Artist about to Emerge on the San Miguel Art Scene, an Interview with Neal Smith-Willow
By Karen Sweetland
Creativity requires inspiration, which comes from all nature of influences. For many artists, a muse is the source. Whatever or whomever, we rely on jolts of inspiration and visions to prompt our creations, be they paintings, sculpture, home décor, business, or even an elegant gourmet meal.
San Miguel de Allende has for many decades attracted all nature of creative people who have found the location to inspire! So it has been for Neal Smith Willow, with whom I had the pleasure of interviewing recently.
Karen Sweetland: Neal when did you first arrive in San Miguel?
Neal Smith-Willow: I drove to San Miguel in the fall of 1969 with my wife and 2 year-old son to attend the Instituto Allende on a scholarship. We stayed until 1971.
The town was much as it is now in El Centro. Then the town smelled of wood smoke as everyone used a chiminea for heat. There were plenty of hombres with donkeys and their loads of firewood on the streets. Ice got delivered too. There were lots of horsemen passing through, riding to the bank on payday. Most evenings about dusk there would be Mexicans walking the Jardín. One group would walk clockwise and the other group counter clockwise, Girls with chaperons walking in one direction and guys walking the other way, flirting.
Buses were the old yellow school buses we saw in the states. We lived at the top of San Francisco in the Palomar apartments. The buses loaded with people as well as all manner of stuff strapped on the roof, would get to the corner at the top of the hill on San Francisco ready to turn right to Salida Celaya and stop. Half the people riding the bus would get out; the driver would shift into first gear and begin to labor up the hill toward Celaya with a group of passengers pushing the bus. Once it got going and shifted into second, everybody jumped back on and away they went.
There weren’t many tourists in those days, but a good group of expats was living here, WW2 vets, and Korean vets hanging out at the Cucaracha Cantina when it was in the west Portales on the corner of Canal—a bank is there now. San Miguel had some artists, many from Europe, writers, people running away from something, some hiding out. Most everybody came to San Miguel on the train in those days. The expats took the train back every 6 months to go to the VA hospital and get a new visa. We had train parties for the departing guys and then drove them to the station, usually drunk on Cuba Libres.
KS: What was the Instituto Allende like in 1969?
NSW: It was the center of the art world. Everything was taught there, from language to silver-smithing. There was a Masters program through The University of Guanajuato and a number of instructors prominent in their field. Stirling Dickenson was in residence and could be seen in various studios from time to time. In the back of the Instituto property there was a grand old hotel with lots of glass and stone. Artists and older students would stay there for periods of time and attend classes at the Instituto. It was the cultural center of San Miguel.
KS: You must have seen many changes in the forty years of your absence?
NSW: How has it changed? It’s been found Mega, Luciérnaga, cell phones, running shoes instead of Huaraches, and all the colonias are built up to cover the landscape that used to be campo. There are lots of retirees, and more shops, restaurants and hotels.
KS: Why did you decide to return to San Miguel?
NSW: In 2012 I had decided to return to San Miguel to stay. San Miguel, in my opinion, still had the best environment for my temperament. No red lights; still burros in the streets, the jacaranda trees, cooking smells, kind Mexicans, kids necking in Juarez Park, five people riding a Vespa up Ancha, and cobbles. In 2012 I I made the move and found an empty, unfinished space on Zacateros, next door and upstairs from Monet’s cafe. It’s a great studio with a couple of balconies overlooking Zacateros.
KS: Do you teach or do commission painting?
NSW: I taught for 15 years in a university in Georgia. A good part of my career was in Atlanta. During the 30 years I spent in the area I did commissions, murals and many portraits for diverse clients. I have done some portraiture since my return. Now, I spend most time in the studio working on new ideas.
KS: Neal, thank you so much for your time and for the lovely recollections of the colorful past of San Miguel de Allende.
For readers, can you tell people how they can reach you for information or to make an appointment, and will you have your work appearing sometime in the near future?
NSW: My agent is VIOLA! Their number is 415 121 2818; my own number in the studio is 415 150 0072. My email is email@example.com. Oh yes, my web address is neal-smithwillow.pixels.com/index.html
I am donating a number of my paintings to an art auction that will benefit the SPA and takes place on June 24. I will be sure you get details of the event shortly.