By Jesús Aguado
Art, culture, and education are easy to find at La Biblioteca Pública de San Miguel de Allende. The Biblioteca is currently preparing for its second annual fundraiser and will exhibit paintings and photographs that are not typically available for viewing.
The event will highlight the long-lasting contributions of four Canadians who have enhanced the cultural life of San Miguel since the early 1950s.
The Canadian Connection
Atención spoke with Debra Broussard, vice president of the Biblioteca, who is responsible for organizing this event. First, we asked why Canada? She responded that “with the 10th anniversary of Amistad Canada being celebrated this year, we thought it would be nice to highlight some of the Canadian contributions to this community.”
Amistad Canada is a Canadian nonprofit organization that has worked to improve the lives of Mexicans through better health care, education, and social justice. Currently, Amistad has 15 projects in partnerships with 14 organizations; nine of them are in San Miguel, and of course, one of them is the Biblioteca.
The event will take place at Insurgentes 25 on Saturday, March 7, from 4-6pm. Tickets are available for 250 pesos and will be sold in the Tesoros Gift Shop and at the box office of Teatro Santa Ana, both located in the Biblioteca. Tickets may be purchased in advance. Come and learn more about these Canadians, and help us toast their enduring legacy.
The art showcase will feature the work of the late Leonard and Reva Brooks, who came to San Miguel in 1947. Leonard Brooks was born in London in 1911, and he immigrated with his family to Toronto at an early age. In his 20s, he received recognition for his extraordinary Canadian landscape watercolors and began exhibiting in Europe, Canada, the United States, and Mexico. During World War II, he served in the Royal Navy as a war artist. Some of these paintings, created between August 1944 and May 1946, are housed in the War Museum in Ottawa, Canada.
After the war, Brooks and his wife, Reva, moved to San Miguel in 1947. He began studying at Bellas Artes, and he and Stirling Dickinson became great friends. At Instituto Allende, he met the master muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros, who wrote glowing reviews of Brooks’ work. Brooks and Siqueiros collaborated on the execution of the mural Vida y Obra del General Ignacio Allende, located in Bellas Artes. In 1965 he was invited to present a solo exhibit at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City and received positive reviews in the national press.
In addition to his love of painting, Brooks was an accomplished musician and at one time played first violin in 14 concerts with the Guanajuato Symphonic Orchestra. During the 1960s, he gave free violin classes to children in San Miguel, and among his students was Daniel Aguascalientes, who went on to form the group Violines with his five brothers.
Brooks was the head of the music department of Bellas Artes for 25 years and helped create the San Miguel Chamber Music Festival.
According to Broussard, his wife Reva assisted Brooksin his many endeavors and was a formidable art photographer in her own right. Her work was much admired by Ansel Adams, the famous photographer. One of her photographs was selected for inclusion in the Family of Man exhibit in the MOMA in 1955. The exhibit toured the world for nine years. The MOMA described this exhibition as having, “… brought together hundreds of images by photographers working around the world, [and] was a forthright declaration of global solidarity in the decade following World War II.”
Broussard commented that in addition to the works of these well-known artists, Goldie Sherman, the Brooks’ niece, “will be on hand with us to share a few memories of times she spent as a child visiting her aunt and uncle in Mexico while on school breaks from Canada. The Biblioteca has worked closely with the Brooks’ estate to plan this event, and the estate has agreed to display and offer to sell certain paintings and photographs that rarely have been seen in recent years.”
Mai Onno arrived in San Miguel in 1957 after a lonely three-day-and-three-night journey from London, Ontario. Except for brief stays in Europe and the US to teach, paint, or study art, she has called San Miguel home ever since. Onno studied at the Instituto under James Pinto, the well-known muralist whose work we still admire today. Onno met and later married German sculptor Lothar Kestenbaum, who was also a scholarship student at the Instituto. Eventually, Kestenbaum initiated the sculpture department at Centro Cultural El Nigromante Bellas Artes, where he taught sculpture until the end of his life, and Onno taught painting. Onno and Kestenbaum’s son, David followed in his parents’ footsteps and became a sculptor. The Kestenbaums were a tour de force in the Mexican art world of the 70s and 80s. The bull in front of Bellas Artes is a sculpture by David, who died in 2013. Today Onno continues to paint in her home and studio in the campo near San Miguel Viejo, a creative space built by her son. Broussard encourages the public to “come see the incredible large-scale canvases that Mai has painted over the years which will be offered for sale at this event. You will learn about the many challenges and hardships Mai has endured and the resilience that led her to paint the fantastic organic forms based on nature that dominate her work.”
Canadian Helen Wale founded the Biblioteca 65 years ago. Her legacy lives on in 2020 in the children who visit the library each week to read or study at a table in a quiet corner, or to take free classes in art, music, computers, English, or science, among other offerings. On March 7, the Biblioteca will unveil a portrait of Wale painted by Fernanda Garcia, one of the teens who studies art today in the Stirling Dickinson Escuela de Arte.