Western Canada's connection to Mexico
By Paul Gessell
Photo: Guanajuato Tourism Secretariat.
"A picturesque street in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico"
A picturesque street in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.
A popular tourist attraction in San Miguel de Allende, a colonial city in central Mexico, is an unfinished mural by one of the country’s most celebrated artists, David Alfaro Siqueiros. The mural is inside an 18th-century convent that, in the 1930s, became an art school called Escuela Universitaria de Bellas Artes. A geometric abstraction in the modernist style, it covers the walls and vaulted ceiling of a room the size of a tennis court, and was meant to tell the life story of San Miguel’s favourite son, 19th-century revolutionary hero Ignacio Allende.
But there were problems. Siqueiros was temperamental, a Communist and something of a revolutionary himself. After a quarrel with the building’s owner, too much of a capitalist for an artist who helped establish the Mexican mural movement with Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco, Siqueiros abandoned the project in 1948.
Photo: Robert Barros.
"Tom and Donna Dickson in San Miguel de Allende"
Tom and Donna Dickson in San Miguel de Allende.
In many ways, the mural is an apt symbol for the often-rocky relations between San Miguel and its eccentric, counter-culture artists. Hundreds of leftist bohemians from Canada and the United States came to San Miguel after the Second World War to study art at the Escuela, founded with the help of U.S. painter Stirling Dickinson in 1938, and later, the Instituto Allende, when it became the favoured art school.
American legislation facilitated free education for war veterans, even at some foreign schools. Many jumped at the chance to study art in an exotic environment where, as Life magazine reported in 1948, “apartments are $10 a month, servants are $8 a month, good rum or brandy 65 cents a quart, cigarettes are 10 cents a package.”
Richard Reid, "Juego," 1957, oil on canvas, 35” x 17”.
Mexican authorities were not always welcoming. From the pulpit, priests condemned the students’ drunken partying. During the 1950s’ McCarthy era, suspected Communists, including San Miguel’s most famous Canadian ex-pat, Leonard Brooks, were expelled, but usually only briefly. Jack Kerouac’s Beat Generation disciples clashed with police in the 1960s. Later, hippies arrived and were sometimes forcibly given haircuts by the police.
These days, the young, starving artists that so long roamed San Miguel’s streets are being squeezed out, this time by economics. While some bargains can be found, housing prices are often comparable to those in Canada and the United States. A downtown real estate office recently advertised houses with price tags exceeding $1 million. The result is that most Canadian artists in San Miguel nowadays are older people with pensions and investments trying to turn a longtime hobby into a post-retirement career.
Photo: Guanajuato Tourism Secretariat
"Sierra Gorda 3"
Jane Anne Evans, "Sierra Gorda 3," 2006, constructed photo, archival print on Epson ultrasmooth, 20” x 66”.
Vancouver-born Donna Dickson calls this new wave of artists “wannabes.” Dickson and her artist husband Tom, both in their 60s, are part of a dying breed in San Miguel. They embraced leftist ideals back in the 1960s, travelled the world on the cheap, developed careers as artists and, before coming to San Miguel in 2006, ran a gallery on B.C.’s Hornby Island. Now, they have their own San Miguel shop, Galeria Dickson, mere steps from the tourist-filled central square, El Jardin, to sell their paintings of local street scenes and nearby rural landscapes. Donna also teaches art to the many foreigners who come to San Miguel each year for a week or two of lessons. Her specialty is plein air painting.
Donna says she and Tom avoid the many openings and charity events favoured by the “wannabe” artists. “Our life is visual,” says Donna. “It’s pretty fulfilling to spend your life painting. We don’t need the partying.”
Meanwhile, another B.C. artist, Suzanne Mir from Victoria, was attending the opening of a quilt and fabric arts show at Bordello Galeria. Sponsored by a group of mainly ex-pat artists to raise funds for a local seniors’ residence, it was held in a room containing photos of former resident prostitutes.
Mir, a member of the group, ran the Gallery on Herald in Victoria for many years. Now, she and her husband split their time between Victoria and a rural property near San Miguel. Originally a painter, she is experimenting with mixed media. Two of her metal-and-fabric assemblages were in the show. She’s no longer attached to any one gallery in Mexico or Canada, but continues to sell work created in her spacious rural studio. She believes the tranquility of her “ranchito” has channelled her art in satisfying directions.
"Vida y Obra del Generalísimo don Ignacio de Allende"
David Alfaro Siqueiros, "Vida y Obra del Generalísimo don Ignacio de Allende," 1948, unfinished mural.
“I’m not distracted,” she says. “It’s like a monastery or a convent here.”
Many of the young, adventurous artists who studied and painted in San Miguel in the 1950s and 1960s returned to Canada to become successful artists. Sometimes their work still echoes their Mexican experience.
James Gordaneer, now living in Victoria, was a young art teacher at the Doon School of Fine Arts near Kitchener, Ont., when he first went to San Miguel in the 1950s, spending two winters there. Other Doon teachers from that era who travelled to San Miguel included Jack Bechtel, Alex Miller and Toni Onley.
