Friday, December 14, 2018

Robina Nicol: homo artistican

"Love blooms in the garden" by Robina Nicol
by Joyce Wycoff

There are two types of artists: the ones born with paint brushes in hand and a waiting line of astonished adults ready to heap praises on their work … and the rest of us.

I’m not complaining. It’s just a fact that no one was any more surprised than I when I became a writer and an artist. There is a growing legion of us grateful late-bloomers. However, I’ve noticed that I still look at those life-long artists almost as if they are a different species … homo artisticans … born artists … “real” artists.

Painting by Robina Nicol
I met one of “them” at an art show here in Ajijic. We were both in the same show, both members of the same art society … but she was … well, different. Her abstract paintings were stunning, everything about her was color and style, and when we talked, she sounded like an artist with her international accent and her fluid conversation about her work. One thing she said shifted my opinion of her from “perfect, privileged artist” to “interesting person I’d like to know.”

Robina Nicol moved to Ajijic about six years ago from Canada, where she lived after emigrating from England as a child. For the past five years she has volunteered as an art teacher with the LCS Children’s Art Program and with the summer Art Camp. The painting that connected us is shown above and when I asked her about it, she talked about how much the children in the art program had affected her, inspiring her to paint with a looser style and bring more joy into her art.  She describes what she gains from her work with the children, “They have that joie de vivre spirit. They aren’t afraid to grow and try things."

Robina on couch painted by her.
Her humble, open approach to life and art drew me in, and a few weeks ago, she offered a class on “the rules of abstract art and how to break them." It was a painting class and I had spent years trying to paint before I fell in love with digital art. I had no intention of taking up painting again but I wanted to learn from Robina and she invited me to join the group. While I can’t claim she transformed me into a painter, I learned a lot with her and practiced what we call “art yoga” where I stretched my thinking which resulted in new work. 

However, what I truly loved was being in her incredibly beautiful space. Robina says her purpose in life is to make everything a little more beautiful than it was. Her home reflects that drive with its lime walls, turquoise walls, hand-painted furniture, large, colorful canvases, and a bathroom where the multi-colored wall was so luscious it made me want to lick it. (I didn’t.)
Hand-painted bed.
Cabinets Robina designed and painted (made by a carpenter).
Surrounded by the comfort and beauty of her home, Robina told me about her life. Growing up as a Brit in French Canada, she never felt like she fit in. While, her story confirmed that she was a “born artist,” perhaps it wasn’t a paint brush she was born with, but rather a handful of silk and a needle and thread. She began life as a designer, constantly drawing fashions, making clothes for her dolls, aprons for her dad’s work, her own clothes. At 10, she had saved up enough money for her first sewing machine and by age 12, when she was ready for a bra, she knew she could make it herself.

I hadn’t heard this story when I saw her in a coffee shop one day wearing a stunning lime green-outfit. When I commented on it, she said, “I made it.” I was gobsmacked. I have a history with sewing machines and making clothes … a frustrating, unfortunate history. When I expressed my shock, she said, “Oh, I was a designer.” To me, drawing a picture of a piece of clothing was a comprehensible action. Turning that drawing into a hand-embroidered, designer outfit was the work of the gods. It was that encounter that made me determined to know more about this multi-talented woman. (She is also a writer and has published a children's book about death.)

One of the fun things about being in Ajijic is hearing the life stories of people who live here. A thread that seems to run through a lot of those stories, such as Robina’s, is independence and curiosity. She dropped out of school at 15 1/2 and went to work. (At age 59, she went back to school to study journalism at Concordia University.) 

She spent most of her career working for McCalls' (the pattern company), traveling across Canada. After the McCalls job ended, she began a lingerie company, Lotus Wear, with a line called “Naughty Nothings.” She married twice and has a son who lives in the US.

"Flight to Freedom" by Robina Nicol
When I asked her how she got into painting, the story surprised me, although, by then, it shouldn’t have. In 1970, when the Apollo 13 mission developed problems that threatened the mission and the astronauts aboard, the world tuned in to watch. The images that flooded televisions everywhere sparked a need in Robina, a need to capture the feelings prompted by the images she was seeing. She rushed out to buy paints and brushes and has been painting since then. One of the frequent themes in her paintings is the Phoenix, an image of rebirth, that she says represents her own life of rising again and again after challenges and losses.

