Travel

A palette of art and history in Mexico's San Miguel

San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

Don Eusebio moves more quickly than his 86 years would suggest. But when it comes to his trade, he's slow and careful.

Don Sebio, as he's known, is a basket weaver, one of many in this town that has nurtured its artists and artisans through centuries, even as it has welcomed outsiders into the fold. It's that welcome — along with the glorious weather, a laid-back lifestyle and, above all, the light that bursts through the rarefied air to bathe its colonial buildings in an intense and warm glow — that continues to draw artists to San Miguel de Allende, a town in the central state of Guanajuato.

From the Spanish conquest to the War of Independence through the revolution and beyond, San Miguel flourished — but it almost missed its cultural moment. By the 1920s, the nearby mines had dried up, and trade was dwindling. The town's artisans — potters, metalworkers, stonemasons, woodcarvers and basket weavers like Don Sebio — worked on, though their wares stayed in San Miguel.

In an effort to revive the charming colonial town, the government declared it a national historical monument in 1926. It stirred only slightly when an artist named Stirling Dickinson became one of the first Americans to buy a house here.

In the '30s, a handful of French Impressionists set up their easels on the cobblestone sidewalks. A few American painters dribbled in, followed by Canadians, English and other Europeans, and an art colony began to take root in this town at 6,100 feet.

Years later, Canadian Keith Miller followed that beguiling light to begin a series of paintings that captures sun and shadows on the facades of San Miguel's historic buildings. Miller arrived in San Miguel in 1990 after attending art school in Toronto and has been here ever since.

Although he frequently changes the concept and scale of his work, Miller is best known for his botanical works, huge oil paintings of exotic flowers exuding sexuality in all their vibrant glory. Some hang on the walls of his home and at his gallery at Fábrica la Aurora, an abandoned textile mill on the outskirts of town that has turned into San Miguel's most active arts center, known as the Factory.

Arturo Meade was one of the first artists to arrive at the Factory. Meade was born in Mexico City and began his career as a furniture designer, but painting, his first love, won out.

"I didn't go to art school; instead, I hung around my friends, learning from them," he says.

Meade (who recently moved to that other folk art center, Oaxaca) says the scene in San Miguel in recent years has become more contemporary, led by young, emerging artists. His work exemplifies that trend with its unfettered colors and shapes and bold use of lines, particularly in his oils on canvas and paper. Especially poignant is the series "Xacales y cementos," mono prints of workers' huts rendered in earth colors.

Most galleries don't open before noon, which leaves mornings to explore and admire the look of the town where residents live side by side with commercial shops, bed-and-breakfasts, restaurants and galleries.

Behind the walls of San Miguel's buildings, colorfully tiled courtyards shaded by immense ferns, bougainvillea and lemon and jacaranda trees hide interior doorways that lead to homes. This touch of Europe, brought centuries earlier from Spain centuries earlier, is frozen in time, thanks to the historic landmark designation. Walled facades remain unchanged; no traffic lights or even stop signs mar the scene. (Drivers beware, though — an actual right-of-way doesn't seem to have been determined.) Telephone lines have been buried, and electrical wires are next, though this won't happen overnight because digging is done only with pick axes.

San Miguel's churches are a mishmash of styles; a tourist favorite, the parish church affectionately called La Parroquia, was said to have been copied from a postcard, a good indication of its architectural antecedents.

Then there is the exception: Santuario Atotonilco, a few miles outside San Miguel. This pilgrimage church is crowded with worshipers at Easter and on most other Sundays. During the week, the church, shaded beneath the trees, stands deserted, almost spooky.

Faded, often somber, but still exquisite, its frescoes captivate those who eschew the spookiness and step inside. They illustrate biblical stories, spoken aloud by the church's founder, Father Luis Felipe Neri de Alfaro, to Miguel Antonio Martínez de Pocasangre, an Indian painter who transformed the priest's words into pictures.

Father Alfaro began construction on the church in 1740, after being shocked, it is said, by the nakedness of young people bathing in the river and determined to give religious direction to their lives.

A few miles downstream from where those young people swam 250 years ago, Don Sebio collects the carrizo grass that he pounds with a well-worn stone into reeds for his baskets, much the way the Otomi Indians did years before. During the day, he'll pause in his work to open the gate for visitors to El Museo de Arte Popular en Rancho Jaguar.

The private folk art museum was built to house an overflow collection that American Jennifer Haas (a lifelong friend who was my guide to the local art scene) had accumulated during her 35 years in San Miguel.

But the real art nexus in town is the Factory, where each morning Juan Ezcurdia is often the latest artist to arrive. He began his career illustrating children's books but shifted gears since he's been in San Miguel.

"The format is larger now and so are the prices," he says. "But the language is the same, except now it may have hidden meanings and a sexuality that wasn't there before. It's no longer for children." Maybe not, but the childlike whimsy of his painting remains.

Ezcurdia's work is joyful, like so much of the art of San Miguel, from the most expensive painting and sculpture to the papier-mâché, terra cotta and carved wood figures that crowd the main market, Mercado Ignacio Ramírez.

This labyrinth of shops brings together descendants of those early artisans, who now share their town with artists from around the world.

English expat Andrew Rogers, who paints — and greets prospective buyers — at his home, hit town in 1967 when he got off the bus by mistake and discovered San Miguel.

"I'm more laid back than I used to be. And I'm having great fun," he adds, saying that a recent style emerged when he decided the runoff from a painting onto the backing paper was more interesting that the painting itself.

Ten of his oil paintings were recently exhibited at the Factory, among them a version of the Abraham and Isaac story that shows blood on the father's hands and a son who has already begun to fade away as a doorman hails a cab to take them to the mountain. The attention drawn to San Miguel and its artists brings a downside too.

Meade, who enjoyed having his studio at the Factory before moving away, said tourist traffic, while great for business, wasn't great for working artists. So far, Ezcurdia, whose Factory gallery is somewhat off the beaten path, closes his door when he needs quiet time to work. Rogers simply stays home.

And Miller, with a nod toward the town's continuing growth, now calls his paintings of the town's buildings his "real estate series."

San Miguel won't change because of its historic designation, but gated communities are popping up on the outskirts of town.

But some things won't change. For basket weaver Don Sebio, who practices an age-old craft, and those who have come here seeking inspiration, San Miguel remains a creative haven.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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