes) enabled them to save a few dollars and try their luck in Mexico.

Lothar Wuerslin. Frescoes on wall of Ajijic home, 1957. Photo by Leonard McCombe, Life

Lothar Wuerslin. Frescoes on wall of Ajijic home, 1957. Photo by Leonard McCombe, Life

In 1956, they took up residence in Ajijic, paying the princely sum of $5 (dollars) a month for a 4-room adobe house that lacked a tub. Within months, Lothar had executed an interesting series of frescoes on the foyer walls (above) as well as begun to paint in earnest.

Lothar and Ann Wuerslin playing chess, 1957. Photo by Leonard McCombe, Life

Lothar and Ann Wuerslin playing chess, 1957. Photo by Leonard McCombe, Life

The Wuerslins were photographed by Leonard McCombe for his 1957 Life article about Americans at Lake Chapala. McCombe not only photographed their home (and murals), but also took pictures of the young couple playing chess and (their home lacking a tub) taking a bath, surrounded by flowering water hyacinths, in Lake Chapala.

Lothar and Ann Wuerslin taking a bath in Lake Chapala wster hyacinths, 1957. Photo by Leonard McCombe, Life

Lothar and Ann Wuerslin taking a bath in Lake Chapala water hyacinths, 1957. Photo by Leonard McCombe, Life

Years later, this is how a local Vermont newspaper described how Mexico and Ajijic had changed the direction of Lothar’s art for ever:

“A chilly night in Ajijic, Mexico, changed artist-painter Lothar Wuerslin’s life. … Once a painter, Wuerslin switched arts when he was given some firewood on a chilly evening in Mexico where he and his wife had gone in 1956. He had by this time painted murals on most of the adobe walls of their small rented house. He picked up a piece of the redwood and began carving it.” – (Bennington Banner, 24 July 1965)

In about 1959, the Wuerslins moved back to New York. By April 1960, they were sufficiently well established there for Lothar to have already held an exhibition of his paintings on Madison Avenue and to be renting a loft studio on the Lower East Side to continue his new-found love: sculpting. About a year later, their second son, Hasso, was born. In 1963, the Wuerslins moved to a farmhouse in Sandgate, Vermont, where Lothar could have a larger studio and more room to develop his sculptures. Their third son, Tristan, was born in Vermont in May 1965. The Wuerslins also had a daughter, Joan, the eldest of their four children, who had been given up for adoption.

Lothar Wuerslin. 1957. Painting of wife and child. Digitally derived from photo by Leonard McCombe, Life.

Lothar Wuerslin. 1957. Painting of wife and child. Digitally derived from photo by Leonard McCombe, Life.

Lothar exhibited in local shows in Manchester and Bennington and examples of his work (in wood and cast cement) were included in a 1967 collective exhibition of Vermont Artists. In February 2005, both Lothar (by then deceased) and Ann were represented in an exhibition of Sandgate artists at The Canfield Gallery.

Several younger Vermont artists, including Anna Dribble and Chris Miller, took community college classes with Lothar and have paid public tribute to his influence on their art.

Lothar Wuerslin died at Sandgate, Vermont, at the age of 55, on 25 November 1982.

Ann “Bunny” Wuerslin (1930-2009)

Lothar’s wife, Ann “Bunny” Wuerslin was born in New Hampshire on 14 October 1930 and died in Sandgate in 2009. She had been the town clerk of Sandgate for 13 years prior to her retirement in 2008.

In addition to her art, Ann Wuerslin wrote poetry and was, after 1967, designed and made jewelry, sold not only locally, but also in “Primitive Artisans” on 5th Avenue in New York City.

Late in life, Ann became a published author with a book called In the Child’s Voice (Shire Press, 2008). The book is a poignant and expressive memoir, comprised of vignettes about living in a succession of foster homes in New Hampshire during her childhood.

To listen to Ann Wuerslin reciting one of her own poems (later used in her obituary notice), see this YouTube video clip. The poem starts at minute 2:00 of the video.


  • Bennington Banner, Bennington, Vermont, 24 July 1965, p 5
  • Madeleine B. Karter. 1960. Undaunted and Un-beat (with photographs by Ted Russell). Pageant, April 1960, p 148 on.
  • Leonard McCombe (photographer). 1957. “Yanks Who Don’t Go Home. Expatriates Settle Down to Live and Loaf in Mexico.” Life, 23 December 1957

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.

Aug 112016

Florentino Padilla, who lived from about 1943 to 2010, regularly featured in the pages of the Guadalajara Reporter in the mid-1960s because he was “largely responsible for the bright, charming paintings” that were being produced by youngsters in weekly art classes at the Lake Chapala Society’s “Biblioteca”.

