Carolyn Leigh – Artist Extraordinaire

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Carolyn Leigh. Photo by Susan Pearce.

My name is Carolyn Leigh. I first flew to Mexico in February 1966 for an international Girl Scout conference in Cuernavaca. A gray flat fog Kansas morning emerged in the Valley of Mexico. Indigo plumes from Popo and Izta flirted with drama on the horizon. I drank frothy chocolate in a hotel patio sheltered by its magenta manta of bougainvillea. I fell in love.

I am an artist. My art is represented in numerous public and private collections in the USA, Mexico and the South Pacific. I am also a writer, a scientific illustrator/photographer, a builder of websites and adobe houses, a tribal art dealer with my husband who dropped out of the University of Arizona to go surfing in Hawaii and ended up in Australia, then New Guinea. That story is in our book, Art Dealer in the Last Unknown. I have more books on his life, and later my life there with him, in play. I am a traveler illiterate in a dozen languages – I can get by. From our mud brick home in Tucson, Arizona, USA to our adobe quemado casa in Alamos, Sonora, Mexico it is only a day’s drive, a continuum split by the human conceit of a border into another country, another life.

Mexico colored my life. In Cuernavaca, the Cabaña director spent money donated for ice cream on mariachis: black, silver and song against sunset. We worked in a barrio that drew its water from a stone church well, its electricidad pirated from power lines above ruined mansions colonized by inventive squatters. Señoras fed us tamales, sweet and savory, a drink of fermented milk with honey. They decorated the church hall with pastel paper cutouts and love. I carried home an armful of brilliant paper flowers, my ears pierced, my hair piled high from a dinner dance at a Cuidad de Mexico mansion with two buffets, three bands, and high verandas of black clad chaperons spotting the extravaganza of chicas and chicos below.

I followed my geologist husband to Tucson for grad school. We shopped in Nogales, Sonora for folk art and our border crossing ration of rum. We ate Mexican food among mariachis who played in the Cavern run by Greeks who cured their own olives. We camped on the beach along El Gulfo at Puerto Penasco. In the tide pools of color, a tiny octopus crawled across my hand. We drove my small car south past Oaxaca for a solar eclipse. The light and dark rays at totality raced across the valley below in zigzag stripes like patterns on the intensely orange serape I bargained in Mitla.

I began to paint. Rufino Tamayo’s colors guided my palette. The flat, intense light of dry lands demands that intense saturation for life. Death is the white skull – the absence of color. Although in Mexico, the dead can, and do, dance.

Later along my life, I met Ron Perry. The first far trip we took together was to Patzcuaro. We didn’t turn into Alamos, but overnighted at El Fuerte among the flashing lights of fiesta.

Ron drove to Alamos in the 1950s. His uncle, a mining geologist and his aunt, an historian, stopped earlier. His cousins, Kelley and Sally Rollings, bought an old mansion started on its way back to glory by a gringa involved with Hollywood movies. We stayed in their guesthouses during the 1980s while Ron shopped ruins for sale.

He lucked out, not a ruin, but an adobe in Barrio Perico with a raised garden, fruit trees and a well. Mrs. Geary was an artist. There is an unfinished stone statue of a Madonna and Child in the garden. She built her guesthouse in the 1960s across from their historic hacienda as her studio and lodging for family and friends. Unfortunately, her husband tried to fly into Denver in a snowstorm and they both perished in the crash.

She knew how to build for Alamos: concrete beams, Rumsford fireplaces, a rainwater catchment system, a bedroom with skylights and cross-ventilation, but no direct opening to the night sounds of our single street barrio or to the Mirador behind – a resonator for any band playing in town.

In Alamos, we escape from being busy. I am, briefly, part of our barrio, part of the town. From our portal, the mountains change their blues. I walk the dazzling streets in the day. At night I drift along the elegant shadings of architecture, eavesdropping. A girl from the gray – touching color.

Story © 2011 by Carolyn Leigh.

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