This article is from the November 1999 The Mexico File newsletter.
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Picasso's Doorbell

by Maryanne Wilson

It was Friday. That meant that it was market day in Ocotlán, an Indian village a little way outside the city of Oaxaca. Off we went to buy who knew what. You can find just about anything you want or need there. There are pyramids made from chiles of an amazing variety of colors and shapes, colorful woven baskets, fiery mezcal, handmade shoes, ripe and luscious fruits, crafts from some of the area’s artisan villages, and handmade saddles. You’ll also find a sprinkling of designer jeans and CDs of Ricky Martin, the current Latino heartthrob.

I also had something else on my mind that day. Ocotlán is the home of Rodolfo Morales, renowned Mexican painter, collagist and muralist. I’d only ever seen photographs of his work, and read whatever scant information I could find. I knew that he had been a high school art teacher in Mexico City for 35 years. When he retired at age 65, in 1985, he returned to his home in Octolán to continue his own work.  I’d read that a couple of his paintings had been sold at auction in New York City for upwards of $100,000.00!

As my friend Jodi and I were walking toward the market, she casually pointed to a nondescript house on a dusty side street and said, “That’s where the artist Morales lives. You’ve probably don’t know of him.” My heart skipped a beat. I informed my friend that I did know a little about him, and greatly admired his work. I praised him, too, for returning to his roots, and using as his subjects the everyday people and prosaic events of Ocotlán – and for maintaining the Mexican tradition of painting in a brilliant combination of the representational and fantastical. And what splendidly vivid colors he used – orange, red, yellow, blue and every range and tone in between.

When we got to the front of the house, we stopped at the front gate and looked inside. Suddenly a young man appeared, opened the gate and said, “Pasé, pasé.” I was stunned! I don’t know who he thought we were – but in we walked!

The building is constructed in typical Spanish style, showing nothing to the outside world. Inside, however, it is just marvelous. The stucco walls (rustica) are painted a chalky white with frescoes, with panels of stained glass, in brilliant kaleidoscopic colors, used here and there in walls, windows and doors. The atmosphere is like that of a house of worship, and we immediately lowered our voices in accordance therewith. The central courtyard at ground level is filled with a mass of bright jacaranda trees, with unseen birds chirping brightly.

Just to the left of the entryway, sitting on a stone bench playing with his three little dogs, was Señor Morales. Jodi, bolder than I, went right up to him, sat down, and introduced herself. They started chatting away in Spanish, of which I have only a rudimentary understanding. I simply stood there dumbstruck. There was so much I wanted to say, so much I wanted to ask. Even if my language skills allowed, I wouldn’t have been able to utter more than a few words. I stood there feeling shy and inhibited. I wanted to melt away into the walls. I mumbled a few words to Jodi and she spoke for me.

Señor Morales is a slightly built man with sloping shoulders and sad brown eyes, which go in that same downward direction. He appears to be timid, humble and very tired. He politely offered Jodi and me the freedom to explore his home. We first went up to his studio on the third level of the house. It’s a small room – filled with light, life, color, and containing Morales’ current works-in-progress. We then explored many other rooms, patios and terraces on all three levels. It seems as if the house had been created of a few different buildings which had been joined together, so eccentric was the layout. 

We looked into a classroom-like room filled with computers, a dormitory style room, a library, and a room on the ground floor filled with young people playing chess and other games. As we proceeded in our exploration, the tantalizing aroma of freshly baked apple pie began to float on the warm afternoon air. Apple pie? Here in Ocotlán? We followed our noses down to the kitchen. What a marvelous room! It measured perhaps 20’x40’, the walls filled with a huge collection of pottery. There were two women standing at an enormous oven – roasting apples over an open flame. I thought to myself that this tableau would be a perfect subject for a painting by Señor Morales.

Not wanting to overstay our welcome, we left the house and went to the market. But my eye caught a glimpse of the village church, and what a dazzling affair it is – painted a stark white and trimmed with geometric patterns in bold maroon, yellow, and blue. The interior has, likewise, been restored, and its frescoes uncovered and refreshed. We then explored the building next door, which had likewise been restored.

We learned from another visitor that both the ex-convento, which had recently served as a jail, and the templo principal had been restored under the direction of Señor Morales. We further learned that he had researched and recreated the methods for obtaining the colors and textures originally used. He has set up a foundation, la Fundacion Cultural Rodolfo Morales, expressly for this and other cultural purposes. He opened his home and studio to younger artists, restores other neglected churches in and around Oaxaca, including the one in San Tomás Jalietza, and is planting untold numbers of jacaranda tress on the road leading into Ocotlán.

What an exceptionally grand day it was for me. I feel privileged to have met Rodolfo Morales of Ocotlán, known locally as El Maestro. I know, however, that most of my family members and friends haven’t any idea whatsoever who he is. So, I’ve been telling them that long ago in a faraway place I rang Picasso’s doorbell and was invited in.

Practical Matters

The Parador San Andres, three blocks off the zócalo, was my choice for this stay in Oaxaca. The Parador has only been open since June 1999, and I know it will gain in popularity as time goes on. It’s a small inn, only six rooms, in a restored colonial era townhouse. It was, until recently, the home of Sra. Maria Elena Marrufa Tenorio and her husband, who is an architect.

The two rooms on the ground floor surround a small flower-filled courtyard with a fountain in the middle. Upstairs, there are four more rooms, and a lovely terrace with tables, chairs and umbrellas. The entire stuccoed building has been sympathetically restored. The exterior walls are pale yellow and pink with wrought iron banisters. The walls in all the rooms are white stucco; the floors are terrazzo tile. Each room has two beds with colorful bedspreads, private bath, and cable TV (with two channels in English). All rooms have niches in the walls containing local pottery pieces, and the louvered glass windows allow in the light. 

A wonderful touch is the artwork throughout the building – religious paintings in the public areas, floral paintings in the guestrooms. These were all signed “Elena,” who is the mother of Sra. Tenorio. So, we have an innkeeper, an architect and a painter – all adding their own special touch to this charming little Parador.

Parador San Andres, Av. Hildalgo 405, Centro Histórico, Oaxaca, OAX C.P. 68000 Tel/Fax from U.S. 011 52 951-410-11. E-Mail: Rates are approximately $30.00 - $35.00 per room per night including tax.

©1999 Maryanne Wilson