Aug 082019
 

Among the many non-professional artists who found creativity while living in Ajijic, Raphael Greno deserves a special mention. Greno completed several striking woodcuts of subjects rarely depicted by other artists. How he acquired his skill is unclear but the end results are high quality and speak for themselves.

To date, four woodcuts by Greno have come to light, two on bluish paper and two on yellowish paper.

One on those on bluish paper is a portrait of American author Neill James who wrote Dust on My Heart and lived in Ajijic from the 1940s to her death there in 1994. Greno’s landscape-format woodcut shows James sitting in an equipal in front of her typewriter. The typewriter is on a rustic wooden table and James is cradling a pet parrot in her left hand. A second pet parrot is looking on from the tree branches that frame the central image.

Undated. Women washing clothes, Lake Chapala.

Raphael Greno. Undated. Women washing clothes, Lake Chapala.

This second woodcut, of similar format, shows two women kneeling as they wash clothes on the shore of the lake. Distant mountains help frame the scene.

The two woodcuts on a yellowish paper show two distinct stages in the production of silk, an industry begun by Neill James in Ajijic in the 1950s. A landscape format woodcut, entitled “Deshilando los capullos”, depicts three women unraveling the silk from the cocoons. A portrait format woodcut, “Hilando con malacate,” shows an older woman using a spindle to spin the silk thread.

Raphael Greno. Undated. Unraveling silk cocoons, Ajijic.

Raphael Greno. Undated. Unraveling silk cocoons, Ajijic.

All the woodcuts are signed “Rafael G.”, the Spanish spelling adopted by Raphael while he and his wife were living in Mexico. Although none of the woodcuts are dated, the two silk-related works must predate 1960 since they are mentioned by Neill James in a letter dated 22 May 1960. Clearly, the Grenos had personal knowledge of Ajijic well before they moved there to live in the late 1960s.

Raphael Valentino Greno was born in Lisbon, Ohio, on 30 January 1909; his father was Italian, his mother American. He died in San Bernadino, California, on 31 December 1982. By 1920 his father was out of the picture and he (and possibly his mother) were living with an aunt in Arnold, Pennsylvania. The family later moved to Los Angeles where Raphael graduated from the Manual Arts High School in 1927. He then spent four years (1927-1931) at Oregon State College in Corvallis, Oregon. During his time there, he spent part of one year as one of several “cadets” on board the President Jefferson on a round-trip from San Francisco to Yokohama, Japan.

At college, Greno was as interested in writing as in art. In 1930, he had “What Price Cleanliness”, a short piece about the interior workings of a commercial laundry, published in the State College magazine. Greno was a member of the Pi Kappa Phi fraternity.

After college he returned to Los Angeles where he worked as a clerk. For the 1940 census, he gave his occupation as a writer of fiction, working from his home at 1547 N Sierra Bonita. Later that year he was working in advertising.

In 1941, he married Violet E. Evans, originally from Colorado and then resident in Hollywood, California. Violet, known as Vee in Ajijic, was born on 4 August 1917 in Joycoy, Colorado, and died 16 November 1990 in San Bernardino, California.

By 1944, the Grenos were living at 1404 N Gardner St and Greno was working as an “investigator.” Greno trained as a census crew leader for the 1950 U.S. census.

Fifteen years later, the family was living in Redlands at 525 Esther Way, where Violet (Vee) taught school. In the mid-1960s Vee taught art and crafts at Cope Junior High School in Redlands, California. She occasionally exhibited her own work, examples of which were included in two group shows at the Lyon Art Gallery in Redlands – one of works by teachers of art (March 1965) and another of flower-related art the following month. Greno also had a “modern oil” painting – “Mexican Market – accepted into the All-California Art Exhibit held in San Bernardino in March 1966.

While living in Ajijic in the mid-1970s, Vee gave regular Friday morning art classes for a couple of years at the Galería del Lago. Katie Goodridge Ingram, who was director of the Galería del Lago at the time, recalls that Vee Greno also made beautiful necklaces.

The Grenos were still living in the village in the late 1970s when the informal cultural group known as TLAC (Todas las Artes Combinadas) arranged a Self Portrait Show, held at the Posada Ajijic on 1 April 1978. Both Raphael and Vee Greno participated in the show.  Other Ajijic artists taking part in that show included included Jean Caragonne, Grace Castle, Bee Dunham, Hubert Harmon, Lisa Hilton, Lona Isoard, Sheldon Lychek, Ramiro Magaña, Jim Marthai, Robert Neathery, John Kenneth Peterson, Howard Skulnick and Robert Snodgrass.

