Photographs by James Fennell.
Mario Avila has enjoyed a colourful life. The popular Central American artist and composer was born in 1944, the eldest of nine children to musician parents from the town of San Miguel in El Salvador. He spent 10 years studying at a Jesuit seminary in San Salvador, was closely involved with the Sandanista Revolution in Nicaragua and later worked with the Mexican Socialist and Workers Party. Since 1990 he has dedicated himself to his true passions – music and art. To date the accomplished guitarist and singer has released six albums. He has also focused on sculpting, his primary materials being clay, cement and stained glass.
In 1996, Mario Avilla built a large clay sculpture, slapped a front door on it and moved in.
At least that’s what it looks like when one first encounters the courteous Salvadorian’s home at the foot of Cerra del Tepozteco mountain in Morelos State, Mexico. In reality the house, called Tlacatapol (Nahuatal for The Man Above), began life as a typical Mexican red-bricked bungalow. But then Mario arrived in the neighbourhood, hopped up on his potter’s wheel and got to work. The interior and exterior walls were soon recoated with a clay mixture composed of cement (1/3), earth (1/3), sand (1/6) and horse dung (1/6). A further coat of nopal cactus sap was then added to prevent the clay crumbling off the walls. With that, Mario was free to shape and model his home into a surreal and rambling Dr. Seuss world where the rooftops echo the misshapen peaks of the mountains beyond and the interior walls metamorphose into a bass relief of images and characters from St. Mark’s Gospel. This latter reflects the former Jesuit’s personal belief that “art is the principal place for religion to reach fruition”.
The end result is an intriguing cavern-like home of elongated warrens, gnarled pillars and sunken footbaths. Plugs and light switches are ingeniously camouflaged amid a series of carefully etched stalactites and stalagmites that plummet and climb at apparently random moments. Distorted wire creatures clamber along twisted arches and ceramic studded sinks. Steps swerve and ascend and go absolutely nowhere. Mighty wooden slabs held up by magnificent urns. There are special sitting chill out areas where Mario and his friends can discuss great men and their fathers who begat them. Stained glass windows and skylights have been fitted to filter 12 hours of multi-coloured daily sunshine into the building.
During our visit to Tlacatapol, Mario volunteered to sing a dozen of his finest songs. The lyrics to these often poignant numbers were taken from the works of his favourite leftist poets including Garcia Lorca, Ernesto Cardinal and Roque Dalton. Perhaps its my stubborn inability to understand Spanish but these songs seemed as beautiful as any I’ve heard. Listening to Mario, sitting in one of his self-made snugs, his voice galloping from low-key rumbles to Heidi of the Hills whoops, I feel like Ry Cooder must have done when he first stumbled upon the Buena Vista Social Club.
This is a well-to-do caveman’s abode, the sort of place Fred and Wilma would feel completely at home in. At the same time it is a spontaneous home, an ever-evolving work in progress that serves to stimulate Mario’s passion for creativity.
O The Places You’ll Build, as Dr. Seuss might say.