Jun 042015
 

One of the more interesting characters that made Ajijic a lively place to be in the early 1950s was the black American artist Ernest Alexander, known to most people simply as “Alex”. Alex was a painter and photographer who, from about 1950 to 1952, ran the Club Alacrán (Scorpion Club), a restaurant-bar in Ajijic, the hang-out of choice for the resident artists and writers of the time.

Ernest Alexander: Untitled (Shop front and doors). Image credit: Richard Norton Gallery

Ernest Alexander: Untitled (Shop front and doors). Image credit: Richard Norton Gallery

Relatively little is known for certain about Alex, though he is the subject of a fascinating memoir written by Sean Wilder. Wilder first met Alex in 1958, when the latter was living on handouts in the North Beach area of San Francisco. Wilder, now a practicing psychoanalyst, was only a teenager at the time but spent much of the following two years trying to comprehend Alex, while simultaneously questioning his own motives and desires. Wilder’s book, Alex, provides some telling insights into Alex’s charismatic, almost guru-like personality. In an epilogue to the book, Wilder sketches out what little biographical information he has gleaned about Alex, either from Alex himself, or from a select handful of people who knew Alex both in Ajijic and in San Francisco.

Wilder recalls the first time he met Alex in the Co-existence Bagel Shop (noted for its fine breakfasts, the Co-Existence Bagel Shop was a social center for the North Beach Beats until it closed in 1960):

Alex was the man sitting in the corner seat, a long, lean, handsome, “black”… with alert, mischievous, seductively heavy-lidded eyes, probably wearing a khaki army surplus shirt and blue jeans with frayed cuffs, and badly scuffed brown leather shoes, but no socks. No rings, either, no watch, no jewelry of any kind decorated him.”

Alex intimated to Wilder that he had spent his childhood in Long Branch, New Jersey, and that there was, or had been, money in the family. Wilder describes how Alex spoke “educated Eastern Seaboard English”, with an impressive vocabulary, and used language colorfully, as a form of “oral poetry”. Alex was a verbal gymnast, giving quick retorts and enigmatic responses.

Following a period of military service in a communications unit in the Pacific, Alex returned to civilian life after the second world war, with a metal plate in his head, and used his G.I. Bill funding to take art classes at the South Side Community Art Center in Chicago. Alex’s magnetic appeal helped foment the nascent jazz and poetry scene of the Art Circle (a housing community for artists) on the near north side of Chicago. Among the poets that Alex became close to were Bob Kaufman, Gwendolyn Brooks and ruth weiss, who would herself visit Ajijic in the late 1950s.

Alex’s influence on ruth weiss was profound. He is credited with persuading her to read her poetry to live jazz for the very first time:

In 1948 weiss took a room at the Art Circle on the near north side of Chicago. She began listening to Bop and reading her poetry to audiences there. In 1949 an African American painter named Ernest Alexander asked her to read with the Art Circle jazz ensemble. She accepted the invitation and has been reading to jazz ever since.” (Blows Like a Horn: Beat Writing, Jazz, Style, and Markets in the Transformation of U.S. Culture, by Preston Whaley, Harvard University Press, 2009)

Ernest Alexander: Sketch of Gwendolyn Brooks (frontispiece of Annie Allen)

Ernest Alexander: Sketch of Gwendolyn Brooks (frontispiece of Annie Allen)

Gwendolyn Brooks, a close friend of Alex, became the first black writer to win a Pulitzer when she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1950 for her second collection, Annie Allen, published the year before. The frontispiece of Annie Allen is Alex’s simple, yet powerful, portrait of Brook’s head, an illustration also used on the book’s dust jacket.

According to George E. Kent, the author of A Life of Gwendolyn Brooks, Brooks’s poem “A Lonely Love”, published in 1960, is entirely about her intense personal relationship with Ernest Alexander.

In 1949, the same year that his illustration was used for Annie Allen, Alex had a painting chosen for inclusion in the “53rd annual showing by artists of Chicago and vicinity”, a major exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago. This was a significant achievement for a painter who was apparently largely self-taught. The painting in question, entitled “Shop Front and Doors”, was priced at $350.