Robina says that one of the things she likes most about herself is “curiosity.” Curious about everything, she has studied palmistry and astrology and is currently studying 2500 year-old Babylonian astrology. She believes moving to Mexico gives people the freedom and time to become themselves, exploring things they may never have had time for before. Naturally, she says it in her own way ...

“Weave your own tapestry … and wear it!"  

The take-away from this lovely conversation with Robina was that it doesn't matter whether we are "born" an artist or a late bloomer, what matters is that we keep on learning and expressing and sharing who we are with the world. Thank you, Robina!

Friday, November 23, 2018

Balancing Act and being inspired by a pioneer of digital art


Balancing Act
This year, I fell in love with Zacatecas and four of its museums. After Mexico City, Zacatecas is often mentioned as the city in Mexico with the most museums. I don't know about the most, but every one I've visited has had a powerful emotional impact on me.
 
My favorite is Museo de Arte Abstracto Manuel Felguérez, one of the few Latin American museums dedicated to abstract art. One of the collections literally took my breath away and made my heart pound. Osaka Murales. 

I like murals and and admire the rich symbology of Rivera, Siguieros and Orozco, but this display space, this huge room barely contains the raw emotion of these 12 large-format paintings. 
 
Created as a unified exhibit after the tragedy of the student uprising in 1968, and for the World Fair of Osaka 70, these paintings, curated by Fernando Gamboa, denounce, "The distressing imbalance of the wrong application of the machine, technology and science not used for the benefit and harmony of the people.” This image provides a sense of scale of the murals in the exhibit. (Photo credit unknown.)
 
Osaka murals room
This museum is housed in a former prison where you walk through the amazing work of Manuel Felguérez on metal catwalks formerly used by prison guards.
 
Arena entre dos mares
 Article, in Spanish, about the Museum
However, the exhibit that really excited me told the story of Felguérez's exploration of digital art! 
 
Apparently in the 1970s, he started thinking about the role of the computer in the generation of art. He won a scholarship from Guggenheim and went to Harvard where he worked with Mayer Masson, a systems engineer at American Electric Power, who liked art. They created a computer program that used principles and geometric shapes identified by Felguérez to create almost unlimited new "ideograms-designs.” 

The walls of one exhibit in the museum were filled with black and white designs that made my head spin with possibilities. I immediately knew that I wanted to play with some of those designs. It has taken several months to get back to this idea, but Balancing Act is my first attempt to use one of Felguérez’s designs.
 
However, first, let's look at one piece the artist created using his computer program. Here is a piece of his art ...  ... followed by the ideogram that inspired it.
Marmórea Espuma ... 1995
Ideogram
 Apparently, Felguérez turned a bunch of these ideograms into black and white abstracts and here's the one I chose to work with:

Ideogram 1
The title came from the balance that drew me into this particular piece and the idea of balancing inspiration from the work of another artist as it interacts with pieces of my own work.
 
Pretty amazing that, in one museum, there is an exhibit depicting the violence of the world driven by technology and a harnessing of technology in order to create new art.

 
 

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

A Village in the Sun ... a time warp on Lake Chapala


by Joyce Wycoff
I have just developed a severe case of writer envy.

Occasionally, you find a book that doesn’t tell you a story, but rather, gently lures you into a story, making you part of it until you see every color and detail, smell the pungent earth, know the cadence and quirks of each character, feel the air change with each season, experience the daily rhythms of life as if you were right there.

In the 1940s, writer Dane Chandos came to Ajijic, a true outback to his international friends and even to those in Guadalajara and Chapala who thought him a bit mad. He found a bit of land, decided to build a house, and in the year of construction, created a household and wrote about his daily life, month by month, beginning in June.

