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Bringing Maya to Life : * A Lancaster museum presents the work of contemporary artists deeply affected by the centuries-old culture.

December 24, 1993|NANCY KAPITANOFF | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES Nancy Kapitanoff writes regularly about art for The Times.

LANCASTER — Many people probably think of the Maya as pre-Columbian inhabitants of Mexico and Central America who vanished after the Spanish conquest of the Americas in the 16th Century. It is true that they existed well before Columbus came to America. Maya civilization began around 2000 BC.

But the Maya are not extinct. Visitors to the Lancaster Art Museum's exhibit, "World of the Ancient Maya," will learn that more than 6 million Indians of Maya descent still live in Mexico and Central America.

They are the second-largest surviving aboriginal culture in the Americas, after the Quechua peoples of Peru and Bolivia.

The contemporary Maya, and the ancient ruins of their culture that have survived into the 20th Century, inspire many artists today.

Together with early Maya artifacts and a thorough explanation of Maya history and culture, the museum's exhibit presents the work of seven contemporary artists who have been deeply affected by the Maya way of life.

These artists express this influence in a variety of media--watercolor, jewelry, ceramics, wood, photography and batik.

Museum curator Norma Gurba organized the show to "bring to life the Maya influence, both modern and ancient," she said.

"People think they were such a primitive people, but their hieroglyphic writing system, mathematics, astronomy and architectural constructions built in the jungles are amazing."

Gurba hopes that visitors will "learn about other people" from the show, "not just history, but an understanding of other cultures. Not everyone gets to Mexico or Central America."

All of the artists in this show have spent time in Maya communities.

Photographer Jorge Perez de Lara, a native of Mexico, said he is fascinated with all things Maya.

Photographing Maya cities and art is a way for him to understand the people, and to pay homage to the ancient civilization. His photographs on view capture the ruins of Chichen Itza in the Yucatan, Copan in Honduras, Palenque in Chiapas, Mexico, and Tikal in Guatemala.

Watercolorists Joanna Mersereau and Don O'Neill began visiting Maya communities in Mexico in the 1970s. O'Neill, an architect, creates a sense of place in images based on his trips to Mexico.

Mersereau's warm, vibrant watercolors focus on the men, women and children of contemporary Maya society, as well as the patterns and designs in the art and clothing of their ancestors.

In one work, "Whither the Maya?" she shows early and modern Maya together, and has us ponder the fate of their culture.

Her trips to San Cristobal de las Casas in the highlands of Mexico have fostered her admiration, for "these people are so strong in their kind. They come in contact with European culture and our culture, but they have discounted most of it," she said.

Rebecca Jones and Gail Gagnon-Garcia joined Mersereau and O'Neill on one of their recent trips to Mexico. Jones had begun making artwork dealing with the Maya in 1968. Her clay "Young Girl With Flowers" captures the spiritual strength, sense of humor and innocence that she sees in the Maya of the Chiapas highlands.

Gagnon-Garcia's curiosity about the Maya began when she first saw Mersereau's watercolor series, "Patterns of the Maya." Gagnon-Garcia combines fiber and sterling silver to make large jewelry pieces--brooches, collars--and art pieces that are homages to Maya weavers.

Patricia Ancona-Ha lived for six years in Quintana Roo in the Yucatan. Her large, Maya-influenced batik pieces convey the sense of a tropical forest. "One should think of batik as 'flexible stained glass' in that it wants light to pass through the image," she writes.

Augustin Rodiles studies historic Maya art and architecture, then re-creates original images in woodcarvings using mahogany, red cedar and other woods. His pieces recall the stone pillars and other stone surfaces of Maya city monuments.

Text accompanying the displays provides overviews on such topics as Maya art, religion, economy and trade, warfare, architecture, language, marriage and birth rituals, the role of Maya women and the effect of the Spanish conquest.

WHERE AND WHEN

What: "World of the Ancient Maya."

Location: Lancaster Art Museum, 44801 N. Sierra Highway.

Hours: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sundays. Ends Jan. 9. Closed today, Saturday and Dec. 31. On Dec. 30, open 10 a.m. to noon.

Call: (805) 723-6250.

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