Among the other artists included in the exhibition were George Buehr (a professor of art for many years at the Art Institute of Chicago) and his wife Margo Hoff. Buehr, and possibly Margo, had spent some time in Ajijic a few years previously, and may well have provided the inspiration for Alex’s decision to transfer his G.I. Bill funding to the Fine Arts school of the University of Guadalajara later that year.

In Mexico, Alex studied painting, sculpture and photography, and also met Dorothy Whelan, a Canadian whose husband was serving seven years in a Mexican jail for passing bad checks. Alex and “Dolly”, as she was known, set up house in Ajijic, where Dolly, at least for a time, was a cook at the Posada Ajijic. Among their close friends were painter-potter David Morris and his wife Helen, a former dancer. San Francisco Bay area sculptors Robert McChesney and his wife Mary Fuller were also both in Ajijic at this time.

Dorothy Whelan in Bar Alacrán, Ajijic, ca 1952. Photo in collection of Katie Goodridge Ingram; reproduced with kind permission.

Dorothy Whelan in Alex’s studio in Club Alacrán, Ajijic, ca 1952. Photo reproduced by kind permission of Katie Goodridge Ingram.

In Ajijic, Alex opened a restaurant-bar named Club Alacrán (Scorpion Club), which was in operation from about 1950 to 1952. The club attracted locals and expatriates alike. Alex instituted a two-tier pricing system, charging Mexicans less than Americans for their drinks.

Katie Goodridge Ingram remembers the building well, because it had previously been the studio of her step-father, the artist and sculptor Mort Carl. The Club Alacrán, on Calle Constitución at its intersection with Ramón Corona, “was set up in a small two-room house with a patio and kitchen area. Alex was a very jolly, welcoming and bright host. It briefly became “the” place.” Ingram also recalls that Alex was a fine cook with a penchant for hosting massive barbeques on the beach.

While he was running Club Alacrán, Alex was visited by the ethnomusicologist Sam Eskin. The second part of Eskin’s sound recording entitled Mexican firecrackers: a prayer and a festival (Smithsonian Folkways, 2001) was recorded from the patio of the Scorpion Club and features a religious festival in Ajijic, complete with church bells and pre-dawn firecrackers.

Eskin is quoted in the cover notes as recalling that,

I was rudely awakened at three or four in the morning. The uproar was really deafening. I reached out from my bunk and flipped the tape machine on, set level and dozed off again. Fifteen minutes later firecrackers started going off, and sleep was no more that night…. Strangely enough, El Escorpion’s patio was infested with black widow spiders.”

Ernest Alexander: Photo of typical lane in Ajijic, ca 1949. Photo reproduced by kind permission of Katie Goodridge Ingram.

Ernest Alexander: Photo of typical lane in Ajijic, ca 1949. Photo reproduced by kind permission of Katie Goodridge Ingram.

Ernest ALexander: Photo of Lake Chapala fishermen and nets, ca 1950. Photo reproduced by kind permission of Katie Goodridge Ingram.

Ernest ALexander: Photo of Lake Chapala fishermen and nets, ca 1950. Photo reproduced by kind permission of Katie Goodridge Ingram.

Little is known about the whereabouts of Alex’s artwork from this time, though in the late 1950s he showed Sean Wilder some small masks that he had sculpted and some photos of paintings. Wilder describes one of Alex’s paintings, almost certainly of Lake Chapala:

His paintings were as calm and meditative as his sculpture was full of violent vitality. One of them made a particularly strong impression on me: what appeared to be a fisherman’s shack (I recall a net and floaters hung out on a wall to dry) in the full golden blast of a sun-drenched late afternoon, while above and behind it the sky was blue-gray with ominous storm clouds.” (Alex, p 173)

Unfortunately, the good times for Alex did not last long. In December 1951 or early in 1952, a serious altercation broke out in the bar during which he almost strangled one of his patrons. Even the birth of Alex and Dolly’s son Luke a few months later was only a temporary respite for the couple. Soon afterwards, Dolly’s husband (John Thomas Babin), having escaped or completed his sentence, returned to Ajijic demanding his wife back. Another huge scene ensued. Alex was forced to give up the Club Alacrán. By April of the following year (1953), he had been expelled from Mexico under the infamous Artículo 33, that section of the constitution which allows Mexican authorities to expel “undesirable” foreigners without due process. Dolly and Luke accompanied him to San Francisco. (Coincidentally, their friends David and Helen Morris returned to the San Francisco Bay area at about the same time.)

In 1953, Ernest Alexander was one of 14 artists (with Robert McChesney, Lenore Cetone and others) exhibiting in Sausalito, California, at the annual Spring Art Show at the Sausalito Art Center from 29 March to 12 April 1953. A Sausalito News piece in June 1953 refers to Alex and his wife as “the Ernie Alexanders of Marin City”, when listing the artists who attended an art show at the Tin Angel on the Embarcadero in San Francisco. In August 1953, the same newspaper list Ernest Alexander, of “208 Second Street”, as the chairman of the exhibition committee for the second annual Sausalito Arts Center Fair to be held at Shell Beach in mid-September, alongside the annual Regatta.

By 1955, Alex’s world began to unravel. In February 1955, police were called to a “fracas” at the annual Sausalito Artists Ball. According to a press report:

“Charles Carmona, an employee of St. Vincent’s School for Boys north of San Rafael, was given first aid by the Sausalito fire department to check the bleeding from severe facial cuts. He told police that Ernest Alexander, former Sausalitan now living in San Francisco, hit him in the face with a beer bottle after he had danced with Alexander’s wife. Carmona claimed the blow splintered the bottle and police said the injured man had deep cuts on his forehead, nose, chin and both cheeks. Alexander denied he hit Carmona with the bottle and witnesses to the fracas said they did not see Alexander wield the weapon.” No charges were laid because “Carmona refused to sign a complaint against Alexander”.

At some point in 1955, Dolly died in hospital while undergoing a second mastectomy. Alex, distraught, began to fall apart. As Alex slid towards insanity (perhaps due to general paresis caused by late-stage syphilis), Luke was cared for in Sausalito by David and Helen Morris.

For the remaining 15 years or so of his life, Alex was never the same. He stopped painting, spent time in state mental institutions, developed paranoia, and lived for extended periods on hand-outs. It is at this stage of his life that Sean Wilder first met him. Wilder recalls that while Alex no longer painted, he enjoyed listening to the music of Billie Holiday and loved cookbooks, reading and valuing them like other people read poetry or novels.

The final chapter in the tragic story of Alex’s final years ended in February 1974. The precise date is unknown because he died alone in his apartment at 138-6th St, San Francisco, and his body was not found until four months later. He was buried in Willamette National Cemetery, Portland, Oregon, on 25 July 1974.

While Alex’s contributions to the Ajijic art scene have been largely forgotten or ignored, his place in the Chicago art scene has been recognized by the inclusion of his paintings in two major group exhibitions:  “Black on Black: The Works of Black artists from Chicago Black Collectors” (University of Illinois at Chicago, 1983) and “The Flowering: African-American Artists and Friends in 1940s Chicago: A Look at the South Side Community Art Center”, (Illinois State Museum, 1993).

Reference:

  • Sausalito News. 19 March 1953, p 7; 2 April 1953, p 7; 25 June 1953, p3; 27 August 1953, p 5; 25 February 1955, p 1.
  • Wilder, Sean. 2011. Alex (self-published via Lulu.com).

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.

Nov 202014
 

Frederick (sometimes Federico/Fritz/Fredrick/Friedrich) Wilhelm Butterlin was born in Cologne, Germany, in about January 1905, and was the middle of three brothers (Otto was older, Ernesto younger).

Frederick was a well-known photographer and seems to have been the owner of what was almost certainly one of the first art galleries in Ajijic.

Frederick had not yet celebrated his third birthday when his parents brought him to Mexico in 1907. The family had a first class cabin on the “Fürst Bismarck” of the Hamburg-America line, which departed Hamburg on 14 October 1907 for Veracruz, via Southampton, Santander, Coruna and Cuba. The passenger list duly records the ages of each of the family members. Frederick was 2 years and 9 months of age, his older brother Otto was 6 years and 6 months. Their father Hans Butterlin was 37 and his wife Amelie 26. The family settled in Guadalajara but so far I have been able to find out nothing of substance about their whereabouts during the next twenty years which includes the Mexican Revolution.