Florentino Padilla. Untitled. Reproduced by kind permission of Hector Hinojosa

Florentino Padilla. Untitled. Reproduced by kind permission of Hector Hinojosa

Padilla, described as a personable young man, was then in his early 20s and an accomplished painter in his own right. He had begun painting at the age of 15 and his talent had been recognized by Neill James, the American writer who had resided in Ajijic from the mid-1940s. With her help, Padilla received a scholarship to San Miguel Allende where he studied art from 1960 to 1962.

Ajijic resident Hector Hinojosa recalls that Padilla lived in Ajijic until the late 1970s, but then lived in California, where he painted a mural in San Francisco.

According to an account of an exhibition of his paintings (Guadalajara Reporter, 19 August 1965) one particularly keen art lover bought three of his works within minutes.

Padilla’s niece, Lucia Padilla Gutierrez, is also a gifted artist who benefited from art classes given at the Lake Chapala Society; her son is now following in her footsteps.

We would love to learn more about this artist’s life and work. If you can add to this all-too-brief biography, then please get in touch!


  • Guadalajara Reporter, 1 October 1964
  • Guadalajara Reporter, 19 August 1965

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.

Aug 042016

Artist John Maybra Kilpatrick, who painted a WPA mural in Chicago in 1947, retired to Ajijic with his wife Lucy in 1964 and resided there until his death on 27 August 1972.

While living in Ajijic, Kilpatrick exhibited in the “Fiesta de Arte” group show held in May 1971 at the home of Mr and Mrs E. D. Windham (Calle 16 de Septiembre #33). More than 20 artists took part in that event, including Daphne Aluta; Mario Aluta; Beth Avary; Charles Blodgett; Antonio Cárdenas; Alan Davoll; Alice de Boton; Robert de Boton; Tom Faloon; John Frost; Dorothy Goldner; Burt Hawley; Peter Huf; Eunice (Hunt) Huf; Lona Isoard; Michael Heinichen; Gail Michel; Bert Miller; Robert Neathery; John K. Peterson; Stuart Phillips; Hudson Rose; Mary Rose; Jesús Santana; Walt Shou; Frances Showalter; Sloane; Eleanor Smart; Robert Snodgrass; and Agustín Velarde.

John Maybra Kilpatrick was born in Illinois (in either Vandalia Fayette County or Centralia Marione County) on 2 October 1902. He apparently studied at the School of the Chicago Art Institute under portraitist Hubert Ropp, the school’s then dean. Ropp is recorded as visiting friends and former students – the Kilpatricks and Al and Janet Zimmerman – in Ajijic in 1971.

John Maybra Kilpatrick became engaged to be married with Lucy Margaret Legge in December 1926. The couple had two children, a daughter born in 1931 and a son born two years later.

In 1947, Kilpatrick took part in the WPA murals project. Together with Hungarian artist Miklos Gaspar, Kilpatrick painted a mural entitled “The Children’s Hour” in Oak Terrace School, 240 Prairie Avenue, Highwood, Chicago. The mural is listed as still extant in 2001 when Mary Lackritz Gray’s book A Guide to Chicago’s Murals was published.

J. Maybra Kilpatrick. "The Gleaners" (St. Grénolé, Brittany). Image courtesy of Holly Johnson.

J. Maybra Kilpatrick. “The Gleaners” (St. Grénolé, Brittany). Image courtesy of Holly Johnson.

Kilpatrick worked as a commercial artist for the H. D. Catty Corporation of Huntly, Illinois. In 1952, the corporation applied for copyright for colored Christmas wrapping paper designed by Kilpatrick, entitled “Merry Christmas (Snow scene with 3 figures in front of houses)”.

After Kilpatrick’s passing in Ajijic in 1972, Lucy Kilpatrick is regularly mentioned in local newspapers as helping with ceramics classes in the village.


My thanks to Holly Johnson for sharing an image of Kilpatrick’s painting “The Gleaners.”

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.

Apr 282016

Muralist Guillermo Chávez Vega (1931-1990) is not usually associated with Lake Chapala, but is responsible for one of the area’s earliest surviving murals. The murals, painted in 1971, are in the private sailing club Club Náutico, in La Floresta, Ajijic.

The murals are painted on the four sides of a pyramid-shaped roof “dome” on the northern side of the main lounge. They show local historical events from pre-Columbian Indian rituals to the heroic resistance of insurgents occupying Mezcala Island during Mexico’s War of Independence.

Cuillermo Chávez Vega. Detail of mural in Club Náutico, Ajijic

Cuillermo Chávez Vega. Detail of mural (1971) in Club Náutico, Ajijic

Sadly, one additional mural by Chávez Vega, painted in the lobby of the club, and depicting a woman reposing in a hammock made of fishing nets, was lost during renovations in the 1980s.

