Thursday, January 29, 2009

Lake Chapala Society - Heart of the expat community

LCS is the heart--and nerve center--of  the Lake Chapala expat community.  As new arrivals in Ajijic, one of the very first steps Carole and I took was to join the Lake Chapala Society. Known locally as the LCS, this volunteer organization provides almost innumerable activities and services to both the expat and Mexican  communities.

Twenty-one English-speaking Lakeside residents  got together in 1955 to found the LCS as a "social, cultural, and benevolent society."  Almost 60 years later, the 3000+ member LCS is still fulfilling these purposes, and doing a great job in our opinion.  Membership  dues are relatively modest, considering the facilities and services offered. A single annual membership is $50.00 (US) and couples pay $80.00. There are other rates for short-timers and families of more than two.

English-language library is heavily patronized.  Access to English-language books, magazines, and other publications is very important to the expat community.  Composed mostly of Americans  and Canadians, the community also includes many Europeans fluent in English.  The LCS library now contains over 25,000 books and is organized along the lines of a north-of-the-border public library.  Set up in 1955, the library is now computerized and networked, so that a member can locate a book at a terminal, and volunteers can track those which are out.  One benefit of living in a large expat community is the very broad and deep set of available skills, including those of retired professional librarians who have organized and run the LCS library over the years.  Many members contribute books, some of them quite new, that they bring down  from up north. Other books are purchased with LCS funds.

Got your book? Here's a cool, quiet place to enjoy it.  Carole and I enjoy dropping into the LCS on sunny mornings (which means just about any day) to sit in one of the several patio areas.  This patio is one of our favorite spots where we can seek solitude or beckon passing friends to spend a little time socializing.

Fishpond forms a quiet centerpiece in one of the LCS's busiest areas.  Surrounded by the coffee bar, the library, the office, and various other activities, this lovely fishpond lends a quiet, cool counterpoint to all the activities.  Water Lilies such as the one above are native to various areas of Mexico.

Rosa "holds the fort" at the coffee bar.  Although Rosa speaks some English, I always urge her to speak to me in Spanish because I need the practice.  She seems glad to oblige, and always has a smile for me.  The coffee bar concession is run by the Secret Garden Restaurant and Bakery, located near the Ajijic Plaza. Peter, the owner of Secret Garden, makes sure that the LCS coffee bar is well stocked with fresh baked cookies, muffins, and other pastries suitable for dunking in the excellent coffee served.  With a good book, a cuppa "joe" and a banana muffin, we are all set to enjoy an hour or two at our favorite patio table. 

Lake god oversees the coffee bar area. A mural by Jose Francisco Rojas Miramontes titled "El fiel amigo de toda vida" (The faithful, long life friend) graces the wall behind the coffee bar. The mural extends several feet on either side of the picture above, and celebrates the role the Lake plays in life around its shores.  The artist is part of a family of artists who grew up in the period when the art community began blossoming in Ajijic.  LCS has long played a key role in the Mexican community, by offering free art classes to local children, as well as free training in English and computer skills for adults, and providing a Spanish language library to the community.  LCS also supports various non-profit community organizations including those for battered women and children, orphanages, the Mexican Red Cross, and has raised many thousands of dollars in goods and cash to help when local disasters have occured.   

Swimming through the greenery.  Seeming to swim through underwater vegetation, this metal fish sculpture is one of many small treasures one discovers while venturing into the winding green passages of the large and colorful LCS gardens.

Video rental library is also quite extensive.  Both VHS and DVD are available to rent and several thousand are contained  in this English-language rental library.  Rental fees are modest, about 70 cents (US) for VHS and about $1.00 (US) for DVD.  Since there is a constant traffic of expats between Lakeside and the US and Canada, recently released movies are often available soon after then hit video stores up north. A staff of dedicated volunteers makes sure that the video rental office runs smoothly.

Stone monk broods in cool leafy glade.  I always enjoy a simple wander through the garden paths, never knowing what new treasure I will happen upon. 

