Paradise Found | San Miguel

San Miguel de Allende
San Miguel de Allende

By Bonnie Gangelhoff

Winding cobblestone streets, earthy red- and mustard-colored buildings, and courtyards brimming with bougainvillea—San Miguel de Allende in central Mexico is a seductive little city that has long been known as an artist’s paradise. For decades, artists from the United States have converged on this scenic mountain town. “Every time you turn a corner, you run into something you can paint,” says artist Jerald Peterson, who lived in San Miguel for four years and today is owner of Peterson Fine Art Studio in Tahlequah, OK.

Indeed, it’s not uncommon to see painters poised at their easels depicting local scenes, from the popular town square known as the Jardin to serene back streets where every brightly colored door seems to be fodder for a canvas or camera. Located about four hours north of Mexico City, San Miguel was once a well-kept secret, a retreat not only for artists but also for wealthy Mexicans and Americans. Blessed with warm sunny days and clear nights, this once-sleepy town has mushroomed to a population of 80,000. With a lively and growing gallery scene, it continues to hold allure for artists and art lovers alike.

Texas-based painter William Kalwick, for example, has traveled to San Miguel to paint and teach classes every July for the past 10 years. Kalwick sets up a temporary home at Quinta Loreto Hotel, where he holds critique sessions in a corner of the hotel’s restaurant and pores over his students’ portrayals of the town’s nooks and crannies. “We paint all day and then go out to dinner and don’t come home until midnight,” Kalwick says. “The people in San Miguel are friendly to foreigners, and you can walk everywhere, even at night.”

San Miguel’s history as an art colony, by all accounts, began when Peruvian artist Felipe Cossío del Pomar arrived in 1927 and fell in love with the picturesque Spanish Colonial village. Ten years later he founded Escuela Universitaria de Bellas Artes in a former convent. (The school commissioned the great Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros to paint a mural, which can still be seen today.)

Near the Jardin by William Kalwick
Near the Jardin by William Kalwick
After being away for several years, Cossío returned to find Bellas Artes in poor condition and decided to found a second art school, Instituto Allende. Interestingly enough, it was not Mexican art students but American G.I.s who helped secure San Miguel’s reputation as an art colony, according to Don Knoles, a local artist and journalist who has written about the town’s history. After World War II, a flood of young veterans eligible for about $100 a month on the G.I. Bill came to town to study at the two schools. The trend prompted stories in both Life and Coronet magazines about San Miguel, with headlines such as “How to Live Like a King” and “How to Live in Paradise for $100 a Month.” Over the next half century San Miguel gradually began attracting more and more artists, both Mexican and American, who came to study, paint, and teach at the schools, as well as privately in their studios and galleries.

Today, the Instituto offers courses for academic credit, including painting, weaving, ceramics, photography, sculpture, and lithography as well as Spanish language classes. Bellas Artes is now a government cultural center that provides instruction in art, crafts, music, and dance, along with exhibits, concerts, and performances.

San Miguel in recent times has attracted a growing enclave of American retirees as well as visitors seeking relief from less pleasant climates. New Yorkers and Canadians generally come from January to April to escape northern winters, and Texans come in July and August to escape the heat and humidity. At 6,000 feet above sea level, San Miguel enjoys a temperate climate, with comfortable weather year round…

Featured in December 2007

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