TO MEXICO, WITH SKETCHBOOK

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fed up with her parents' idea of a vacation, a young girl once refused to set foot in one more museum, monument or historical site. When the old folks asked why, she uttered what she considered the epitome of elementary school wit: "Who wants an EDU-cation on a VA-cation?"

Fast forward 40 years. I have the answer now: I do. And, of course, my daughter should come along with me.

Over the years, we've taken various "fun" vacations, on which our differences have become all too apparent. Amanda likes the security of structured activities; I prefer to wake up in a new place and wing it. After half a dozen dude ranches and Club Meds, I was ready for what sounded like a more meaningful compromise--a "learning experience," as promised by the Drawing Room, an annual art workshop in San Miguel de Allende.

I read about the workshop in my Occidental College alumni newsletter and remembered how my college art professor spoke of being enchanted by San Miguel, a cobblestoned art colony in Mexico's central highlands.

The workshop is the brainchild of Occidental alum Jim Bagnall, who teaches beginning drawing to architecture students at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and is co-author of the cult-classic self-help book "The Universal Traveler." He created the Drawing Room to give travelers a way to focus and capture their experiences through sketching and writing, the way explorers without cameras have done for centuries.

Bagnall and his wife, Sandra, another Oxy alum, have been taking groups of friends and strangers to San Miguel for four years, accompanied the past two years by Los Angeles artists Claire Keith and Max Hendler.

I was drawn to the workshop as a way to rediscover and share with Amanda the love of painting I had known as an art major in college. Amanda harbors an artistic side herself, and I began to envision a week of mother-daughter bonding through creativity, exploring our intellectual and intuitive talents together.

About to begin her senior year in high school, Amanda was, shall we say, ambivalent.

We first met the leaders and the 18 other group members at the Aeromexico counter at LAX one hot morning last August. There were singles and couples. Some were professional designers, some were experienced art students and some, total beginners. They included: Bob, a management consultant returning for his second workshop; Iris, a recent widow, and her friend JoAnn, both occupational therapists; Doris, a single mother on her own; and Terry, an entrepreneur who--a stroke of good fortune for Amanda--brought her daughter, Jessi, for a special treat before she took off for college.

It was an easy two-plane, one-car journey to San Miguel, a beautiful colonial city on a former silver trade route 180 miles northwest of Mexico City. We stayed at La Mansion del Bosque, a modest pension across a cobblestoned street from the large and shady Juarez Garden. The deal included breakfast and dinner most nights in a family-style dining room off an inner courtyard.

That evening, over beer, margaritas and chicken in a restaurant next door, we met the proprietor, Ruth, a blondish woman of indeterminate age, one of the town's 3,000 or so U.S. expatriates.

Anticipating the spiral staircase that led to our crow's nest on the third floor, I asked Ruth if anyone ever had trouble negotiating the spidery metal stairs late at night. Never, she smiled serenely. After a few drinks, they just float up, she said, waving her hand in a loose spiral over her head.

After dinner, we each received a box, decorated with our name and filled with the tools we would be using over the week: pens and pencils, brushes, watercolors, perspective grids, string and a blank sketchbook. The first assignment: Draw something in our rooms that night.

The schedule called for us to gather after breakfast in the inn's sunny courtyard patio for the basics of Art 101: contour drawing, followed by lessons in light and shadow, perspective, color and gesture. By noon we were free to scatter across the hillside town to eat lunch, shop and practice what we had learned.

Nothing we drew would be "wrong," we were told. Yet at the very first lesson it was clear that we had one problem in common: "Slow down!" Jim, Claire and Max chorused, aghast at the speed with which we were drawing the outlines of our hands.

For me, the trip's most enduring lesson would be that reminder to be present and pay undivided attention to the world outside ourselves, to the way light defines objects, to the spaces they leave, to the color of a shadow or a distant mountain. No question, it's much easier to take time to see things when you're on vacation in Mexico, where time resembles a spacious room filled with gardenias and servants, as opposed to L.A., where time is more like a freeway with a mandatory minimum speed of 90 mph.

Afternoons, I was often surprised to find that two or three hours had passed unnoticed. Sketchbooks filled up with drawings of restaurant interiors and desserts waiting to be eaten. Amanda and Jessi spent an hour focused on the fountain in the courtyard of the Bellas Artes, a former convent that houses a coffee shop where no one cares how long you sit without ordering. I spent an hour drawing a flower pot. I made a portrait of my shoe.

Some students were attracted to the details on the carved wooden doors, arched windows and iron balconies around town; others tried the carved stone trough in the park where local women gathered to do their laundry. Only a few of our group were confident enough to tackle the Parroquia, many-spired pseudo-Gothic church in the main plaza, or the long view of the city from the terrace of Casablanca Restaurant.

