Sunday, May 30, 2010

Miguel and His Murals

The hand painted sign at the entrance to Los Arcos restaurant caught my eye the first time I visited San Pancho: “Nice design,” I thought. “A detail that sets the place apart.” That sign was Miguel’s first project in San Pancho, and now his work is all over town: His mural at the beachfront plaza depicts San Pancho’s history; a huge hibiscus blossom embellishes a satellite dish; Art Deco beauties grace a restaurant wall. You don’t see work like his in every Mexican village.
Miguel Angel Vallajan Estrella was born in 1972 in San Juan de Abajo, about 20 miles from San Pancho. When he was six, his family moved to San Pancho because his parents found work here – his father as a gardener at the junior high school and his mother as a cook at the hospital. Miguel finished ninth grade in San Pancho, and then started high school in La Cruz de Huanacaxtle, the location of the nearest high school at the time.

“I had to drop out when I was 14,” he told me. “I took the bus to La Cruz every day, and it was too expensive for my family. I needed to work, so an uncle in Puerto Vallarta helped me get a job varnishing furniture for hotels. I did that during the day, and at night I went to a taller (an artisan’s workshop) to learn how to paint letters and decorative designs. I didn’t get paid, and I had to buy the paints myself, but I loved what I was doing. I guess I showed ability, because the owner asked me to paint signs for a hotel when I was 15.”

At 18 Miguel opened his own taller in Puerto Vallarta . Business was good, and at one point he had three people working for him. They got big commissions—the Sheraton Hotel, the Collage nightclub— for signs, lettering, drawings and murals. During those years Miguel made frequent bus trips back to San Pancho to visit his family, and on one trip he met Julia, a young woman from the village. They became friends, and after three years they married. Miguel and Julia now have three daughters and a baby grandson.

About 10 years ago business in Puerto Vallarta began to slow down because graphic design had shifted to computer-based processes. Dar Peters, a San Pancho builder, told Miguel he could give him steady work, and persuaded Miguel to move back to the village. Since then Miguel and his helpers have done regular house painting, but his first love is still signs and graphic designs. Besides work in San Pancho Miguel does special projects for the county government, such as murals in village plazas throughout the Bahia de Banderas area.

Paint stores may have computerized color matching, but they can’t outdo Miguel’s infallible eye. Choosing paint colors with him is a pleasure. Should the color of a wall be taupe, mushroom, sand or beige? Miguel mixes up a sample on the spot, paints a swath, and we study the result. Not quite right? He mixes another sample, and we try again. With no sign of impatience Miguel spends as long as it takes to get the color right.
Boring expanses of stucco are transformed under his hand. In our house a 20-foot high wall towers at one side of the dining room, and we wanted to bring the huge mass down to human scale. Our idea: divide the wall in half lengthwise with two colors of paint and add a decorative border. Working from photos we took in a 19th century Mexican church, Miguel came up with a design that solved the problem perfectly. And he did everything freehand—no stencils or computer graphics.
Unfailingly polite, quiet, and a little shy, Miguel’s work gives him the right to brag, but he never does. He is a modest man. And one who has added touches of artistry to the face of San Pancho.

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