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Cacti & Cobblestones

I’m stretched out on a divan in a tile-and-adobe house, on a hillside overlooking San Miguel de Allende, writing. Several handbuilt stone staircases below me, my husband plays with paints and textures in a brick studio, perched beside solar panels on the roof of the main house. Outside the ten-foot-tall windows, cacti swell and bristle on an arid hillside. Mexican music carries up from the farms below us, tuba and accordion, trumpet and a medley of male voices. Roosters crow, donkeys bray, a fusillade of fireworks explodes, celebrating the name-day of one Catholic saint or another. Nisha has given my husband exuberant, impassioned artistic direction and he’s off and running, with three canvases at various stages of completion.

Nisha Ferguson, née Edelson, went to my high school. She wore a brown leather hippie jacket with long fringes, or an authentic-looking Peruvian poncho, swirling skirts, faded jeans. She was an artist and a dancer and a gymnast and oh my gawd she was cool. Yesterday I told her how, back in the halls of Fisher Park High School in Ottawa all those years ago, I admired her confidence and panache from behind my thick, plastic-framed glasses.

“I was faking it,” she told me. “The whole time.”

Today Nisha lives on a rancho on the outskirts of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. She and her husband Dan run a highly successful ceramics studio. Also, she has a circus school, GravityWorks, where she teaches acrobatic circus acts, trapeze and silks. She and Dan have two sons, both whipsmart, athletic, and gracious. When Nisha isn’t making bold, bright, and beautiful ceramic sculptures, or teaching ceramics or circus or painting, or cooking scrumptious feasts for a table full of family and friends, she’s painting and sketching and sewing, following a muse that seems to bellow at her every waking moment of every single day.

She’s still the epitome of cool, minus the bold fakery of youth, plus the accumulated years of experience.

I found Nisha on facebook, in a moment of whatever-happened-to-her curiosity. After high school, she moved to Toronto to attend art school, and I went to the University of Toronto. In Toronto I sometimes visited Nisha and her then-boyfriend, in the cavernous abandoned warehouse on Hanna Street where they roller skated or cycled through empty hallways, ambitiously enormous pieces of installation art suspended from the fifty-foot ceilings.

Then life accelerated, and I didn’t see Nisha for a quarter of a century. I married, had two daughters, divorced, remarried a wonderful man who has dabbled in sketching, sculpting and painting his whole life. He’s good, and he wanted to push his painting up a level. A quick internet investigation revealed that San Miguel de Allende is an artist and writer’s mecca, its world-heritage-site downtown cobblestone streets packed with studios, galleries and garrets. I contacted Nisha online, curious, tentative, and asked if she could recommend an airbnb in this funky, central-Mexican locale.

“WHY would you stay in town? WE have casas you can rent!”

I wander in and around Nisha and Dan’s house. There’s a planter in the shape of a sheep, plinths here and there, perched on the edge of the roof and squatting in the rocky garden. The ceramic face of a chubby man wearing spectacles stares up the outdoor chimney, painted clouds float by on the kitchen’s high ceiling. Bullhorns over doorways, a cityscape painting of NYC, an old fashioned porcelain doll propped in a corner. Gauzy curtains in bright colours sigh in the cool breeze of this high plateau.

A few years ago Nisha wanted a way to paint as she travelled, without the inconvenience and bulk of stretched canvases. She shows me the big fabric sketchbooks she has created, unique backdrops painted on fabric, bound and sewn into thematic books, filled with startling images rendered in oil pastels, pen and ink, and other media. She has shown these books at galleries. We imagine them reproduced as art books, and a project opens up, bright purple and promising, like the blooms on the jacaranda trees.

Feast your eyes on Dan & Nisha’s gorgeous sculptures here:



  1. Donna Bishop Donna Bishop

    You’ve got me wanting a trip to this fabulous, artsy, passionate Mexican paradise that I did not even know I wanted!

  2. Will Will

    I love this post. You have captured the very essence of our experience with your exuberant and articulate words. Thank you.

  3. Lorna Ferguson Lorna Ferguson

    Hey Katie, love this post! Just to fill in some blanks, “the ceramic face of a chubby man wearing spectacles stares up the outdoor chimney” – the man is my father, Dan’s grandfather, Howard Rapson. When he was still alive (but easing into a little Alzheimers) Dan asked him to pose like he was blowing and looking up, then he photographed him from every angle and Dad immediately forgot about it. At Christmas that year Dan presented his Grandpa with the sculpture you see outside on the “Altar” Dan had Fernando build (it’s not a chimney though it looks like one). It was originally designed to fit into one of those huge old satellite dishes that Dad had replaced with a newer one. Dad’s plan was to make the satellite dish into a water fountain, the dish set on the ground, with a hose underneath to spray upwards. When he saw what Dan had created to add to his fountain, he laughed until he cried. He just loved it. Somewhere there is a photo of the “fountain” spraying water out of my father’s mouth. For a while “Grandpa” sat in our garden in Kitchener peeking out from under the hostas, but when we sold our house I gave it back to Dan and now it holds pride of place each year during Day of the Dead, on the shelf in the altar. Last November he wasn’t returned to his place inside but remains forever looking skyward with his definitely cherubic cheeks puffed out as he blows. And that’s the back story on that! I have some great photos of the altar all decked out with flowers and photos and other mementos of our dead relatives. Nisha even has an old “cottage phone” she puts on the altar for calling her grandmother on Day of the Dead. I snuck a call in to my mother on it last year so I know it really works… 🙂

    • Wonderful backstory on this fabulous sculpture, and the altar / chimney, thanks Lorna! When I saw it,I was immediately reminded of the Floo Powder Network of transportation in the Harry Potter series, a face floating in (what seemed to be) a fireplace. It was tough to single out a few details from the myriad of unique, artistic touches around this Rancho – but that face made a big impression. Delighted to know the full story!

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