Guillermo Chávez Vega was born in Guadalajara on 23 March 1931. Best known as a muralist, he was also a painter, watercolorist and engraver. Besides murals, he also painted family scenes and landscapes, especially of the Jalisco coast, and a popular series of watercolors of Guadalajara. He held about 30 solo exhibits and participated in 20 group exhibits during his distinguished artistic career.

Cuillermo Chávez Vega. Detail of mural (1971) in Club Náutico, Ajijic

Cuillermo Chávez Vega. Detail of mural (1971) in Club Náutico, Ajijic

Chávez Vega completed his formal primary and high school years at the Colegio Instituto de Ciencias in Guadalajara. In his later years at that institution, he illustrated the school’s Revista Juventud (Youth Magazine).

Cuillermo Chávez Vega. Detail of mural (1971) in Club Náutico, Ajijic

Cuillermo Chávez Vega. Detail of mural (1971) in Club Náutico, Ajijic

In 1948, he began formal art studies with José Vizcarra in Guadalajara. From 1950-51, he studied art at the San Carlos Academy in Mexico City, and then returned to Guadalajara to continue his studies at the Escuela de Artes y Letras of the University of Guadalajara. In 1952, he joined a study trip to south-eastern Mexico, looking closely at Mayan art and motifs. In 1956, he illustrated Artes y Letras, the University of Guadalajara magazine.

Cuillermo Chávez Vega. Detail of mural (1971) in Club Náutico, Ajijic

Cuillermo Chávez Vega. Detail of mural (1971) in Club Náutico, Ajijic

From 1957 to 1962, Chávez Vega gave painting and drawing classes in the Escuela de Artes Plásticas of the University of Guadalajara. From 1958 to 1960, he gave art classes at the Universidad Femenina de Guadalajara.

He painted his first murals, including one in Ciudad Guzmán in the south of Jalisco, in 1957. In 1960, he started working as an illustrator for the artistic-literary magazine El Despertador. In 1963, he was granted a Jalisco State scholarship to travel to Europe and the Middle East. In 1968, he was asked by President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz to travel to Poland and paint a mural in Warsaw as a national gift from Mexico to the Polish people. From 1969 to 1989, Chávez Vega ran the Guadalajara branch of the Instituto de Amistad e Intercambio Cultural Mexico-USSR, which promoted a better understanding between Mexico and the Soviet Union.

He painted at least 25 murals, most of them located in or near Guadalajara. His murals include “The Reform and the Constitution” in the Palacio de Justicia in Guadalajara, and “Guadalajara, Homage to Humanity” in the city’s International Friendship Center (Centro de la Amistad Internacional). Also in Guadalajara, in Preparatoria número 3, in 1988, he painted his final mural, “Revolutionary Latin America”. Murals by Chávez Vega can also be admired in the Centro de Arte y Cultura in San Pedro Tlaquepaque, and in the building of the Sindicato de Trabajadores del IMSS in Mexico City.

Guillermo Chávez Vega received the Jalisco prize for plastic arts (1960) and the Silver Medal of the Jalisco State Government (1964). He died in his native city on 5 July 1990 and his remains were later interred in the Rotunda of Illustrious Jalisicienses in 2002.


  • My sincere thanks to the administration and members of Club Náutico for graciously allowing me to view and photograph the murals that are in their care.
Apr 062015

Tom Brudenell (Thomas James Brudenell), a painter, muralist and qualified art therapist who now resides in Canada, was born 18 July 1937 in Kansas City, and lived in the Lake Chapala region for several years in the late 1960s.

When he was a child, Brudenell’s family moved frequently, living for extended periods in Chicago, Sheboygan (Wisconsin) and Kansas City (Missouri). His father was a mechanical engineer, whose own education was cut short by the second world war when he was sent to Caterpillar to help design tank engines.

Brudenell was an active and mischievous child, with great curiosity for the world around him. He excelled in athletics, drawing, desert lore, and all branches of science.

The earliest transformative experience he remembers came when he was seven years old and first saw the Rocky Mountains. Coming from the Great Plains, in the family Plymouth en route to California along Rte. 66, he was awestruck, initially thinking that the mountains were cloud formations.

Brudenell left high school on a full scholarship to study chemical engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), a private research university located in Troy, New York. Coming to the realization that he wanted more than a pure science education, he transferred to the University of California at Berkeley.

At Berkeley, he roomed with archaeology student Len Foote, beginning a lifelong friendship. Brudenell took courses in psychology, the history of art and architecture (given by Walter Horn), literature, and studio art courses taught by Glenn Anthony Wessels (1895-1982), then close to retirement.

After completing his bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1961, Brudenell was drafted into the U.S. Navy, was made an officer, but resigned his commission in 1962 at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. He returned to Berkeley and spent the next several years there.

