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Professor Helps Maya Artisans Rediscover Their Past, Build a Future

Professor Helps Maya Artisans Rediscover Their Past, Build a Future


More than a decade ago, members of a small village tucked deep into the rainforests of Belize realized that the rich cultural history of their Maya ancestors could help them build a sustainable economic future.

The San Antonio Women’s Collaborative was formed to create and sell pottery and other items produced in the manner of the Maya civilization, which collapsed more than 1,000 years ago.

But there was a big problem: Although they kept many Maya cultural traditions alive, the people no longer knew how to make Maya ceramics.

“We had been working so hard to teach ourselves how to make pottery and work with paints,” said Timotea Mesh, president of the women’s collaborative, describing a grueling, trial-and-error process in which it often took three weeks to produce a single piece of pottery. “We were about to quit, until Jeremiah [Donovan] reached our place as a visitor.”

That visit by SUNY Cortland’s Jeremiah Donovan, a professor of ceramics in the Art and Art History Department, turned into a four-year quest to help the community unravel the lost secrets of the most advanced culture in pre-Columbian America.

With Donovan’s help, and that of SUNY Cortland student researchers, the San Antonio Women’s Collaborative is now producing and selling authentic Maya pottery created with traditional methods developed thousands of years ago.

Their work, along with historic examples of ancient Maya pottery, will be on display at SUNY Cortland’s Dowd Gallery as part of “Future of the Past: Revitalizing Ancient Maya Ceramic Traditions in a Modern Maya Community.” The exhibit will run from Wednesday, Oct. 19 through Dec 1.

Several special events related to the exhibit are also planned:

  • A lecture titled “The Art and Science of Maya Ceramics,” was offered by Donovan and SUNY Cortland’s Robert Darling, a distinguished teaching professor of geology, on Oct. 19.
  • An opening reception was held from 5 to 6:30 p.m. on Oct. 20 in Dowd Gallery. It will feature remarks by Barbara Thummalapally, wife of Vinai Thummalapally, former U.S. Ambassador to Belize; Donovan and Timotea Mesh.
  • A panel discussion, “Revitalizing Maya Traditions: Object, Place, Time,” will take place at 5 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 9 in Brockway Hall, Jacobus Lounge. Panelists will include Donovan; Sebastian Purcell, assistant professor of philosophy at SUNY Cortland; and John Henderson, professor of anthropology at Cornell University.

Donovan received a National Endowment of the Arts grant in Spring 2016 to bring five members of the San Antonio Women’s Collaborative to Central New York. The group has 35 contemporary pottery pieces on display at Dowd Gallery, along with 20 ancient Maya objects on loan from the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University, and several other related tools and materials.

“I feel like part of their families,” Donovan said of the Maya artists, whom he first met during a visit to Belize in 2012. “We have shared the love of making things out of clay and I have probably learned more from them then they have of me.”

 Drawing from his 40 years of experience with the study of ceramics in international cultures,  Donovan noticed that the pottery produced by members of the cooperative didn’t reflect the authentic cultural Maya practices from thousands of years ago.

They spent long hours digging the clay, then drying, pounding, mixing and molding it into shape before applying paint. With the hot, humid tropical climate as a backdrop, they worked in an open-air space used to slaughter and process chickens. One piece of pottery would take approximately three weeks to produce.

“This is a country from where ceramics evolved,” Donovan said. “I saw it as a learning opportunity for students and, of course, my love of traditional artistic practices, propelled my interest.”

SUNY Cortland has long had a special educational relationship with Belize, a small Central American country with a scattered population roughly the size of Buffalo, N.Y. Dozens of Cortland students go there each year to study biology on the pristine coral reefs, make improvements to the all-volunteer Belize Zoo, participate in a summer Teachers’ Institute or learn about the ancient Mayas from the ruins they left in the jungle.

Ancient Maya civilization — known for its uniquely composed, detailed and colorful ceramics — spans more than 2,000 years. When the civilization faded into history, traditional techniques were lost and its artifacts buried. 

“When I arrived in Belize, there were limited galleries or stores to showcase and market any of the artwork,” Donovan said. “I found this fascinating,” given the history of pottery unique to the Maya world.

Since 2013, Donovan has traveled with students under SUNY Cortland’s “Belize: Art, History, and Culture” program to observe excavations of ancient pottery at Cahal Pech, one of the oldest Maya architectural sites in the country and nearby caves. The digs were led by Belizean archaeologist Jaime Awe.

In collaboration with Awe, whose work shed light on the techniques and materials used by ancient pottery makers in the region, Donovan developed modern processes that reinterpret ancient Maya multi-colored pottery production.

“He gave us the courage again,” Mesh said, “and we decided as a group that this was it — this was our last chance to make our work as our ancestors did.”

Mesh said Donovan worked with the five artists from the collective, introducing practices and methods unknown to them that had disappeared over the centuries.

“We started from scratch — it was new to us,” Mesh said. “[Donovan] started teaching us about the clay and especially the colors used for painting.”

For collective members, more than their heritage was at stake. Belize is a developing nation in which a third of the people live in poverty. Collective members see traditional crafts as a way to enhance the country’s tourism economy and earn more income for their families.

“I recognized the spirit and commitment from this group, which was inspiring,” Donovan said. “That began it all.”

Dating back to as early as 1500 B.C., Maya ceramics incorporated unique methods, styles and materials singular to its culture. While accompanying Belizean archaeologist Jaime Awe to ancient caves and monumental sites throughout the region, Donovan captured photographs of these resilient relics. These photographs would later be printed, laminated and shared as a way to study the intricacies of the pieces.

“It was important to also learn about the Maya antiquities by seeing them in person,” Donovan said. The Professor of Art and Art History planned a series of field excursions throughout the region to connect the contemporary Maya artists of today with the work of their ancestors.

Studying and analyzing segments of some unearthed artifacts in person provided an opportunity to physically see and hold history, as well as “inspire a revitalization of ancient practices,” Donovan said. Together, collective members put the pieces of their Maya culture back together — literally and figuratively.  

“I remember holding one pot in my own hands,” said Rafael Canto, the only male member of the collective, referring to a piece that was made more than 3,000 years ago. “It was so inspiring.”

The three-year partnership between Donovan and the San Antonio villagers began in 2013.

“We would begin by digging clay in the rainforest, like the Maya ancestors did, then search for and develop natural pigments for painting that were mediums used to decorate pottery,” Donovan said.

The group learned about ancient Maya techniques through a series of hands-on instructions by Donovan. By working the clay, they regained the knowledge of a collapsed Maya civilization and became inspired to re-invent new work.

 “Our ancestors used to paint their pots with stories on them,” said Canto, describing a contemporary piece he made based on the 3,000-year-old pot he’d held. Staying consistent with Maya tradition, Canto’s re-imagined version of the pot – which he gave to Donovan as a gift – also tells a story. It is the story of how the Maya make pottery, mixing clay with their feet, firing the vessels and passing the tradition to future generations.

 “We are struggling for our children, so they will have history in their hands,” said Claibel Tzib, a member of the collective.