Feb 062017
 

In a previous post, we offered an outline biography of Canadian writer Ross Parmenter, who first visited Mexico in 1946 and subsequently wrote several books related to Mexico.

One of these books, Stages in a Journey (1983), includes accounts of two trips from Chapala to Ajijic – the first by car, the second by boat – made on two consecutive days in March 1946.

The author is traveling with Miss Thyrza Cohen (“T”), a spirited, retired school teacher who owned “Aggie”, their vehicle.

They meet up with Miss Nadeyne Montgomery (aka The General), who lived in Guadalajara; Mrs Kay Beyer, who lived in Chapala; and two tourists: Mrs. Lola Kirkland and her traveling companion, Mary Alice Naden.

The following extracts come from chapter 3 of Stages in a Journey.

1. TRIP ONE  (March 21, 1946)

“We had arrived in Guadalajara ready to spend a week with Nadeyne. We had never heard of Chapala, but we were willing to take her word that it was worth visiting, especially when we learned it was on a lake.” (82)

– – –

[After a day in Chapala] We drove out past the villas of the wealthier residents and found the smooth gravel ended at the outskirts of the town. The road proved even worse than I anticipated. It was dirt all the way and in very poor repair. To minimize the jolts it was necessary to go so slowly that most of the time I had to drive in second gear.

The road paralleled the shore of the lake. There were fields on either side and the mountains rose on our right. Actually, it was very pretty, with the picturesqueness being heightened by the cattle grazing in the fields and by the peasant people we passed, some riding donkeys, some herding goats, others carrying baskets. But, Lord, the going was bumpy! Trying to find the least broken surfaces occupied most of my attention.

As we rounded the first mountain headland, where the hills came close, I saw that a flood-stream, in racing down the slopes to reach the lake, had cut a ravine across the dirt tracks that comprised the road. The gully was narrow, but it was a good four feet deep and it was bridged only by two thick planks which were set a car’s width apart. As we crept over the planks, I thought, with a shudder, of the danger if one had to come back over them at night when it was hard to see.

After jolting along for about four miles we came to a pretty village called San Antonio. The road took several jogs to get through it and at the far end the General asked us to stop. She had some business to transact at a friend’s house. We offered to wait, but she announced she would walk the rest of the way. She needed the exercise. Mrs. Beyer would show us where to go, so we would not get lost. Once in Ajijic we were to visit the authoress, Neill James. We were to wait there and she would join us later.

As we resumed our way over the rutted washboard, I could see why the General preferred to walk. From here on the road had the appearance of a country lane, for it was shaded by gnarled trees that resembled mimosas. And besides being cooler and lovelier for walking, it was, if possible, even rougher for riding. Once in Ajijic the bumps came like bullets from a machine gun. The streets were cobbled. (85)

– – –

There was a resplendent purple and gold sunset. Sometimes unusual lighting effects can illumine a scene in an odd way, opening its whole significance, as it were. But this sunset did not have this effect on me. Principally, I saw it as a reminder of how late it was. I even resented the vividness. It seemed too flagrantly showy to be beautiful, and it heightened my sense of not belonging to Mexico. (90)

How could anyone ever feel at home in a land of such overpowering and excessive color? I asked myself. And as the question presented itself I felt as if all the alien features of the country—the heat, the tropical vegetation, the primitiveness, the throbbing colors— had gathered themselves together to oppress my northern spirit. (90)

Ross Parmenter: Aggie the Car[They had trouble starting the car and only left Ajijic as the sun was going down]

We were only a little way beyond Ajijic when I had to turn on the lights to see the ruts of the awful road. At first I doubted if the bulbs were burning, but as the dusk deepened I could see they were making a faint orange impression on the air in front of them. The glow dimmed and brightened according to our speed. I saw the generator was operating a bit, for when the motor turned faster the lights shone brighter. The trouble was that the road was so bad I had to go very slowly. It meant we had very little light. (91)
– – –
The intervening town of San Antonio, where the General had stopped on business on the way out, proved the greatest hazard. Not being electrified, there were no street lights and one turn looked very much like another. But we got safely through the dark village. [and eventually safely back to Chapala]. (91)

The illustration in this post is by Ross Parmenter.

Source:

  • Ross Parmenter. 1983. Stages in a Journey. New York: Profile Press.

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please email us or use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts.

Jan 302017
 

Given that Canadian Ross Parmenter (1912-1999) only ever spent a few days at Lake Chapala, his inclusion in this series of profiles of artists and authors associated with Lake Chapala may seem surprising. However, his detailed accounts of two trips from Chapala to Ajijic – first by car and then by boat – on two consecutive days in March 1946, are compelling reading, affording us a glimpse into several aspects of lakeside life at the time. [We look at these accounts in future posts]

And the 1940s was certainly an important time in the literary history of Ajijic. The author duo writing as Dane Chandos had just published Village in the Sun, while Neill James’s book Dust on my Heart, which also includes an interesting account of life in the village, was just about to be published in New York.

Parmenter’s travel account, published in Stages in a Journey, coincided with a time when more and more Americans (and to a lesser extent other foreigners) were traveling south to explore Mexico. Parmenter, though, was not your average tourist. He had a an artist’s eye but remained anxious about the difficulties and rewards of observing things in great detail. He was also an experienced writer. This somewhat unlikely combination gave Parmenter not only keen powers of observation but also an almost-obsessive attention to recording as many pertinent details as possible.