The LCS bulletin board is information central.  Members list apartments for rent, houses for sale, services and goods offered and sought, impending events in the community, and much more at the main bulletin board next to the library.  This is probably the single best source of reasonably priced rental property in the area.  Carole and I found our current rental home on this board.  A stop to peruse the board is a regular habit of ours.  Across from the board is an information booth staffed by volunteers which provides another key source. 

Rrrrribbbittt!  Many strange and wonderful critters can be found lurking about the paths through the gardens.  Wildly colorful ceramics such as this can be found in various parts of Mexico, especially Guanajuato whose inhabitants  are jokingly known as las Ranas (the frogs).

A spot for quiet contemplation.  Facing a cool green lawn, and shaded by a thick jungle canopy, this wrought-iron bench can easily seduce a garden wanderer into stopping  for a few minutes and sometimes more.

Another fish pond greets those who pass to the south side of the gardens. The southern portion of the facility contains various areas used for meetings, clubs, and classes. The fish pond in this area is a favorite of children who visit LCS since it teems with fish which seem equally curious about the visitors. Something about quiet bodies of water seems to calm the mind and soothe the spirit.

A face in the foliage.  I was attracted and charmed by the vignette formed by this bust set amongst the foliage at the base of a  large tree. This is one of my favorite photos of the garden because I think it captures my feelings about the place.

Gazebo serves multiple functions. Some of the activities held in this open air gazebo, or kiosco as the Mexicans would call it, include Spanish classes, line dancing, and philosophical seminars. The LCS official history mentions some sort of controversy about the decision to build the gazebo, but that seems long past and these days the structure is used and appreciated by all.

Ideal for cards, chess, or whatever.  This area, under the shade of a tiled porch, attracts morning coffee drinkers and board game players.  The tables, the tops of which are surfaced by beautiful and unique mosaic work, were donated by individual members to the LCS.

Still another odd creature peers out of the jungle garden.  A further example of the vivid ceramic work one finds all over the area.  

Stairway to heaven.  This wrought iron stairway leads upward to...nothing.  Just another example of the whimsical humor expressed by local artists. It does provide a great place for the local climbing plants to cling.

Wrought iron rabbit darts through the garden plants.  The artist caught the frantic movement of this metal rabbit as it flees an imaginary predator

A tribute to the Lake.  Local Mexican artist Jesus Lopez Vega painted this wonderful mural on the wall just outside the entrance of the LCS on the street leading to the Lake. Lopez Vega often uses animals and ancient symbols to illustrate his work.  The small objects under the turtle figure are clay vessels often found on the Lake shore when the water  is low. In ancient times they were used to collect blood from body piercings, along with other sacred substances. The vessels were then thrown into the Lake as an offering to the gods.  When I visited his studio, Lopez Vega allowed me to handle some of the vessels he had collected. Holding these delicate 500+ year-old objects in my hand gave me a feeling of connection to those ancient times.

Fish whirl and swirl under the surface of an LCS fish pond.  The fish live in their own little world, parallel to ours, but not really connected.  Looking up at us through the wavering surface of the water above them, they may wonder at the odd spectacle unfolding above.

This completes my posting on the Lake Chapala Society.  If you visit Ajijic, it would really be worth a visit even just to sip a cup of coffee beside a fishpond and enjoy the sun as it lifts the chill off another beautiful morning.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Art of Ajijic's Plaza

Benevolent sun god breathes life into the Lake community.  Ajijic is an artist's town. It is many  other things, of course,  including an overgrown Mexican  village and haven for expats like us. But art thrives in Ajijic everywhere you look.  A great deal of art is concentrated in and around Ajijic's central Plaza and enjoyed by all, sometimes even as it is created in front of us. Much of the art is purely for the enjoyment and edification of the public.  Some of  the art helps draw attention to local commercial enterprises such as stores and restaurants. Even then the art goes way beyond a merely functional purpose.  The effect created is of living in an open air art studio and gallery.

