In my wide and varied travels over the last 40 something years I have encountered a large variety of individuals, and inevitably in some of those meetings I have run across many humble people that have unselfishly dedicated themselves to the betterment of mankind.
From benevolent Prime Ministers to Queens, Kings, Secretaries General of the United Nations, Senators, Congresspersons and Despots, with the occasional former Attorney General on the run after a massacre.
I dutifully listened to their stories, spent a lot of time learning from them, with my special thanks going to two exceptional personalities, Former Secretary General U Thant of the United Nations, and Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, two of the wisest men I have ever had the pleasure of conversing with, on an informal person-to-person basis. Both of them spent many years as expatriates, away from their people and homeland.
As much as I admired those two gentlemen, one from Burma, and the other from Fiji, it was my encounters with free-spirited artists that gave me even greater inspiration to do the best at what I was doing.
No matter where in the world I was, I would always stop and quietly admire those who were sitting in the middle of Venice, at Mesoamerican ruins, or in the Recoleta Cemetery with a sketchbook or completely set up with their easels, battling the mosquitoes and the elements to create their vision of the present, past, and future. It was something that I always considered a minor miracle, that artists could take the scenery and transform it onto canvas or paper. I, on the other hand never evolved much beyond stick figures drawn by 5 year olds, having no discernible artistic talent. I had to resort to photography to capture the image, and then work for hours in the darkroom with my nasty Cibachrome chemicals, which were so toxic that I had to neutralize them before putting them down the sewer.
Nowadays, my creativity has no more chemical boundaries. My digital photographic equipment renders me images of such clarity that, with the use of several computer programs, I am able to create the type of images that I could only dream of yesteryear. Yet still, I am inevitably drawn back to my friends who put their creations on canvas, paper, and board, because it is an art form that I know I could never master.
So without banging my own drum anymore, let me get to the point of this article, and that is the introduction of a few of my artist friends, many of whom spent years roaming the globe, refining their talent, observing, and working all the time, all the while living modest and sometimes what, to the “normal” observer, would be considered crazy and sometimes bordering on lunacy. I never felt out of place, being a “mere” photographer among them, and it was through our mutual wanderings in search of inspiration and knowledge of the world that we really bonded.
My comings and goings in places like Pátzcuaro would lead to incredible parties that brought the likes of Judith Deim, John Jordan, Vatché Geuvdjelian, Ralph Gray, along with many other artisans, sculptors, writers, and musicians together, where many times the evening would start out in the late afternoon, with electric spaghetti, mucho cerveza, wine, tequila, pulque and one of our sentimental favorites, Charanda con E-sprite, along with the kind of substances existentialist Bohemians have consumed since the dawn of humanity. We would gather together and discuss art, read literature, create poetry, and make wonderful music that caused our dogs wonder what the hell was wrong with us, creating memories that will outlast all of us.
Unfortunately, we have lost three valued members of our eclectic community to the hereafter, but they have left behind a huge body of work that will remain as long as there are humans around to observe it. One of those artists is Judith Deim, a gypsy at heart, who managed to outlive the rumors of her demise that were greatly exaggerated when, all of a sudden, our house was overrun with all kinds of people from all walks of life and all parts of Mexico and the USA who were on pilgrimages to pay their final respects, convinced that Judith was on her death bed in her modest campesino house in Tzurumutaro, a small village outside of Pátzcuaro. Winged foreign relatives had flown in from all parts, when she promptly got off her supposed death bed, only to resume her work, although at a slower pace, until she finally peacefully passed away, on August 2nd 2006 at the beloved home in Tzurumutaro that she left full of her work.
In the year 2000, when Judith was 90, the award-winning documentary film about her life called Ghost Bird: The Life and Art of Judith Deim was made. During her lifetime, she traveled to Europe and North Africa as a single mother with four children, being particularly drawn to the gypsies in southern Spain, their communities, their music and dance, and their colorful personalities. Her children continued her cultural and artistic legacy, with her daughter Julie bearing her a granddaughter who was to become the renowned flamenco dancer, La Tania. But before that, she had been a close friend and Muse of John Steinbeck, who funded several trips for her and her artist husband to Mexico, a place she returned to after in the 1980’s, only occasionally returning to the US. Judith, to our great horror, insisted on driving herself everywhere, and did all her own shopping, where she first came to my attention in the Indian market in Pátzcuaro, where I was doing my daily fruit, vegetable, and meat shopping.
For more about Judith, see:
Coming out of the tented marketplace, I saw from behind a tall slender woman, hair down to her waist, with the typical Mexican shopping bag walking toward the center. She stopped at the steps leading up to a row of shops where Purépechas were selling those delicious sweet strawberries and turned sideways. I immediately recognized who this elderly woman was, as she was somewhat of a celebrity amongst the artist community, so I went up to her to introduce myself, but before I could, she turned to me and smiled, grabbing my hand, “Oh, you must be Jamie,” she exclaimed. “I have heard so much about you!”
I was flattered and immediately invited her over to our house for a party that night, which I was buying supplies for. I offered to pick her up and deliver her back to her house, and we strolled over to the Grand Hotel to have coffee and chat. It was the meeting place for all expats of the world during the daytime, as we could sit at the sidewalk café for hours and watch the busy little town going about its business. Friends came and joined us, we moved on to lunch, and someone who lived closer to her house offered to bring her to the party that night and return her safely back to her house, as her night driving was even more hazardous and everyone kind of looked out for her.
Eventually our little gathering broke up, as I had to get home to start cooking my Electric Spaghetti, which had become infamous for its superb flavor, available with or without meat, as well as with or without added herb.
We had invited about 10-15 people, but as usual about 40 showed up, bringing several accomplished and famous artists and writers together in our Purple House. The eccentric painter John Jordan, whose passion was envisioning Chakras and building geodesic domes, was a lively entertainer of all present, and is one of those free spirits who is no longer roaming the planet.
And the other is an early Pátzcuaro expat named Ralph Gray, who showed up with his daughter, Monica, both of them prolific artist as well. Ralph had moved from Nebraska to Mexico in the 1940s, driving an old Chevy farm pickup, and had ended up at the far reaches of Lake Pátzcuaro in the Mexican village of Erongaricuaro, or Eronga for short. He charmed Mexico’s first female mayor and they shortly after married and had two children, Guillermo, who would go on to become a somewhat infamous singer of old Mexican ballads, and the daughter Monica, who, inspired by her father, went to art school in Arizona and became a multi-media artist, for a while dividing her time between Pátzcuaro and the USA.
People kept showing up at our party, and finally Judith arrived, announcing to the world that she was hungry as a bear and was looking forward to eating my world famous Electric Spaghetti. So without further ado, dinner was served, and before I knew it, I had to cook more pasta. There was enough sauce to go around for two helpings, but I underestimated the amount of guests we would have. Without being asked to, someone took it upon themselves to go to the nearest store, at the base of our steep and horrible driveway, to get more pasta.
After dinner the serious imbibement began, the instruments came out, and the party really got rolling, with the levitation of John Jordan, followed by his Spiderman act, where he climbed up the walls in the living room. (I have a lot of this event on old Hi-8 video, which we looked at before leaving the States, just to make sure that is was not just a wonderful dream!)
Judith entertained us as well with her regal flamenco dancing, and we all sang, drank, laughed, and smoked those horrible Mexican Faro cigarettes. At one point we had to send someone out again for more alcohol, and Monica, being a former “Junior,” one of the privileged persons of Mexico, knew just who to go to who would open their shutters and sell us what we needed that night.
Way too soon, daylight became visible to those of us who went up on the roof of the Purple House. The statute of Morelos on the Island of Janitzio in Lake Pátzcuaro was bathed in the warm early morning sunlight, and we reluctantly yielded the night to the sounds of the diesel buses and trucks that were laboring their way up to Pátzcuaro’s rejuvenating heart, where the daily ritual of setting up the market had begun a couple of hours before dawn, and all the produce from the surrounding farmlands was now being delivered for those who did their shopping very early. Vegetables and fruits, herbs and spices, chilies and maize, chickens, cows, and pigs that just yesterday were in their natural environment were now invitingly displayed at Pátzcuaro’s incredible municipal market, waiting for buyers, from housewives to restaurants to the eager expats who were always perusing the many and assorted fineries offered there.
Pátzcuaro was founded as a white invaders town, in about 1512. While the first Jesuit ruler was a brutal, heartless exploiter who was so bad that the church finally removed him, he was replaced by a much more benevolent Bishop, Don Vasco de Quiroga, a very enlightened priest who turned the region into an artisan center that survives to this day. Now, local “Indians” make everything from magnificent weavings, to hammered copper art, intricately decorated lacquer ware, distinctive pottery work, and many different wooden products, notably, structural carved beams as well as rustic and modern furniture, and the lake region has become a world-renowned center for its fine artesania.
Through the years, Pátzcuaro has become the home of many fine expatriate artists from all parts of the world. Outstanding among them today is Vatché Geuvdjelian, a multimedia painter, writer, and poet who has grown and changed in the 20 years I have known him, transforming himself from an excellent and creative artist into a legacy. Vatché was born into an Armenian merchant family in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 1956, and he has been on the move ever since. For more than a quarter of a century, he has been prolifically inspired at his home and studio near Pátzcuaro. From there, he bounces between Mexico, Canada, and the USA, with additional excursion to Armenia and Europe.
Vatché’s journey to Pátzcuaro reflects many an artist’s wandering of the planet, in search of his Muse. He first visited Pátzcuaro from Canada in 1983, at the age of 27, with his Mexican wife Sofia and their young daughter. The region around the lake left him with such an impression that the following year, he acquired a VW Camper Van, and moved his little family from Toronto to the Highlands of Central Mexico.
His formal art education began at the tender age of 7, with Raffi, a well established artist, as Vatché had shown substantial talent from an early age. He obtained his BA in fine arts from the university in Beirut, and subsequently attended 3 different schools in Toronto, where he studied figure painting. His style is influenced by no one in particular, although some of his most admired artists are George Barque, Emil Nolde, as well as our mutual friend, Judith Deim. When prompted to name one particular artist who influenced him strongly, he said it would have to be Paul Gaugin. Creativeness comes to him spontaneously, and his body of work includes many different schools of art. Recently, at a successful show in Mexico, he displayed 30 original oil paintings.
Some of his favorite Museums in the world include of course the Louvre, also the Courtyards Gallery Institute in London, which features one of the world’s great collections of Post-Impressionist art, as well as the Norton-Simon Museum in Pasadena, California. He considers the entire city of Florence, Italy to be one giant museum. Although he is a true Universalist, he favors Italy, Greece, and Morocco, while his true love is Mexico, where he has felt at home since 1984, 27 years, all told. But Vatché does not measure his life so much in time as in the artistic growth and creativity that living in Mexico has brought to him.
Support Art. It is the highest form of civilization. It is what makes us human!
To contact Jamie regarding this article, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author: Jamie Douglas is an Adventurer, Writer and Photographer with an amazing array of Nikon equipment, and a lifetime of experience traveling and documenting. To contact him for assignments and new adventures, email: jamie.douglas [at] yahoo.com
See more expat articles by Jamie at Expat Daily News and Expat Daily News Latin America.