“For someone who had never been away from Broadview and Dundas (in Toronto), it was a real treat for me,” says Gordaneer, now in his 80s. In San Miguel, he “did nothing else but paint” for the first time in his life. It was heaven, he says. He was not a big player in the party scene but does recall Brooks’ home as “our headquarters.” Elements of surrealism and the bright pastel palette favoured by so many Mexicans are evident in his recent paintings.
A friend of Gordaneer’s, Richard Reid, came to San Miguel in 1957 for one winter after graduating from the University of Manitoba. Now based in Christina Lake, B.C., Reid says the light and colours of San Miguel still influence his art. He remembers going to Mexico with $600 in his pocket and returning six months later with $100. Reid shared a house in San Miguel with two other Winnipeg artists – his future wife, Beverley Williams, and Don Reichert.
During the 1960s, a strong relationship developed between the Alberta College of Art in Calgary and San Miguel’s Instituto Allende. Among the Calgary students who attended the Instituto were Roy Kiyooka, Wendy Toogood and Ron Moppett. Teacher Ron Spickett, who had a foot in each school, scored a coup in the 1960s when he convinced the Instituto to give, for several years, two of its 10 scholarships for non-Mexicans to students from Calgary.
Among the recipients was John Hall, who first went to San Miguel in 1965. Hall’s love affair with the city lasted for decades. He and his artist wife Joice commuted annually between Calgary and San Miguel for years. “I like everything about the place,” says Hall, who now lives near Kelowna. “I like the oldness of it. I like the textures of things.”
In the 1960s, the notion that artists had to go to Paris to learn their craft still existed. But Hall, and others, rebelled. “We were turning our back on that,” says Hall, “because there was a new belief that the art of the time was coming from the (North American) continent. Pop art was just starting to rear its head and Abstract Expressionism was still big. Minimalism was starting to come along. And those were all movements that seemed to have their roots on this continent.”
Other Western Canadian artists with strong connections to San Miguel include Wynona Mulcaster, Bruce O’Neil, Don Mabie and Jane Anne Evans.
San Miguel is still considered safe despite the violence plaguing some parts of Mexico. Nevertheless, artist Marcia Dworkin, formerly of Toronto, died from injuries sustained during a home invasion in 2013. “The ex-pat community is quite affluent – lots of jewelry,” says Barry Coombs, a Toronto artist who has visited San Miguel annually for a decade, giving classes in watercolour and ink drawing. “I call it the facelift capital of the world.”
The most famous Canadian artist in San Miguel these days is Toller Cranston, the legendary figure skater. He is described by more conservative artists as “flamboyant” and attention-seeking. But, unlike the work of many other ex-pats, Cranston’s paintings of brilliantly coloured fantasy figures are selling briskly.
Recently, a for-sale sign posted on Cranston’s 16th-century, two-acre estate in central San Miguel fuelled gossip about his future. Everyone had a different story. But Cranston himself told tourists who visited his home, a dazzling temple to extravagance, that the city’s most successful, eccentric counter-culture Canadian would be staying in San Miguel.
Another great article in the Galleries West is on San Miguel. After spending a month there last year it was interesting to read about it. When I went on a tour of the city the lady talked about the U.S. ex-soldiers coming there and their wild parties and I saw one of the buildings the article talked about.
Was surprised to read in Galleries West (Spring 2015) about Toller Cranston living in San Miguel, Mexico ...only to find out minutes ago he died of a heart attack yesterday. (Didn't know Cranston was born in Hamilton-1949). Anyways, thanks for renewing the mag.
I have also painted many times in San Miguel - a wonderful and inspiring location. Mike Svob
Mike Svob "One Evening San Miguel"
Mike Svob "One Evening San Miguel"
I have certainly enjoyed reading ‘Hola, Mexico’ in the last edition of gallerieswest. And thank you for including an image of my work from that period.
It brought back many great memories of that time in San Miguel. I did quite a lot of painting there. As a result, there was a bit of a hassle crossing back into the US six months later with a trailer in tow behind my little MG. (I’ve attached a photo of the MG as we were leaving San Miguel). The U.S. border guards had to examine every item in the trailer, and I endured nearly an hour of questioning. That was not really a problem except that it took a couple of hours to re-pack. It was a very tight fit!!
Photo by Richard Reid
Richard Reid's MG with future wife Beverley, and Don Reichert
I was an innocent Winnipeg boy, quite unaware of a drug and/or hippie 'scene'. Or perhaps that was something that developed after my stay there. Toni Onley arrived in San Miguel a few months after we had left, and later told me several stories of a few sudden departures from San Miguel, usually in the middle of the night at the hands of the Federales. Apparently some were driven directly back to the US border.
I’m sure there are many more stories connected to artists’ San Miguel experience.
I'm quite busy these days preparing for two solo exhibitions this year. New work underway, and a lot of framing to do! There will be a small (15 to 20 works) show at the Revelstoke Visual Arts Center in April and a large exhibition at Gallery 2 in Grand Forks opening at the end of May.