The scene above is part of a huge mural by an anonymous artist on the front of the Marcos Castellanos elementary school on Calle Parrochia between  the Parrochia church and the Plaza.  An almost identical fishing camp lies at the foot of Calle Ninos Heroes about two blocks from where I used to live in Seis Esquinas.  I have often stopped to admire the fishermen's nets strung up and shining in the sun as they dried, while the women busied around their pots and played with their children.  This scene would fit as well in the 16th Century as the 21st.  

Lake Goddess. This is the central panel of the same mural. Here the Lake Goddess is portrayed simultaneously providing water for campesino crops, fish for the fishermen, and power for the industry. Unfortunately, for many decades, industry upstream from the Lake has dumped pollutants, and the Lake has been abused in other ways. Local environmental authorities  and politicians say the water is as clean as some Southern California beaches. Local Mexicans swim, fish with hand nets up to their waists  in water, and consume the products of their efforts. Many of us in the expat community remain skeptical, but greatly appreciate the efforts to clean up this wonderful Lake.  

Storm goddess provides rain.  At the opposite end of the Marcos Castellanos mural, a storm goddess blows rain  squalls across the lake.  A mother holds up her baby to suckle  the milk from the storm goddess' breast, while children are bathed and fishermen work.  The best parts of some of these murals are the details and little side stories they tell.

Women toil at age-old tasks.  Detail of Marcos Castellanos mural. Local women still cook in large vats such as the one seen above. Wooden fishing boats of this distinctive design can be seen all along the Lake, sometimes ready to use, sometimes rotting in disrepair.

Fishermen draw in their nets and pile their catch.  Detail of the Marcos Castellanos mural. While I have observed substantial  catches in villages such as the south shore's Petatan, generally the fishermen on the north shore don't seem to pull in catches of large fish like this. The Lake used to be famous for its delicately flavored White Fish, but these are almost extinct. Charal are small, sardine-sized fish which are taken in some quantities and are eaten dried or deep-fried with lime and salsa.
A work in progress.  One of the most intriguing aspects of Ajijic's public art is that which is created before us. Estella Hidalgo, a local sculptress, has been working on this tree stump for more than a year.  To date, it has proceeded considerably beyond the condition above. The title of the work is Escencias de Axixic (Essences of Ajijic). She works  on it several days a week. Originally it was a huge old tree shading the Plaza.  Remarkably, rather than cut down these old trees as they die, the town authorities decided to turn them into material for local sculptors. Estella uses a chain saw as well as a chisel and mallet.  She speaks English well and is quite friendly to those who stop to observe and ask questions. As she works, tourists gawk, vegetable vendors hawk their products, and a local balloon seller entertains the children in the Plaza.  All in a casual afternoon's stroll in the Plaza.

Another tree under "reconstruction".  A different sculptor has been working on this old stump, just opposite Estella's work.  Since this was taken, the two branches have become the heads of vibrantly alive fish, with the smaller branches as  their fins.  Notice the wonderful tile work along the bench-like retaining wall.  Functionally unnecessary, but a beautiful touch by the local authorities.  It took a lot of careful work and manhours to do this all around  the Plaza, but in Mexico they say "things are expensive, but labor is cheap".  Just the opposite of up north.

A finished product.  This stump, diagonally across the Plaza from Estella's work, is the finished work of Antonio Lopez Vega, one of a family of local artists who have created extensive murals and other art work around Ajijic.  The mythology of the Lake Goddess is a favorite topic of Lopez Vega and many other local artists.   