Raphael Greno also wrote several short plays for TLAC, including Cushions, presented at a Dinner Theater event at Posada Ajijic in October 1977 and Buttons, on the bill to be performed there the following August.

After living in Mexico in the 1970s, the Grenos moved back to the U.S., to Yucaipa, a short distance from San Bernardino, California.

Raphael and Vee Greno had two children: Anthony and Eugenia. Anthony Evans Greno (1943-2009) completed a degree in Latin American History at Berkeley and a Masters in Journalism at Columbia before becoming Mexico correspondent for several newspapers including the San Francisco Examiner and the Chicago Tribune. Tony Greno’s first wife, Lucretia Leduc Zenteno, was a Mexican society news reporter from the state of Tabasco working in Mexico City. Tony’s sister, Eugenia Vee Greno (1945-2008), lived the latter stages of her life in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Rafael’s lively woodcuts of Ajijic are just one of the Grenos’ many and varied contributions to the lively artistic scene in the village in the 1960s and 1970s.

Acknowledgments

My sincere thanks to Katie Goodridge Ingram and Dale Palfrey for sharing their memories and knowledge of the Grenos and to the Lake Chapala Society for allowing me access to its Neill James Archive.

Sources

  • Raphael Greno. 1930. “What Price Cleanliness”, The Manuscript, Vol 3, #2 (Winter Edition, 1930), Oregon State College, 6.
  • Guadalajara Reporter: 19 July 1975; 7 February 1976; 1 May 1976, 22; 24 September 1977, 19; 1 October 1977, 7; 19 August 1978, 15.
  • Neill James. 1960. Letter, dated 22 May 1960, from Neill James to “El Director, Museo Nacional De Cosas Regional” (sic). Neill James Archive of the Lake Chapala Society.
  • Redlands Daily Facts, 5 March 1965, 3; 2 April 1965, 4; 31 January 1966, 6; 27 February 1966, 50.
  • Times-Advocate (Escondido, California) 09 Mar 1950, 8.

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.

Jan 312019
 

From way back when, visiting artists such as surrealist painter Sylvia Fein in the 1940s offered students in Ajijic art materials and encouragement. In 1954, authoress Neill James, almost a decade after she had moved to Ajijic to recuperate from a serious climbing accident, started a tutoring program for local youngsters. Children who worked hard were given art materials to paint and draw. This was the beginning of Ajijic’s famous Children’s Art Program (CAP).

Early classes combined reading and writing with art. James became so committed to the project that the following year she opened a public library, donating the building to the village. She later opened a second library. She was sufficiently impressed by the efforts and creativity of several young artists that she arranged for them to continue their art education by attending classes in San Miguel de Allende.

To its eternal credit, the Children’s Art Program provided (and continues to provide) one of the stronger bridges between the expatriate “colony” and the local community. Almost all families in Ajijic have benefited from the program at one time or another. As the program expanded, greater organizational skills were required and the Lake Chapala Society stepped in to offer its support to help run the libraries and the art classes.

Javier Zaragoza and Jesús López Vega. 2012. Children's Art Program mural, Lake Chapala Society.

Javier Zaragoza and Jesús López Vega. 2012. Children’s Art Program mural, Lake Chapala Society.

For most of the first three decades of the Children’s Art Program, James was ably assisted by Angelita Aldana Padilla. One of Aldana’s nephews, Florentino Padilla (who lived from about 1943 to 2010) was one of the first students to be given a scholarship by James to study in San Miguel de Allende from 1960 to 1962.

On his return to Ajijic, Padilla gave back by teaching the next generation of CAP students. He helped promote the sale of the children’s “bright, charming paintings” to raise funds for materials and supplies. In 1964, for example, Padilla and Paul Carson (the then president of the Lake Chapala Society) arranged an exhibition-sale at the Instituto Cultural Mexicano-NorteAmericano in Guadalajara of over 50 paintings by youngsters who had been taught at the Biblioteca. Nearly all the paintings sold. Padilla’s niece, Lucia Padilla Gutierrez, is also a gifted artist who attended CAP classes, and her own son became the third generation of this particular family to benefit from the program.

