How often do you get to live your dream, to inhabit the life that, as a kid, you always wanted? Well, here’s someone you may know who made it happen.
Michele Naquaiya — the amazing painter, ceramicist, and scratchboard artist — lived on the Peninsula from 2008-2017 and was active in the Peninsula Arts Association. Just one year ago, Michele moved to Ajijic, Mexico, a little town of 11,000 people on the shores of Lake Chapala in the state of Jalisco. I’ve been conversing with Michele on Facebook and email (firstname.lastname@example.org) — I wanted to find out more about her decision. Here’s some of what she has to say:
“The year of the big storm — how could I forget that storm?! — I was living in a little trailer in Ocean Park Resort and it was swaying back and forth like a swing. I was scared to death. There were downed trees with live wires everywhere, but I finally figured how to get to Long Beach around 7 a.m. I walked into the Cottage Bakery where a very nice lady gave me coffee, pastry and some comfort. I kept wondering how everyone could be so calm in this hellish storm — I was humbled. But the storms, winter winds, and rains were not the reasons I moved. I can truthfully say I just knew it was time for a change — moving was a now-or-never thing for me.”
“It was actually the one time I got to decide where I was going to live. I’ve lived in a lot of places in the U.S. and almost all of them were decided for me by life’s circumstances: jobs, marriage, career, family, etc. Living in Mexico was what I wanted to do since I was 12. I’ve never really had any other aspirations to live anywhere else.
“I was born and grew up in a little town in Connecticut and it was never a fit for me. I had an older sister who lived in the magical land of California and when she’d visit us in New England, she’d bring gifts from the colorful world of Mexico. I always melted. Once she brought me Mexican jumping beans and I really believed they were magic. So in the dead of winter with the snow outside, I bought myself a cactus — a little mammillaria with tiny pink flowers — and put it in the window of our third floor flat. I prayed it wouldn’t die from the cold and lack of sun, but of course it did die — that’s when I figured I’d have to go to Mexico and get some sun for myself.
“I l-o-v-e the people, the climate, the traditional culture, and the Spanish language. I’ve been studying Spanish every day for two years so I can have a decent conversation. I’m not there yet, but I work on it all the time. I actually spoke French before I spoke English. My mother and siblings spoke French to me and I answered in English, but my mother passed when I was 18, and after that, nobody spoke French anymore except my Lebanese sister-in-law. It made me very sad. I also studied French and Latin in high school and college. Spanish is a romance language, so it was not a big stretch; but now I’m learning more of the subtleties. Spanish is a fascinating and beautiful language.
“In Ajijic, I live in an old, traditional neighborhood and I don’t have to speak English if I don’t want to. How cool is that? I love the people here: they are so kind and polite; they have a formality and respectfulness about everything they do — this isn’t a T-shirt society — people respect manners and kindness. I love that. And Ajijic has one of the world’s best climates — that’s just a part of what makes it beautiful, though it’s getting touristy, there’s lots of traffic, so that’s why I don’t live downtown. I pretty much walk wherever I want to go, or take a cab or bus. It’s like going back in time.”
What about your art?
“When I was nine, I won an award for a pencil drawing at our local library. My first art teacher was my brother who was going to the Hartford Art School in Connecticut at the time. When he’d come home on weekends or holidays, he’d teach me everything he learned. He was a good teacher and enjoyed filling my head with more than I could absorb. My older sister took me to the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan in New York. When I saw the massive oil paintings and sculpture gardens, I fell in love with Henry Moore and Rodin. I realized there was a whole world of art to explore.
“Then I studied drawing, painting, and printmaking at Santa Monica College in the early 70s. At the same time I was in the ceramics program at the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles. That was a crazy time without a minute to spare. — driving from Santa Monica to downtown Los Angeles and back every day was insane — I don’t know how I did it. I went to both schools from 1970-73. Eventually I matriculated credits and got my B.A. in Studio Arts from Charter Oak State College.
“Then all I wanted to do was make pots and that’s what I did for the next 15 years, though I’ve always been drawing because I believe it’s my foundation and I love it. I studied watercolor technique with Zoltan Zabo in Pasadena and with Jim Soares in Ventura. They were wonderful teachers, but my most impressive and powerful teacher by far was Uri Schulevitz, the famous children’s book writer and illustrator. His workshop in Hartwick, New York in the summer of 1988, changed my life.
“Basically, I taught myself scratchboard art. It was hard to get hold of the materials in those days but I found an art store in Los Angeles that had British scraperboard. I just dug in and practiced and practiced until I got drawings that worked. I didn’t start showing my scratchart drawings until a few years later. Eventually I became a professional demonstrator for Ampersand. Charles Ewing, the founder of Ampersand (more info: http://charlesewing.com/about) asked me to be in his first book on scratchart and several of my zebra works are in there.”
Advice for others
are considering a move
“I can only speak for myself about why I moved to Mexico, but I would suggest if you’re thinking about it that you come down and stay awhile and look around. There are a lot of wonderful towns to explore. Talk to a lot of people and get lots of information. That was my game plan and it worked for me. What to avoid in my opinion would be the idea of holding on to all your possessions and memories. Some people can and do easily travel back and forth between seasons. But I didn’t have that option, so I did the next best thing, which was to let go. Letting go of all my stuff was hard, but in the end, nobody can take your memories away and things are just things.”
Michele, you are an inspiration! We miss you and we certainly miss your art, but congratulations for being brave enough to leave what you know and step into your dream.