For those of us who have come later, reading his account is a chance to roll back the cobblestones, whisk away the gourmet restaurants, erase the colorful wall murals, turn out the lights, and sink back into the days when you might find three or four little pigs under a bed and eggs would be hand-delivered by a child, one at a time still warm from the hen.
Chupinaya trail (see footnote 1)

The book begins in June, when the author learns that if you go up the mountain you will find a spring called the Chupinaya which he was told had, “fresh water that comes out cool cool. If you drink some water from the Chupinaya, you will never leave Ajijic again.” At the time, he was not interested in never leaving Ajijic again. Interesting how plans change. 
"Bad Miles"

“It is only five miles from Chapala,” the author begins, “but they are bad miles. Between Chapala and San Antonio, the village before you come to Ajijic, there were four bridges. All had holes in them, and two of them were impassable, so that one had to go round them, coaxing the car down a steep slippery bank, fording a narrow stony torrent, and climbing up the bank again on the other side. It was, and is, no road for a low car or a good car."
The cast of characters

In this first month of his first year, Chandos begins to pull together his household.  He finds that, “In Mexico, anyone you want to contact is usually the cousin of a friend or the friend of the cousin of the friend. And if he is not that, he is the cousin of a friend’s wife.” 
In this month, we begin to meet the characters who gradually become family: Candelaria, the cook who is "middle-aged, plain and rather deaf” … and charmed by the ordinary things of life; Nieves (actually Mary of the Nieves (snow)), the shy housekeeper, and Eugenio, the house man whom Candelaria doesn’t hold out much hope for but doesn’t have a better recommendation. Not much later Eugenio “puts himself in a tremendous drunk" and is replaced by likable Cayetano, who earned a place in the household and the opportunity to wear a white coat and work in the shade, a very attractive employment benefit.


With this cast and and the constant comings and goings of minor characters, village folks and international visitors, life settles into the rhythm of life and death, trials and celebrations.  Many of the houses around the time Chandos was writing might have looked much like this old adobe which still stands in the midst of Ajijic.

Transformation of the rainy season
July begins with a description that all of us who have lived here through a rainy season recognize:
 “... violent rainstorms about every other night. And suddenly one morning I noticed that the mountains had ceased to be golden. As though the rain were some subtle blue wash mixing with the yellow hillsides, everywhere they had taken on a tinge of green.”
Chandos attention is wide ranging from what happens to unprotected adobe when it gets wet (it crumbles) to the types of fish the fishermen pull from the lake with what kind of nets, to the burros that are everywhere
“And, of course there is the burro," he writes. 
"All the donkey-using countries have a common aspect. From Syria to Mexico, there are the processions on the roads, bulging panniers of basket- or network, the same little family groups—probably with the man riding and the woman afoot—and from frontier to frontier, from dawn to dusk, you hear the clippety-cloppety of asses’ hoofs. Somebody ought to write a history of the burrow. The empires he has supported would make tame history compared to his. In Mexico you are practically never out of sight of a burro and a mountain.”

Huitzitzlin, traumatized by a cat but saved
No detail is too small for Chandos to find its charm. To attract hummingbirds, he “arranged several sugar water tubes for the hummers to come to. Any small glass tube, wrapped in a bit of tinfoil or a colored silk, will attract their attention. They like it attached to a small branch at an angle of forty-five degrees, and there should be another small horizontal twig on which they can perch between drinks. 
"They say that hummers can fly across the Caribbean, but in that case they must make, as do other migrant birds, temporary adjustments of their alimentary system, for ordinarily a hummingbird must feed every ten minutes of his waking hours in order to live, and he doesn’t want to stay far from his food. 
"Plant this branch in a flowerpot full of earth and keep the sugar water changed, and you will have plenty of visitors. It seems as if they cannot hear low notes, for I found that human voices did not disturb them at all, whereas the smallest movement did. Until, that is, they had become used to me. Then they didn’t mind my typewriter.”

He even explores the words for hummingbirds. “In Nahuatl the hummer is called huitzitzlin, and it is the most perfect name for him. It shimmers and it almost catches the whir and time beat of his wings, which move so swiftly that they are always a blur. In Spanish he has many names, charming but less graphic, such as chupamiel, chuparosa—honeysucker, rosesucker—or sometimes picaflor—flowerpricker. But unfortunately he is more frequently called colibri, which is far less attractive.”
The new household draws Chandos into its rhythms, engaging him in a million details such as buying material to create “shakers” (dust cloths), how and where to buy a tin of linseed oil, deciding on which fish to buy from which fisherman, and installing mosquito netting when a scorpion falls on him in the middle of the night. There is always a drama that requires much hand wringing and discussion, at the end of which, it usually evaporates and life goes on.

