"The Neill James Legacy"
By Mildred Boyd
October 2004 Guadalajara-Lakeside Volume 21, Number 2

    Once upon a time, to a tiny fishing village on the shores of a lovely lake in Western Mexico, there came a fairy godmother. Well, not exactly. Though it has all the elements, this is not really a fairy tale. Neill James was an actual person and a talented writer and her magic wand was nothing more than an abiding love for the Mexican people, especially the women and children, and the financial means to do something to help them.
Still, her reason for coming to Ajijic reads like something out of the Brothers Grimm. She came to recuperate from close encounters of the bad kind with two of Mexico’s volcanos. She had fallen and broken a leg while climbing one and, while still on crutches, was severely injured when the shelter from which she was observing the birth of another collapsed from the weight of accumulated ash. As Neill ruefully put it, “I fell on Popocateptl, Paracutin fell on me.” She soon fell in love with the village and made it her home for the rest of her long life.
    Though Neill James was a relatively wealthy woman, she was also a wise one. Instead of playing Lady Bountiful, smugly distributing largesse, her way of repaying the people who had welcomed her was concentrated on helping them help themselves. Tourism was just beginning at that time, so subsistence farming and fishing were still the economic mainstays of the community. Neill imported looms and silkworms to set up silk weaving as a cottage industry. A blight on the mulberry trees wrote an end to the silkworms but the looms are still clacking away. She also established a small public library in her home and offered classes in a wide range of subjects designed to improve the lives of her friends. One of those classes was art for the children, and that has proved to be Neill James’ true legacy.
    It is doubtful that she visualized her adopted home as the thriving art center it is today. Education seems to have been her primary aim. Her early students recall that they were required to read or do homework for 15 minutes before being allowed to paint and, to add insult to injury, were forced to wash their hands before touching a page! “We always picked the books with the most pictures,” one adds with a twinkle. Nevertheless, she certainly en-couraged the more talented to pursue art as a career, not only supplying all materials and paying the salary of a teacher, but providing a venue for the sale of their work and generously providing funds to send a number of them to pres-tigious art schools.
    Her patronage has paid off handsomely. For six decades now a steady stream of gifted children has passed through those classes and an astonishing number have gone on to successful careers as professional artists. Most of the galleries which line the streets of our village are either owned by, or display the work of, those former students. Nor is that all. After being allowed to lapse for a few years due to Miss James’ failing health, the program was revived under the joint auspices of the Ajijic Society of the Arts and the Lake Chapala Society. Every Saturday morning anywhere from 50 to 100 boys and girls, many of them descendants of those long-ago students, happily continue the tradition of children’s art.
    On Friday and Saturday, October 8th and 9th of this year, the tenth anniversary of her death will be marked by The Neill James Legacy Art Exhibit. The Lake Chapala Society will host this two-day retrospective of over half a century of art featuring the past and present work of former students as well as the paintings of those who will carry her legacy on into the future. Although the current work of those who came through the program over the years will be for sale, the focus will be on the paintings from the past that have been moldering in an old trunk for decades. Some have already suffered irreparable damage from dampness and insects and, unless something is done soon, the entire collection is doomed and, with it, a significant part of the cultural heritage of our village will be lost.
    The paintings on view will be only a small fraction of the hundreds available in this treasure trove. Groups and individuals have donated money for framing as well as time and effort for cataloguing, but so much more is needed! Conservation and preservation are the highest priorities, but there is also a crying need to find the collection a home of its own, a gallery where these charming works can be displayed to inspire and delight future generations.
    Perhaps even more important is the need to insure not only that the children’s art program will never again falter but that funds may be found to pay professional teachers and endow art scholarships in accordance with its founder’s vision. All profits from com-missions and the sale of food and drink will be devoted to promoting these aims.
    So come and join the fun! Enthusiastic volunteers from both the Mexican and foreign communities have devoted countless hours to making sure this will be the artistic event of the season. Where else could you take a stroll through the enchantment of the past six decades, view the current work of those same artists today, catch a fascinating glimpse of the promise of the future, eat Mexican cuisine, drink your favorite beverage and enjoy music and dance performances all at once?
    Come to think of it, perhaps Neill James really was a fairy godmother after all!