Search for the first "school of art" in Puerto Vallarta and you'll find a boy working in his father's store with wax crayons, pencils and Indian ink. "Manuel created art on pieces of paper he found in Casa Lepe. He'd sit around at my father's store, drawing and coloring in his spare time," recalls Rosario Lepe, Manuel's youngest sibling. Eventually, his bright colors and crude figures populated village scenes that would be used in advertising by Mexicana Airline, Unicef and the National Tourist Board of Mexico.
Throughout his career, Lepe's primitive style affected artists near him who possessed similar creative ambitions but had more technical training. Gilberto Grimaldo, Regino Carillo, Victor de Ayotl, Javiar Nino and Manuel's own brother, Rodrigo, were among those who added perspective to their work and created naïf art. Tellosa, who was employed at the Lepe gallery before opening his own on Guadalupe Sanchez, was also touched by Lepe's talent.
Though simple and childlike itself, "the naïf style emerged from a primitive form characterized by flatter images without any shadowing or other feeling of perspective," says Gary Thompson, owner of Galeria Pacifico. "In the '50s," he adds, "naïf art was also common in Eastern Europe and the Caribbean, but its exposure in public ads in Mexico helped popularize that school of art and Puerto Vallarta among nationals."
Besides naïf images, still lifes and sketches of village landscapes stood out in Puerto Vallarta's art scene in the '50s and '60s. Works by Manuel Martinez, Ramon Barragan, Ed Starr and Joaquin Rodriguez Pedroza hung in hotel dining rooms and sold to admiring patrons. Several artists gained recognition at the Rio and the Oceano (now Tequila's Café), which were among the first hotels to display local artists.
"Works from all over Mexico," says Cronista de la Ciudad Carlos Munguia F., "started coming to Puerto Vallarta after Lepe's wife, Laura, opened the first informal gallery here in 1965." The space on Larzaro Cardenas would not only showcase her husband's work, but also allow a mix of national artists who were invited by Manuel to display there.
Around the same time, Daniel Lechon opened another informal gallery on Juarez, primarily to show his own work - Mexican themes and landscapes brought to life with pencil, ink and charcoal. Nevertheless, he was part of a ground swell of artists and supporters fostering the growth of talent in the area.
"In the late '70s," recalls Jan Lavender, owner of Galeria Uno, "there was an explosion of good, top Mexican art being brought in from other Mexican cities." They were artists like Chuchu Reyes, who was part of the Diego crowd in Mexico City, and the magical realist, Alejandro Colunga from Guadalajara. Curiously, even the famous US movie director David Lynch showed some of his drawings here.
The likes of Evelyn Boren emerged with water-colored images of Puerto Vallarta, while Roberto Bermejo painted street scenes in an ethereal style and Marta Gilbert created portraits. Oscar Zamaripa, Mario Martine Delcampo and Daniel Brennan contributed to the magical realism of the late '70s.
Puerto Vallarta represented a wide mix of local, regional and national artists by the '80s. Judith Ewing Morlan contributed her watercolors to the art scene, while large bronze sculptures of dolphins and humpback whales decorating the city sprung from the talent of Octavio Gonzalez.
"Today," according to Gary Thompson, "there's everything here that parallels what's going on in the rest of the world, except less performance art and no installations because we have no real museums." Jan Lavender divines that venues needed to bring in international masters will probably arise in the next decade. It will not be too soon for those with an artistic temperament who are charmed by the atmosphere of Puerto Vallarta.