“In Mexico, just when everything seems impossible, 
where there seems to be no solution at all, suddenly a door opens, 
everything its arranged quite quickly, 
and everybody behaves as if there had never been any difficulty at all."

Of course, the painted pier wasn't there then, but the lake in September!
Chandos was trying to buy land that belonged to a family, each owning their own piece and having their own issues and ideas about what should happen. Some were gone or never replied, some wanted more than the author could pay, some didn’t want to sell at all. Now, after months, it all came together and he could begin to build his house. It was September.

“The month opened with delightful weather, cool, rain-washed, and fine. Everything was growing, thrusting up greenness with every handful of dirt. Usually, if the rains are mild, they will be long, perhaps starting early and going right on into October. If they are violent, then they are of shorter duration, and September will see them out. We have had fierce drenching storms this year, and now there is a little lull. Whatever the weather is like, it will probably go on being the same for ten days or so.” 
Lake Chapala from Jocotopec - October
Chandos makes me hear the family's daily conversations, each member coming alive gradually, each voice distinct, such as Aurora, the downtrodden washerwoman.
My compadre’s sister-in-law, Aurora, washes very nicely,’ Candelaria had said, so Aurora came to see me. She looked sixty and was probably forty-five or less, a little shrunken woman with a wrinkled face, the color of potato peel, dusty wispy hair, gnarled hands and arms and a slight limp. She smiled perpetually with the look of a dog that cringes for fear of being kicked. She had been abandoned by her husband and had five children. She had a thin whining voice.
'Yes, of course I know how to wash and starch and iron, but who knows if it will be done the way you like it. We can only see.'

When asked what wage she wants, she answers, 'Pues, you will see, whatever you think right, you will see what you will pay me when you see my work. Maybe you will like it and maybe you won’t, but what shall we do pues?' 

A little later, still smiling ingratiatingly and sighing despairingly, she limped out of the house with a big washing basket on her tousled head.
Lake Chapala - March
Great writers show you something you’ve never seen, even if it’s something you look at every day. A Village in the Sun isn’t War and Peace, but it revolves around life and the lake we see every day and, at least for me, lets me look at it with new eyes and helped me realize how little I stop to really see it and it’s ever-changing beauty. At one place in the book, the author tells a story about a rich man who bought a big sailing canoe and outfitted it somewhat like a houseboat, and began to travel around the lake. 
The story is told by Primitivo, a prominent character in the book. The author asked Primitivo what they would do when the boat was becalmed and Primitivo answers:

“Nothing. They just waited. They would make a fire and cook and the gringo gentleman fished. He was like us, he didn’t have to be doing something all the time. He knew how to sit still.” 
For some reason, those words really struck me: He knew how to sit still.
After reading this book, I have a powerful sense of Dane Chandos as a person. I know what I’d want to talk about if we sat down to lunch; I think I’d even know what he might order. I would feel comfortable hanging out on his new mirador with him watching the changing colors of the sunset and can imagine the slow conversation, languid with pauses as we just sat still absorbing the world around us.

The only problem is that Dane Chandos isn’t a person. 
He is a pseudonym for three men: Peter Lilly and Nigel Millet who collaborated on A Village in the Sun and House in the Sun. After Millet’s death in 1946 (he is buried in the Ajijic cemetery next to his father), Lilly collaborated with Anthony Stansfield on other books.(2) 
I truly don’t understand how a collaboration can have such a singular and powerful voice, but I still feel like I know someone named Dane Chandos, a man accustomed to creature comforts yet still able to accept, appreciate and enjoy a world significantly different from what he has known.  
The book is available in the Lake Chapala Society library. Obviously, I highly recommend it for anyone who wants to understand a bit more about this special place we live. 

