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To Mexico, With Sketchbook

In the artsy colonial town of San Miguel de Allende, learning to 'see' with fresh eyes through drawing and painting


SAN MIGUEL DE ALLENDE, Mexico — Fed up with her parents' idea of a vacation, a young girl once refused to set foot in one more museum, monument or historical site. When the old folks asked why, she uttered what she considered the epitome of elementary school wit: "Who wants an EDU-cation on a VA-cation?"

Fast forward 40 years. I have the answer now: I do. And, of course, my daughter should come along with me.

Over the years, we've taken various "fun" vacations, on which our differences have become all too apparent. Amanda likes the security of structured activities; I prefer to wake up in a new place and wing it. After half a dozen dude ranches and Club Meds, I was ready for what sounded like a more meaningful compromise--a "learning experience," as promised by the Drawing Room, an annual art workshop in San Miguel de Allende.

I read about the workshop in my Occidental College alumni newsletter and remembered how my college art professor spoke of being enchanted by San Miguel, a cobblestoned art colony in Mexico's central highlands.

The workshop is the brainchild of Occidental alum Jim Bagnall, who teaches beginning drawing to architecture students at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and is co-author of the cult-classic self-help book "The Universal Traveler." He created the Drawing Room to give travelers a way to focus and capture their experiences through sketching and writing, the way explorers without cameras have done for centuries.

Bagnall and his wife, Sandra, another Oxy alum, have been taking groups of friends and strangers to San Miguel for four years, accompanied the past two years by Los Angeles artists Claire Keith and Max Hendler.

I was drawn to the workshop as a way to rediscover and share with Amanda the love of painting I had known as an art major in college. Amanda harbors an artistic side herself, and I began to envision a week of mother-daughter bonding through creativity, exploring our intellectual and intuitive talents together.

About to begin her senior year in high school, Amanda was, shall we say, ambivalent.

We first met the leaders and the 18 other group members at the Aeromexico counter at LAX one hot morning last August. There were singles and couples. Some were professional designers, some were experienced art students and some, total beginners. They included: Bob, a management consultant returning for his second workshop; Iris, a recent widow, and her friend JoAnn, both occupational therapists; Doris, a single mother on her own; and Terry, an entrepreneur who--a stroke of good fortune for Amanda--brought her daughter, Jessi, for a special treat before she took off for college.

It was an easy two-plane, one-car journey to San Miguel, a beautiful colonial city on a former silver trade route 180 miles northwest of Mexico City. We stayed at La Mansion del Bosque, a modest pension across a cobblestoned street from the large and shady Juarez Garden. The deal included breakfast and dinner most nights in a family-style dining room off an inner courtyard.

That evening, over beer, margaritas and chicken in a restaurant next door, we met the proprietor, Ruth, a blondish woman of indeterminate age, one of the town's 3,000 or so U.S. expatriates.

Anticipating the spiral staircase that led to our crow's nest on the third floor, I asked Ruth if anyone ever had trouble negotiating the spidery metal stairs late at night. Never, she smiled serenely. After a few drinks, they just float up, she said, waving her hand in a loose spiral over her head.

After dinner, we each received a box, decorated with our name and filled with the tools we would be using over the week: pens and pencils, brushes, watercolors, perspective grids, string and a blank sketchbook. The first assignment: Draw something in our rooms that night.

The schedule called for us to gather after breakfast in the inn's sunny courtyard patio for the basics of Art 101: contour drawing, followed by lessons in light and shadow, perspective, color and gesture. By noon we were free to scatter across the hillside town to eat lunch, shop and practice what we had learned.

Nothing we drew would be "wrong," we were told. Yet at the very first lesson it was clear that we had one problem in common: "Slow down!" Jim, Claire and Max chorused, aghast at the speed with which we were drawing the outlines of our hands.

For me, the trip's most enduring lesson would be that reminder to be present and pay undivided attention to the world outside ourselves, to the way light defines objects, to the spaces they leave, to the color of a shadow or a distant mountain. No question, it's much easier to take time to see things when you're on vacation in Mexico, where time resembles a spacious room filled with gardenias and servants, as opposed to L.A., where time is more like a freeway with a mandatory minimum speed of 90 mph.

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