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Rancho la Puerta - A Treasure Trove of Art and Sculpture

Rancho la Puerta sculpture
Rancho la Puerta sculpture
Judy M. Zimmerman

Rancho la Puerta’s legendary Wellness Center is about a 90-minute bus ride from San Diego’s Airport. Just three miles beyond the border at Tecate, Mexico, “The Ranch”, as it is fondly referred to by thousands of repeat co-ed guests, has collected more awards over the past 73 years than all the other fitness retreats combined.

It is probably the world’s first “eco” resort with an organic farm that provides the healthy fare for its guests.

During my seven visits In the past 20 years, I have enjoyed almost all of the Ranch’s 40+ classes and life-style improvement activities, including hikes, yoga, tennis clinics, meditation classes, massages, and a wide variety of aerobic classes.

But last fall, I decided to try two fascinating new activities – the art walk and the sculpting class.

Jennifer Brandt, the resident artist who teaches landscape sketching, water color painting, and jewelry classes, met our small group in the spa’s grand Mexican Colonial Dining Hall after breakfast. As Jennifer pointed out the many interesting details of folk art on the Hall’s walls, I was captivated by her stories and learned to appreciate so much that I had never taken the time to ponder before.

“For example, the Mexican equivalent of America’s “Grim Reaper” that goes back to the time of the plague in the Middle Ages is ‘La Katrina.’ The difference is that she is tender and motherly, clothed in the fashion of the aristocracy at the time,” said Jennifer.

One of the most beloved of popular Mexican art forms is the Tree of Life, an elaborate stylized tree with diverse human and animal figures perching on its branches. Many trees have unique themes, but the most common is the duality of life and death and the relationship of man with the natural world.

The Tree of Life can be traced from the Mayans’ and Aztecs’ reverence for trees to the Christian priests who used it in teaching Biblical stories to “save their souls.”

“Although there are three or four different theories about the tree of life, my favorite links it to particular aspects of the conquest and plunder of the Aztecs,” said Jennifer.

Most trees are created and sold by artisans who have learned how to make them from their parents and grandparents. Some trees are unrelated to the Garden of Eden, but represent the history of a famous person.

After we stepped outside the dining room, Jennifer picked a white bead from the prickly cactus, and then squished this parasitic insect with her fingers to expose the finest red dye on earth—carmine red. “Twenty per cent of the cochineal’s blood is carminic acid which is available in 170 shades. It was precious because of its scarcity and became the center of Mexico’s trade with Europe during the Renaissance,” explained Jennifer.

Then, we began our sculpture walk to explore just a few of the works of art that have been collected for over 70 years. “A lot of it reflects the Ranch’s co-owner, Deborah Szekely and her daughter, Sarah Livia Brightwood, the resort’s Landscape Architect,” Jennifer continued.

“It will take about three hours to walk all the paths among the 3,000 acres and 32 acres of gardens. Tucked away in the shrubbery you’ll find world-class pieces of art.”

Armed with a map that marked the sites of the 31 sculptures, I spent the rest of the morning doing just that.

Many of the expressionist sculptures are the work of Victor Hugo Castaneda, one of Mexico’s most brilliant sculptors. His bronze expressions depict women in their utmost beauty to silently communicate vitality, emotion, and a fierce eroticism.

That afternoon, I was inspired to show up for Jose Ignacio Castaneda’s sculpting class. Jose, part of the fifth generation of Castaneda sculptors (and Jennifer’s husband), patiently taught us step-by-step to create our own little masterpieces of sorts.

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