On the plane to Mexico City from Montreal I happened to sit beside Lilia, a young woman who had been part of Mexico’s Olympic gymnastics team during the 1976 Montreal Olympics. She was returning home to Mexico City after visiting friends she had made in Montreal.
It was December 30th, 1977, my 22nd year. I had been a gymnast in high school, giving me the tools to carry on a conversation with an attractive Olympian of my age. Short in stature and with compact muscles, both our body types were well suited to the sport. Lilia had been guided into gymnastics by her parents, who were school teachers in Mexicos public school system and avid proponents of a well rounded life and education. Gymnastics has everything, grace, strength, fearlessness. As the only daughter and youngest in a family with three boys, she followed a path of physicality while her brothers all became musicians and instrument makers.
My interest in gymnastics had been encouraged by my father’s athleticism. He had been a champion javelin thrower and top pitcher at Parkdale High School in Toronto, a skill he honed in the prisoner of war camp he was stuck in as a twenty-year old during World War II. Every time I see Steve McQueen in the classic film The Great Escape I think of my father, who was in the camp where the escape occurred. McQueen took a baseball with him into the “clink,” solitary confinement for having stepped out of line, bouncing it against the wall as he waited out his punishment.
My father didn’t like the cavalier attitude of the character McQueen portrayed in the film. Too American for a story mostly about Brits, Canadians, and Aussies. His own account of the 19 months he spent imprisoned included many references to the ball games he played in the camp, and a few close calls. He stepped over the trip wire defining the no-go zone of the camp perimeter one day to pick up a baseball that had rolled a metre or so too far. The tower guards turned their rifles on him and seemed about to shoot when another prisoner shouted out “Stop” in perfect German and then pleaded the case as a careless mistake. My father returned to the safe side of the line, with the ball.
When we were young, he bought weights and made a heavy punching bag from stones and foam for his three sons as we sprouted up into our bodies, giving us all a solid shape and foundation. He also taught us to box, holding our hands in fists with the thumb to the side so as not to break it in a punch. Self-discipline, however, was his first rule, something that served us well with the demanding sport of gymnastics. My brother Casey did giant swings on the high bar. I did an iron cross on the rings, although it was more a slow descent through the skill than the requisite 2 second hold. Still, it was enough to win us the City of Ottawa gymnastics team trophy.
Before we touched down in Mexico City, Lilia invited me to her parents’ home for New Year’s Eve dinner and a Mexican ritual: eating 12 grapes and making wishes while counting down to midnight. The experience, and an ongoing friendship with the family, introduced me to Mexican hospitality, and launched a period of intense exploration of taste, colour, sound, texture, and other delights of the body and the earth. It seemed like I had emerged from the quiet Yukon world of black, white and subtle greys into a peopled kaleidoscope.
Falling in Love with the Details
That night I stayed at the Gran Hotel Ciudad de México on Mexico’s famous main square, the Zócalo. My parents had treated me to two nights in this 5 star establishment to cement my pledge to re-engage with the world outside of Dawson City. They were afraid Casey and I would become stuck in Dawson, a place they considered isolated and lonely. I did not share their worry, but I loved the coloured lights and grandeur of the Zócalo, which houses in the National Palace a famous mural by Diego Rivera. A few days later I was in San Miguel de Allende north of Mexico City, where I would study art for the next 18 months.
To start, I took a three-month Spanish language course for four hours every morning. Afternoons were spent at the local market eating Aztec soup and trying to figure out what people were saying and doing. I learned about epazote, an herb routinely added to beans, quesadillas and mole, and its contribution to relief from flatulence and stomach cramps. Flor de jamaica )red hibiscus) iced tea, dos equis beer, and elotes, a grilled corn on the cob dipped in salt water and flavoured with lemon and chile powder, were added to my palate and vocabulary.
A small pulque bar on the edge of town offered a place to hang around peasants and small-scale entrepreneurs over a fermented drink from the ubiquitous maguey plant. The fresh sap delivered in the morning would be mixed in with a batch from the previous day to kick start the fermentation, much like the sourdough starter used for breads in the Yukon. By late afternoon the mix had about 8% alcohol. Patrons played a curious version of crokinole, involving a small wooden plate with a hole in the middle that men would toss coins at and win if it found the mark.
Image: Campesino after delivering the day's fresh pulque
Narrow cobble stone streets through the outer edges of town presented other unexpected delights: women washing clothes at a public fountain; kites made from bits of plastic and cloth stranded by the wind in the hydro lines; devotional nooks with small statues and burning candles.
Walking past the bus station, I would stand entranced by the performance of ticket-takers calling out destinations near and far. “Celaya, Celaya!” The code from bus conductor to bus driver — banging out one, two, then a rapid trill on the side of the bus — signalled stop, go, and back up slowly.
The centre of town offered a different perspective, especially as the sun began to set. Birds returned in numbers to roost in trees on the main square while teenagers strolled around the central square in an eventing ritual. Girls, arm in arm, moved clockwise while boys, also arm in arm, walked counterclockwise. Each chatted and joked within their own cluster, and smiled at others when it suited them. Castillos, castlelike structures of fireworks set up in front of the Gothic parroquia or church, gyrated, popped loudly and spun wildly into the air and across the main square in celebration of birthdays of saints, countries, and national heroes. Occasionally, a firecracker would bounce off the street, a possibility that frightened some and thrilled others.
The corner bar, a bare space of stone and simple tables and chairs called La Chucharracha, hosted people interested in serious drinking. A few American painters of local reknown were fixtures there, it seemed since the end of World War II when government pensions gave veterans a start at a new life. They had chosen to move to San Miguel, supplementing their modest wartime pension with sales of art, art lessons and marriages to hard working Mexican women. One painter )Ive forgotten his name), taught me how to use shape, light and the frame edge to push the eyes attention around a canvass. The lesson, and more general idea of reading a paintings movement, became a compositional tool in art I made in Mexico. The shots of tequila, chased with salt and lemon, eventually became too much for me, stopping my visits to the bar and sessions at his studio.
The sites and wonders of San Miguel, some quiet and some outrageous, some deliberate and some random, combined to trigger understanding of the language and culture. Curious, and blessed with a young brain, after three months I could speak Spanish well. By six months my accent and command of the language was good enough to create, at least for a few moments of conversation with Mexicans I met casually, the impression that I might be a fair-skinned and blue eyed compadre from Chihuahua or other northern state.
Facility with the language put me in a good position to join a unique program at the art institute in San Miguel. About 10 students and faculty spent two months working as illustrators for Mexican archeologists in Yaxchilán, a Mayan archaeological site on the border between Mexico and Guatemala in the heart of the Lacandon jungle.
Image: Temple 33, Yaxchilan, when I first came across it.
To get there, we gathered first at the Central Train Station in Mexico City, loaded down with supplies for our stay. The gear was too much for the baggage handler so half was left with me, the most fluent Spanish speaker in the group, while everyone else boarded the train. Twenty minutes later the baggage handler returned. He was agitated as he loaded the remaining bags on his cart. I remained calm. We went down the platform towards the baggage car. The train began to move. The baggage handler tried to match its movement. I responded, too. The train slowly gained speed. It departed the station without me or the baggage.
This was the first train I ever missed, a scene repeated many years later when I tried to board a train in Mumbai, India only to find that I could not squeeze myself into the coach door while also hanging onto my luggage.
The next day I boarded the train for the same 24 hour journey to Tenosique in the south west corner of the State of Tobasco, and was greeted on the platform with great fanfare by faculty and students desperate for their bags and supplies. I was an instant hero, having saved the entire expedition. Oddly, they had arrived only 10 hours before me. Their train had jumped the tracks shortly after leaving Mexico City, and they had spent hours being shuffled from one track to another until they finally arrived in Tenosique. We were then all ferried on a small plane into a grass airfield at one of Mexico’s most remote archaeological sites.
Life at Yaxchilán involved a level of discomfort not dissimilar to camping out in the Tombstone Mountains in the Yukon. We slept in hammocks strung between the posts of a large palm roof. Rice and beans were the stuff of every meal. We dug our own outhouse, closing it in and starting over every week. One morning, I tapped out the shoes I left on the ground below my hammock and out popped a black shelled scorpion. Mexico has the highest biodiversity of scorpions in the world, and at least 300 human deaths every year. I took the risk in stride by developing a shoe-tapping ritual every time I rolled out of the hammock.
The tall Ceiba trees and other tropical vegetation protected us from the direct rays of the sun, but the intense heat and humidity drove us every afternoon into the Usumacinta River for relief. Guatemala was across the river. I knew nothing of the country’s violent politics but soon learned of a headless body spotted floating down the river the previous year. We lay in the water on the narrow beach to cool off, but always with a watchful eye on the other shore, and on what might be moving through the water. Aligators, and poisonous water snakes, were of particular concern after a heavy rainfall when branches and others things were flushed out into the current to drift downstream.
The Usumacinta River was also the point of access for thieves attempting to steal artifacts. One incident after my time at Yaxchilán ended in a shootout and one dead attendant, described in an article in National Geographic about Ian Graham, an American illustrator from the Peabody Museum at Harvard University. I met Ian at the site, and watched him do illustrations of unusual hieroglyphs decorating a recently discovered circular stone altar more than a metre in diameter. He worked in the early morning hours, then returned at night with a flashlight to cast shadows on the fine details and adjust his rendering. The altar was later re-buried to preserve it from the heavy rains, and thieves.
The daily routine worked for me too, applied to drawing artifacts emerging from the site and making a record of visible corners and stairways of buildings otherwise covered with vegetation. The record meant the archeaology team could then begin exploring and reconstructing the structure. Learning the craft of technical illustration took me in a completely different direction from the loose water colour landscapes and conte figure drawings of my earlier Dawson days. Attention to detail was a must, but also to the overall coherence of the subject.
When a pen and ink drawing of a temple I had been working on for days became muddled, the teacher overseeing the illustration work told me to sit down and redo it in a single session. A successful product emerged from the directness and spontaneity, a lesson I later came to apply to work with brush and ink. Roberto Garcia Mol, the head archaeologist, also expressed satisfaction, noting that he could use the drawing both to guide the excavation and illustrate his reports.
A journal proved to be useful too, recording details of Mayan hieroglyphs and rules I used to make a wedding gift for my brother Steve and his bride. This is an excerpt:
April 20, 1978. I went with Roberto today to draw a burial at temple 33. The bones lay between the building and a three-metre stalagmite that had been removed from a cave centuries ago and erected like an obilisque at the top of a stairway far above the main plaza. Roberto cleaned the dirt from around the bones with a small paint brush, an ice pick and a pointed trowel, revealing the cranium, the vertebre, the humerus and other bones to make the position of the body clear for photographs and my drawing. We sweated, both exposed to the hot sun high above the canopy of trees below.
Roberto, the head archeaologist, mused that the buried man was probably low in the social hierarchy of the Maya, and may have been sacrificed when backfilling what he believed was a tomb below. He saild “More information about the Maya can be gained from two or three burials than the great building before us.” After the drawing was done, he slowly collected all the bones for further analysis.
April 30, 1978. Digging over the last few days has revealed an unexpected stuccoed wall, suggesting that the current building was part of an older structure. A few days ago the archaeologists had removed the remains of several other burials, some with a large ceramic plate covering the head and others with small ceramic heads representing the nine Maya gods of the night. Ernesto, Roberto’s senior assistant, was in charge when the workers, themselves Maya from the distant town of Oxkutzcab in the Yucatán, opened a cavity in the ground. He got down on hands and knees and peered into the hole with a flashlight. He could see the bones of a ruler, stretched full length among jade beads, gold figurines, and two large obsidian blades laid across the chest and between the legs. As it was near 2 pm, quitting time during the heat of the summer months, he covered the opening with a stone and returned to camp, announcing to Roberto and others, “I’ve found the tomb of Shield Jaguar.” The ruler, and his son Bird Jaguar, were prominent figures in hieroglyphs dated between 708 and 790 A.D. Ernesto and Roberto then went running up the building stairs to have a look. That night, Roberto brought out from a secret stash several bottles of wine.
