San Miguel de Allende, Mexico in the mountains four hours northwest of Mexico City, developed as a provincial art city in the 1920s with the establishment of the Art Institute, a huge castle-like building.
Now there are many art schools, photography workshops, galleries, museums, and concert venues.
For almost a century this area of Mexico has been known as a place to come for the perfect light, temperatures in the 80s and inexpensive food and housing. My daughter, Thea, and I took the bait.
We shared adjoining rooms decorated with Mexican antiques, an Art Deco bathroom with black and white tiled floors and walls, and large zebra-striped cabinets.
In the morning we came down to a kitchen decorated with hand-painted Talavera tiles.
On Monday,Wednesday, and Friday we stood at easels in the spacious downstairs studios and took lessons in charcoal drawing from Casa de Suenos’s owner, Keith Keller, a well-known local artist and excellent teacher.
I’d never had art instruction. Thea, on the other hand, demonstrated artistic talent early, and had taken a number of courses.
Our classmates, about 15 of them, ranged in age and background.
Most were attending the class for several months and were deep into complicated oil- painting projects: portraits, outdoor scenes and still lifes with backgrounds of bones, fruit, velvet, dolls, vases and other bric-a-brac.
A middle-aged woman who often drives down through Texas and northern Mexico was perfecting the skull of a horse in her oil painting. A nattily dressed Japanese woman did an exacting portrait of a friend.
An older American man dressed in black clothes and a black skull cap stood arched over an easel drawing abstracts.
For a lesson on perspective, our art class stood along Ancha de San Antonio and drew the angles and curves that led up the hill to the center of town.
Cobblestone streets lined by the common ochre walls of houses disappeared into a hill of trees, church spires, rooftops.
As soon as I started drawing, I felt relaxed and pulled into another world. I’d learn basic concepts and get lost in whatever piece I was sketching, hoping that later I could apply some of the insights on process to real life back home.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, Thea and I took a papier mache workshop several blocks away, where the wide Ancha de San Antonio veered to the left.
Lisa Simms, our teacher, explained the process of layering materials, leading us through the process over three days of pasting, drying, and painting.
After skimming through art history books for inspiration, I decided to make a modern abstract version of a 3,000 year-old Olmec mask.
Papier mache has long been the medium for statues and masks for religious festivals, and now dolls, animals, and especially chickens are
a fad in home décor.
Our tablemate, a college professor from Seattle, worked on a large Virgin of Guadeloupe with flowing purple dresses and gold veil. She told us that though she was Jewish, she’d imagined making one since her art history course 40 years ago.
At least once a day, Thea and I would make the 15-minute walk up the hill to the Jardin, a park in the center of the town square. We never took exactly the same route because the more we walked and read our guidebook, the more we wanted to see.
Before long we were finding our way to the top by looking for the lush trees of the Jardin rising up above the rooftops in the
center of the town square.
In the afternoons and evenings we explored cathedrals, markets, galleries and art museums. San Miguel has many 17th and 18 century buildings, including Bellas Artes, once a convent and now an art school with many galleries and a good café; the Public Library ( to check out local films, concerts, and art shows) now a cultural center; and the Church of San Francisco.
Dozens of galleries are to be found here, but we especially liked La Aurora Art and Design Center in an old cotton factory. It’s filled with studios furniture, jewelry, and antiques, and textiles, has a café with local dishes, and a museum of equipment used in 19th and 20th century textile factories, and offers classes.
We also ate lots of excellent food. Southern Mexico has lush farmland, so we often had succulent tomatoes, zucchini, jicama, and onions with fish from local lakes.
During the week I kept wondering why everyone seemed so happy in San Miguel. There’s a common belief that the city was built on slabs of rock containing narcotic substances, and the pleasure-inducing vapors rise up to the surface.
“You’re only here for a week,” said a woman who was drawing on the easel beside mine. “I’ve been here two months, and I’m depressed about having to leave in four weeks.”