In this wide ranging interview, Jesús Lopez Vega talks about his childhood painting in Neill James’ art program, his life, and his theory of how she got the idea for the Mexican library and the Children’s Art Program that is still held at the Lake Chapala Society (“LCS”) every Saturday morning.
Our interview took place at Jesús’s studio/gallery where he began by explaining the techniques of the piece he was working in an ancient technique known as encaustic painting.
The Early Years
I was born on December 8, 1962 in Ajijic on Juarez Street in my grandfather’s house on my mother’s side. My first memory of Neill James is from when I was 6 or 7 years old when I went to the Mexican library that was in my grandmother’s house. I didn’t know what a library was or exactly what was going on there but I always saw a Mexican lady with white hair washing the street outside. It was a very quiet place with a lot of books.
The first thing I remember is passing by the house when I saw a whole bunch of paintings inside and there was a Mexican lady reading a newspaper on the patio, and in the front of the house there were a lot of books in Spanish. There was a sign on the wall that said something like, ‘First you do your homework, then you can read a book.’ So I went inside and I was looking at the paintings.
There was a small table and Doña Angelita Aldama, the Mexican librarian, came over and said, “You need to wash your hands, your elbows, your face and come over here.” But I wanted to go with the other kids because they were painting in the back patio. She said, “No, wait, if you want to paint, you have to read or do your homework first.” Those were the rules that Neill James gave to Doña Aldama. I looked and saw a big collection of books by Darwin about evolution and somehow I knew, “If my Mom sees this, she won’t like it!” Angelita said, “You can read that book if you want”, and she showed me how to spread out a newspaper and open the book on top of it. She said, “Don’t put saliva on your fingers. If you don’t know how to read, I’ll show you.” I was looking at the book upside down, just looking at the pictures.
But what I wanted most was to paint, so finally she said okay and gave me a paper and crayons. I said, “But I want to paint”, and she responded, “That’s for later on, for now you get to draw with crayons.” Then I saw Neill James, she came over and she was selecting some of the works to take to the Galeria del Lago [Editor’s note: the only art gallery in Ajijic at the time] where the Cultural Center is now. The Galeria had works by Antonio Cardenas and Javier Zaragoza (the older students), and many American and Canadian painters. Each painter had their own booth and there was a little place for the Ajijic Children’s Library painters.
We painted every day after school and I continued painting from approximately 1969 to 1974. There was a small group of us who were constantly painting and I was taught by Fernandino Padilla, who was a great teacher and did some murals in San Francisco. He was one of the first generations of painters in the Children’s Art Program, and a contemporary of Javier Zaragoza. There were four generations of painters who passed through the Children’s Art Program. The Children’s Art Program was like a school and I remember that I got the chance to experience different styles of developing art, so it was really a school.
I remember also when I was about six years old, she started a Japanese garden on her property with peacocks that yelled loudly. Our house was 1/2 block from LCS and the big piece of land diagonal to LCS belonged to my grandmother. It was a big property with mango trees and chickens. There was wealth in Ajijic in the 50’s, not in a monetary sense, but in the sense of an abundance of fruit, corn, chicken and fish.
In the 60’s Neill James began a silk weaving project for the village with a hand loom based on her experience in Japan. She began with my mother, my aunt and some other ladies. I was around five years old when I saw a lot of tourist buses coming from Canada and the States to her store. This was before the Children’s Art Program started. She had mulberry trees and started a textile business and the village ladies started making money with silk cloth and embroidery. Even Hollywood stars came to buy those products and Ajijic was known for that before it became known for art.
U.S. and Chapala
I went to the states with my aunt and uncle and attended junior high school in La Puente, California. Me and Andrew Shaw, who was from Japan, were the number one art students in the school and I did my first mural in that school. I went to high school through 10th grade but I didn’t like the gangs and things like that so I decided to return to Ajijic. I finished my formal education in the Chapala preparatory school and I kept painting.
How did Neill get the idea for the Children’s Art Program?
I think she got the idea for the Children’s Art Program partially from Japan. When I was in the U.S. with my Japanese friend, I learned that art is very important in Japan. She was a world traveller to many countries and she spent time in Japan and some time with the Otomis [a Mexican indigenous tribe].
She also lived in Mexico during the nationalistic time with people like Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco. After the Mexican revolution there were many great Mexican philosophers and thinkers including Román Piña Chan (a famous Mexican archeologist and anthropologist), Augustin Yanez (a governor of Jalisco and Secretary of Education under Gustavo Dies Ordáz), and Jose Vasconcelos. The Mexican revolution created a Mexican renaissance in literature, music, art and poetry. Neill was in Mexico during this renaissance and that’s how she learned about the program of Jose Vasconcelos, who was the Secretary of Education under Alvaro Obregón. Mexican education started spreading from Mexico City to the entire nation. The focus of Jose Vasconcelos was education over religion, particularly science, and she brought that idea from Mexico City to Ajijic.
She didn’t speak much Spanish but she understood everything and she had a big dog called Mariposa (Butterfly). She was something like a Buddhist and she did things like teach her gardener how to make compost and she told my aunt and those who worked for her that they needed to eat lots of vegetables. Sometimes she dressed in an Asian style and she had the Japanese garden on her property with the goldfish pond. She also brought orphans from Guadalajara to the property to visit and there were children running around the property all the time.
Now after 25 years the Children’s Art Program is very strong. Neill James’ passion was always the children and she believed that the children were the answer to Mexico’s problems.
The Ajijic Cultural Center
My dream is to have a museum in Ajijic. We have a collection of pre-Columbian art and our goal is to have a museum. A group of us got together and created the Ajijic Cultural Center which is the echo of the Children’s Art Program.
To New Expats
To the new expats coming to Ajijic now, enjoy the community and the culture here. Get to know the history of the Lake Chapala Society and the Children’s Art Program, which is Neill James’ legacy. Visit the art galleries which are also part of her legacy, and the Cultural Center, which is an echo of her. Enjoy the life of Ajijic which has been bicultural ever since World War II. Take care of the environment here, which is precious. Ajijic is for everybody! Even with all the people here now, you can still sense the original feel of the village.
By Jesús Lopez Vega as told to Bette Brazel