Mexico is a country that has long been a magnet for artists and writers. An eclectic blend of history, a culture that welcomes art, friendly people, and agreeable climates are among the active ingredients which have provided pallet and accommodation for many artists here over the years: some famous, others living quietly as they discover deep inspiration to produce their art while living simply and congregating amidst like-minded souls.
We talked with Jim Johnston, a working artist who has been living here for over 20 years, to discover what attracts him to Mexico, how his working life has unfolded over two decades, and what advice he has for other artists who may aspire to follow in his footsteps.
Jim grew up in New York and, after earning a degree in architecture and graphic design in Virginia, he returned to his home city where he spent the better part of the next three decades working as a professional artist and potter. Jim’s earnest encounters with Mexico started in 1989 when he began spending ever-longer stints of time here with his partner, the renowned food writer Nick Gilman. His transition was gradual and by 1997 found himself living here full-time. In 2005 Jim and Nick decided to sell their house in San Miguel de Allende and move to the Condesa neighborhood of Mexico City, where they live and work today. His art studio is a short walk from their home in the adjacent Colonia Roma.
“The restaurant across the road really put this street on the map,” Jim remarks, as he reflects on how the neighborhood has been passing through a period of significant change since he purchased his art studio over a decade ago. Like many neighborhoods across the Mexican capital, the Colonia Roma has passed through cycles of prosperity and decline; today, the northern side of the borough is one of the trendiest places to live in the capital—although the days when monthly rents were equivalent to a couple nights’ stay at a hotel are long past.
As he reflects on his time here, he affirms that making a living as a working artist in Mexico is as challenging —if not more so— than in other places around the world, including New York. When Jim was ten years old, his father bought a motel and being able to observe how the family-run business was operated brought him an appreciation for self-sufficiency and the mechanics of self-employment—skills he’s found beneficial throughout his working life, although he openly admits that he’s not as commercially-minded as some other artists he knows.
When he moved to Mexico, he shifted from making pottery to creating unique art pieces using acrylic paints. His latest projects employ a ‘monoprint’ technique which transfers dried paint from an acrylic board to damp paper to create collages—a method which produces surprisingly attractive art.
Most artists’ income in Mexico springs from a variety of activities, and in Jim’s own circumstance this is no exception: he also writes for a living (Mexico: An Opinionated Guide for the Curious Traveler is one of the best-sellers in its genre) and runs artists workshops. In years past, when he was living in San Miguel, he used his architectural skills to spot real estate opportunities where properties could be fixed up and sold at a profit—which helped him to build a nest-egg over time.
When we talked about what attracts Jim to Mexico as an artist, he remarks that he particularly likes the warm-hearted people and their laid-back approach to everyday life situations. He finds the year-round temperate climate agreeable; and the enormous variety of foods and flavors on offer provide another layer of enjoyment alongside Mexico’s already colorful backdrops. Over the years, he and Nick have become an integral part of artists’ communities here, and both became naturalized Mexican citizens. Although he travels with some frequency to visit Europe and India, he’s always pleased to touch-down on Mexican soil and return to what he regards as his true home.
We talk about the challenges of being an artist in Mexico and ask him to share advice for anyone aspiring to move to Mexico to work as an artist. “Come with a vision of what you intend to achieve and be prepared to be very patient.” He remarks on how he discovered that everything takes longer here, and it also takes a good while to get yourself known and established as an artist. “You’re going to need some capital behind you to get you through the first year, and probably longer.”
Jim has a fully-revised 2018 edition of his guidebook Mexico: An Opinionated Guide for the Curious Traveler for sale on Amazon, and his partner Nick Gilman continues to write about food and flavors in Mexico City on his popular blog, which is an authoritative source of knowledge for foodies in Mexico.
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