Girls belonging to the Old Colony (Saskatchewan) Mennonites moving to Mexico. Photo by Frederick Butterlin ca 1948

Girls belonging to the Old Colony (Saskatchewan) Mennonites moving to Mexico. Photo by Frederick Butterlin ca 1948

What is known is that in 1929, Frederick was a witness to his older brother Otto Butterlin’s marriage in California. In the 1930 U.S. census, Frederick W. is listed as 25 years old, single, and is said to have immigrated to the U.S. in about 1920. His occupation is listed as “sugar operator”. It is unclear how long Frederick remained in the U.S. but by 1934, he had become a noteworthy photographer.

Among other achievements as a photographer, he contributed to the Amateur Competitions in the January 1934 and February 1934 issues of Camera Craft, (A Photographic Monthly). He was also active as a photographer in Mexico, though precise dates are lacking. For example he is mentioned (albeit with an incorrect nationality) in Olivier Debroise’s Mexican Suite: A History of Photography in Mexico (University of Texas, 2001): “Perhaps the most interesting contributor to Foto was the Frenchman F.W. Butterlin, another devotee of pictorismo (as he called it), whose interesting composition entitled “Railroad Wheels” recalls the early work of Paul Strand.” (p 65).

In November 1935, “Fritz Butterlin” gave a keynote address on pictorial art in photography, based on observations made on “his long trips”, at the Club Literario de Inglés in Guadalajara.

In 1936, Frederick, then aged 32, married 26-year-old Bertha Eimbcke Ferreira from Mazatlan, Sinaloa. She was a languages teacher, and was president of the Mexican Association of English Teachers from 1963 until at least 1971.

Frederick seems to have continued his photographic career for several decades. His published photos include some evocative portrait photographs of Mennonites in Mexico published in the Mennonite Life editions of October 1949 and January 1952.

In 1956, Butterlin, working for “Exclusivas Jimenez SA de CV” placed a series of advertisements in El Informador recommending the use of “ADOX” film for photography.

In earlier adverts in the same daily (eg 27 February 1951), “Federico W. Butterlin” was offering his services as a translator (English, German, French, Spanish) of all kinds of books, brochures, manuals, letters, etc., so it appears that photography alone was never lucrative enough to satisfy his financial needs.

There are also references to Frederick having owned one of the earliest galleries in Ajijic in the 1940s. According to Michael Hargraves in his 1992 booklet “Lake Chapala: A Literary Survey”, “Frederick owned the first restaurant and gallery in Ajijic in the 1940s, and was a painter in the classical style.” Hargraves appears to be misidentifying the photographer brother, Frederick, with his elder brother Otto, who was indeed a well-known painter.

[Last update: 1 May 2016]

As always, we would love to receive any comments, corrections or additional information.

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Nov 062014
 

While researching the history of the artists associated with the Lake Chapala region, I came across more and more references to the “two Butterlin brothers”. The problem was that different sources, including otherwise reputable art history sites, gave them quite different first names: Ernesto and Hans? Hans and Frederick? Linares and Otto?

There was very little evidence and it seemed impossible to tell which source was accurate, and why different accounts gave such different names, ages and details. They were usually described as “German”, but it was unclear whether they had been born in Germany or were the sons of German immigrants to Mexico.

Eventually, I compiled enough evidence to prove conclusively that there were not two Butterlin brothers, but three! Two had been born in Germany and were brought by their parents to Mexico. Safely ensconced in Guadalajara, the parents then had a third son, several years younger than his siblings.

The picture was complicated by the fact that two of the brothers used different names at different stages of their life, with the older brother rarely using his first name on his art once he arrived in Mexico, while the youngest brother adopted a surname for much of his artistic career that had no obvious connection to his family name.

Small wonder, then, that confusion reigned about the Butterlin brothers on many art history sites, some of which even failed to identify correctly the country of birth of each of the three brothers.

The three brothers (in order of birth) are:

There are still great gaps in my knowledge of this family, but the picture that finally began to emerge showed that the Butterlins deserved wider recognition as an artistic family of some consequence.

In future posts, I will show how all three Butterlin brothers contributed significantly to the development of the artist colony in the Lake Chapala area, albeit it in rather different ways.

Mar 222012
 

Artist and photographer John Frost was born 21 May 1923 in Pasadena, California. John and his wife Joan Frost, an author, lived for more than forty years in Jocotepec, before returning to California in 2012.