Even if the detailed accounts of his trip were not enough, Parmenter is one of the relatively small number of Canadians who have ever written about the area, quite possibly the first of any note.

Charles Ross Parmenter was born on 30 May 1912 in Toronto, Canada. At the University of Toronto he majored in modern history and reviewed art for the undergraduate newspaper. After gaining his BA degree in 1933 he worked briefly for the Toronto Evening Telegram before moving to New York in 1934 to work as a general reporter on the New York Times. In 1940 he joined the New York Times‘ music department as a reviewer, and was appointed the paper’s music news editor in 1955, a position he held until his retirement in 1964.

This lengthy career at the New York Times was punctuated by the second world war, during which Parmenter served for three years as a medical technician. Discharge from the armed services did not immediately alleviate his troubled soul and he set off to Mexico, hoping to find his bearings.

His traveling companion on this first trip – Miss Thyrza Cohen (“T”), a spirited, retired school teacher – was more than twice his age. The two friends drove down from California in “Aggie”, her 1932 Plymouth four-door sedan. Parmenter later wrote that whereas he had gone to learn about Mexico, he had actually learned from Mexico, a sentiment subsequently echoed by many other authors and artists.

Parmenter’s Chapala-Ajijic trips comprise chapter 3 of his Stages in a Journey, which was not published until 1983. Stages in a Journey is an unusual book, part travel writing, part travelogue and part “an account of personal growth”, but still well worth reading.

The same volume has descriptions of several major 16th century monasteries in Mexico, including the Church of San Miguel Arcangel in Ixmiquilpan (Hidalgo); the Monastery of San Miguel Arcángel in Huejotzingo (Puebla); and the Ex-monastery of Santiago Apóstol in Cuilapan (Oaxaca). Parmenter’s long-time friend Dick Perry, who has himself written several seminal works about Mexico’s colonial religious architecture, has stressed the importance of these accounts from the 1940s:

“His descriptions of these early colonial monuments, then virtually unknown to American art historians or travelers, remain among the earliest accounts in English and can claim considerable historic interest.”

Parmenter loved Mexico. After he retired in 1964, he divided his time between New York and Oaxaca. Over the years, he published several books related to Mexico and to his specialist interests in archaeology, Mixtec documents and colonial architecture.

For Lake Chapalaphiles, the most interesting of other Parmenter books about Mexico is Lawrence in Oaxaca: A Quest for the Novelist in Mexico (1984), in which he looks in minute detail at D. H. Lawrence’s stay in Oaxaca over the winter of 1924-25. It was a productive stay, during which Lawrence wrote four of the pieces in Mornings in Mexico and rewrote The Plumed Serpent which he had drafted in Chapala the year before.

Other books written by Parmenter include The Plant in my window (1949); Week in Yanhuitlan (1964); Explorer, Linguist and Ethnologist (1966) [Alphonse Louis Pinart]; The Awakened Eye (1968); School of the Soldier (1980); Lienzo of Tulancingo, Oaxaca (1993); and A House for Buddha: A Memoir with Drawings (1994). Parmenter fans will be disappointed to learn that another work – Zelia Nuttall and the recovery of Mexico’s past – remained unpublished at the time of his death, though copies of the manuscript are held by Harvard University and the University of California, Berkeley.

Ross Parmenter died at his Manhattan home on 18 October 1999 at the age of 87.

Sources:

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please email us or use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts.

Jan 122017
 

Fredric Orval Alseth, also known as Fred Alseth, Fred O. Alseth and Fritz Alseth, was an illustrator who resided at Lake Chapala in the late 1980s. His father was Orval Alseth (1901-1972).

Fred Alseth was born in Billings, Montana, on 26 February 1924 and died at the age of 82 on 29 November 2006 in Meadow Vista, Placer, California. The family moved to Menomonie in Wisconsin in about 1940. Interviewed by Tod Jonson for El Ojo del Lago, Alseth recalled that his high school teachers thought he had no talent whatsoever. However, he majored in art at college and gained a degree in elementary education.

When the U.S. entered the second world war, Alseth served as an engineer, but did not enjoy the experience. After the war, Alseth, of Swiss ancestry, married and lived in Oakland, California, for several years in the early 1950s. (Alseth had at least two marriages, both of which ended in divorce. His first marriage, to Donna M Leishman, ended in September 1974 (with the divorce granted at Placer in California), and his second marriage, to Nancy J Alseth ended in divorce on 24 April 1980 in Shasta, California.)

Alseth loved Berkeley (Oakland) and became a successful commercial illustrator during almost two decades of living in the San Francisco Bay area.

In 1958 Alseth drew the cover illustration for the April 1958 edition of Palm Springs Villager captioned “Salute to Texas! 22nd Annual Desert Circus.” Apologizing to the magazine’s readers for the relatively unsophisticated cover art, the editor explained that “Because of a close publishing date, the drawing was done in a rush overnight assignment.”

The following year, Alseth illustrated California Wonder World (1959) by Katherine Peter, published by the California State Department of Education. Changing genres, Alseth also illustrated Virginia Zoros Barth’s book There Is an Art to Breathing: A Training Course in Conscious Rhythmic Breathing, first published by Llewellyn, Los Angeles in 1960 and reissued in 2011.

In 1963, Alseth teamed up with Milton Rich and his wife Mikell to illustrate and publish (as Fritz ‘n Rich Publishers) two books related to Mormonism: A New Look at Mormonism, by John W. Rich, and The Book of Mormon on trial, by Jack West.

