Celebrating the birthday of Charles Eames and his colorful trip to Mexico Posted June 16, 2016 by Ross Atwood
On the birthday of Charles Eames, we reflect on his nearly year-long trip to Mexico, where he went to find himself and start life afresh.
In 1933, Charles Eames left his life and work as an architect in St. Louis to travel alone throughout Mexico. He was hoping to find and reinvent himself, and he didn’t return home until he figured out how to do just that.
Julian Blaustein, a successful Los Angeles film producer and friend of Charles Eames, once recalled what made him so unique as a person and a designer: “Charles knew who he was. And that’s a tough assignment right there. . . . I don’t know about you, but I think as you go through life you’ll suddenly become aware that not many people know who they are, what they are about. Are in touch with themselves. Maybe I’m wrong, but I know I find it very difficult among the people I know to find many who can answer that, who can live up to that criteria of personal behavior. I think Charles knew who he was.”
People who knew Charles personally, as well as scholars who have studied his life, would agree with Blaustein’s assessment. This self-understanding, which is evident in his and Ray’s work and design philosophy, began developing during his time in Mexico. The trip was one that Charles desperately needed, for himself and for his work. When he returned, “he was no longer mired in the frustrations of St. Louis but instead seemed to be seeking a way to transcend them and to take himself to a new level,” wrote Eames Demetrios in An Eames Primer. “This is not to say that Mexico was a magic bullet for Charles, but rather that it was the beginning of a process of taking stock of and ultimately changing his approach and situation in life.”
In Mexico, Charles absorbed the vibrant colors and textiles, adobe homes, the big open sky, distant green hills, and beautiful chapels. His daughter Lucia long remembered her father’s joyous return home to St. Louis, carrying with him boxes of fabric, colorful folk art, paper-mache dolls, and even a metal cane with a small knob on the handle carved to resemble the head of Satan.
When Charles left St. Louis for Mexico, he had very little money in his pocket and knew no Spanish, but that didn’t deter him from an adventure. With the clothes on his back and his art supplies in hand, Charles drove a very old Ford as far south as he could go. He got to the end of an old road somewhere in the Mexican state of San Luis Potosi, and from there traveled by horse, and then eventually by foot to the more remote villages.
During his ten month sojourn, Charles had no camera. Instead, he documented his travels by making an abundance of watercolor paintings. These works were put on display at the St. Louis Art Museum after he returned home, and many were sold. Fortunately, a few of the paintings still exist today. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch did a feature on Charles’s time in Mexico, in which they discussed the richness of his watercolors:
“Each picture is a memento of a personal experience. A water color of a market place in Monterrey recalls the day Eames spent in jail for painting it. A view of a little mountain church reminds him of the simple, kindly people who worshiped there and their hospitality to him. A street scene in Saltillo brings back the sounds of fiesta and the fragrance of frijoles and pan dulce. Some of the paintings merely record, of course, occasions when the artist was delighted by a fine harmony of line or mass or a striking arrangement of color in something he saw; but these occasions are important personal experiences to the artist.”
Those experiences shaped Charles. He traded manual labor and, quite often, his sketches and paintings for food and shelter. However, this didn’t always provide for steady meals, and he often went to bed hungry.
Always moving from place to place, Charles stayed with locals, working when he could and learning all the time. He had a fond memory of being the guest of honor in a small mountain village. The foreigner was not only welcomed, but much celebrated after he repainted an old statue of St. Peter in their chapel. It must have been a job well done, because a fiesta was held to commemorate the event, and it is said that citizens, with tears streaking down their cheeks, thanked Charles for the deed.
Not all of Charles’s encounters in Mexico were pleasant; however, looking back on them, he knew they were all important. As he would later note, any place can be hostile when you have no money and you don’t speak the language.
Charles was arrested on two occasions: The first time occurred in Monterrey. As Charles understood it, he was brought in because a local felt his painting of a small market place depicted the town in an unfavorable way. The second arrest happened in Linares. He spent a few nights locked up after officials found a book in his possession that contained pictures of ancient Mexican archeological treasures. The officials were concerned that the images showed their country in a bad light. The rats wandering through the dank cells painted a lasting impression for Charles, but as always, he made the best out of the situation.
“Another close call for Charles was being rounded up with the citizens of a village for an involuntary smallpox vaccination and watching the dirty needle get closer and closer as it was used over and over again. He got the shot and, fortunately, he and the other recipients were lucky not to have suffered anything worst than a sore arm,” wrote Demetrios.
Charles’s friendly and adventurous nature served him well during his travels. One of his colleagues later noted how comfortable he was experiencing other cultures on their own terms, which Charles attributed to his time in Mexico. In the end, he said that the most important lessons he learned during his trip were that, “At least, damn it, you’re not afraid to be broke!” and lastly, “I would never be suckered into a mistake I did not make myself.”