Kinetic "Big Bird" sculpture draws attention--and kids. This tall stone and metal sculpture by artist Daniel Palma is delicately balanced so that with a small push, it will dip its beak quite low while its tail feathers rise.  A large oval stone forms the main body and fulcrum, while the neck, legs and tail are sculpted  metal. Standing straight up, the sculpture is probably 10-12 feet high. Children find its movement irresistible, but parents need to be cautious because the beak can give a substantial "bonk" to the unwary.  In the background is the Centro Cultural, a fixture in many Mexican Plazas.  Ajijic's has regular shows and exhibitions which change every couple of weeks. The Centro also sponsors dance groups and puppet shows and much more, all free.

Alert metal deer peers from Plaza foliage. This work, by an artist presently unknown to me, is another charming example of Mexican whimsey.  It's just there, to be stumbled upon as one walks through the byways of the Plaza.  With a sensitive nose in the air, the deers looks poised to bolt at the first sign of danger.

Cuppa "joe" anyone?  Wall painting by Bruno Mariscal.  One finds Mariscal's work in odd corners all over Ajijic. This is one of two paintings on the wall of the patio of the Jardin Restaurant, one of our favorite "watering holes".  The Jardin is popular as a meeting place because of its location on the corner of the Plaza, overlooking most of what goes on. The painting is remarkable in that the table appears real until you examine it closely and discover it is simply another part of the painting. A typical feature of Mariscal's work is a scene of the Lake shore with anthropomorphic trees. I have also found his work on small neighborhood shrines to the Virgin of Guadalupe, and in the Chapel shrine seen high on the mountainside overlooking Ajijic.

Commercial art, but art nonetheless.  I found this wall art, and the one following, on the side of a new store called Arte Precolombino which sells reproductions of pre-hispanic art and sculpture.  The store is owned by Elizabeth Guzman Perez. 
Fearsome El Tigre. Another decoration on Arte Precolombino.  The store  is located at the intersection of Castellanos and Guadalupe Victoria, just across from the fountain  at the entrance of the Plaza.

The art of assasination. Political art is very common in Mexico, much more so than north of the border. This was one panel of a 1/2 block long mural painted by Isidro Xilotl in 2000. The mural is located on the wall of the alley leading into the Plaza from the fountain.   Titled "Bienestar para tu familia" it is based on the investigation of journalist Jose Galindo into the assasination  of presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio in 1994. There are numerous theories about who really killed Colosio and why.  Some of the possible suspects  are gathered like vultures around his body, including a balding then-President Carlos Salinas, a representative of the Catholic Church, and various other politicians and shady businessmen.  
Breaking the chains.  Another panel in the Isidro Xilotl mural shows a classic "social realism" scene of workers breaking their chains and marching together into the sunlight. There is a long tradition of such art in Mexico, particularly flourishing in the 1930's with great muralists such as Diego Rivera and Orozco.

There is much more to Ajijic Plaza's art scene, and even more from the streets of the town.  I will show some of this in the future, but my next blog posting will focus on a recent trip Carole and I took to Manzanillo, a beatiful beach town and the busiest port in Latin America. 

Hasta luego!  Jim

Friday, January 2, 2009

Tonala folk art Part 3: The Master Potter

Ferocious cat seems ready to spring off this damaged pot.  The pot, created by master potter Salvador Vazquez Carmona of Tonala, sat in a corner of his rustic workshop waiting for repair of a crack. In spite of the flaw, the work shows the liveliness and originality which mark his work.

This  is the third and final posting in my series on Tonala, Guadalajara's folk art center. For information about Tonala and various free and paid tours you can take to the many folk art workshops and showrooms, check out Part 1 of this Tonala series.

Salvador Vazquez Carmona at work in his shop. An internationally known potter whose work appeared in the book Great Masters of Mexican Folk Art, Sr. Vazquez' work is also exhibited in Tonala's National Ceramic Museum. Even so, his shop and studio are humble.  As is the case with many Mexican artists, his shop is part of his home. The entire front of his property facing the street is a small sidewalk Mexican restaurant run by family members. To enter, we walked through the restaurant, into the small courtyard in his house, and upstairs to the workshop.  He was at work at the time.  Sr. Vazquez is a small man with a soft voice who exudes a deep, quiet dignity.  His family obviously reveres him, as do his fellow Tonala potters. The picture above is not entirely my own, but is my photo of an unknown photographer's work hanging on the wall of Sr. Vazquez' studio. My thanks to the unknown photographer. 