Later in the 1960s and into the 1970s Alseth worked primarily as a children’s book illustrator. The works he illustrated include Two Nations – United States and Canada: Faces and Places of the New World (1965) by Robert K. Buell and Irene Tamony, and Operation Phoenix (1968) by Irene Tamony. He also illustrated at least three books in the “Learning to Read while Reading to Learn” series published initially by Century Communications: Chilling Escape (1968), Deadline for Tim (1968) and The Farmer and the Skunk (1973). Alseth went on to illustrate several books in the “Tiger Cub Reader” series written by Robert A. McCracken & Marlene J. McCracken: This is the House that Bjorn Built (1973), What Can You See? (1976), Should you ever? (1976) and The Little Boy And The Balloon Man (1976).

Fred Alseth. Illustrated book cover, 1963.

Fred Alseth. Illustrated book cover, 1963.

Alseth undertook missionary work on behalf of the Mormon church in Australia, Guatemala and Hawaii (1980) before returning to the mainland to live in Lodi, San Joaquin, California, in 1981. Back in California, he worked on a TV show about California artifacts called “Gold Rush Days”. He also allowed himself to be filmed drawing caricatures of VIPs. Alseth’s cheery pen and ink drawings were used to illustrate a series of anti-evolution textbooks entitled “Evolution Encyclopedia”, produced in California in about 1990.

Fritz (Fred) Alseth. Hotel Nido, Chapala (May 1988). Credit: Ojo del Lago, September 1988

Fritz (Fred) Alseth. Hotel Nido, Chapala (May 1988). Credit: Ojo del Lago, September 1988

In the late-1980s, he moved to Lake Chapala, Mexico, where he created and sold “lively fun posters” of Ajijic, Chapala and Jocotepec. This pen and ink drawing of Hotel Nido appeared in El Ojo del Lago in September 1988.

Reference:

  • Tod Jonson. 1988. “Portrait of the Artist: Fritz Alseth”, Ojo del Lago, September 1988, Vol V, #1.

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

Jan 092017
 

Regina Alma (deCormier) Shekerjian and her husband, photographer Haig Shekerjian, spent several months living in Ajijic over the winter of 1950-51, and returned frequently thereafter, including numerous times in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Illustration by Regina and Haig Shekerjian

Illustration by Regina and Haig Shekerjian

Regina deCormier Shekerjian (1923-2000) was a well-known poet, author, translator and illustrator of children’s books.

She was born in Poughkeepsie, New York, on 22 December 1923 and died on 21 April 2000 at the age of 76. DeCormier was the daughter of Robert DeCormier, a public school teacher born in Maine, and his Swedish-born wife, Selma.

After graduating from Poughkeepsie High School, where she was an active member of the Dramatic Club, Regina studied art at Skidmore College and then began classes at the University of New Mexico. In 1944, she married U.S. Navy Seaman Second Class Haig W. Shekerjian in Pensacola, Florida, where he was then stationed. Shekerjian had studied at the Eastman School of Photography in Rochester, New York, and had been a fellow student at the University of New Mexico, before joining the Navy in November 1943.

After Haig Shekerjian left the Navy in 1945, the couple, and their two sons (Tor and Jean-René) lived for many years in New Paltz, New York, where Haig was Art Director of the Media Services Center at the State University College.

Regina Shekerjian published under various names, including Regina Tor, Regina deCormier (or Decormier) and Regina Shekerjian.

As Regina Tor, she co-wrote, with Eleanor Roosevelt, Growing Toward Peace (Random House, 1960). This book, translated into 15 languages, was written for the United Nations and describes the various programs offered by that organization, with many attractive illustrations, presumed to be the work of Regina.

Regina Shekerjian had written to Eleanor Roosevelt several years earlier, in 1953, sending her a copy of her recently-published first book (Getting to know Korea) and seeking help with getting funding to travel to Germany to research her next book in the series. In a diary entry, Roosevelt includes quotes from Shekerjian’s letter to her:

“A letter addressed to me that accompanied the book interested me very much because I discovered that the author, Regina (Tor) Shekerjian, is a very near neighbor. She lives in Pleasant Valley, N.Y., a nice, quiet little village about 10 miles from Poughkeepsie.
She told me that this book was her first and she hoped it was just the beginning of a series. The next would be on Germany . . .  She is still looking for some way to get there so that this second volume can be written.
She introduces herself by saying: “You don’t remember me, but I had lunch with you one summer day. I was 21 that year and I was running for alderman on the Democratic ticket in the city of Poughkeepsie. I was the first woman ever to have run for that office. I was also the youngest, I guess.”
“Of course, that was eight summers ago and I was only one of about seven young Democrats, but I remember well that day. There were hot dogs and tiny, perfectly shaped red tomatoes and salad, and ice cream and you speaking about peace and the future of the world, and the part young people must play—the responsibility which belonged to each of us not only to preserve this great country but to help make it even greater.” [Eleanor Rooseveldt, 19 April 1953]

Regina first visited Ajijic when her husband took a sabbatical break over the winter of 1950-51 and they spent several months living in the village. Regina wrote an article in 1952 entitled “You can Afford a Mexican Summer” for Design in which she extolled the virtues of Ajijic as an ideal location for an inexpensive art-themed summer break.