An Invitation:



On the Day of the Dead this year, I was walking through the Ajijic cemetery putting flowers on unremembered graves when I found the grave of Nigel Millet. Later I found out that Antonio Ramblés, creator of the amazing Riberas Authors, had cleaned the grave of weeds and debris but didn't have time to replace the broken grave stone. We've agree to do so by Day of the Dead, 2019. If anyone would like to help with this project ... either with money or time next year to make sure that he is remembered as a creative contributor to our community, please PM me on Facebook or Antonio at Riberas Authors.

More information:

(1) There is a Facebook page: Chupinaya Ajijic, about an authentic and traditional mountain race, called the Queen of the West Test.
(2) For more about Dane Chandos and other local writers from the Lake Chapala area, see Riberas Authors.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Ajijic's "Wall of Skulls" deserves to be a designated landmark


Muro de Los Muertos by Efren Gonzalez
Last night, I met a couple who were taking photos of a specific area of the Wall of Skulls. They told me the skulls were in honor of his mom and dad. There were hundreds of people gathered for the annual lighting of the candles. Young men were hanging off the roof to light the top ones; a young boy was clinging to a ladder lighting some of the middle ones.

I often pass this work several times a week and, generally, there are people there, reading the names, taking photos, slowing down from their comings and goings to absorb the work and its meaning to them. The immensity of it captures the imagination as it continues down the wall of the Marcos Castellanos School and then wraps around the corner and continues onto a huge mural, also by the artist.

Efren, getting ready for the lighting, stops to chat and for a photo
By my estimation, there are close to a thousand skulls on the wall created by popular, local artist Efren Gonzalez and titled Muro de Los Muertos intended as a way to honor ordinary folks. Each skull on the bas-relief plaques are inscribed with the name of the real person to whom it is dedicated. This uniquely modern (2016) artistic creation, located on the wall of a school and across from the central San Andres Church, honors the ancient traditions of Mexico, the living as well as the dead. It deserves to be designated an official landmark.

Stunning both during the day and at night, it touches a deep well of emotion about life and death. The picture below and a lovely blog post by Barb Harmon, offers one tribute to the power of the wall. It stopped her as she approached the second anniversary of the death of her son and she asked a man on the street to tell her more about it. He told her, "By having this on a school you are teaching kids from a young age that this (death) is a beautiful thing, something to cherish and not fear." She cried what she called "ugly tears."

One of the aspects of the wall that receives less attention than the skulls themselves, is the bas-relief sculpture honoring the history and symbology of Mexico. Like all good murals, you could study this part of the wall for a long time.

Mexico 1810 1910 2010 Libre
Detail of the sculpture
The words begin ... En la noche de 15 Sept. de 1810 Don Miguel Hidalgo ...

And, if that were not enough, Gonzalez embedded a poem, titled "Death." Local poet, Susa Silvermarie offers us an artist-approved translation:

All that lives will die.
All the good, the bad, will be finished.
All that is strong and all that is weak will have an end.
Everything that breathes in, has to breathe out, to expire.
Everyone who is famous will be forgotten.
Everyone who believes himself indispensable, will perish.
Every creator, the ones who sing, the ones who dance—
those that admire, those that underestimate and criticize—
will stop existing.
And if someone is lucky, they will put his name on the wall 
and thus he will be remembered a little longer.
And they will be sung and danced, or underestimated and criticized, and then,
finally, along with the wall,
they will cease to exist.

Eat, child. Sing, Dance, Love. 
You won’t live forever.
Make art for which you will be remembered.
Do it now, you don’t have much time.
Say what you have to say, even if
you have to shout to be heard.
Fight to defend yourself!
Ask forgiveness, or forgive,
whatever you need to do
to keep going forward
Live.     Live! 
-- Efren Gonzalez

Gonzalez has definitely made art for which he will be remembered. This wall, this unique piece of art, is definitely part of the cultural patrimony of Ajijic.  He has been added to the "Heroes" page... see tab above.

What would it take to have it declared a Cultural Landmark of Mexico?