In mid-1965, Brudenell was one of several volunteers who joined Foote, now a qualified archaeologist, on a summer dig in Tizapán el Alto, on the southern shore of Lake Chapala. Brudenell’s job was to live on an isolated rancho, sift earth for pot shards, and explore some caves in the nearby hills.

In September 1965, Brudenell started work as a research assistant in psychology for Dr. Gordon Paul at the University of Illinois. He still found plenty of time to paint, and held a two-person show, with Eva Wei, in 1966, before cutting his research short. By a strange coincidence, four years later he met one of his Illinois professors unexpectedly at the Chula Vista Myth-Mass. Paul asked what he was doing in Mexico, and Brudenell replied that he was painting, writing and experimenting with sensory stimulants – smell bulbs – as olfactory triggers for the recall of past experiences; in fact, he was doing precisely what he had not been able to do in the graduate psychology program at the University of Illinois.

After Illinois, and prior to Mexico, Brudenell spent most of 1967 working in Pueblo Pintado, under the auspices of VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America), with the Navajo Nation, New Mexico.

Move to Mexico

Brudenell moved to Mexico in late 1967. The truck he was driving broke down on the south side of lake, just beyond Jocotepec. He sold it on the spot to a local mechanic for $150, and rented a house in the village. He remained in Jocotepec until mid-1970, painting and filling a series of sketch books and journals.

Even a severe bout of hepatitis served as fuel for his thoughts; it resulted in an extraordinarily intense series of journal entries, “hepatitis dreams”, musings and ideas. Brudenell credits his recovery from hepatitis to the conscientious nursing of Beverly Johnson, a free-spirited young woman with a brood of children, who was also Ajijic’s unofficial village photographer.

Brudenell credits fellow Jocotepec-based artist Donald Shaw, a “vigorous, larger-than-life” painter and sculptor, with convincing him to meet other artists and display his work. Brudenell recalls how Shaw remarked, in a very early conversation, and on account of Brudenell not reciprocating visits or offers of friendship, that he had never previously met anyone who had no ego.

In March 1968, works by Brudenell were included in the inaugural show, entitled “10 Jalisco artists”, at Galeria Ajijic Bellas Artes A.C., organized by Hudson and Mary Rose. That gallery was at Marcos Castellanos #15 in Ajijic, at the intersection with Calle Constitución.

Tom Brudenell: Passage of the patient tortoise (1968).

Tom Brudenell: Passage of the patient tortoise (1968). Reproduced by kind permission of the artist

Later that year (31 May-21 June), Brudenell was given his first solo exhibition at the same gallery. His artwork was enthusiastically reviewed by Allyn Hunt for Guadalajara’s Colony Reporter. Hunt urged readers in Guadalajara to take a trip out to the lake: “The most impressive work in this show is the recently-produced “Passage of the Patient Tortoise” which is stunning for its daring compositional structure, its brilliant color use, and its lucid and intelligently-styled forms. This single piece is more than worth the trip to the lake.” Brudenell was familiar with tortoises from his time in the desert south-west and, indeed, shared his Jocotepec home with one.

A few months later, in September 1968, Brudenell was one of 8 painters and a sculptor displayed at the “re-opening” of Laura Bateman’s Rincon del Arte gallery at Calle Hidalgo #41 in Ajijic. The single sculptor was Joe Wedgewood, recently arrived from Santa Monica, California. The other artists were Alejandro Colunga, Coffeen Suhl, Peter Paul Huf, Eunice (Hunt) Huf, John K Peterson, Jack Rutherford and (Donald) Shaw. (Shaw preferred to be known only by his surname.)

Friday 13 Dec 1968 saw the “grand opening” of La Galería, Zaragoza #1, Ajijic, a gallery run by a co-operative of local artists, including Peter Paul Huf and Eunice Hunt. The opening show entitled “Art is Life; Life is Art”, ran through to 10 January 1969 and featured works by Tom Brudenell, Alejandro Colunga, John Frost, Paul Hachten, Peter Paul Huf, Eunice Hunt, John K Peterson, Jack Rutherford, José Ma. de Servin, Shaw, Cynthia Siddons and sculptor Joe Wedgwood.

Brudenell also showed his work in a collective exhibit that opened 18 April 1969 at La Galería, Ajijic, alongside the works of John K Peterson, Charles Henry Blodgett, John Brandi, Peter Paul Huf, Eunice Hunt, Jack Rutherford, Shaw, Cynthia Siddons and Robert Snodgrass.

Brudenell’s works were also shown in Guadalajara, at the Galeria 8 de Julio. At the opening of one show in that city, a brawl erupted when a friend of Brudenell’s, visiting from Oakland, took offense at what he considered a discourteous act towards his girlfriend. The provocateur, who had no invitation to the opening, was a local street-gang leader, and the two men quickly squared off. Things turned nasty when the other members of the street gang turned up. A fist fight broke out, and rocks were thrown. When the gallery guests, and members of the musical band, pulled his friend inside, and barricaded the windows and doors, Brudenell was left behind in the street, where he explained to the street youths why he was sad, not angry, that the people inside the gallery, who painted and collected Mexican-inspired works, were so disconnected from most Mexicans. That was the night when the seed of Brudenell’s “People’s Murals” was planted, a seed that would germinate and flourish in the next few years.

North of the border, Brudenell’s work has been shown in galleries in San Francisco (Puma Gallery), Los Angeles (Ankrum), Victoria, B.C. (Beau Xi) and Friday Harbor, Washington (The Cannery Gallery) and the San Diego Art Museum. Brudenell generally declined to attend openings, preferring to simply send his works from whichever remote studio-home he happened to be in at the time.

Examples of pen and ink drawings from Brudenell’s time in Jocotepec

Print by Tom Brudenell. Date unknown.

Tom Brudenell: Blue Heron (1975), serigraphed print

The image to the left shows one of a series (1974-1984) of pen-and-ink drawings by Brudenell, meant to appeal to a broader range of tastes and more decorative and salable than his meditative, more personal works.

The drawings were used for serigraphed prints and lithographed cards in the period 1974-1984. Most of them were sold in the Royal British Columbia Museum, Victoria.

By the early 1970s, Brudenell, who had never signed his name on the front of a painting, stopped signing them at all, preferring to use a circumpunct (a dot enclosed by a circle) which came to signify the state of observing without the observer.

The original drawing for Cows (below) dates to the late 1960s, though the print is dated 1970.


Tom Brudenell: Along the Road (1970), reproduced by kind permission of the artist

The Re-Creation of Adam (serigraphed print from original ink drawing of 1969) was “also somewhat commercial, but for a more reflective audience, this was the product of doodling and just letting forms appear without direction. Notice the tortoise or turtle coming into the picture!”


Tom Brudenell: Re-Creation of Adam (1969), reproduced by kind permission of the artist

By the time he left Mexico, Brudenell’s canvas painting was exploring “the edge”, where matter and energy meet. His “Hepatitis Dreams” writing and his “Micro-macro edge” paintings date from this period.

The Chula Vista Myth-Mass

On 13 June 1969, Brudenell joined with Shaw snd John Brandi (all three artists were living in Jocotepec) in staging a Cocktail Party Myth-Mass or “happening”, in a building alongside the Chula Vista motel, mid-way between Ajijic and Chapala.

In autobiographical notes written later for the Emily Carr College Outreach program, Brudenell summarizes the event as follows:

“Worked with poet John Brandi and painter Donald Shaw to create early forms of “audience participation” shows such as the highly ritualized light-show “Myth-Mass” (Ajijic, Mexico, 1969) where Mr. Brudenell’s brush searched for universes beyond the limits of the biologist’s microscope and the astronomer’s telescope.”

Quick trip back to Berkeley in summer 1969

Shortly after the Chula Vista event, Brudenell made a trip north to Berkeley to complete his mixed-media “book objects” for a San Diego Art Museum Show. A private showing, sponsored by Gene and Lee Novak, was held at the Berkeley residence of Mr. William Turner. The Novaks, who apparently published various off-beat works and poetry, subsequently issued limited edition versions of two of Brudenell’s “visual books”: Thaw and Mim.

It was on this trip that Brudenell met and fell in love with Suzie. Suzie later visited Brudenell in Jocotepec and the couple traveled in her VW Bug through several parts of Mexico, from the Gulf coast to the Baja California Peninsula. Brudenell painted “Artist” on the side of the Bug, which never failed to attract great interest from passers-by. (Similar to the experience of Mary Fuller McChesney years earlier.)

Besides Shaw and John Brandi, Brudenell became acquainted in Jocotepec with several other local artists including photographer John Frost, and the bearded, khaki-loving John Thompson. Ray Cooper, a painter Brudenell had known in Berkeley, visited and spent some time with him one winter.

Two other artists then living in Jocotepec, painter Bruce Sherratt and his partner sculptor Lesley Maddox, both from the U.K., apparently kept themselves so much to themselves that Brudenell, reclusive by nature, never met them.

Tom Brudenell: Detail of mural at La Primavera, painted 1970, photographed 1979.

Tom Brudenell: Detail of mural at La Primavera, painted 1970, photographed 1979; reproduced by kind permission of the artist.

Brudenell’s first mural

In 1970, during his third and final year living in Jocotepec, Brudenell painted his first ever murals, at the Rio Caliente hotel-spa in the Primavera Forest, just west of Guadalajara, at the invitation of the spa’s owner, Dr. B. Lytton Bernard. Brudenell may not have had any previous experience of murals, but he did have considerable experience of house painting and wall preparation.

Sadly, in spite of the paint chemist of Sherwin-Williams in Guadalajara giving Brudenell PVC emulsion, these particular murals, on an exterior wall, lasted less than a decade, due to spalling of the walls’ concrete substrate and the spa’s sulfurous moisture. They were decorative murals and, given the Mexican sun and geothermal steam, were never likely to remain pristine for long.

The Rio Caliente murals may have been Brudenell’s first, but they were certainly not his last.

Leaves Jocotepec to return north

By mid-1970, Brudenell and Suzie had left Mexico, and were traveling up the coast of Oregon, for Washington State and British Columbia, Canada. Brudenell painted murals in exchange for rent, food and beer money, while Suzie worked as a cocktail waitress. A fishermen’s tavern in Astoria, Oregon, was the site of Brudenell’s first “People’s Mural” in the U.S., and was painted in exchange for all the beer he could drink and $20 on completion.

Over the next few years, he conducted the painting of more than 80 school and community murals, mostly for the Washington State Arts Commission. Brudenell supplied the wall preparation and the organization; the students supplied the ideas and art.

He also painted several murals in the early 1970s in the city of Portland, and two 30 foot x 40 foot murals on the 8-story Belmont Building in Victoria, B.C. (1973), which can still be admired today, forty years later.

In 1978, Brudenell emigrated from Shaw Island, Washington State, to British Columbia, complete with his pick-up truck and donkey! While building a pole-frame cabin, he lived in a tent during an unusually snowy winter on Hornby Island.

Shortly after meeting Dianne (later to become his wife), the couple built a home on ten acres of raw forest land on nearby Denman Island, where they lived during the 1980s as homesteaders. Brudenell spent several months each year conducting his collaborative murals in remote areas of Washington State.

Tom Brudenell: Microedge.

Tom Brudenell: Microedge. Reproduced by kind permission of the artist

Throughout his career, Brudenell has alternated between painting large-scale works such as murals, followed by a period of smaller, more intricate, highly detailed paintings of subjects such as an individual rock or a single clump of moss.

Tom Brudenell. Kuakumé. 1974. By kind permission of the aritst

Tom Brudenell. Kuakumé (1974). Reproduced by kind permission of the artist

Brudenell’s three years painting in Jocotepec at the western end of Lake Chapala were creative and formative years. Much of his later work, especially his paintings, are evidence of a lasting Mexican influence on his composition and use of color. In Brudenell’s words,

“Color-vibrations are seen everywhere in Mexican and Indian designs. The natural flora exudes purples in sharp contrast with lime greens, reds flashing next to blues. Intense sunlight can dominate flat surfaces and color-vibrations, strong forms and colors shout back so that they find a happy balance.”

In the words of one reviewer, “All of Tom’s murals show a strong Mexican influence with earth colors…”

Brudenell himself treasures the words of Allyn Hunt, Editor of the Guadalajara Colony Reporter, who, after studying one of his early works, The Passage of the Patient Tortoise, informed his readers that Brudenell’s work, “for all of its simplification is much too sophisticated for a few seconds’ attention.”

This post was updated in October 2015.


  • Tom Brudenell, first interviewed at his home on Vancouver Island in February 2015.
  • Allyn Hunt. Review of group show “10 Jalisco artists”, in “Art Probe”, Colony Reporter, 27 April 1968.

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.

Feb 052015

Alfredo Santos spent some time painting, and dealing in art, in Ajijic (and elsewhere in Mexico) in the early 1960s. However, before we look at that period of his life in more detail, it is worth considering his extraordinary backstory.

Alfredo Santos was born in San Diego in 1927, the third of five children. He spent his early childhood in Tijuana, where his father was a union activist. The family moved back to the U.S. when Santos was 8. His early education came to an abrupt halt when he was expelled from high school for hitting a school official.

An infection that left him with fragile bones prevented him from enlisting in the U.S. military. Santos then had a series of scrapes with the law, including a prison term for helping smuggle illegal immigrants from Mexico cross the border. (Santos later said, “To me, I didn’t see anything immoral. I was sort of a Robin Hood, I thought.”)

He turned from people-smuggling to drug dealing, but was arrested again, and, in 1951, at age 24, began a four-year stint in San Quentin prison in California that would transform his life. Santos acknowledges that “San Quentin is where I became an artist.” (see this link)

His bone infection meant that he spent his entire time in prison in the hospital cells, where he read voraciously and even had his own small art studio. He drew caricatures of his fellow inmates in exchange for cigarettes.

Santos’ “Big Break” came when the prison doctor encouraged him in 1953 to enter a contest to paint some murals on the dining room walls. His quickly-sketched proposal (for a single wall), showing the transformation of California between the 1850s and the start of the second world war, was a clear winner, and he was given all three double-sided walls to work with. Because the dining room was in constant use during the day, painting was done almost entirely at night. The six murals – each about 12 feet high and 95 feet long – took two years to complete, with Santos absolutely determined to finish them before his parole date.

Alfredo Santos: detail from murals in San Quentin Prison

Alfredo Santos: detail from murals in San Quentin Prison

The murals, done in browns and blacks, show a kaleidoscope of Californian history, ranging from a cable car (that follows viewers across the room) to a wartime airplane and whimsical images of a sombrero-clad immigrant crossing the border and a soldier looking through a telescope at a woman undressing in a high-rise window further along the wall. The 1906 San Francisco earthquake is depicted, as is the golden age of Hollywood.

Alfredo Santos: detail from murals in San Quentin Prison

Alfredo Santos: detail from murals in San Quentin Prison

When he left San Quentin in 1955 Santos took with him some 50 paintings completed during his incarceration. He worked as a caricaturist at Disneyland for two years, saving enough money to return to San Diego in 1957 and open his own art studio and gallery. By 1960 the gallery “had become a mainstay of that city’s nascent arts scene.” (Russell) However, in 1961 the law caught up with him once again. He was arrested, and admitted to, one count of marijuana possession (a felony at the time). The night before he was due to appear in court for sentencing, Santos decided to go on the run. He married his 19-year-old girlfriend and they eloped to Mexico.

They appear to have first lived in Guadalajara, where a press release for the opening of his gallery in the city in 1961 proclaimed that the artist had come to Mexico to “have more freedom to express himself artistically.” At least one newspaper article includes a photo of him in his Guadalajara studio in 1961. In 1962, an exhibition of paintings by Tink Strother and other artists was held at the Alfredo Santos gallery in Guadalajara.

The marriage did not last long. His homesick bride returned to California after eight months, where the marriage was annulled. Santos, though, remained in Mexico and his art flourished.

Among those highly impressed by Santos’ wood sculpting and abstract paintings was Joan Woodbury, an ex-actress turned Palm Springs art critic. In one of her regular newspaper columns, she described Santos as “one of Mexico’s foremost impressionists”. She helped arrange a month-long showing of his work at a Palm Springs gallery.

Alfredo Santos: mural in Cafe Madrid, Guadalajra

Alfredo Santos. 1961. Mural in Cafe Madrid, Guadalajara

During his time in Guadalajara, Santos, who liked to listen to jazz as he painted, became friends with the owner of the Café Madrid, a downtown restaurant on Av. Juárez that became, and remains, a Guadalajara institution, much loved by the literary and artistic crowd. At the owner’s insistence, one night Santos painted a picturesque mural, known as “Ciudad de mujeres” (“City of women”) in the restaurant. It depicts imagined daily life in the Spanish capital Madrid, full of beautiful women. Santos is said to have completed this mural in a single, liquor-fueled, fun-filled night. According to one version, the women in the mural were originally portrayed in the nude, but the wife of the café’s owner wife insisted that clothes be added. The mural is still there, and both restaurant and mural are well worth visiting.

After Guadalajara, it seems that Santos moved to Ajijic, though the precise circumstances and timing remain unclear. By 1963/64, Santos, accompanied by a young lady, had taken up residence in Ajijic’s Hotel Anita, then the social center of the village. Katharine Couto, whose parents owned the hotel from 1963/64, recalls that, “He was always quite charming and nice, but I was only 13 years old. Now I read he was “on the lam” which would explain why he and his beautiful girlfriend always stayed secluded in their suite.” She also recalls that Santos paid her parents, in part, with two paintings, one of which she later donated to the Latino Center in Omaha, Nebraska.

Another Ajijic resident of the time, Randi Atchison, recalls how, in the early 1960s, their family “spent time at his gallery in Guadalajara, watched him paint and enjoyed his colorful character.” Atchison has several paintings by Santos, on one of which “Alfredo wrote a personal note to my mother on the back… in her lipstick, that remains legible 44 years later.” Atchison notes that, “Alfredo also came to our house in Ajijic one day and painted a large Mariachi band mural on the living room wall.” it is unclear if this mural still exists.

In 1964, Santos decided to try his luck in Mexico City. He opened a studio-gallery on Calle Niza, in the city’s trendy Zona Rosa district. The following year, he married Mary Ann Summers; the couple (who divorced in 1977) had two sons, the elder of whom (Chris Santos) is now a professional artist in New York. Summers has described Santos’ studio-gallery at this time: “Alfredo had this fantastic gallery above a Chinese restaurant with four huge rooms downstairs and a big sunny studio loft above it… Between the two levels, sort of hidden away, was his bedroom, the walls of which were completely covered with photographs and paintings of nudes.”