Regina Shekerjian wrote at least six books for young readers: Getting to know Korea (1953); Getting to know Puerto Rico (1955); Getting to know Canada (1956); Getting to know the Philippines (1958); Getting to know Greece (1959) and Discovering Israel (1960), which won a National Jewish Book award.

Shekerjian illustrated several books, including River winding (1970); 19 Masks for the Naked Poet (1971); The Chinese Story Teller (1973); and Menus For All Occasions (1974).

Together, Regina and Haig Shekerjian illustrated several books, most of them written by Nancy Willard and aimed at young readers. They included The Adventures of Tom Thumb (1950); Life in the Middle Ages (1966); The boy, the rat, and the butterfly (1971); King Midas and the Golden Touch (1973); Play it in Spanish : Spanish games and folk songs for children (1973); The merry history of a Christmas pie : with a delicious description of a Christmas soup (1974); All on a May morning (1975); How Many Donkeys? A Turkish Folk Tale (1971); and The well-mannered balloon (1976).

The Shekerjians also co-wrote, with close relative Robert deCormier, A Book of Christmas Carols (1963); and A Book of Ballads, Songs and Snatches (1965).

Turning to poetry, Regina deCormier had poems published in numerous journals, including American Poetry Review, American Voice, ACM/Another Chicago Magazine, The G. W. Review, Kalliope, Kansas Quarterly, The Massachusetts Review, The Nation, Nimrod, Poetry East, and Salmagundi.

A collection of deCormier’s poems, entitled Hoofbeats on the Door: Poems, was published in 1993 by Helicon Nine Editions of Kansas City, Missouri. Several of the poems in this strong collection have obvious connections to Ajijic and Lake Chapala. 

Several of the poems in this strong collection have obvious connections to Ajijic and Lake Chapala. The longest and most complex is “From the Bellringer’s Wife’s Journal”, a rich, powerful, three-part poem set in Ajijic.

By the lake, bent over a wheelbarrow of water,
a woman guts a large salmon-gold carp,
gives a friend a recipe
for curing the bite of a scorpion,
and one for the heart that breaks.

The poem also includes  references to Calle Ocampo and, across the lake, the mountain named García.

The poem entitled “Testimony” describes the near-death experience of “Guillermo”.

“Rain” is a delightful tribute to one of Ajijic’s most famous residents ever, a legendary former ballet star who lived in Ajijic for decades prior to her passing in 1989:

[We] huddle over the photographs
of Zara, La Rusa,
the legendary one,
the dancer from the Ballet Russe
who came to this village
longer ago than anyone can remember,
the one who went everywhere
on horseback, the one
who still believes horses are spirits
from another realm…

“Lupe”, the title of another poem in the collection, turns out to be the daughter of the village baker, “Tito”:

Tito shoves the long-handled wood paddle
into the adobe over, lifts out
five perfectly round loaves of bread, round
as his wife’s breasts…
. . .
By five, all the loaves are ready,
heaped in wide shallow baskets, lifted
to the heads of their two youngest sons
who trot them off to the store.”

Her poems were chosen for at least two anthologies: “Snow”, “Grandmother” and “The Left Eye of Odin” were included in Two Worlds Walking (New Rivers Press, 1994) and “At the Cafe Saint Jacques” appeared in Claiming the Spirit Within: A Sourcebook of Women’s Poetry, edited by Marilyn Sewell (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996). 

Michael Eager, the owner of La Nueva Posada hotel in Ajijic, remembers Regina as a very quiet person, who rarely talked much. He recalls her as being slender and pretty, with dark hair, and usually dressed casually, often in hand-embroidered blouses. Like her husband, Regina loved the local people, music and traditions.

Sources:

  • Regina Shekerjian. 1952. “You can Afford a Mexican Summer: Complete Details on how to Stretch your Dollars During an Art Trek South of the Border”, in Design, Volume 53, Issue 8, pp 182-197.
  • Poughkeepsie Journal, Poughkeepsie, New York, 19 February 1944, p5.
  • Eleanor Roosevelt. 1953. Diary entry dated 18 April 1953.

Note: This is an updated version of a post first published 4 July 2016.

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please email us or use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts.

Dec 082016
 

Alan Horton Crane, aka Alan Crane (a name also used by his artist son), was an American artist, illustrator and lithographer who spent most of his life in New England, but who visited Mexico several times in the 1940s and 1950s.

Crane was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1901 and died in 1969. (His son, Alan Crane, best known for his magical realism paintings, died in 2015.)

Crane senior studied at the Pratt Institute with Winold Weiss and with Richard Boleslawsky at the American Laboratory Theater. He also worked with  Boleslawsky and at various other theater venues.

Weiss later used Crane as the model for one of the heads depicted in his Union Terminal mosaic mural in Cincinnati, which commemorated the broadcasting pioneers of the city. For aesthetic reasons, Weiss felt he needed someone with wavy hair to replace the head (but not the body) of radio engineer Charlie Butler, who had straight, slicked-back hair. When the Union Terminal concourse was demolished in 1974, the mural was moved to Terminal 2 at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport. When that building in turn was removed, the mural was relocated to the Duke Energy Convention Center.

Alan Horton Crane. Indian Laurels, Chapala. 1948

Alan Horton Crane. Indian Laurels, Chapala. 1948

Crane exhibited widely from about 1941 to 1956 and his art won numerous awards. He also undertook illustrations for books and magazines, and wrote and illustrated several books of his own, including Pepita Bonita (1942); Gloucester Joe (1943); and Nick and Nan in Yucatan (1945). In 1956, he illustrated Elizabeth Borton de Trevino’s book A Carpet of Flowers.

