The first one takes my breath away – a 60-foot concrete monolith with narrow walkways and spiraling staircases rising out of the dense Mexican jungle like some kind of surreal dinosaur. The next, a giant undulating serpent, lets me know I’m definitely not in Kansas anymore.
We are at Las Posas, one of the most unusual and unlikely gardens in the world, right in the middle of, well, pretty much nowhere in Central Mexico. Las Posas is an 80-acre wilderness garden, a symphony of imagination that’s filled with oversized sculptures and structures — fantastical columns topped with gigantic flowers, Gothic arches, and dizzying walkways that soar into the air and lead into nothingness. All around us the jungle steams and drips. It’s as if we’ve stepped into an Escher painting; only this one is real and three-dimensional.
Built over a 20 year period by the incredibly wealthy and eccentric art patron James Edwards, Los Posas or The Pools, is located in the state of San Louis Potosí, 40 miles from the nearest city (Cuidad Valles), four hours from an airport (Tampico), and a seven hour drive from Mexico City. To say that this unlikely sculpture garden is out of the mainstream is an understatement. But then everything about Las Posas is unusual.
We round a corner and step through a gate that’s fashioned into a giant diamond ring. We move down a walkway lined with seven erect mosaic serpents, past concrete leaves large enough to walk on, up steps onto a mushroom-shaped platform. I expect any moment to see Alice in Wonderland or a hookah smoking caterpillar.
Many of the fantastical structures come with strange names – House with the Roof Like a Whale, Stegosaurus Column, the House with Three Stories that Might be Five, the Fleur-de-Lys Bridge. Some structures have rusting rebar sticking out of their tops, as if nothing in this place is quite finished. Red and purple bougainvillea arch over the roof of the House Destined to Be a Cinema, and we stop at a towering wall of delicate concrete bamboo. Ahead is a low building with a roof that amazingly looks like the Starship Enterprise. Who was the genius or madman who constructed this Surrealist playground? His is a story almost as fantastical as the garden he created.
Artist or Madman?
Edward James, rumored to be the illegitimate son of King Edward VII, was born in 1907 into an ultra-rich family in the ordered and privileged world of Edwardian English aristocracy. Over the years, James turned his back on the rigidity of his birthright and became a patron of the arts, especially the Surrealist Movement. He befriended and supported artists and intellectuals like Salvador Dali, Man Ray, Sigmund Freud, and George Ballanchine, among others. James not only supported the arts, he dabbled in them, writing poetry and two novels.
James was a generous man. Once a friend asked to borrow his car and he gave it to him. But, like many talented people, James also had his eccentricities. He was a packrat who never threw anything away. Some reports say he’d boil old paperclips in cologne so he could reuse them. He’d complain that people were just out to get his money and would retreat into paranoid seclusion for months at a time.
In 1928, James met dancer Tilly Losch who was performing in a Noel Coward revue. He was 24 when he married Tilly, but the union didn’t last. She had a series of relatively public love affairs and finally left him. He tried to win her back by financing George Ballanchine’s first company, Les Ballets, and paying for three ballets for her, including “The Seven Deadly Sins.”
His efforts were for naught. Tilly sued for divorce, claiming James was a homosexual. He countersued her for adultery, causing a scandal in straight-laced England. The fervor drove him to retreat to Europe where he met Dali. There he began supporting Surrealist artists in a big way. At one time, he financed Salvadore Dali for two years and even subsidized his “Dream of Venus” exhibit for the 1933 World’s Fair in New York.
During World War II, James visited the Southwestern United States where he met luminaries like D.H. Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, Thomas Mann, Somerset Maugham, and psychiatrist Erich Fromm. It was Fromm who introduced James to Mexico and the man fell in love with the country.
His wealth, which had opened doors to art, music, theater, and famous people of all stripes, had also increasingly become a burden for James. People were always bringing “worthy” projects for him to underwrite. The pressure made the peace and tranquility of Mexico all the more attractive to him.
James also loved orchids and Mexico is a place where you can grow them. He met a young, handsome man, Plutarco Gastlelum, in a telegraph office in Curnavaca, and the man told him that Xilitla (pronounced he-leet-la) was the best orchid-growing area in Mexico. On the spot, James offered Gastlelum twice his current salary if he’d be his guide. The man readily agreed.
James and his companion and secretary, Roland McKenzie, traveled to Xilitla, a small, mountain village 2,000 feet up in the Sierra Madre. It was hot and he and McKenzie stopped for a swim. When McKenzie emerged naked from the water, a cloud of yellow and blue butterflies landed on him. James took it as a mystical sign and vowed to own this magical place of orchids and butterflies. Since foreigners couldn’t own land in Mexico, in 1947, Gastlelum purchased the land for James that would become Las Posas.
