This December I really wanted to get away and feel warm, get some sun on my face and my soul and make art in a different environment. I found the ideal retreat at Casa de los Artistas about half an hour south of Puerto Vallarta in Boca de Tomatlan I signed on for the quiet week between Christmas and New Years, and found myself with the rare luxury of the whole Casa studio to myself, under the benign tutelage of Bob Masla, proprietor, teacher and painter extraordinaire.
Bob and his family have built a wonderful three story retreat in the middle of the fishing village of Boca. A river runs directly below and outside the gate. As the river is the main highway, with two other streets on either side, you have the experience of being part of the village on a 24 hour basis, starting with the roosters and church bells and ending with the moon and the surf.
My room had its own balcony overlooking the river under the protective canopy of a huge Amapa tree. I could sit here and watch the sun rise over the hills and follow the fishing boats’ passage to the sea and feel perfectly content… although I did in fact wander upstairs to the 1,000 square foot studio overlooking the river and paint every day for a week. I worked in watercolor and Bob painted in oils, but the difference in our two media had no bearing on the quality of his advice. Whatever he had to say about my various projects proved unfailingly useful and insightful from a technical standpoint, and he is a natural teacher in that more intangible way of simply knowing how to make you feel encouraged.
The food was exceptional, whether it was the home-cooked gourmet Mexican cuisine by Ruby at the Casa or “dining out” at the lovely and informal palapa across the river (just take your flipflops). There I would have fish or shrimp caught that day, finished off by home grown Ricia, a brew smokier and smoother than tequila and made by the proprietor of the palapa from his own agave. I remain convinced that Ricia is somehow…medicinal, even though it is reportedly sold at Mexican hardware stores.
I would love to return and encourage anyone thinking of taking an artist/spirit retreat to Mexico to consider Casa de los Artistas. Bob and his family are gracious and welcoming, and the house is exquisite. Retreats are held on a regular basis on a range of topics, from painting to Mexican cooking to psychotherapy and spirituality, and guest teachers are welcomed. Here is a page from my journal begun while I was there:
© Iskra Johnson 2010
I am coming from a place where the main street is a river, where every person who passes every other person says Hola, where dinner is caught at dawn and served at night by torchlight, where on Sunday morning they wake you with cannons and the scolding of churchbells until you leap from your bed to say YES! I am coming! I am truly here! Ranchero music announces the weekly arrival of gasoline and when a steer gets loose he is roped to a palm tree, a bridge and a delivery truck, in that order. Every time I see him on the cobblestone path this dog gives me The Look: Unabashed need? Resignation? Desperation? Love? and I offer it back.
I am coming from a place where you go each night to the ocean to celebrate the sunset to a place where you do not see the sun except on television advertising Mexico, neon blue seahorses swimming on plasma screens above the cheese-dripping BurgerKing. I am entering a particularly grim system of transport designed to squeeze you through as quickly as possible to the next destination, accompanied by the barking percussion of bins and belts, jewelry and shoes and the irritated squall of security alarms. Only now do I learn about the man who almost blew himself and everybody else up with his underwear. We shuffle.
I am entering the First World, the Fast World, the world where everyone is talking to someone who is not here, and listening to music only they can hear, although I can feel the bass humming through the man next to me and ask him “could you turn your ipod down?” — so I can remember the ranchero music in my head. I have a shell in my pocket and sand biting my heels. Memory feels already very fragile.
Next to me a man comments to no one in particular, “This place is ugly. The light is bad. It feels lonely.” I want to embrace him, because he is saying aloud what I am feeling, he is saying, Where is the Village? I scribble a resolution on my boarding pass, “look for the village wherever you are. Don’t wait for catastrophe.”
Three days later, Haiti. Now the world has another chance to shrink to human size.
I am just settling back into life after a wonderful two weeks traveling in Mexico, painting every day and taking countless photographs. I will write more soon, but for the moment here are a few of my favorite images from the first two days in and around Puerto Vallarta.