Crane was a member of numerous art groups, including the Salmagundi Club, Audubon Artists, Society of American Graphic Artists, Philadelphia Water Color Club, Guild of Boston Artists, Rockport Art Association and the North Shore Arts Association.

Crane’s work can be found in the collections of the Library of Congress, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York Public Library, Carnegie Institute, American Society of Arts and Letters, Brooklyn Museum, Pennsylvania State College and the Princeton Print Club.

It is unclear precisely what motivated Crane to first visit Mexico, but he visited the country several times, as witnessed by a succession of superb, finely detailed, lithographs (in editions of between 40 and 50) of Mexican scenes, including “Haunted Garden, Mexico” (1947); “Indian Laurels, Chapala” (1948); “Clouds and Spires, San Miguel Allende” (1949); “The Mirror, Camecuaro” (1952); “Shadows at Noon, Patzcuaro” (1952) and “Morning Catch, Puerto Vallarta” (1959).

Sources:

  • Various authors. 1964. Artists of the Rockport Art Association. A pictorial and descriptive record of The Oldest Art Organization on Cape Ann. (Rockport Art Association, Massachusetts, 1964).
  • cincinnati.com Undated. “Uncovering the murals” [http://local.cincinnati.com/community/pages/murals/tablet/index.html – viewed 8 Dec 2016, no longer active]
  • Jac Kern. 2016. “UC artists revisit Union Terminal worker murals with modern mission and materials”. University of Cincinnati Magazine, 11 Aug. 2016

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please email us or use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts.

Jun 092016
 

Photographer and illustrator Haig Witwer Shekerjian was born 3 November 1922 in Chicago, Illinois, and finally laid his camera to rest at the age of 79 on 21 August 2002 in Schenectady, New York. He and his wife, Regina, were regular visitors to Ajijic from 1950 on, and spent several months each year in the village during the 1970s and 1980s.

Haig’s parents were Haig Rupen Shekerjian, a rug salesman originally from Constantinople, Turkey, who became an art lecturer at the Art Institute in Chicago, and Frances Louise Witwer, a concert pianist from Chicago. His cousins included Brigadier General Haig W. Shekerjian.

Haig Shekerjian. ca 1970. By kind permission of Michael Eager.

Haig Shekerjian. ca 1970. By kind permission of Michael Eager.

Haig attended Oak Park and River Forest Township High School in Oak Park, Illinois. His interest in photography started at an early age and, as a teenager, he was an avid member of the school’s Camera Club. After high school, he studied at the Eastman School of Photography in Rochester, New York, and at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. A 1943 yearbook entry shows that he was not only handsome, but also an accomplished actor, and member of the University Dramatic Club.

On leaving university, Haig joined the U.S. Navy in November 1943. In early 1944, before leaving to serve for the remainder of the second world war in the Pacific, Haig married Regina deCormier, his lifelong love.

Working as a Navy photographer, Haig Shekerjian was in the first landing party at the Battle of Iwo Jima (1945), saw action elsewhere, and photographed the Japanese surrender. He was the recipient of several military decorations. Haig’s return to the U.S. was noted in a poignant local newspaper entry in December 1945 which stated that Haig, “was one of 11,382 High Point Navy veterans returning from Guam on the U.S.S. Cowpens.”

Regina DeCormier Shekerjian (1923-2000) was a well-known author, translator and illustrator of children’s books. The couple, and their two sons (Tor and Jean-René), lived for many years in New Paltz, New York, where Haig was Art Director of the Media Services Center at the State University College for over 30 years, until the age of 75.

Taking a sabbatical break over the winter of 1950-51, Haig and Regina spent several months living in Ajijic. (Regina later published an article about why Ajijic was an excellent choice for anyone seeking an inexpensive art-related summer). They returned several times until the late 1970s and early 1980s, often staying a few months.

shekerjian-haig-photo-ca-1970-2

Haig Shekerjian. ca 1970. By kind permission of Michael Eager.

Haig was apparently never very interested in the commercial aspects of photography, though his work appeared in many books, publications and literacy works, and his work was rarely exhibited or sold, though he gave away a few photographs as treasured gifts. His peers recognized the quality of his photographs and in 1977, one of his photos was included in the inaugural exhibition of the Catskill Center for Photography in Woodstock, New York.

Together with Regina, Haig Shekerjian illustrated several books, most of them written by Nancy Willard and aimed at young readers. They included The Adventures of Tom Thumb (1950); Life in the Middle Ages (1966); The boy, the rat, and the butterfly (1971); King Midas and the Golden Touch (1973); Play it in Spanish : Spanish games and folk songs for children (1973); The merry history of a Christmas pie : with a delicious description of a Christmas soup (1974); All on a May morning (1975); How Many Donkeys? A Turkish Folk Tale (1971); and The well-mannered balloon (1976).

The Shekerjians also co-wrote, with close relative Robert deCormier, A Book of Christmas Carols (1963); and A Book of Ballads, Songs and Snatches (1965).

Michael Eager, owner of La Nueva Posada hotel in Ajijic, remembers the couple well: “Haig had short gray hair with a goatee and was rarely without his Greek sailor’s cap. Both he and Regina dressed casually, Haig with jeans, checkered shirt, and somewhat “beatnik” looking. He was never without his camera.” Both Haig and Regina loved the local people, music and traditions.

