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Stirling Dickinson and his legacy

By Karen Ocampo

San Miguel de Allende developed its beginnings as a cultural center due to the influence of Stirling Dickinson, an American who lived most of his life in this city. He co-founded the School of Fine Arts in 1937. Although the school offered courses to US and, Mexican middle-class students, it also provided cultural, artistic, and craft workshops that were inexpensive for the general population. Among the instructors at this academic institution was the now-famous Mexican muralist, David Alfaro Siqueiros.

Stirling Dickinson was born in Chicago in 1909 and studied at the Berkshire School. He graduated from Princeton University in 1931. He then attended the Art Institute of Chicago for post-graduate studies and as a graduate student went to the Écoles d’Art Américaines in the Palace of Fontainebleau in France. Dickinson realized that his talent as an artist was limited. In 1934 he and Heath Bowman, whom he had met at Princeton, and made a six-month tour of Mexico in a green 1929 Ford Model A convertible. Bowman described their experiences in the book Mexican Odyssey, which Dickinson illustrated. They wrote a second book on South America. Later, the two men decided to write a novel based in Mexico, Dickinson and Bowman chose to live in San Miguel while writing Death Is Incidental. They built a house they called “Los Pocitos.” After the book was published, Bowman married and moved away, and Dickinson bought his share of the house. He remained there as bachelor, living very simply despite having inherited considerable wealth

Dickinson was one of the prime movers in establishing the conditions under which San Miguel revived economically and became a magnet for painters and sculptors as well as retirees from the United States. During the period from the 1950s to the 1970s, the Instituto Allende attracted hundreds of students from the United States. Beat Generation writers, including Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, spent time in the town.

The impact was not all positive. Dickinson tried to make his students aware of the Mexican lifestyle and culture through excursions, allowing them to encounter the ordinary people of the region in their homes and workplaces. However the trips did not generate as much interest as he hoped. While Dickinson lived simply and respected the Mexicans, newer migrants from the north have been more interested in a high standard of living at low cost. Housing prices have soared and the foreign community has become increasingly isolated from the local community.

Dickinson died in a car accident in 1998. Former mayor of San Miguel de Allende Luis Alberto Villarreal told  Smithsonian magazine, “This mestizaje—cultural mixing—has profoundly changed and benefited both sides. But, we owe a huge debt of gratitude to Stirling Dickinson for helping this come about and for raising San Miguel’s profile in the world.” In 2008, San Miguel was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, with its intact 17th and 18th century center.


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