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Patamban: Fiesta de Cristo Rey

A glimpse of the Fiesta de Cristo Rey
It was a stunning, flower-filled trip in all ways. Wild flowers were everywhere and we could have added days to our trip if we had stopped at every field of vibrant color. However, we were on a mission to get to Patamban for the Fiesta de Cristo Rey, the day when Christ was embraced as the son of God.
Patamban Fiesta
Patamban Circle

We were lucky enough to have Xill Fessenden as our leader. Xill has lived in Mexico for 33 years and started the Purépecha festival that is held in Ajijic. (The next one will be in 2019.) She seems to know everyone and everything about this part of the world. On the way back, she wanted to show us the church with painted ceilings in Nurio but it was closed.

Some of the indigenous towns have loud speakers that function somewhat like the internet or Facebook. Not long after we arrived, we heard words booming across the village. The language was Purépecha so we didn't understand anything except ... words, words, Julia, words, words, words, Julia. Repeated several times. Turns out that Xill goes by Julia in the villages and they were announcing her arrival and telling everyone that she wanted someone to open the church. Soon, someone arrived and did just that. Everywhere she went, doors opened and we experienced things that we wouldn't have been able to without her. Thanks, Xill! (She is a Wonder Woman and you can read more about her here.)

Our plan was to have lunch at Lake Camécuaro and then go on to Patamban for the fiesta. I could have stayed forever at that incredibly beautiful, spring-fed lake surrounded by an ancient ahuehuetl (cypress) grove. There will be a separate post about this place, but here's a peek.
Lunch at Lake Camécuaro
Next stop: Patamban for a the regional festival that attracts thousands of people from Zamora, Guadalajara and other surrounding towns. Very few gringos. In an article by Allan Cogan (referenced below), he states,
"... although Patamban's parade and all of its preparations have religious connotations it should be explained that there is no historical significance to the event. If anything, the reason for the Fiesta is economic. Rather than originating 500 years ago, it is just over 50 years old and is done to attract people and money to the town. In that regard, I would say it was an outstanding successful." (Written in 2001)
We knew it would be crowded so we weren't surprised when traffic began to creep past hundreds of tiendas that formed the mercado on both sides of the road. We had to park a couple of kilometers from our base destination ... a family Xill is friends with and who were preparing dinner for us and providing a place to rest in between outings.

Beautiful country seen from our hosts' roof
 Soon we began to see the carpets of flowers and the families still working on them. The carpets begin with a strip of sawdust about 30 inches wide. Some people use stencils to create the patterns and some seem to do the designs free-hand using flowers, petals, acorns, leaves, seeds, moss, and any other plant with interesting colors and designs. Only pictures can convey the beauty, creativity, and color of this event. If you think I'm over sharing, you should see the 174 photos I didn't share.










One of the things that intrigued me was the many alternatives to papel picado they created.





However, as always, the most fun part of these events was the people. I found a quote this morning from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel about how we're losing the power of celebration and expecting to be entertained. For many of us attending this fiesta, it was about entertainment. However, as we watched the families with their buckets of gathered flowers, pine cones, and seeds, carefully creating beautiful symbols in the streets, beauty that would be destroyed only a few minutes later, it was clear that they were celebrating life, family, faith and abundance.

Here are some of the people we met on the trip.
Cooking blue corn quesadillas for us

Our hostess

When traveling companion Maureen Clark asked this woman if she could take her picture, the woman suggested a trade ... a picture for a soda. We couldn't get to a store but she accepted a few pesos. With that smile, I'm sure she would have let us take the picture anyway.


Such amazing handwork
Bottling golden honey

These bikers wanted their photos taken and the one in the green vest spent a lot of time trying to help me to pronounce Lake Camécuaro properly. Young Mexican men are always very sweet to little old ladies.
And, of course, the children

























A tienda in the street. This is a one day festival so all this merchandise has to be set up in the morning and then taken down at night. A long day for these people.

A sense of how crowded it was
 And, of course, how would any of this happen without power?



“People of our time are losing the power of celebration. Instead of celebrating we seek to be amused or entertained. Celebration is an active state, an act of expressing reverence or appreciation. To be entertained is a passive state--it is to receive pleasure afforded by an amusing act or a spectacle.... Celebration is a confrontation, giving attention to the transcendent meaning of one's actions."
― Abraham Joshua Heschel

More information: