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  • Natalie Taylor

THE HISTORY OF ART IN SAN MIGUEL: Art amid thousands of books

Updated: May 13

A stunning mural greets the visitor at the entrance to the Biblioteca Publica. As they enter the Tesoros bookstore, they are enveloped by luminous images on the walls and ceiling. The colorful mural was painted by local artist David Leonardo Chavez, whose unique style is defined by brilliant, primary colors, and larger than life figures, and themes. This particular mural was done in 2011, and constitutes part of Chavez’s public works—one of his most recognized murals is in the courtyard of Instituto Allende. However, the Biblioteca is honored by David’s mural in the bookstore, and another, just as notable, which graces the walls and ceilings of Sala Quetzal, inside the library.


The past incarnations of La Biblioteca Publica of San Miguel are varied and unique. Who could imagine that the old building on Insurgentes 25 began as a refuge for women, later became a slaughterhouse, then a flea market, until finally turning into one of the best bilingual libraries in Latin America? Its present use is as multi-faceted as its past. La Biblioteca is primarily, of course, a repository of books and other learning materials. But that’s only scratching the surface. It is also a place for classes, workshops, conferences, and informal gatherings. A large, beautiful theater provides a stage for plays and concerts, and together with a smaller—but no less lovely—Sala Quetzal, there is space for lectures, and informal talks. The coffee shop is a natural gathering place, and a hotspot for residents and tourists. The Biblioteca is not just a library, it is a space for the confluence of culture, art, and intellect.


There is another interesting feature that one might overlook, for lack of knowledge—the Biblioteca Publica has a significant collection of works of art, many on display for visitors. This article will feature some examples—it is impossible to cover all of them in one article—and information about them.


A very interesting mural is one of the walls of the Reference book section. It was done by Rosamond Campbell who was born in India in 1919, and raised in Australia. She studied art at the School of Fine Arts in Adelaide, then in Melbourne, and London. She lived and worked in Europe and Canada before moving to San Miguel de Allende in the 1970s with her husband, Ted Campbell. She spent the rest of her life in San Miguel, until her death in 2013.


Rosamond Campbell loved to experiment with different mediums, techniques, and styles, from realistic to neo surrealism. Although she was an accomplished artist, she suffered the fate of other women artists in being overshadowed by men, and was not exhibited as widely as she ought to have been.


Her mural in the Biblioteca, is a pictorial representation of the flora and fauna of the Bajio region. On the mural, the animals and plants are numbered, and a companion piece provides the names of each.  Another of Rosalind Campbell’s works is found in the catalog room. It is a six-panel study of oak leaves.


Toller Cranston, a beloved San Miguel artist, originally from Canada, settled here in the late 1990s.

He lived, and painted here until his death in 2015. Cranston’s artwork is eccentric, quirky, and absolutely unique. The painting in the Biblioteca, located in the same room where you find the mural of Rosamond Campbell, is a wonderful example of Cranston’s work.


As in many of his works, primary colors predominate. His fanciful depictions of men and women, in ornate costumes, hint at Eastern European and Asian influences.

       

Another important San Miguel artist is Mai Onno, who still lives and paints in San Miguel de Allende. Her representative, expressionistic painting at the Biblioteca is a good example of her own unique style, where vibrant colors predominate, hinting at nature stylized. This particular painting is located in the next room. 



In the same room, one can admire the works of a number of excellent artists. One of them is Romeo Villalba Tabuena, born in the Philippines in 1921, who took up residence in San Miguel in 1955.  In San Miguel, he became an integral part of the thriving, artistic community in the city, and found himself in great company with major Mexican artists like Rufino Tamayo, Jose Chavez, and Nicolas Cuellar. His style is easily identified because he depicted landscapes and common people of his native Philippines, and then turned to Mexico as a backdrop, where he found many parallels. Tabuena’s paintings in the Biblioteca show various musicians—a drummer, a flautist, and a guitarist. The final one is a drawing of water buffaloes.

An artist whose name is deeply connected with San Miguel de Allende is Stirling Dickinson. He is known best as one of the people responsible in bringing San Miguel toward its position as an artistic, and cultural community with the founding the school of fine arts—The Instituto Allende. However, he was an artist in his own right, and he has a few representative works at the Biblioteca. The linocuts on display at the Biblioteca show San Miguel de Allende as it used to be.



An intriguing painting also hangs in the same room. Untitled, its subject matter is anyone’s conjecture. The painting shows what looks like ruins, a gate, and in the far right someone—possibly an artist with a color palette working on a painting. A mysterious woman, with high heels and a femme fatale look, is stepping on a stairway past a dormant dog, perhaps curled around a sleeping person. Or is the person dead, and the dog is keeping guard?


What is striking here is the subject matter—a bizarre landscape, done in bright colors. It is a work that calls for a lot of time to absorb what the artist was attempting to convey.


Enrique A. Cervantes (1898-1953) was a Mexican engineer, photographer, and a painter as well. He spent his life capturing the architecture and decorative arts of colonial Mexico in photos, and drawings.


High on a wall, in the same room, hangs a small landscape done in watercolors. It is a depiction of a Mexican colonial town, with a backdrop of mountains. The painting has been identified as the work of James Pinto, an excellent artist who worked in San Miguel in the post-WWII era.


Originally from Yugoslavia, where he was born in 1905, Pinto moved to Mexico in the 1930s, when Mexico City had become “the Paris of Latin America,” and then moved to San Miguel de Allende in the 1940s. He studied muralism with David Alfaro Siqueiros, and became embroiled in the political turmoil that led to the deportation of some students—Pinto and his wife were among those deported. They returned to San Miguel, and he continued to teach and create several murals at the Instituto Allende. He died in San Miguel in 1987.


Aside from artists whose names are recognized, there are many anonymous works, or works by artists that may not have gained much recognition. These works are quite lovely and are worth seeing. Though many works are in storage, a considerable number can be appreciated on the numerous walls throughout the Biblioteca.


Armed with this information, you may now visit the Biblioteca Publica as an art gallery. Go ahead and view the many paintings scattered throughout, and enjoy learning a little bit about each of the works, and the artists who created them.


Finally, there is a group of paintings that present a special puzzle. They are interesting because of the subject matter, or their questionable age, or even the possibility that they may have been painted by a known artist, but were left unsigned. The room in which they are found has been informally named “the mystery room,” and the hope is to have someone identify them with time. I will present these works in a future article about the Biblioteca.

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