Orchids became James’ passion. At one time, there were nearly 30,000 blooming on the property. Then, in 1962, a freak killer frost struck the area, wiping out the orchids and leaving the forest looking like it had been burned. James was devastated. He vowed to rebuild Las Posas, this time in concrete, which no frost could kill.
The Local Patron
We round a corner and come upon a series of small pools in a winding river. A waterfall, framed by platforms, flying buttresses, and stairways, cascades into one of the pools. Several adults and children play in the water and on the small, sandy beaches. James always encouraged the locals to swim in the nine pools at Las Posas. He also employed many local craftsmen to build his giant sculptures and structures, paying wages higher than anyone in the area. Tucked into a small storeroom on the property are wooden molds the workers made to create the artwork. The man who was once a patron to Surrealist artists became the patron for local Mexican craftsmen.
For more than two decades, James and his workers built Las Posas into a haphazard concrete jungle city. During this time, James continued to travel the world, sometimes returning to Mexico for a few weeks or months, always brimming with new ideas to incorporate into the garden. One building, four stories high, became James’ personal apartment. It’s a tiny place, especially for a man of such immense wealth. The strange structure with its glass windows, fireplace, glass bricks, and archways, served as a getaway for James when returned to the area. Other times, he stayed with Gastlelum and his family in the foreman’s eccentric home (now one of the best hotels in Xililta). He also became Uncle James to Gastlelum’s children.
James loved animals and the cages he kept them in are scattered about, tucked under bushes or beside concrete shelters. The man collected monkeys, ocelots, and birds, including parrots. He was often seen walking about with a large parrot on his shoulder. As he got older, he quipped that his beak-like nose and chin were coming closer together because he was “becoming a parrot.”
After James died in 1987, he left his beloved garden to Kato, Gastlelum’s son. He failed to leave any money for the garden’s upkeep and, over the ensuing years, the forest was slowly taking over and the magnificent structures were beginning to crumble. Fortunately, in 2007, the nonprofit Fondo Xilitla bought the property with the intention of preserving and restoring the garden and its fanciful sculptures and structures.
We climb up a set of circular stairs without rails. One story, two stories, three… It’s a dizzying experience. Suddenly, the stairs stop, suspended in space. We look over the jungle and this concrete playground. Trees, bushes, and vines snake up, around, and through many of the sculptures and buildings. It’s difficult to tell where the jungle begins and the garden’s art ends.
We’ve been meandering Las Posas for more than two hours and I feel as though I’ve just scratched the surface of this magical place. To get a better sense of Edward James’ life, we grab a cab for a 10-minute ride up the hill to the village of Xilitla. This traditional Mexican town clings to the steep mountainside like lichen, its steep cobblestone streets meandering around two- and three-story buildings painted in blues, pinks, and greens. James often stayed here in the village at El Castillo, his foreman’s home. Those who knew James and Gastlelum said the men often borrowed one another’s ideas and you’ll see some of Gastlelum’s expressions at Las Posas; some of James’ ideas in El Castillo.
Today is market day in Xilitla and the narrow streets are packed with vendors selling fruits, vegetables, flowers, meats, and staples like grains and tools. This is not a tourist town and few villagers seem to notice as we greedily snap photos of the vibrant market.
At a taco stand, a woman pats out handmade tortillas and fries them on a wood-fired griddle. I’m about to order a chicken taco, but my Mexican friend urges me to try lengua or beef tongue. At first bite, I am transported. The corn tortillas are soft and slightly puffy. The filling is tender with a rich, beefy flavor with a spicy red sauce that leaves my tongue tingling.
At the top of the hill, the street levels and opens into a wide, cobblestone square. Under a covered bandstand, a four-piece string band pounds out a fast, infectious beat. Fifty or sixty villagers, men in jeans, boots, and white straw cowboy hats and women in slacks and colorful cotton blouses, move in a simple step, step, stomp, stomp, stomp dance. It looks easy enough so we jump in, watching the villagers and trying to follow their steps. Some of them laugh good-naturedly as they see our efforts.
One song flows into the next. Step, step, stomp, stomp, stomp, around and round we dance. A few fat rain drops plop on the concrete. No one seems to notice. We have become one — a swirling, stomping community of bodies moving to the music.
The air is thick and warm. Sweat runs down our backs and faces.Suddenly, the rain pours down in a torrent. No one stops dancing. My shirt is wet and clings to my body and rain cascades off my hat. Step, step, stomp, stomp, stomp. The music pounds out the beat.
My partner, soaked to the skin, hair sticking to her head, grins at me. I smile back, feeling a freedom I’ve never experienced.
As I dance in the rain, I see why Edward James found this part of the world a paradise. www.xilitla.org
– by Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor