Artists in Mexico --- Contemporary Painting
Everett Gee Jackson


Lowelito always seemed to have art magazines with reproductions, mostly in black and white, of the paintings currently being created in Paris. He especially liked Matisse, even though he could not tell from the reproductions what colors Matisse had used. I kept noticing that in those magazine reproductions of paintings, buildings were represented as leaning in all directions, almost so far they should fall down. Some of those paintings might have been by Marc Chagall, the Russian painter living in Paris. Lowelito said the buildings were leaning that way because the artist had complete freedom. He said the artist could lean his buildings any way he pleased, because once they got into his painting they belonged to him.

At that time I was having fun discovering what was actually in the old building walls I was looking at each day, the walls of the old Spanish Colonial architecture in Mexico City. One thing I discovered while trying to paint those old walls was that the color I had formerly seen was a color I had "recognized." It was a color that had a name --- like red, or brown --- and it was certainly not the color I was now seeing. The color I was now seeing had no name at all, but was more like a force that came right to my eyes and penetrated my entire body. I also found that when I stirred together several different oil colors on my palette, including some white --- never mixing them to the point where they became one flat color, but letting each color continue to be visible --- the effect was about the same, when the paint was put on the canvas, as that of the old stone walls of the buildings. I called that effect the "quality" of the old walls. The reason I gave that effect a name at all was that I wanted to be sure Eileen understood what I was trying to paint. However, I need not have worried about that, for I soon learned that the color I had recently discovered was the color she had always been seeing.

But while the color I was now seeing was not the color people usually see and consider natural, or "true to nature," the shapes I was seeing remained about the same as those I had formerly seen, which are the shapes I believe people usually recognize. I did not feel it was necessary to change the shapes of the objects I drew in order to get their true visual effect.. For me the walls of the buildings did not need to be drawn as though the buildings were about to fall down, the way some of those painters in Paris were drawing them. Up until then, I had never seen any real buildings leaning over so far that they appeared to be on the verge of falling.

One morning Eileen announced that we should take a day off and go and see the Virgin of Guadalupe, on Teypeyac Hill. The story of the Virgin appearing to the Indian Juan Diego several times between December ninth and twelfth in the year 1531 was known to every man, woman, and child in Mexico, and perhaps to Catholics all over the world. Everyone knew that the Virgin had commanded Juan to go see the bishop and have him build a church on that spot, that Juan carried some roses wrapped in his blanket to the bishop, and that when the blanket was spread open there were no roses present but instead a beautiful painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe. A church, or basilica, had then been built in her honor, and that painting was now on view in the church, above the altar. We had heard that between the ninth and the twelfth of December thousands of pilgrims would be coming, so we decided to go there before the crowd arrived.

One cool, clear morning, Lowelito and Eileen and I went out to the village of Guadalupe Hidalgo, where the church was located. We went in a camión, because the distance was about nine miles.

When we arrived at the base of the raised plaza, or square, we stepped out of the bus. I looked up and saw before me on the other side of the plaza a large church with towers. It was dark against the light sky --- a large, reddish, irregular shape. But what really held my attention was the way the building was leaning over. It was leaning over so far that I felt sure it was about to fall. If only it would stay up a minute or two, I thought, I could call Lowelito. He would see that it was the same as the falling buildings in the Paris paintings. Since he had explained to me why those buildings in the paintings were falling over, perhaps he could now tell me why this real building was leaning so precariously. He and Eileen had walked ahead. They were now up on the raised plaza, walking toward the church calmly as though nothing unusual existed around them.

Suddenly Eileen turned. She and Lowelito were darkly silhouetted against the bright sky, like the dark church ahead of them.

"What on earth is holding you!" she asked. "That's the basilica. Let's go inside and see the Virgin." But I could not move forward. The leaning building had settled on the retinas of my eyes and had caused me to anchor my feet to the ground and stand rigidly erect. I knew I was holding that building up, and that if I were to move out of my tracks it would begin falling and would crumble to the ground, creating a great noise and sending dust high into the sky.

"You are not going into that building!" I shouted. "It's going to fall any minute now!"

Eileen turned around, and when she noticed that I was anchored in my tracks she came back for me. "I'm holding that building up!" I said."You and Lowelito had better not go in. But if you have to, I added, knowing how Eileen liked to explore, "then I'll stay here and hold it up for you."

The basilica did not fall. After all, the Virgin of Guadalupe was inside, and she could hold it without my help. She could hold it up as easily as she could turn roses into her self-portrait. I joined Eileen and Lowelito cautiously. My confidence in the Virgin grew, and the three of us entered the basilica together. As I stood before the altar and gazed up at the painting, I tried to let the Virgin know that I, for one, appreciated the miracle she was performing continuously as she held that great brick edifice together, defying all the laws of gravity. I told her silently that most people who came to see her only admired the miracle she had performed centuries ago, while ignoring the greater one she was performing day in and day out every day of the year. I also thanked her for letting me discover that the visual effect of buildings falling down is far more commanding and exciting than that of buildings balanced and static. Those Paris painters were making good use of their freedom after all.

---from Burros & Paintbrushes:
A Mexican Adventure
©1985, Texas A & M University Press

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