Working on the details.  As  we watched, Sr. Vazquez painted fine details on a large pot. Although a man in his 70s, his eye is keen and his hand steady.  He is teaching his craft to his sons and also has instructed numerous apprentices who later became significant ceramic artists in  their own right. One of these, Juan Antonio Mateos, showed up at 7:00 AM for his first day as instructed. After two hours Sr. Vazquez showed up and opened the shop. This same scenario went on for several days. Finally the apprentice asked why he was told to come at 7:00 when work didn't begin until 9:00.  Sr. Vazquez told him that it was a test of his seriousness. Sr. Mateos later became a gifted potter in his own right.  
Doing it the old fashioned way. Sr. Vazquez and his work are distinguished by techniques that pre-date the Spanish Conquest.  Tonala was a great center for religious ceramic art when the Conquistadors arrived in the 1500s. Above, Sr. Vazquez uses a stone to smooth and burnish the surface of a pot. This technique is called brunido (burnished style). By training his sons and other apprentices in these practices, he is attempting to keep alive a form of art that is truly ancient.  

Animals play a big role in Sr. Vazquez' designs. As you will see in the work shown throughout this posting, cats and birds are recurring figures. Such animals have deeply symbolic meanings in the pre-hispanic mythology of the indigenous people.  A nahual is a being who shape-shifts between human and animal form.  Sr. Vazquez often decorates his work with nahuals in the form of smiling cats. 

Story of an  angry wife?  When I first took this photo, I was mainly attracted by the warm earth tone colors not only on the plate, but on the wall in back of it. Later, as I looked at the photo in preparation for this posting, I began to see that the plate actually tells a story.  A man with glassy eyes drinks from a bottle while he lies by his agave field.  Agave was used by ancient indigenous people to make intoxicating mezcal. This was later refined into tequila by  the Spanish. A figure, perhaps his wife, stands over the drunken man with an angry expression while waving a small sickle. I regularly see campesinos carrying a similar tool while they climb into the mountains to tend their small agave fields. Meanwhile, the nahual overhead grins in amusement.  There is an old saying in Mexico: "Para todo mal, mezcal; para todo bien, tambien."  "For everything bad, drink mezcal; and for everything good, you also should."
Another nahual peers out from a palm jungle. The long-necked cat with the body of a snake is surrounded by vegetation in the form of spirals.  I have examined ancient Mexican petroglyphs carved into the rocks near sacred sites which exhibit these same spiral shapes. 

Almost ready to take flight. These doves sit in realistic postures as they peer toward the light. Birds are another symbolic animal appearing regularly in pre-hispanic mythology.

A shape-shifting owl takes wing.  Owls which become witches are called lechuzas. This one appeared on a large pot, perhaps four feet tall.

An eastern influence? This delicate portrayal of perching birds with long black tails reminded me of ancient Chinese ceramic patterns I have seen. 

The Mexican national emblem came from Aztec mythology.  The design on this large pot shows an eagle, sitting on a nopal cactus, clutching a snake in its beak.  The ancient Aztecs believed that their ancestors, who came from the north, had been told by their god that their wanderings would end when they found a place with an eagle devouring a snake while sitting on a cactus plant. Aztec legend says that place was the Valley of Mexico, which became the heart of the Aztec Empire. The use of this symbol demonstrates the complex political and social relationship  between the decendents of the Spanish conquerors and the indigenous people. The emblem was adopted in the 19th Century in an attempt to achieve political unity.

This completes Part 3 of my series on Tonala.  If you ever visit Guadalajara, please make every effort to visit Tonala, one of the most fascinating places I have found during our Mexico Adventure. 

Hasta luego!  Jim