Friday, September 9, 2011

I Still Miss Alberto

The Yucatecan painter Alberto Castillo Ku passed away last year on Sept. 14. He was a true original and my good friend. In observance of the anniversary I am repeating a post I wrote last November in tribute to Alberto.

* * *

I saw an enchanting painting, a colorful and mysterious portrait of a woman, hanging on the wall of a house in Mérida a few years ago. I asked my host where it came from, and learned that the artist lived not far from me, and although in his eighties was still busy working. Not long afterward, I met the man at a social gathering. His whispy hair was windblown, his precariously-perched glasses held together with adhesive tape, and his clothes spotted here and there with paint. The artist handed me his card. The black on white card pictured an artist's palette and brush and said simply, Alberto Castillo Ku, Pintor.

A few weeks later I called the phone number on the card and Alberto Castillo invited me over to his house in San Sebastian. As we got acquainted that afternoon we touched upon many subjects. We looked at paintings and photos and slowly wandered through his ancient, eccentric house and extensive garden. He cooked, and while eating the lunch we shared a couple of large bottles of beer. Over the next several years, visits like this one to Alberto's house became a regular and unforgettable part of my life.

Alberto Castillo was born in Mérida in 1920, and even as a child he liked to draw. When Alberto was about ten years old, his father bought the old colonial house in San Sebastian where Alberto lived off and on for the rest of his life. As a young man he was passionate about art, and against the advice of his father, decided to go to Mexico City to find work and study. There one day he wandered by a studio where Diego Rivera, probably the best-known and loved Mexican artist, was teaching. Alberto started talking with Diego, and was invited to sit in on the class. This began an exciting time in Alberto's life. He was a young man from an isolated provincial capital, suddenly immersed in cosmopolitan Mexico City of the 1940's. Communists, Nazis, spies, artists -- a fabulous mix of interesting figures -- were part of the scene there. Alberto lived near Diego and Frida Khalo, with whom he began to socialize. Included in this social set were the Mexican artist Miguel Covarrubias and his wife Rosa, the American writer Alma Reed, who was once the lover of executed Yucatecan socialist Felipe Carillo Puerto, and many other figures in Mexican and international art, intellectual life and politics of the era.

After many years in Mexico City, Alberto married and was living in Acapulco, where he had a studio and small restaurant. Acapulco then was a trendy hot spot, with foreign tourism just taking off in the area. Movie stars, the rich and the famous all made appearances in Acapulco, and Alberto's place was right in the thick of things. Then suddenly, after giving birth to their two sons, Alberto's wife became ill and quickly died.

At this point in the story there are gaps in my knowledge, partially because I never asked a lot of questions when Alberto began telling stories, and perhaps because my memory for the details a few years later is not all that good. After leaving Acapulco, Alberto made a living mostly from art and his culinary skills, working in Mexico, many years in the United States where he made many lifelong friends and became fluent in English, and finally returning to Mérida to live with and help his aging parents. For many years Alberto ran a restaurant out of the Mérida family home. And always, always, until unable to during the last few years of his life, he painted.

All of the images in this blog post are from paintings sold to me by Alberto Castillo. Most are works completed in the later years of his career, when his skills, due to arthritis and deteriorating vision, were past their peak. I have seen a number of examples of work from the height of his abilities that would have made his old teacher Diego proud. The sense of light and energy, the sensuality, presence and fine techinque in some of these works are witness to the mastery Alberto achieved in his art, thanks to talent, passion, hard work, and to teachers like Diego. Although most of my "Castillos" were painted in the later years of his career, I have a couple examples of earlier work. Below is a detail of a 1970's painting of a woman from Chiapas "in the style of Diego," as Alberto put it, which hints at the life he could project and attention to detail that he was capable of in his prime.

Alberto painted original religious and Mexican subjects and to pay the bills in later years also made copies of paintings for churches and individuals. Yucatecan daily life and Chiapas were favorite subjects of paintings. Above, a late painting of Chiapanecan musicians that hangs in my living room. At right, a portrait of a young man from Chiapas. Above, near the top of this post, a Chiapanecan woman on her wedding day.

His Catholic faith was important to Alberto, and it was a significant influence in his art. This portrait of Jesus and the Sacred Heart is one that he painted for his mother and which hung in her room for many years.

Alberto's painting of a Mestiza preparing tortillas over a wood fire hangs in my kitchen

Alberto's studio was located in a roofed patio area at the back of the house. It was a hodge-podge of paintings, sketches and sculptures, memorabilia, tools, bundles of canvas and wood for stretchers, works in progress, paint tubes and containers of other liquids, brushes, and many years' accumulation of bric-brac and found objects that one day might be useful in a project. The area was bright and airy, which made it a good place for working. And like the rest of the house, the studio leaked like a sieve in the rain.

I recall an afternoon in the dining room. We were seated at the table, which was always set with a complete service for eight, plates on metal chargers, cloth napkins, wine glasses and other service items, 
along with a collection of unrelated objects that over time had accumulated here. The afternoon was darkening as a storm approached, so our meal was illuminated by the chandelier, which had been manufactured from an artificial Christmas tree, complete with decorations and lights, hanging upside down over the table. Alberto opened a bottle of beer and toasted the meal amidst rolling thunder. Just as we started to eat, the heavens opened and in a moment rain began to pour through cracks in the roof. One cascade began to fall right in the middle of Alberto's bald head. Alberto grabbed a baseball cap that just happened to be hanging on the back of the next chair and put it on. Then he looked at me for a second or two and laughed. "C'est la vie," he commented. We continued eating without further talk about the weather. After finishing, we walked through the house gathering the various buckets and pans, strategically situated under the worst leaks, and emptying the accumulated water in the garden.

I regret not having photos of the house. During the period I was spending a lot of time with Alberto, I was not doing much photography. I always said to myself that I ought to photograph his house, but 

preferred to enjoy his company in the moment rather than try to make images. The cluttered house and 

garden were a museum of more than a century of family life and his interests that included art by his father, son and many friends, photos, antiques, stained glass, valuable religious art and artifacts, various collections, and furniture manufactured by Alberto himself. There were dining rooms whose roofs had gone years ago, but which were still furnished with tables and chairs from the long-closed restaurant. In one corner of the grounds lay a huge mound of wine bottles, the accumulation of decades in the restaurant business and enjoying fine drink. In the back grew a large ceiba tree, which is the sacred tree of the Maya people, with a bench underneath. Once Alberto told me that there was a baby buried in that spot, apparently the dead infant child of a young relative or family friend who stayed with the Castillo Ku family when she got "in trouble," many, many years ago.

There are more stories I could tell about Alberto Castillo. We went out drinking at his favorite bar, the expat hangout Pancho's in downtown Mérida. We took the bus and rode on errands in the city. We went out to dinner. I bought large paintings and before I had a car carried them across a good piece of Mérida centro to my house in the heat of the afternoon, prompting interesting conversations along the way. One painting, the large oil of Saint Michael with which Alberto poses in the photo of his studio above, was once lost when a hurricane-tossed tree landed on and collapsed the roof of Alberto's house. The storm then sent his possessions flying all over the neighborhood. The painting was later returned to Alberto by a friend who had found it. It now hangs in my front room.

Alberto loved fruit and knew a lot about plants, which he was always giving to me. Roots from plants growing on an outer wall of the house broke through the wall and hung down inside the bathroom. Alberto didn't cut them. Instead he painted a woman's lips and eyes on the wall and incorporated the roots as the hair in a new piece of living art, which happened to be right over the toilet. Every so often when I used the bathroom I noticed how the woman's hair had grown.

There was the story of the son whom Alberto had never met, the product of a love affair with an American woman years ago. His obvious pride in his grandson in France, also an artist, who had come to visit. Stories of friends who'd passed on, of whom there are many when a person reaches his late eighties. Through it all, Alberto's attitude seemed to be to enjoy life as much as possible. He was always saying with a smile, "such is life," as if to shrug off the problems and sadness that we all deal with at times. His other favorite saying, whenever someone thanked him, was, "don't say thanks, say more."

One of the last times I was with Alberto he suddenly looked at me, gave me a bear hug, and told me, "I love you." I could only reply, "I love you too, Alberto." About that time Alberto stopped painting and was having more pronounced health problems. He was no longer taking care of the house and was less able to handle his own personal care. I offered to help in the house but he mostly refused. Not long after this, one of his sons, who for some time had been trying to convince Alberto to move in with him over in Puerto Morelos, moved Alberto to a nursing home where his needs could better be taken care of.

Earlier this year a 30-year-old bonsai flamboyant tree that Alberto had given me suddenly dropped its leaves and dried up. I felt guilty because I had been gone a lot and feared that my lack of attention had been the cause of the loss. Then, when I heard belatedly of Alberto's passing, I thought again of that tiny, gnarled old tree that Alberto had started from a seed and taken care of for 25 years before he gave it to me, and I thought, "C'est la vie. More, Alberto, more."