Image: Workers at Yaxchilan.
A few months after returning to San Miguel from Yaxchilán I set out on a journey to get to know other parts of my new-found country, enroute to Guatemala. I purchased second-class bus tickets for towns or cities a day’s ride away. Often I wouldn’t get far, instead jumping off the bus with my small backpack whenever it stopped somewhere that looked interesting from the bus window. After visiting a local market or hanging out in the main square, I would purchase another ticket to continue the day’s journey on a later bus. Even on an art student’s savings I could afford to do this without hesitation, allowing me to touch and taste the offerings of many small communities and overlooked places along the byways of central and southern Mexico.
One village square I visited in Oaxaca had a small crowd of people gathered around a busker telling stories and performing magic tricks with a large and menacing iguana at his side. He would announce once in a while that the iguana was also a magician, and that it would soon perform a trick. I stood nearby, waiting and enjoying the man’s performance for quite some time as people came, dropped coins in his hat, and moved on. After more than an hour watching I realized that the iguana was not going to do a trick of its own at all. It was a bystander to the main act, just like me. Whenever the man mentioned the upcoming trick, however, the crowd murmured interest, dropped money in the hat, and watched as long as their schedules would permit. I imagine I was the only one to wait very long, like Vladimir and Estragon in Becket’s play Waiting for Godot, thinking the trick was imminent. It never appeared.
Slight-of-hand took on a different form in the market stalls, restaurants, and bus stops on my way south. Vendors held up two fingers in a pinching gesture to ask for patience, a hissing sound escaping from the lips of a patron brought attention and a smile from servers, bus drivers showed the back of their bent wrist and coxed elbow to express displeasure with a troublesome passenger. From a rancher I learned how to indicate the height of a beast using the side of the open hand, the height of plants using the palm face down and the height of a man using the index finger and thumb pointed to the sky. The language of Mexico involved the whole body, expressed crudely at times, often joyfully, and always laced with ironic humour.
Eventually I crossed the border to villages in the highlands above Huehuetenango in Guatemala. I met a Swiss woman on the bus making its way up the twisting road, and invited her to share a bed with me in the tiny hostel available in the village. She agreed, even though she could easily afford her own bed. It cost the equivalent of $0.25, even less than the hostels I had stayed at on my cross-country journey of Canada a few years earlier.
We witnessed a procession through the village that stopped for a few minutes at each house to share the blessing of the religious statue four men carried on a wooden litter. A young priest in the village engaged us in conversation when he realized I spoke Spanish well enough for him to recounted how the military was disappearing people. I later came to know that this period was the beginning of a systematic campaign of terror against the highland Maya, which lasted from the 1980s through to 1996. It reached its peak under Presidents Ríos Mont and Lucas Garcia, both of whom received lavish support from the United States. The strange mix of quiet resignation and resolve in the priest’s voice in the face of clear and present danger shook me. I wonder what became of him.
My companion and I returned to lower lands together, through Chichicastenango and on to Lake Atitlán. To explore the villages around the shore of the lake, I rented a dugout canoe, heavy compared to a Yukon vessel but stable in the wind. It took us three days to circumnavigate the lake, marvelling at the diversity of products in each village. Some cultivated Nanche (Byrsonima crassifolia) and Pitahaya (Stenocereus), small tropical fruits native to Central America. Others grew Sisal (Agave sisalana) from which they made rope. Green onions were a speciality in another village. All had small fields of corn, squash and beans, the “three sisters” of Mexican and Central American cuisine. We learned that sellers from each village gathered once a week in the market at Panajachel, each distinguished not only by their wares but also by distinctive clothing from home villages.
