When Ric Kokotovich and Alison Wattie expanded their Mérida home by buying the lot next door, they took an opportunity to upgrade their workspaces.
And upgrade they did. Their original home is now a guest house. Casa El Tamarindo, the home they built, is all new. It’s dramatic, airy and bold — and immediately suggests that an artist and a writer live there. Which is, indeed, the case.
Kokotovich’s casita, which only barely touches the main house, greets visitors who approach the structure from the front gate. Inside is an obviously busy, large workroom with tables covered with art supplies and works in progress.
Floor-to-ceiling windows face east and the morning light floods in. The pandemic inspired a series of masks on the far wall. On a table is a series of paintings based on Haiku. Elsewhere are street photos he took in the early- and mid-80s, in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, a years-long project capturing a community of saucy drag queens at Mardi Gras.
Past a kitchenette and bath is yet another workroom, this one with a large photo printer and two workstations for digital work. The task chairs face the twisted trunk of a sheltered, old tree. This room focuses more on Kokotovich’s work as a photographer,
The house appears to peer out from behind an angled wall that runs along the garden path. Its dramatic flourishes and wide-open art-filled interiors suggest a creative couple craving room to think.
“We have a lot of art in Canada, we know a lot of artists here, we trade a lot of art,” says the Alberta native. The pieces from back home he drove all the way down in a pickup truck.
Wattie, who ran a marketing firm in Canada and still works as a writer, poet and graphic designer, works on the other side of the property, closer to the master bedroom. She requires less physical space, but her office is similar to the studio in that it’s filled with light and artwork, and is obviously a comfortable space to think and create.
“She’ll come in here if she needs to talk to me, and I’ll come into her studio if I need to talk to her,” Kokotovich says, “We have tried to create a mutual respect around our working environments.”
That would be difficult if they shared a small space, “but we’re quite lucky. It’s like we live in a park.”
Their compound is shared with two contented rescue dogs named Iggy and Chucho and with `Karma, an apparently shy house cat — all of whom appear to have run of the house.
The home, built in the San Sebastián neighborhood by Mérida architect Victor Cruz, is anchored by a well-proportioned living, dining and kitchen space, adjacent to a patio that leads to a long swimming pool protected by a black Luis Barragán-inspired wall.
The rooms inside the home and studio are all warm and earthy chukum, a smooth stucco infused with the translucent resin from the bark of a native tree. Its use dates to the period of the Maya and was revived in the late 20th century by builders seeking a natural material that references the region’s heritage.
A rainy 2020 and the pandemic slowed progress on the house, and like many of the art pieces in Kokotovich’s studio, remains a work in progress. The couple is agonizing over the kitchen backsplash, some barn doors are waiting to be installed on rails, and a huge central courtyard, shaded by what appears to be an ancient tamarind, is still rocky and ungroomed.
The neighborhood, south of the main plaza and away from areas more clustered with foreigners, suits them.
“Because we’ve been here for eight years,” he says, “the barrio is very safe. Our neighbors look out for us.”
Although Kokotovich had first visited Mérida in 1993, the couple initially moved to the Pacific coast town of Manzanilla, “but we’re not beach people. So right away we started looking for a property to switch up our lives.”
They set aside the conventional advice to rent first, buy later.
“We looked at properties and bought one. An emotional purchase that worked out.”
When they first moved to San Sebastián, there were far fewer expats. But today, a well-known Swiss jazz drummer is down the block and two fellow Canadians across the street have settled in full-time.
An exhibition at Fundación Centro Cultural La Cúpula immersed Kokotovich into Mérida’s community of international creatives. And it was the city’s broader community of artists that makes life here work for them.
A version of this article appeared in Issue 1 of Yucatán at Home.