This 5-minute Youtube video, Broken Mold: the Life and Art of Alfredo Santos, shows him at work:

In 1966, Santos moved his gallery to Acapulco for a year, before deciding to return to the U.S. In 1967, Santos settled into a rented apartment in New York, with his wife and infant son. He undertook commissions for various New York clients who had discovered his work in Mexico. One of them convinced Santos to relocate to the village of Fleischmanns, in the Catskills and close to Woodstock. Santos’ studio-gallery in Fleischmanns became “a magnet for every hip person for miles around,” according to one of his longtime friends and patrons.

In the 1980s, following his divorce from Summers and a heart attack, Santos moved back to San Diego. In 2011, the Zoom Gallery in Fleischmanns, held a retrospective of the works of Alfredo Santos, “The People’s Artist”.

In 2003, arrangements were finally made for Alfredo Santos to revisit San Quentin, this time as a distinguished guest rather than as an inmate, and see his murals again for the first time in almost fifty years. Only then, did the full extraordinary story of these amazing prison murals make the mainstream press.


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.

Dec 042014

Artist David Holbrook Kennedy was the youngest brother of food-writer Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher. David Kennedy was born 19 May 1919, and educated at Lake Forest Academy and Princeton.

In 1941, when David was 22 and his sister Norah 24, “Norah and David decided to go to Mexico for an extended stay. David had received a small grant to paint murals at Lake Chapala in west-central Mexico, and Norah intended to join him, and write about her experiences in Lanikai, Honolulu, and Molakai the previous year. On June 20 [1941] they left Whittier [California] with only a forwarding address of Wells Fargo in Mexico City… What Mary Frances and the family did not know was that David intended to invite his girlfriend, Sarah Shearer, to join him in Mexico, and that they planned to marry there in late September” (Reardon, 134).

In October 1941, Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher visited David, Sarah and Norah in Chapala. David and Sarah, “a petite, blond, affable girl” married on 11 October 1941 in Casa Casimiro Ramirez in Ajijic; this is possibly one of the first all-American marriages in the area.

In Chapala, the young couple lived in a “small house, where the whitewashed walls, tile floors, serapes, and minimal furnishings were enhanced by David’s pictures on the walls”. (Reardon, 140)

“The little house in the fishing village was fairly new, built to rent to summer-people who came for the lake and the quiet. It has a bathroom upstairs, fed from a tank on the roof which a man came very night to fill by the hand-pump in the tiny patio.” (Fisher, 545)

David, who had discovered and found he loved mariachi music, was infatuated with the falsetto voice of “Juanito”, the lead singer of a mariachi band – but Juanito turned out to be a girl! Fisher devotes an entire chapter to this rather confusing story about a girl from the hills who becomes, as a boy, the lead singer in an all-male mariachi band, before (perhaps on account of giving singing lessons to David) deciding to re-assume her female identity and leave the band. However, when David and Sarah married, the girl readopted her male persona and rejoined the mariachi band! The story, in all its colorful detail, is related by Fisher in the chapter entitled “Feminine Ending” in The Gastronomic Me.

David’s murals in the municipal baths in Chapala must have been among the earliest, if not the earliest, murals in the Lake Chapala region. Sadly, neither the murals nor the building that housed them still exist.

The murals were painted by the entire group (David, Sarah, Norah and Mary Frances) under David’s direction. The group worked on them every day for several weeks: “Norah and Sarah and I were helping David paint murals in the municipal baths, and spent several hours every day neck-deep in the clear running water of the pools, walking cautiously on the sandy bottoms with pie-plates full of tempera held up, and paint-brushes stuck in our hair.” (Fisher, 545)

The murals were finished toward the end of November 1941. Fisher and Norah flew back to Los Angeles, with David and Sarah following by car.

David credited Fisher’s second husband Dillwyn with encouraging him to pursue a career in art. The fact that Dillwyn took his own life [Dillwyn “was in the advanced stages of an incredibly painful and invariably fatal disease with nothing in his future but more amputations and constant, intransigent pain for which no medication was available in the USA.” – see comment below] shortly before Fisher’s visit to Chapala appears to have had a profound effect on David, who took his own life less than a year later in 1942. David was just 23 years old at the time, and he left his wife Sarah a widow while pregnant with their first child. David and Sarah’s daughter Sarah Holbrook Kennedy was born in August 1942.


  • Joan Reardon, 2005. Poet of the Appetites: The Lives And Loves of M.F.K. Fisher (North Point Press)
  • M. F. K. Fisher, 1943. The Gastronomical Me (Duell, Sloan and Pearce, New York), reprinted in The Art of Eating (Macmillan 1979).

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