XILL FESSENDEN: Lakeside Icon
By Lisa L. Jorgensen
People who have contributed significantly to communities are known as icons. Their works are the flowers they wear on their heads so we can see them. But something interesting must also be brewing inside. Xill Fessenden is known for her remarkable photography that has won critical acclaim both here and in the US, in galleries and on the streets. But what is the spirit that creates her work?
In 1985, she drove herself, her dog and her cat deep into Mexico in a custom VW bus outfitted with a refrigerator and a bed so she wouldn’t have to sleep in a motel. Her mother had taken her to see “Psycho” when she was a girl, so she preferred to sleep on the side of the road. Besides, she was an outdoor person, having grown up in the Maine woods. On top of her bus was all the equipment she would need to set up her darkroom, housed in a gun cabinet she had bought at a yard sale.
She had moved to Los Angeles to become a cinematographer, and then worked on fishing boats and whale-sighting boats. After a serious horse accident, she decided that she didn’t like what she was doing anymore. So she wrote three names on a piece of paper, tucked it under her pillow, and waited for an omen. One name was Santa Fe, one was Los Angeles, and one was Mexico. Then her omen arrived: she spilled chili on her blouse—in the shape of Mexico. And that was that. Jill became Xill, just like Javier becomes Xavier in Mexico. She was off on a jaunt, and figured that when she ran out of money, she’d just come back to California and take another job.
One of the things that interested Xill was what happens when cultures meet. Something new is always formed. She was drawn into an artist circle in Ajijic with Daniel Palma, Jesus Lopez, Dionicio Morales and Katuza. She was the new gringa in town, and something new was indeed being formed.
She opened Centro Ajijic de Bellas Artes (CABA) art center with sculptor Estela Hidalgo. She organized multiple Foto Septiembre festivals, showcasing numerous Jalisco, Oaxacan and international artists. Her photographs were published on the cover of El Ojo del Lago magazine for the many years when she was its photo editor. She conducted cultural journeys to haciendas and the indigenous artesans of Michoacan. And she organized lectures from experts in Mexican music, archeology, and paleontology.
Back then, everyone planted vegetables near the beach on Lake Chapala. They could get 3 or 4 crops per year to sustain themselves. And all the tiendas would close on Thursdays so they could stock up on local organic food. Xill became very interested in trying to preserve that local atmosphere, which was to become the central theme in all her future work.
The most important things she learned while traveling to indigenous villages was how a community functions as a whole: where the land, the community, the family and the individual have the same identity, and they all work together as a unit. They build each others’ houses, share the harvest, and help each others’ children—the way it should be. It moved her, and formed a desire for her to help preserve that culture.
Xill’s new project is to have an open air public gallery in Ajijic’s plaza. The initial exhibition will showcase photos of local herbs and medicinal plants, together with the local women who use them. Her goal is to reconnect the local community to the history and knowledge of the land that surrounds them. In fact, one of the items on her bucket list is to get an empty lot and turn it into a community garden. Then there could be street stands where people of the town could buy local organic food again, where the little stores could come to stock their shelves, and where the health and spirit of the people of Ajijic could be revived and sustained.
But the biggest project on her bucket list is to turn her house into a self-sufficient teaching house. She wants to collect rainwater, have aqueducts running through the house, and build creative systems for lighting and energy. It could be used to teach people how to create these systems for themselves.
This is who she is. A community icon, indeed.
To see some of Xill’s photos, visit http://www.escapetoajijic.com/artist-jill-fessenden.htm.
(Ed. Note: Lisa Jorgensen is the founder of a new and fast-growing website, ExPatPress.com)