The dining room of La Nueva Posada in Ajijic has a permanent exhibition of Haig’s evocative photographs of what the Lake Chapala area was like years ago—clear evidence, if any were needed, of the couple’s immense enthusiasm for the area and its people.

Sources:

  • Poughkeepsie Journal, Poughkeepsie, New York: 19 February 1944, p5;  23 August 2002, p 4B.

Other photographers associated with Lake Chapala:

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please email us or use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts.

Jan 142016
 

Jo Lee Rodke, later Jo Lee Storm, was an artist and art instructor, best known for her portraits and desert landscapes in oil, though she was also drew cartoons and produced lino-cuts, design, illustrations and pottery.

Rodke (the surname she used for her art) spent several winters in Ajijic in the 1960s, though the precise years remain unclear.

Born Jo Lee Wright on 22 March 1893 in Tulip (near Paris), Texas. The family moved when she was young and Jo Lee grew up in Oklahoma. She graduated from a teacher’s college in about 1929, and then began to teach in Oklahoma. When she married Leo B. Rodke, she moved to Pauls Valley, and taught at the Pauls Valley High School and at the Shawnee High School. The couple lived in Paoli, Oklahoma, and had two children: a daughter who died in infancy and a son.

Jo Lee Rodke: Untitled street scene

Jo Lee Rodke: Untitled street scene (courtesy of Janis Roelofson)

Jo Lee Rodke had always been a keen artist, but only began formal art classes after her marriage. Her first instructor was Frederick Becker in Oklahoma City. She also studied portraiture under Nan Sheets, and took classes with Leonard Good and Joseph Taylor at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. She gained a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Oklahoma.

She also took classes with Martha Avey (in Oklahoma City), at Kansas City Art Institute in Missouri, at Oklahoma State University, and at at Broadmoor Art Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, under Randall Davey and Ernest Lawson.

Jo lee Rodke: Musicians

Jo Lee Rodke: Musicians (courtesy of Janis Roelofson)

One summer, she studied art in Taos, New Mexico. In the summer of 1954, now in her early sixties, Rodke took art classes at Mexico City College, on the western outskirts of Mexico City, which had just moved to a new site alongside the Toluca highway. The College later moved to Puebla, and became La Universidad de las Américas.

In the mid-1950s, Rodke retired from teaching in Oklahoma and moved to Florence, Arizona, where she continued to paint, and give private art classes, alongside working in the Florence school system.

She married Bernard Storm in the Spring of 1960, and during the 1960s, the couple spent many winters in Ajijic on Lake Chapala, though we have so far learned very little about her work there. We do know that she was painting there during the winters of 1964-65, and 1965-66.

The Colony Reporter (Guadalajara) in April 1965 reported that she is “scheduled for a one-man show next month [May 1965] in Mesa, Arizona.” She also exhibited in Florence, Arizona, in May 1965.

The Tucson Daily Citizen for 18 December 1965 reports that “Mrs. Rodke is currently in Mexico” and that “the Philbrook Museum at Tulsa has three of her works in its permanent collection”.

Several of her Mexican paintings won prizes in exhibitions in Arizona, including The Vendors, a Mexican street scene which won a prize for oils in 1967, and Blue Madona (sic) which won a Gold Cup. The accompanying caption to the photograph of that achievement said that Rodke “finds Mexico, its countryside and its people, an inexhaustible source of painting inspiration.”

Rodke is credited by her son, Robert Rodke, with having founded “artist colonies at Teluride, Colorado, and Lake Chapala, Mexico”. The former may well be correct, but the pioneers of the art colony at Lake Chapala certainly predated Rodke’s first visit there by many a long year!

Rodke held numerous exhibitions, and was a regular participant in the annual shows of the Association of Oklahoma Artists (of which she became president), the Mesa Art League and other groups, including the Midwestern Artists Association in Kansas City. Two oil portraits, Indian Girl and Young Dancer were chosen for a group show at the College Art Association in New York City.

Rodke gained many “Best of Show” and “purchase” awards at local, state and regional exhibitions, and her work can be found in many private and public collections, including the Pinal County Historical Museum at Florence, Arizona and Coolidge Library in Arizona.

Jo Lee Rodke Storm took her paintbrushes to a higher plane on 13 November 1978.

Sources:

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Dec 032015
 

Gladys Brown Ficke (1890-1973), the second wife of poet and novelist Arthur Davison Ficke (1883-1945) was a painter (oils and watercolors) and illustrator. The Fickes spent the winter of 1934-35 in Chapala. From late November 1934 to late April 1935, they rented a house with poet Witter Bynner and his partner Robert Hunt.

Under her maiden name, she drew the line drawings illustrating each chapter of her husband’s novel, Mrs Morton of Mexico (1939), including this one of Chapala:

ficke-ch-1-illustraion-gladys-brown

Mrs Morton’s mature garden leading down to the lakeshore is the setting for several of the dramatic moments in the novel:

ficke--chapala-gladys-brownOne chapter look at events in Jocotepec, where the mountains form an impressive backdrop to the then-village in this fictionalized view:

ficke-jocotepec-gladys-brownChapter 11 is about a religious procession to the cemetery (campo santo) on the hillside:

ficke--campo-santo-gladys-brownGladys Brown Ficke was born on 29 August 1890 and died 14 May 1973. After her husband’s death in 1945, she ran their estate at Hardhack, New York, as a sanctuary and retreat for artists.

