San Miguel Allende has become globally famous for its huge expat community… one that began with a private art school started in the town that attracted US soldiers with GI Bill money to spend. What is not well known is that the local population is very traditional, and in fact, the whole state of Guanajuato has the reputation of being “mocho” (stodgy and religious). In San Miguel, tradition translates into a plethora of local festivals, processions and more. This makes the town even more attractive to foreigners, but that is far from the reason why locals preserve public spectacles.
Over the past months, I have been researching a book on foreign artists in Mexico. Not being an art expert, I have done a ton of reading both general and specific. It seems to me that artists are looking for something meaningful and sometimes get quite convoluted in that search, to say the least.
I may have seen in a small group of housewives what many of these artists are looking for. Tucked in a house just off the beaten path of touristy San Miguel Allende is a group of local women (and one gringo), who for 20 yars have met regularly to paint.
All of the women are traditional housewives ranging in age from 30 to 70-something. They are also joined by one expat, tour guide operator Joseph Toone, who introduced me to them. The group started getting together to do handcrafts and share time together. Then they met an artist named Esperanza Orvañanos from Jalisco whose work they really liked and she began to teach them how to paint on canvas. Originally their work was purely traditional religious imagery. Today, all but one have a strong preference for religious imagery. Their religious imagery is heavily focused on the Virgin Mary in various aparitions, but images of Jesus (especially as a child) and those of saints appear as well. However, members of the group branch out into other themes, such as flowers, landscapes and other folkloric imagery. In fact, they have done a number of María doll themed book covers for local resident Joseph Toone’s books on San Miguel Allende.
They call the oldest member of the group, Lupita Reyes, “Speedy Gonzalez” for her prolific output of paintings. Of the roughly 500 they have produced in all sizes over the years, they are convinced she has produced about 80%. They primarily work in oil, but work in other media such as pastels and acrylics, even mixed media, The mixed media works typically incorporate textiles, a throwback to their handcrafting days.
They spend about 6 or so hours a week painting together, but do not consider themselves commerical artists. Their religous work is not for sale, instead most are given away and have gone as far as the United States and Europe because of all the international contacts the women have living in San Miguel Allende. After all this time, they still consider themselves students of art using it as a kind of therapy. They have had only one formal exhibition of their work, but this is not a priority for the group. I noticed looking at the paintings in the workshop that there were a variety of styles and levels of talent, but I did not ask who did what. The main reason for this is that there is a comaraderie among the women which leaves no room for competition, and I did not want to intrude on that. In fact, some of the women did not want to be mentioned in this article at all by name.
I came away from my visit with these women impressed by the joy they have for their lives, their faith and their painting. It may be a lot to say, and an overeducated cynic like myself feels awkward saying it, but there really is no other way to express it. These women are a great example of religion at its best… providing happiness and a sense of purpose. They are traditional women, but not “mochas”… they have no sense of superiority and are really happy with their lives. It is something those of us who wander spirtually lack, and I admire them for it.
All photos except one are courtesy of Joseph Toone