  1. Alberto reminds me of a great guy I was proud to call my friend when I lived in the Village of García in Nuevo León. His name was Pépe Fernandez. He was a fantastic guitarist and owned a restaurant that was the focal point for the community. He died suddenly while I was away on a visit to the U.S. and the last thing we ever said to each other before I left on my trip was "Te quiero buen amigo". I will never forget that. May God bless Pépe and Alberto. They are the salt of the Earth.

  2. Bob, Alberto passed away while I was out of town, and I didn't find out until I'd been home awhile. I couldn't stop thinking about the time he'd told me he loved if he knew what was in store.

    Just another one of those lessons life teaches us: do the things you want to do, and say the important things to the people you love, now. Do not wait.

  3. Marc, what a great story and friendship. Also you have a wonderful collection of his art that will keep the memory of him alive.

  4. John and Alan:

    This post is repeated from last year, but I thought it was appropriate to post it again. It's one of my favorites. The art I have of Alberto's is something that I will always treasure.

  5. Marc,
    Not only is this favorite post worthy of repeating (annually!) — it is invaluable as art history. And the writing is beautifully honest, sublime.


  6. Why thank you ~eric, that's quite a compliment. As I reviewed the piece prior to reposting it, I was tempted to edit. It's always easier to edit a year later, but I left it alone. This piece was a labor of great affection for me, and although I experienced some formatting problems in the reposting and resized some of the images, I decided to leave the text as I originally wrote it.

  7. unseenmoon -- Glad you like the kitchen. I designed and built it myself, with a little help from a couple of good albañiles, antique fixtures, tile from Puebla and copper sinks I had made to order in Santa Clara del Cobre. It's my favorite place to hang out.

  8. Thanks for this, Marc! I was most touched, and will re-read it several times. It's a lovely testament to a man, a friend, and his art. You obviously know what being a real friend means, and so did he.

    I'm can understand why you miss him very much. There are many "friends" in this journey, but fewer TRUE ones.


  9. Alinde, you are so right about friends. Sometimes I look at my "friends" online and realize I don't even know who they are.

    I always appreciate your thoughtful comments. I am glad you liked the post.

  10. Thank you for posting this piece again. I enjoyed it every bit as much this time as the first. I hope you will share it again in honor of your dear, dear friendship with Alberto.

  11. Thanks, Cheri for the comment and for continuing to read the blog.

    You have joined others who have suggested I should share this post again. Perhaps it will become an annual event in memory of Alberto.

  12. Jorge and I also miss Alberto. We were his friends in "the good old days" when he hosted our parties in his home and painted our portraits. Unfortunately Hurricane Gilberto ruined the one he did of our younger selves - he always said he'd do another but time ran out. Our last visit together was on our 30th wedding anniversay. He gave us a gong and told me, "Never stop calling your family and friends to your table Joanna." We loved him even though we missed his company in the final years. We are comforted that other wonderful people like you were with him then.

    I know Alberto, his mama, long-long departed wife, and everyone else who sits with him - drinking wine, painting, singing, and loving... wherever they all are... bless you Marc for such a fitting tribute to an extraordinary friend.

  13. Thanks, Joanna. That means a lot coming from someone who knew him well. I suspect that the Alberto tribute will become an annual repeat on this blog. It's funny how soon much of the world forgets. I don't want to.

  14. I appreciate seeing this again. Alberto was a wonderful, charming, magical-thinking sort of man. His visions of people and the world came through in his painting. I'm not as skilled as you at expressing all this, but your words bring back many happy thoughts. Thank you!

  15. I loved this post last year and love it still. I know you miss your friend. How lovely that you had such great times together.

  16. Marc, thank you for re-posting this. It brought tears to my eyes. I heard him saying, "Don't say thank you - say More!"
    One day, many years ago, he came to my house and looked at the unimproved dirt space in back of my house (I'm not much of a gardener) and said, "I'm going to make you a garden." A few days later he returned with a bunch of plants - and it still stands today. My favorite plant was limonaria, which grew in front of his hidden front door and smelled delicious after dark.

  17. The last time I saw Alberto was at his house. He was but a shadow of himself after falling off his roof while cleaning some leaves or something. He had been in the hospital for a month and the fall had severely affected his mind. I looked at him and the long beard he had grown and he looked back at me with an empty stare insisting that he recognized me. With him were his grand daughter or grand son. I'm not sure, that could be wrong.

    The house had a new door. While he'd been hospitalized the house had been broken into and stripped. Nothing had been spared. All the utensils in the kitchen, the furniture, and most of all the paintings and sculptures. His life had been stolen and soon he would be gone to a better one.



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