Gladys Brown Ficke wrote a four-volume biography of her husband, and a novel, initially entitled The Bird in the Ice-box, but later renamed The Final Beauty. “The major characters of the novel are Nathalia Bradford (based on Phyllis Playter), Daxton Sillis (based on John Cowper Powys), and Edward Lucas (whose character seems suggested by Evans Rodgers).” [1] Neither book was ever published; both are in the Arthur Davison Ficke Papers at Yale University in the Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Reference:

[1] Melvon L Lankeny. “Gladys Brown Ficke and The Final Beauty“, Powys Journal, 2003, Vol. 13, pp.95-119.

Related posts:

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May 282015
 

The great German landscape artist Johann Moritz Rugendas traveled in Mexico from 1831 to 1834, much of the time in the company of Eduard Harkort. In January 1934, they explored the shores of Lake Chapala, and remarked on its “solitary and tranquil beauty”. During the trip Rugendas completed at least two sketches of the lake, having spent some time seeking the best vantage points.

Rugendas: Drawing of Lake Chapala, January 1834

Rugendas: Drawing of Lake Chapala, January 1834

These drawings (now in the collection of the Staatliche Graphische Sammlung in Munich, Germany) were the basis for two oil paintings of the lake: “Lake Chapala” and “View of Lake Chapala from San Jacinto hill”. (There may well be earlier paintings of Lake Chapala, but if so, they have yet to come to my attention. Neither Humboldt, who visited the area in 1803, nor Mrs Henry Ward, who accompanied her husband to Lake Chapala in 1827, is known to have drawn or painted the lake).

Rugendas: Lake CHapala

Rugendas: Lake Chapala

From Lake Chapala, the travelers went southwards towards Colima, where, among other accomplishments, they climbed Colima Volcano, and Manzanillo. In March 1834, Rugendas was jailed, and subsequently expelled from Mexico, for his involvement in a failed coup attempt against the then-president, Anastasio Bustamante.

Rugendas was born into a family of well-known painters and engravers and studied first with his father and then with Albrecht Adam before entering the Munich Arts Academy. Inspired by the writing and work of earlier German naturalists such as Johann Baptist von Spix (1781–1826) and Carl von Martius (1794–1868) Rugendas traveled to Brazil in 1821, where he found work as an illustrator for Baron von Langsdorff’s scientific expedition to Minas Gerais and São Paulo. Rugendas remained in Brazil until 1825, when he returned to Europe and published his monumental work Voyage Pittoresque dans le Brésil, which included more than 100 illustrations.

Rugendas had no sooner returned to Europe in 1825 than he met (in Paris) noted explorer and naturalist, Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859), and was inspired to seek funding for an ambitious project to “become the illustrator of life in the New World”. In 1831 he traveled to Haiti, and then Mexico, where he executed numerous oil paintings. Following his expulsion from Mexico in 1834, he traveled  through South America for more than a decade, returning to Europe in 1846, at the age of 44.

Rugendas’ superb drawings and paintings of Mexican landscapes, people and monuments were beautifully executed and helped give European viewers a glimpse into the geographic and cultural riches of the New World. Most of Rugendas’ works were eventually acquired by King Maximilian II of Bavaria in exchange for a life pension.

An exhibition displaying some of Rugendas’ paintings was held in the Instituto Cultural Cabañas in Guadalajara in July 1986.

Eduard Harkort (1797-1836) was a German mining engineer, geologist and cartographer whose journal “In Mexican Prisons: The Journal of Eduard Harkort, 1832-1834” (published by Texas A&M University Press, 1986) recorded his two years of fighting and imprisonment in Mexico.

Main sources:

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

May 182015
 

American artist and author Paul Alexander Bartlett (1909-1990) was a frequent traveler to Mexico who developed an obsession with Mexico’s ancient haciendas. Bartlett devoted years of his life to studying and documenting these haciendas (the mainstay of the colonial-era economy), gradually compiling an artistic record covering more than 350 of them throughout the country.

While it is not entirely clear precisely when Bartlett lived in the Chapala region, during his time there he painted and drew exquisite pen and ink drawings, such as this one of the Hacienda de Zapotitán, a short distance north of Jocotepec.

bartlett-hacienda-zapotitan

Pen-and-ink drawing by Paul Bartlett of Hacienda de Zapotitán, Jalisco

Bartlett explored Mexico with his wife, poet and writer Elizabeth Bartlett (1911-1994). The couple first met in Guadalajara in 1941 and married two years later in Sayula. Their son Steven James Bartlett (born in Mexico City and now a widely published author in the fields of psychology and philosophy) subsequently accompanied them as they roamed all over Mexico looking for photogenic and noteworthy haciendas.

Steven Bartlett recalls that the family definitely lived for some months in the Chapala-Ajijic area in the early 1950s. He remembers that his father knew author Peter Lilley (who, with first one writing colleague and then another, used the pen-name of Dane Chandos to craft, among other works, Village in the Sun and House in the Sun, both set at Lake Chapala). The Bartlett family also revisited the Chapala area several times in the 1970s, during the time they were living in Comala, Colima. During these later trips, his father gave lectures about haciendas while his mother gave poetry readings.

Bartlett eventually compiled the beautifully-illustrated book The Haciendas of Mexico: An Artist’s Record, first published in 1990 and readily available now as a free Gutenburg pdf or Epub. The book has more than 100 photographs and illustrations made in the field from 1943 to 1985 and is an excellent starting point for anyone interested in the history, economics, art and architecture of Mexico’s colonial haciendas. For a brief review of this book, see The Haciendas of Mexico: An Artist’s Record on the Geo-Mexico website.