Evenings before dinner, we'd meet in the patio to share our sketchbooks. It was a delicate moment--an ego boost for the professionals, a lesson for former art students used to showing their work, and a discouraging blow for the more sensitive beginners. One woman declined to show her work and took up instead with new friends in town.

The teachers were available for the asking, however, for private instruction outside class. Unasked, Jim spent time after class encouraging Amanda. He also left his own travel journals and other books out in Ruth's library downstairs for inspiration. Claire and I chatted about style late into the evening one night in the library, and she loaned me her book on painting.

The only trouble came with the last class in gesture drawing, an exercise that required quick renderings of people in action. Max, who that morning had described his mood as "ebbing" rather than "flowing," criticized some students as if they were art majors headed for a D. Her feelings crushed, one woman retreated to her room to cry. (She confronted Max the evening we arrived home at LAX, and he responded with a two-page letter of apology; later he told me he would never be so harsh on vacationers again.)

Midweek the leaders took us across the mountains to Guanajuato, a weirdly wonderful Alice-in-Wonderland city with underground arched roadways, trees and buildings squished together, churches, theaters, apartments and offices improbably awash in red, purple, lime, teal and peach.

We visited only one museum there, the home of muralist Diego Rivera, and the Art Deco Teatro Juarez before settling down with our sketchbooks at a sidewalk cafe.

Public sketching invariably attracts people wanting to know what you're doing. After playing for us, mariachis in the plaza had a laugh over my cartoonish sketch of their guitar player. At the University of Guanajuato, Bob got into a serious talk with an economics student while sketching.

Drawing took up only as much time as we wanted, really, and there was enough time beyond class to explore. Among the things we learned:

* Every male over the age of 5 in San Miguel plays guitar or sings; the rest play tambourine and dance. Ruth's favorite was a man she called "the Pavarotti of San Miguel," who we located one evening onstage in a dark bar, flanked by posters of a stripper. After a few songs, we left Ruth in the front row, moving her lips to the words of his love songs.

* Almost every man in San Miguel gives piropos (little compliments) to pretty young women and will materialize out of nowhere seconds after their mothers leave their sides. Amanda found this practice disconcerting and yet not entirely unpleasant. Let's just say we won't be filing any lawsuits.

* Pidgin Spanish works in the marketplace. I bought a huge plastic plaid bag and filled it with tin stars to light up our patio at Christmas.

* The moths are black and at least 6 inches wide.

* Thousands of visitors never go home again. The Bagnalls introduced us to a friend of theirs, Stirling Dickinson, 90, the dean of the expat community. Frail but still busy with philanthropic activities, he showed us around his hillside compound, pointing out the stone ruins of an old dance hall where he was raising orchids. (A month later, we learned he had died in a car accident after delivering shoes to poor children. We heard that his body was carried through town and shopkeepers shut down in respect.)

As the week progressed, one of our group, Bob, seriously investigated relocation, and Iris and JoAnn decided to stay on for a few days. They wrote me later to say they had become involved in fund-raising for the Centro de Crecimiento, a rehabilitation center for handicapped children.

After a few unsuccessful portraits of Amanda and Jessi, my sketching tapered off. It didn't matter. My final image of San Miguel is etched in memory. A group of musicians dressed in 16th century outfits had come to play for our departure. One young man put down his guitar and took Ruth in his arms. As his red cape swirled around them both, she twirled around and around in her green tea-length dress and elastic sandals, feather-light and youthful in the afternoon sun, as if she could dance forever.

Weeks later back at home, Amanda would say it was our best vacation ever.

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GUIDEBOOK

Making Art in Mexico

Jim Bagnall will conduct two Drawing Room sessions this year, Aug. 15-22 and Aug. 22-29. The cost is $1,545 per person, which includes air fare, hotel, two meals a day and workshop materials. Information: The Drawing Room, 160 Broad St., San Luis Obispo, CA 93405; telephone (805) 543- 1912, fax (805) 756-1500, e-mail jbagnall@calpoly.edu.

Numerous art vacation classes are advertised regularly in Art Weekly and similar magazines.

The Instituto Allende in San Miguel is an art and language academy that is a campus abroad for many U.S. art schools. It offers degree programs as well as short-term art classes, many in English, and can arrange local accommodations. Information: Instituto Allende, Ancha de San Antonio No. 20, San Miguel de Allende 37700, Guanajuato, Mexico; tel. 011-52- 415-20190, fax 011-52-415- 24538.

Smith is on special assignment from the Southern California Living section.

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