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  • Natalie Taylor

THE HISTORY OF ART IN SAN MIGUEL: Nicolas, harvester of stars

Just about everyone is familiar with the artistic renaissance of San Miguel de Allende in the 1940s, with the arrival of three people from outside the community. Jose Mojica, tenor and Mexican movie star; Cossio del Pomar, a Peruvian artist and diplomant; and Stirling Dickinson, artist and visionary from the United States. The three men saw the colonial city of San Miguel which had fallen from its former glory into a state of decay, not as a dying community, but as a beauty that ought to be preserved and brought back to life. They teamed up to begin a program of preservation and protection of the old buildings, slowly moving the city towards its rightful place as one of the loveliest cities in the world.


Cossio del Pomar and Stirling Dickinson went a step further, they founded a school of Fine Arts that would elevate the city’s prestige artistically, and culturally. Once the school was established, and granted privileges as a school of higher learning, and capacity to bestow degrees, the two men set about bringing in renowned artists from around the world. And they accomplished this fully, with faculty and visiting artists like Federico Cantu, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Romeo Tabuena, Alexander Archipenko, Eleanor Coen, Pedro Martinez, James Pinto, and many others,  too numerous to list. The Instituto Allende became a prestigious college of arts, attracting students from all over the world, as well as artists who came to stay for the short or long term, who thrived, and left their works on walls of public spaces, and in galleries.


One thing that stands out among these artists, is that they were all outsiders. Of course, many were Mexican artists, but none of them born in San Miguel de Allende. But that all changed with one man—Jesus Nicolas Cuellar, a hometown boy, born and bred in San Miguel. And what is most special about him, is that he was not an art dabbler, he was a true artist who left a major body of work in this city. He once said that San Miguel was the best place to live, paint, and die, and did indeed remain here till his last breath.



Some two years ago I came across his works in a completely unexpected way. I was at the Biblioteca Publica when I overheard a woman speaking about placing an ad inside the framed display case. Curious, I asked what she was advertising. She told me about a new exhibit of her father’s artworks at the Angela Peralta Theater, and invited me to come to the opening. At that time I was writing about art in San Miguel for Atencion, researching ancient artistic treasures, and interviewing current artists. Having no idea who her father was, I first asked if he was a Sanmiguelense, to which she assented, and then, excited about meeting a local artist I followed up with: “Do you think I could interview him?” This is when I found out that I was at least twelve years late, Jesus Nicolas Cuellar had died in 2010.


Hortensia Cuellar Perez, his daughter, did not hold my ignorance against me, instead she invited me to the opening of the show. Not only did I learn about this important painter from San Miguel and saw his wonderful works of art, Hortensia became a good friend who is part of my life to this day.


Two examples of Cuellar’s work, showing the variety of subjects and styles.


Jesus Nicolas Cuellar was the youngest child in his family, born on September 10, 1927. Because the other siblings were so much older, he grew up almost as an only child, in a magical world he created in his own head. His talent in drawing and painting was recognized, and encouraged by the nuns in his elementary school. They fostered his artistic abilities by asking him to draw whenever possible. He soon became known as the “art kid” in his class. Most of all, Nicolas poured his heart and soul into his paintings. One of the most beautiful statements I have ever heard, were the words of Nicolas’ father. Whenever he returned from work, he would turn to his youngest son and say: Encuentrame en el tiempo y dame tu pensamiento—“Find me in the realm of time, and give me your thoughts.” I cannot think of more powerful, or encouraging words from a parent than these, and I have no doubt that they became part of his stimulus and inspiration.


Formal schooling for Nicolas ended with secundaria, and he moved on to making a living at whatever odd jobs his older brothers found for him. He did a stint, working at the Fabrica Aurora when it was still a textile factory—an interesting footnote, since his work was eventually exhibited in one of the premier art galleries there. In 2016 he had an exhibition in a show titled “Weaver of Dreams,” at the Scott Foreman gallery. Below is a painting bearing that title.

 

When he was 21, Nicolas married the love of his life—Maria Socorro Gonzalez “Coco,” and they began a family, she was only 18 at the time. They went to Mexico City and once again Nicolas’ talent was recognized, and he was accepted at the renowned art school Academia San Carlos. This was indeed a great honor, and an acknowledgement of his abilities as an artist. Unfortunately, his training at San Carlos was short lived because his mother became ill, and he and Coco had to return to San Miguel de Allende.


Returning to San Miguel did not end his artistic career, instead, it proved to be a godsend. Nicolas met Stirling Dickinson who was impressed with his work, and offered him a scholarship at the Instituto Allende. Here he became surrounded by great artists like James Pinto, Romeo Tabuena, Jack Baldwin, and Jose Chavez Morado. These famous artists had formed “The Key Club,” a private group to which only the best students were invited, and Nicolas was honored with an invitation. With the encouragement of these artists, Nicolas applied for a scholarship at the Brooklyn Museum of Fine Arts, and was accepted in 1959. But in 1963, when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, confronted with the turmoil in the United States, Nicolas returned to Mexico.


With Coco, and their six children, they settled in a house on Jesus Street, where Nicolas also had his studio. He was a prolific painter, and he tried many different artistic styles throughout his life, from realism to expressionism, to surrealism, and even abstract paintings. “Harvesting stars is what we artists do,” he would say. He also did some excellent sculptures, but remained true to what he loved best—canvas, paints, and a brush. Nicolas was not a great promoter of his art; instead, he preferred to sit in the Jardin and talk to people, and is still remembered for this quality of engaging people and exchanging stories. His colorful statements still resonate, such as a wish he once expressed: “I want to be harlequin, goblin, magician, artist, a pawn in chess, and king of painting.”


Cuellar’s workspace: Coco, his wife on the left, and a young Nicolas on the right.


When Nicolas Cuellar died in 2010, he left many surreal representations of life in Mexico, in his paintings, and particularly of San Miguel de Allende as it was when he was a child. It is a city of dreams, a childhood landscape filled with magic, beauty and color.



One particular symbol of San Miguel became almost like a second signature in Cuellar’s paintings—the Parroquia; and it recurs in so many of his paintings, regardless of style of the time when he painted it.



Whether the painting is a fairly realistic depiction of the cityscape, or a surreal vision with elements of cubism, the Parroquia is there. You might find it as a large, central figure in some of the works, sometimes almost hidden off to the side, or even as a small toy-like structure within a fantastical backdrop. The Parroquia is emblematic of San Miguel, as much as Nicolas Cuellar himself.


There is a current exhibit of the works of Cuellar at the Angela Peralta Theater, and it will be there the rest of the week. I highly recommend you walk through the exhibit and see some of the wonderful paintings on display. Get to know a major artist who was born, lived, and died in the city. He has been officially named by the city as “the San Miguel painter for the world.”


You may also visit his website at: www.cuellargallery.com

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