Bartlett’s hacienda art work has been displayed at the Los Angeles County Museum, the New York City Public Library, the University of Virginia, the University of Texas, the Instituto Mexicano-Norteamericano in Mexico City, and at the Bancroft Library, among other places.

An archive of Bartlett’s original pen-and-ink illustrations and several hundred photographs is held in the Benson Latin American Collection of the University of Texas in Austin. A second collection of hacienda photographs and other materials is maintained by the Western History Research Center of the University of Wyoming in Laramie.

Paul Alexander Bartlett (1909-1990) attended Oberlin College and the University of Arizona, before studying art at the National University of Mexico (UNAM) and in Guadalajara. He was an instructor in creative writing at Georgia State College and Editor of Publications at the University of California Santa Barbara (1964-70).

Bartlett had dozens of short stories and poems published in magazines such as Southwest Review, Crosscurrents, Antenna, Etc, Greyledge Review, Prospice, and Queen’s Quarterly, and also wrote the short novel Adios, mi México (1983), and the novel When the Owl Cries (1960). Free online editions of several of his books are available via his author page on Project Gutenberg.

Acknowledgment

Sincere thanks to Steven Bartlett for sharing his memories of the family’s time in Mexico.

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

Dec 182014
 

Margaret Van Gurp, a well known artist from eastern Canada, was born in Delft, Netherlands, 6 December 1926. She moved to Canada in 1953.

She visited her daughter Susan Van Gurp in Jocotepec for 3 weeks in 1983. Susan Van Gurp was teaching at the Lakeside School for the Deaf, now the Centro De Atencion Multiple Gallaudet (“Gallaudet Special Education Center”) from 1982-1984.

Margaret Van Gurp: Watercolor of Jocotepec (1983)

Margaret Van Gurp: Watercolor of Jocotepec (1983)

During Margaret Van Gurp’s visit, she produced a series of pen and ink drawings of the students at the school, as well as other people in the town. Van Gurp also painted several charming watercolors of life in the town.

Van Gurp’s early art education (1945-1947) was under Gillis van Oosten in Delft, Netherlands. She also took courses at the College of Art and Design in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, studied portrait sculpture in clay under Allison McNeil, and (1980) studied portraiture under David Leffel and Robert Philipp at the Art Students League of New York in the U.S. Her art has been widely shown in Eastern Canada.

Margaret Van Gurp has also illustrated books, such as Acadian Awakenings, and sculpted and painted mannequin heads for Parks Canada exhibits at several locations, including Castle Hill, Newfoundland; Citadel Hill Museum, Halifax; Fort Anne, Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia.

Mar 222012
 

John Russell Clift wrote, and illustrated with original serigraphs, “Chapala-Mexico’s Shangri-la”, published in Ford Times, the monthly magazine of the Ford Motor Company in October 1953. The article was published in Ford Times,. Volume 45 # 10 (October 1953) pp 34-39. The article, with illustrations, was reprinted on Mexconnect.com in its October 2003 edition, to mark the 50th anniversary of the original publication date.

John Russell Clift: Chapala Market

John Russell Clift: Chapala Market (1953)

John Russell Clift: Lake Chapala (1953)

John Russell Clift: Lake Chapala (1953)

  • The full text of “Chapala-Mexico’s Shangri-la“, with accompanying illustrations, reprinted on Mexconnect.com by kind permission of Ford Motor Company.

John Russell Clift, American author and illustrator, was born in Taunton, Massachusetts in 1925 and at the peak of his career in the 1950s when he wrote this piece, one of the earliest to promote the attractions of the Chapala area as a retirement haven. His thoughtful prose and fine silkscreens paint a vivid picture of what life was like at Lakeside in the early 1950s.

After a stint in the U.S. Navy (1944-46), Clift studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and became an accomplished illustrator, painter, teacher, graphic artist, and successful commercial artist. Clift won his first fellowship at the Boston Museum School in 1952-53, which enabled him to spend six months painting in Chapala. He taught drawing and illustration at the institution for many years and was awarded a second fellowship in 1958-59.

John Russell Clift: Weaver's House in Jocotepec (1953)

John Russell Clift: Weaver’s House in Jocotepec (1953)

His commercial art career included spells working for Ford Motor Company, Alcan Aluminum Co. of Cleveland, the Lamp-Standard Oil Co. and the Bethlehem Steel Co. of Pennsylvania. In 1965, The Bridgeport Post lauded him as “an artist admired by the professionals for his technique in encaustic and by businessmen for his illustrations in business magazines.” (10 Oct 1965). Among Clift’s contributions to Ford Times, was “Riverside, Rhode Island”, a story illustrated by his paintings, in the July 1955 issue.

Clift held numerous exhibitions of his work in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in the 1955-1965 period. His work was also exhibited at print shows throughout the U.S., including the Museum of Modern Art and the DeCordova & Dana Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts. He held a solo show in 1963 in the Mirski Gallery, Boston.

Exhibits/collections:

  • A screenprint entitled “Long Wharf” is in the collection of the US National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C..
  • A painting, oil on canvas, entitled “Couple in the Park” (1961) is in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
  • A color lithograph entitled “Market at Chapala” was sold at auction in 2007.
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