Wednesday, March 27, 2024



February 1991 - .While painting my Taos studio and listening to Joseph the Starwatcher's astrological forecast  one snowy January morning,  I heard an ad from the Center for Anthropological Studies announcing a group trip through Guatemala.  Having just sold a large canvas at my Santa Fe gallery, I thought "Eureka! my chance to get some good photographs for a new series of paintings!!! Inspired by Clark Hulings paintings of Mexico, this could be my ticket! Enamored by George Carlson's Tarahumara pastels, the fantastic work of Elias Rivera and Ramon Kelley's wonderful Mexican portraits, I was inspired to go to Guatemala.   The joke in all of this is that I am and always have been severely agoraphobic! What was I thinking?   Deciding to put it all on the line, I signed up and put my money down. Away I go!!!!

The tour was sponsored by an archaeologist and his wife from Albuquerque and led by an expert guide from Arizona. I missed the evening orientation because of the two hour night drive from Taos and figured it was no big deal. Thus everything I experienced in Guatemala came as a total surprise!  Our group assembled at the airport. My bags were packed and I was headed into the Great Unknown!  Buen Viajae!!!!

The airport in Guatemala City was dark and very dreary. Two men with machine guns stood at attention as we passed through, their eyes sharply focused on each and every one of us.  The money changer, protected by a bank-teller's type cage, was not at all friendly to a bunch of noisy Americans. Entering our hotel that first night we were again greeted by men with AK47s standing at the entrance.  Shock and Awe - my first clue that this trip for some photos might be quite an intense experience! Hah! What an understatement!  It would be life-changing!  Tremendous street noise from the traffic below my room and slight trepidation of my great adventure kept me awake that whole night.

A blessing ritual by a local shaman in who was celebrating his sobriety.  Circling a small fire, he said quiet  prayers to his ancient gods and poured a bottle of whiskey into the flames.  Six years into my own recovery, I was overwhelmed and gave him a hug.  My group buddies stared in disbelief through the bus windows.  Think I might have been inappropriate.  A long day of visiting sites with huge carved stone Olmec-inspired heads.  Have always felt that these heads in Central America originated from some ancient African culture - early explorers.  A small local "zoo" of four or five emaciated critters gave a first hint that Guatemala was not just an ordinary photo trip! 

Back to Guatemala City and the first market on our tour.  I took my a few photos in this strange place. Beyond excited by the colors I imagined these images filling all the blank canvases in my studio once back in Taos. We were warned that if we gave one child with their hand out, we would be swarmed by many more.  A very young girl came up to me with a small child who definitely looked as though he was dying. She said he was her baby brother and held out her little hand for a quetzal. Because of our strict warning, I refused.  Her desperation still haunts me. I know why families cross the Rio Grande!

The Procession on Good Friday shattered all my illusions about this trip. My head was still in that dreamy slowness of Taos.  Alfombras, colorful carpets of sawdust and flowers lined the streets. Huge crowds lined the cobblestone streets.  Heavy clouds of incense, strange and slow music could be heard in the distance with the heavy regular beat of a drum - a slow and heart stirring dirge.  The crowds parted to make way for the very long and heavy "anda". Eighty to 100 men dressed in purple satin robes and white gloves carried the float on their shoulders supporting a life-sized statue of Christ carrying His cross to Gethsemane. A wagon with the musicians playing the dirge followed behind. Another  much smaller anda followed carried by women in black.  They carried impressive statue of Mary robed in black with a halo of silver stars.  That night many vigils and prayers in the cathedral.  

A long trip from Antigua to Zunil on Holy Saturday.  On the way many chilling stories about kidnappings and disappearances and dire warnings to never travel that road at night - another hint that this might not be a casual photo trip.  I really was clueless!  Cars and busses crowded the town square. Our bus was early and got solidly hemmed in with no escape until the end of the festivities. A brilliant white church in the distance silhouetted by a blue-black stormy sky.  A group of twenty to thirty women in red huipils sat together in front of the church.

Our bus emptied out and I chose to stay behind to photograph from inside the bus. In the distance s a group of women in traditional Mayan dress were in deep conversation - hand-woven huipils - deep purples and blue, magentas and brilliant reds.  With camera lens on zoom I focused on the group. A young girl turned around and saw me, I was caught.  At that moment I truly became an Ugly American!  She glowered menacingly and I motioned that I was putting my camera away.  Chastised and ashamed, I got off the bus and began to wander alone.  A stage was set up in the center of the square for the Passion Play.  Found myself in a little co-op store run by local women to sell their weavings.  Was proudly able to use some broken Spanish and asked the ladies about their work. Their pride in their creativity and their community was a ray of sunshine
Soon the sweet smell of incense.... drums, flutes and men in back robes with tall ceremonial hats marched down a steep hill. The high priests of Zunil made their entrance!  Some carried matracas, large window shaped rattles. An eerie combination of noises....the actors assembled on the stage and the villagers played their parts soulfully. We headed back to Antigua before dark.  Was slowly waking to reality - this other world was definitely not the Land of Oz!

A couple of nights at Posada de Belen. Dampness - darkened mood - stories told and passed around about Sister Dianna Ortiz, a young nun from New Mexico who was kidnapped from this very place about 18 months earlier. Her book detailing her capture is told in The Blindfold's Eyes. Reality began to poke through - this was really not what I expected! 
As an artist, I am less a participant and more of an observer. I see pictures, details and my senses had been awakened to this place after reading A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya by David Freidel and Linda Shele.  I needed to see the pyramids, those stelae - the trails of the ancient Maya!  I had to stand in those places!  Yes, I got what I wanted and more....much more than ever expected!!  Life changed me in ways I never saw coming!!  This was definitely no ordinary field trip!  TO BE CONTINUED - SEMANA SANTA PART II

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