Many other later CAP alumni, including Javier Zaragoza and Jesús López Vega, have also given back to the program by teaching classes.

Every time CAP artwork was sold, a healthy percentage went to the individual student artist, as it still does today. In the 1970s, regular shows of CAP art were held in Ajijic. For example, in 1973, an exhibition of student work was held at the Tejabán Restaurant in Ajijic (then run by Jan Dunlap and Manuel Urzua). The acclaimed American photographer Sylvia Salmi (who had retired to Ajijic a decade earlier) and Peggy Duffield helped promote and organize the show.

The following year, Betty Lou and John Rip, who were frequent visitors to Lake Chapala, purchased CAP paintings to decorate all 44 rooms of their Mayan Motor Inn in Laredo, Texas.

For a variety of reasons, including Neill James’ advancing age and ill health, the CAP ran out of steam in the late 1970s and there were no regular art classes for children from 1979 to 1984. Classes were revived – initially during summer vacation and shortly thereafter year-round – thanks to the joint efforts of the Lake Chapala Society and the Ajijic Society of the Arts and the tireless endeavors of Mildred Boyd, an American writer and volunteer, who stepped forward at just the right time. Boyd, who died in 2010, dedicated thousands of hours of selfless service to the cause of CAP.

When Boyd came across a stash of long-forgotten works done by students who had been in the program decades earlier, she (with the help of one of her daughters, Judy) assembled a heritage exhibition that included early works by several children who had gone on to become successful professional artists.

The Legacy Art Collection (paintings and other works, some dating back to the 1950s, by children in the Children’s Art Program), the patrimony of all the people of Ajijic, is now in the care of the Lake Chapala Society. The collection is being catalogued and around 400 individual items can be viewed online via this online database.

Boyd’s two daughters are supporting LCS attempts to digitize, catalog and preserve hundreds of the better paintings and hope that regular exhibits in the future will showcase the extraordinary artistic talents of so many local families.

The first major retrospective, spanning more than 50 years of paintings from the program, was held at the Centro Cultural Ajijic in October 2014. The 60th Anniversary exhibit featured 130 works by CAP alumni. The “legacy artists” included José Abarca, Antonio Cardenas, Efren Gonzalez, Ricardo Gonzalez, Antonio Lopéz Vega, Jesús Lopéz Vega, Bruno Mariscal, Juan Navarro, Juan Olivarez, Lucia Padilla, Daniel Palma, Lucia Padilla, Javier Ramos, Victor Romero and Javier Zaragoza.

Frank Wise and Mildred Boyd with Children’s Art Program students. Credit: Lizz/Judy Boyd.

The Children’s Art Program is commemorated in a colorful mural at the Lake Chapala Society entitled “Six Decades of Children’s Art” (“Seis décadas de arte infantil.” The mural, financed by the Ajijic Society of the Arts (ASA) and painted by program alumni Jesús López Vega and Javier Zaragoza, was unveiled in March 2012 and pays special homage to the three remarkable women who ensured the program’s success: Neill James, Angelita Aldana Padilla and Mildred Boyd.

Today, between 50 and 70 local children participate each week in art classes given by CAP. Both CAP and the children’s library remain integral parts of the links between the Lake Chapala Society and the local community. Ironically, in spite of her contributions, and the fact that she gifted her own home to the Lake Chapala Society, Neill James was never a member of that organization, preferring to support Mexican causes rather than expatriate ones.

Artists of note who began their art careers by taking classes in the Children’s Art Program include José Abarca; Armando Aguilar; Luis Anselmo Avalos Rochín; Antonio Cardenas Perales; José Manuel Castañeda; Efren González; Ricardo Gonzalez; Antonio López Vega; Jesús López Vega; Bruno Mariscal; Luis Enrique Martínez Hernández; Dionicio Morales López; Juan Navarro; Juan Olivarez; Florentino Padilla; Lucia Padilla Gutierrez; Daniel Palma; Javier Ramos; Victor Romero; Javier Zaragoza.

The Children’s Art Program can always use additional help. To donate time, funds or resources, contact the organizers.

Sources

  • Mildred Boyd. 2001. “Children’s Art Alive and Well in Ajijic!”, El Ojo del Lago, Vol 17, #10 (June 2001).
  • Guadalajara Reporter: 24 Sep 1964, 10; 1 Oct 1964; 10 Nov 1973; 16 March 1974.

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.

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