In one village, the men wore red and white striped pants cut-off below the knee like pirate attire while the women wore a solid colour skirt and precisely patterned heavy cotton blouse cinched tight with a waist band. Each village was different, and each villager dressed the same by gender, boy or man, woman or girl. A fisherman, surprised to see gringos piloting their own canoe around the lake observed when he heard of our plan, “Ah, you are going around the world.” It was a world of human and natural diversity far beyond my own home range.
We spent our last night together in San Pedro, a village that in 1978 was a prime destination for young people backpacking their way through Guatemala. In the late afternoon, a small group of men and women strip naked at a point of land along the shore and jump into the lake. A fisherman in his canoe was livid at the sight, and shouted at them until they returned to shore and donned their clothes. Later I spoke with him, hearing his words of anger at the deep disrespect shown to his community. The bathers were perplexed by the ruckus. Were they not in a land where people are close to the earth, native and natural in every way, including their experience of the body? I did not confront them with their ignorance of the place and sensitivities of people with their own ancient history and traditions.
Steve, an American man with a PhD in psychology and a penchant for eating peyote, taught me a different lesson. He told me of a trip he made from San Miguel to a highland village in Chiapas, Mexico. He lived with a farm family for a week, helping out in the fields. Every morning the man would sit down to a breakfast of beans and tortillas, which he ate enthusiastically. His young daughter brought him a lunch for mid day comprised of beans with fresh tortillas wrapped in an embroidered cloth. When Steve sat with him for the evening meal, and watched the joy of the man as he ate beans and tortillas for dinner, he couldn’t help but remark on his own culinary practice at home in Phoenix, Arizona. There, Steve said, he found all kinds of foods from many different countries. East Asian dishes, Indian curries, Italian pasta, German weinerschnitzel, and British fish and chips were all ready at hand. His host listened carefully, using a scrap of tortilla to wipe the edge of the bowl clean as he finished his meal. “Very interesting,” said the man, “But, haven’t you found something you like yet?”
As my brothers will attest, after living in Mexico for years I came to love rice and beans, and for a change, beans and rice. However, I never learned to relate the humour in Steve’s story as well as he had, even though I have tried.
Some months later Steve told me he was going back to the States to learn to become a small engine mechanic, a skill he thought he could use to support himself travelling anywhere in the world. He set himself the task, he told me, in the spirit of the Russian mystic George Gurdjieff, who gave his followers unexpected and difficult instructions to help them wake up to the world. A postcard I got later from Steve, still tucked away in my papers, contains a quote from xxx that is my reminder to wake up: “We cannot live for ourselves alone.” I believe that is true.
My photographs from the journey to Guatemala and southern Mexico, while numerous, are all a little cockeyed because while in San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas I put a container of yogurt in the bag that also held my camera. Predictably, it leaked into the camera, the now vintage Olympus OM1 recommended to me by my Dawson friend Grant. The camera still took pictures but the mirror that permits the photographer to see through the lens directly was stuck. I could point and shoot, but could never be sure of what was in and what was outside of the frame. The constraint prompted me to compose photographs with an ample background, stepping back further than the subject seemed to require and setting the focus to infinity. The light metre worked, so I could use the f stops and shutter speed to increase or decrease the depth of field and render the light. Context became part of my photographic repertoire and artistic journey.
My mom encouraged me to pursue the artist’s life even though to my father it was a direction as ephemeral and impractical as the wildly composed photographs. She understood. While a nurse by profession, she worked with beauty in the form of her own good looks, flare with clothes and skill in dance. She was, as my father said, a stunner. Thick and curly red hair, blue eyes and broad smile made her the talk of Englehart, a tiny railroad town in northern Ontario where she grew up in a household with 9 siblings. The young men there wooed her doggedly until my father met her in Toronto. Throughout her married life, surrounded by three boys and a stolid husband that could not dance, she yearned for expressive outlets. My study of art connected us as kindred spirits.
