Discovering art and self in Mexico

November 11, 1994|By Ann Oster

MY GRADES CAME this morning from the Institute Allende: Conversational Spanish, B; Crafts, C; Landscape Painting, A. They had taken 11 weeks in the Mexican mail to get here, and I thought this an auspicious time to put down on paper some recollections of my trip.

Handicapped by the unwieldy weight of easel, suitcase, backpack, canvasses, paints and a pocketful of the wrong kind of money, I made my way through customs in the Mexico City airport, and finally emerged at the taxi stand: my doorway to adventure. About an hour later I was, astonishingly, on the right bus, having attempted more Spanish words -- with clarifying gestures -- than I had uttered in the preceding 30 years. I looked through the dirty window at a landscape of crumbled buildings, dust, poverty and hundreds of Volkswagen "Beetles." I wondered if at 49 I had somehow become too old for an adventure. Luckily, the mariachi band got on at the next stop.

One month later, replete with experiences, I looked at the same landscape and saw riches. My fellow students, Maryland Institute instructors, the Instituto and the 16th-century silver city of San Miguel de Allende had sharpened my vision.

Nine of us set out for Mexico last June for the month-long educational program. We were a varied group: four middle-aged wife/mother/artist/teacher types, one young male artist, one artistic couple and two young women, each with plans that had more or less to do with our agenda. With all impediments removed, my own plan was to focus on creating art. I wanted to become a more skilled oil painter and discover whether I wanted to pursue landscapes as a subject matter.

What I really craved, though, was freedom. I wanted to find out what I was like in the absence of the social, personal and cultural paraphernalia I had collected in 20 years of being married and having two children in Baltimore. Despite varied goals, each of us finished with a sense of having accomplishedmore than we had set out to do.

I feel doomed in trying to summarize my month because the richness of the experience was in the minutia: other women, beggars, dirt, gentle men, artists, expatriates, no litter, the World Cup, rich doorways in shabby walls, 400-year-old olive trees, poverty, my own room, the crucifixion, oppression, walls hiding gardens, flowers growing in tin cans, gifted teachers, social responsibility, strays, grins, my impoverished vocabulary, feeling safe, afternoon thunderstorms, injustice, dignity, joy, bad smells, personal charity, witches, being a pedestrian, Indian Catholicism, layer upon layer of age, children watching, friendships, all of it familiar and yet completely different from my life in Baltimore.

My days began with the illogic of church bells ringing at random, starting sometime before sunrise. About 8:30 I would walk up the steep cobblestone street, occasionally having to dodge a basin of water dumped out a front door. I would wait on the high, narrow side walk at the massive wooden door of La Parroquia Cafe, thinking about breakfast, smelling flowers and other things, and savoring even the experience of having to wait for food because the senora was late opening.

Our studio at the Institute was my next stop to pick up pack, easel, canvas and hat; then out to paint. Group critiques, field trips, a religious festival day and lectures about Diego Rivera and the photographer, Agustine Casasola, and the Mexican elections punctuated and enriched my weeks. The time seemed to have vanished at the end, but left us full of something we had not brought to Mexico.

I reaffirmed that I am a serious part-time painter, that I like painting landscapes, but not as much as painting people. I learned that weaving is too slow a craft for me, that I am not my young self anymore, but I am more powerful than I thought. Most precious is a clearer perception of where my values, my community, my family and I fit into the world's fabric.

Ann Oster is an art teacher at St. Paul's School for Girls. This article appears in Spiritus, the school's annual magazine.

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