John is the son of John and Priscilla (Morgrage) Frost and grandson of the famous American illustrator A. B. Frost. [1]

John became interested in photography and the magic of the darkroom at age 14. He attended Midland School, a small boarding school near Los Olivos, California, and later earned a degree in Graphic Art following military service in the Pacific during the second world war and then settled into artistic and commercial photography in the mid-1950s.

John’s first solo exhibition, of mixed media pieces, in which drawings were photographed, enlarged and chemically treated to transform colors, was in Bobinart Gallary in Los Angeles in the early 1960s. This exhibition moved to Purdue University in 1966, shortly after Frost had relocated to Jocotepec with his wife. At Purdue, the opening of the exhibit was accompanied by a lecture about the “beat generation”. At the time, Purdue was embroiled in a bitter city versus university battle, on account of the Police Chief having ordered the university library to withdraw from circulation all books by Henry Miller, the American author then living in France.

John Frost (then 41 years old) married Joan Van Every (35) on 26 September 1964 in San Bernadino, California. In 1966, the couple relocated to Mexico, living for a short time in Uruapan in Michoacán before establishing their permanent home and photographic studio in Jocotepec.

In 1968, an exhibition of his silkscreens at La Galería in Guadalajara prior to the 1968 Olympics attracted the attention of TV broadcasters. Frost declined to give them permission to film his silkscreens since they asked him for $200 towards the production costs!

In May 1971, Frost was among the large group of artists exhibiting at “Fiesta de Arte” at a private home in Ajijic. Other artists showing there included Daphne Aluta; Mario Aluta; Beth Avary; Charles Blodgett; Antonio Cárdenas; Alan Davoll; Alice de Boton; Robert de Boton; Tom Faloon; Dorothy Goldner; Burt Hawley; Peter Huf; Eunice (Hunt) Huf; Lona Isoard; Michael Heinichen; John Maybra Kilpatrick; Gail Michael; Bert Miller; Robert Neathery; John K. Peterson; Stuart Phillips; Hudson Rose; Mary Rose; Jesús Santana; Walt Shou; Showaltar (?); Sloane; Eleanor Smart; Robert Snodgrass; and Agustín Velarde.

John Frost: Nude with flower

John Frost: Nude with flower

For several years, John Frost focused on his paintings and silkscreens. He worked closely, and shared his silkscreen techniques, with several other Jocotepec-based artists, including (Don) Shaw, Georg Rauch and Ra Rysiek Ledwon. Georg Rauch went on to experiment with his own silkscreen techniques using non-toxic materials, producing his own masterful silkscreens for many years. John also had a profound influence on the young painter Synnove Pettersen (1944-), who attributes her decision to return to doing silkscreen (serigraph) pieces at that stage in her career to his enthusiasm and encouragement.

Starting in 1979, John Frost became the premier aerial photographer in western Mexico, amassing an impressive collection of images (now housed in the University of Colima), especially of the Lake Chapala region, the volcanoes of Colima and the rapidly developing mid-Pacific coast of Colima and Jalisco, including the area around Manzanillo.

His aerial photographs have featured in several exhibitions, including four solo exhibitions in the state of Colima, three in the state capital and one on the university campus in Manzanillo. John Frost’s photos can be found in the collections of several Colima and Jalisco state agencies. A selection of his photographs graced the Guadalajara airport at the time of the 1986 World Cup, and his photos were exhibited in one of the lateral galleries of the Cabañas Cultural Institute in Guadalajara. This may have been the first time any Lakeside artist had ever been invited to exhibit in the Institute, arguably Jalisco’s single most important exhibition space. (Several years later, the Institute would invite fellow Jocotepec artist Georg Rauch to hold a retrospective of his work there, occupying the main galleries).

Once, when chatting with me, John Frost remarked that “I never quite met my family’s expectations”. If that is really true, then I can only conclude that his family’s expectations were utterly impossible to meet, since John’s superb photographs and silkscreens, as well as his quiet encouragement of many other artists and photographers, speak for themselves.

– – –

[1] Arthur Burdett Frost (1851-1928) (ABF), was an early American illustrator, graphic artist, and comics writer. He was also well known as a painter. ABF’s work is well known for its dynamic representation of motion and sequence. ABF is considered one of the great illustrators in the “Golden Age of American Illustration”. ABF illustrated over 90 books, and produced hundreds of paintings; in addition to his work in illustrations, he is renowned for realistic hunting and shooting prints.

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.

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