IN A BRICK BUNGALOW on Salt Lake City's east side hangs a lithograph of two barefoot Mexican women walking along a stony path.
Its style and its unadorned portrayal of the life of common people show it to be the work of the same person who did the paintings in another home - in Mexico City's Coyoacan neighborhood.Although they are thousands of miles apart, the art works are at home in both places. They were done by the late Pablo O'Higgins, or Paul Higgins, as he was known before he left the Beehive State.
The first painting hangs in the home of Phyllis Vetter, a first cousin twice removed. The others are in the home of O'Higgins himself. He died in 1983, but his wife Maria still lives in the Coyoacan house, surrounded by some of her husband's most famous masterpieces.
Born in 1904 in Salt Lake City, O'Higgins became one of Mexico's most famous and beloved artists. In doing so, he played a supporting role in not only the artistic but the political and cultural flowering of post-revolutionary Mexico.
But, although well-known in his adopted country, O'Higgins is almost unknown in Utah.
Sue Vogel, president of Utah Lawyers for the Arts, learned of him one day in 1984 in a Mexico City bookstore when she was flipping through a book on Mexican muralists. She spent the rest of her vacation in art galleries and museums asking about him, and when she returned home she continued her research.
"I've been talking about him nonstop since 1984. I'm like this cheerleader going around, saying, `Have you heard of - ?' and nobody in Utah had."
Her first queries in the Utah arts community were disappointing. "It was just like, `Who cares?' Like, `Well, if I don't know about him, he can't be important.' " Later, among major gallery directors she found appreciation. But she still hopes to make O'Higgins better known.
"It seems to me that Utah doesn't have so many famous artists that we can just brush one aside and say that he's not important, and it certainly doesn't have that many of international stature."
Vogel discovered that O'Higgins' relative Vetter lived in Salt Lake City and was also a lawyer. The women's mutual interest in the artist has turned into a collaboration. They are working with Mrs. O'Higgins to bring the first exhibit ever of her husband's work to Salt Lake City.
At least one art history book calls O'Higgins a California artist, and before moving to Mexico he did live in the San Diego area. His father, E.V. Higgins, was a lawyer and a judge, and his work took the family back and forth over the years between California and Utah. Young Paul attended high school in San Diego and at East High School in Salt Lake City.
His East High transcript lists his third-year art teacher as Mr. Stewart, and the annual for that year shows that Mr. Stewart was none other than well-known Utah artist LeConte Stewart.
After high school, when Higgins' family moved back to California, he enrolled in an art school but quit after two weeks because he didn't like its methods. When a school friend invited him to his home in Guaymas, Mexico, the trip changed his life.
The friend's mother showed him a magazine article about the murals of the revolutionary new painter Diego Rivera, and the 20-year-old Higgins was fascinated. He wrote the master to express his admiration, and to his surprise Rivera wrote back, inviting him to Mexico City.
With $100 from his father in his pocket, Higgins set off. He was greeted warmly by Rivera and went to work helping him paint murals in the Ministry of Education building in Mexico City and the National School of Agriculture in Chapingo.
Soon O'Higgins was painting on his own and doing his own exhibits, but he and Rivera remained close. The effusive Mexican was later to compare O'Higgins' work to that of Vincent Van Gogh - a strained comparison, said art historian and critic Alberto Hijar, but one showing Rivera's respect as well as affection for the blond American. Rivera said that if he'd had a son, he would have wanted him to be like O'Higgins.
Rivera was not the only one charmed by O'Higgins. Like journalist John Reed, O'Higgins was one of the few Americans to whom the normal Mexican distrust of gringos never applied, because of his own total lack of prejudice, Hijar said.
Sculptor Isamu Noguchi said many artists had come to Mexico and gone Mexican, but O'Higgins was different because he was truly one with the people. A U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Dwight Morrow, called him the most effective unofficial ambassador the United States had.
Rivera not only tutored O'Higgins in the art of mural painting but in politics as well. Prominent in O'Higgins' work were the themes of antifascism, the struggles of Mexico's oppressed workers and peasants, the details of their daily lives and the rich roots of Mexican culture.
In 1927, the American joined the Mexican Communist Party. And in 1928, he joined one of the Mexican government's cultural missions. These were multidisciplinary groups that went into rural communities to do census work, perform public health projects and teach art and other subjects.
The organization with which O'Higgins was most closely identified was the Workshop of Popular Graphics. He, Leopoldo Mendez and Luis Arenal started it in 1937, when Mexico's nationalistic president Lazaro Cardenas was instituting many of his social reforms. The workshop, which became internationally known, produced graphic propaganda designed not only to support Cardenas' efforts but to incline them more to the left.
In 1940, police descended on the workshop after the attempt on Russian exile Leon Trotsky's life by a group led by muralist David Alfaro Siquieros and Luis and Leopoldo Arenal. Under pretext of wanting to work on an etching, the group had borrowed the keys to the workshop and used it as their base of operations for the attack. O'Higgins had to hide out from police at first, although he had had nothing to do with the attack, said his wife.
O'Higgins later left the Communist Party for ex-labor leader Vicente Lombardo Toledano's new Popular Party, which put a more nationalistic twist on its socialism. O'Higgins was not a Mexican citizen yet - he wasn't nationalized until 1961 - but he was already deeply committed to his adopted country.
But he was still proud to be an American too and loved the American people, although he disagreed with many of the government's policies, said Mrs. O'Higgins.
In 1945, feeling a commitment to help fight fascism from within his own country, he returned to the United States to work as a welder in the San Francisco shipyards.
When the Ship Scalers Union learned of his background, he was invited to Seattle to paint a mural in its headquarters building. When the union moved from the building in 1948, the mural, which portrayed the fight against racial discrimination, was given to the University of Washington. But because of its content it was hidden away in storage and forgotten until 1975, when it was redisplayed. O'Higgins also painted another mural in the United States, this one in Honolulu for the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union.
O'Higgins' contributions to Mexican art were of three types, said Hijar. First, he performed important cultural research. Working with various magazines, he helped bring to public attention the complexity of Mexican rural culture and artesanry. In 1930, he, Jean Charlot and Frances Toor published the first extensive work on master engraver Jose Guadalupe Posada.
O'Higgins' second contribution was organizational, Hijar said - he quickly integrated himself into the nationalist cultural projects of his time. He was highly disciplined, and his even temperament suited him much better to group collaboration than did the explosive egos of the first-generation muralists - Rivera, Siqueiros and Jose Clemente Orozco.
O'Higgins was not egotistical. "He was never looking for personal recognition," said his wife. "He wanted his work to be useful."
But, although he was extremely considerate, he did not refrain from criticizing a fellow artist's work if he thought it obscure. For him art had to communicate, and if a hand didn't look like a hand the message might be lost. He rejected the abstract expressionism popular in the United States at the time.
O'Higgins' third contribution was his own tremendous body of work. He was one of the few artists in Mexico to master a variety of techniques and work out distinct solutions to the problems of each, said Hijar.
In a commemorative book about O'Higgins, one writer, Alfonso Martinez Dominguez, said: "The work of O'Higgins, tender and vigorous, at the same time austere and versatile, joined life and movement in a realistic and beautiful expression of the physical and social atmosphere of his time."
Between his murals, oil paintings, lithographs, etchings and drawings, O'Higgins' work runs into hundreds of pieces. He never went anywhere without his sketch pad, said his wife. She has spent the years since his death organizing and cataloging his collection. When she dies, she plans to donate the house and studio to the Mexican people as a museum.