A Political Turn
In San Miguel, I made art of what I saw and imagined, in many styles and mediums as expected of art students exploring the world of art. I created portraits of Mexican peasants and working people and painted views of the dry highland landscape. For assignments in courses, I made copies of the works of European and Mexican grand masters, in conté, pencil, ink and watercolour. The Institute’s printing studio provided the means to make lithographs inspired by José Guadalupe Posada’s illustrations with skulls and bones to convey satirical and political messages. In the middle of the night I nervously posted one of my lithographs, decrying the hegemony of the PRI, Mexico’s ruling party for more than half a century, on the wall of the municipal building in the town square.
Gerald, a history teacher at the art school in San Miguel, deepened and broadened my understanding of Latin American politics. A Mexican born of English parents who had settled in Mexico after the World War II, Gerald became a Trotskyite when he went to study in London. This was a new political perspective to me, but one I learned to respect for its commitment to the downtrodden and willingness to put skin in the game. Gerald told me how he and other Trotskyites regularly went toe-to-toe with fascist skin-heads demonstrating on the streets of London. The resolve in his voice, despite his frail physique, was evident as he described the importance of confronting racism and anti-semitism directly and forcefully. In 1939 Trotsky was assasinated in Mexico while in exile from Russia and living in the home of Diego Rivera and Frida Kalo.
Gerald was also my roommate, in a rented house with a large patio and several bedrooms. Already an alcoholic when I met him, he meticulously planned each evening’s drinking session at Mama Mía, San Miguel’s most frequented live music and restaurant venue. To stave off dehydration, he set out a tall glass of water next to his bed before heading out. He also laid out the clothes he would wear the following morning. I used these tips myself on a few occasions, until some years later I quit drinking altogether.
Gerald inspired me with his politics, even though his own days of activism had begun to sink into a fog. When my wife Debra met him on a visit to San Miguel in the 1990s, his most valuable possessions had just been taken by a collection agency, including several paintings by a well-known American artist we had both dated. One painting remained on a wall at his house. It was one of mine, a brush and ink scene from the shores of Lake Atitlán in Guatemala. The collection agency knew nothing of me, an art student painting in many different styles and producing competent images but no work worthy of name recognition. They left it behind. Gerald was broke, but still happy with a glass of wine in his hand.
The municipal palace on the main square in San Miguel also housed the town jail. The parents of a young man arrested for petty theft asked me to visit him, to make sure he was unharmed and show that foreigners were watching. I photographed the police guarding the jail and inmates sleeping on the floor. It felt strange to be in the jail with the young man as his friends circled the square in their evening ritual of friendship and romance.
Some of my photography was inspired by George Kraus, an accomplished American photographer teaching at the institute. He introduced me to the possibility of constructed drama in photography akin to the works of Annie Leibowitz and xxx. This stood in sharp contrast to the documentary style of photographers such as Robert Frank I had studied in Montreal and Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Mexico’s most acclaimed photographer. Rather than revealing what is found in nature, an approach to photography without artifice, Kraus used imagination and models to create fantastical scenes. I never fully embraced his approach, although I produced a few images inspired by the fertile art of the Mexican muralist David Alfaro Sigueiros displayed on the walls of the Ciudad Universitaria and Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City.
Image: Self Portrait, 1978.
Outside of the art studio, I learned to weave on a hand loom and dye wool using Cochineal, a red coloured dye extracted from an insect (Dactylopius coccus costa) that makes its home in cactus plants. I chose this dye because Gerald had taught me of its use by the Aztecs, and its export to Europe during the Spanish colonization of Mexico. In the 1500s, Cochineal was regularly traded on the London and Amsterdam Commodity Exchanges. Today, it has no stock ticker but demand for natural food additives and dyes has revived cultivation in the Mexican state of Oaxaca and in the highlands of Peru.
Before finishing my degree, I mounted an exhibit of 30 photographs for the Institute’s Galeria Conde, selling many of them at the same $25 I had charged for water colour sketches in Dawson City. They were framed by a local artisan in thin brass tubes. Money to mount the exhibit came from gifts I received from my parents and fees for posing nude for the Institute’s life drawing class. The drawing teacher liked to use me as a model because I could hold an athletic pose for a long time, giving the students a chance to render details of muscles bulging under strain.
Image: Copy of a renaisance work.