||In 1988, on my third trip to San Pedro la
Laguna, a Maya town on the shore of Lake Atitlán, I asked a woodcarver
friend to take me to visit some of the Maya artists who lived there. One
of the five artists that I met that day was Mario Gonzalez Chavajay.
Earlier that day, he’d taken his paintings across the lake to Santiago
Atitlán to sell to one of the galleries that cater to tourists who arrive
daily by boat from Panajachel. So he had no finished paintings available
to show me, but he’d started a couple of small canvases. I wasn’t
particularly taken with any of them, but he seemed so intent on selling me
something that I finally bought one for 25 quetzales (about five US
dollars). It was incomplete, but he promised to finish it in time for it
to dry before my departure from San Pedro.
For Mario this was a momentous occasion – his first direct sale to a
tourist, and for nearly five times the amount the galleries paid him.
Mario’s father often went on drinking binges, spending most of the money
he earned as a house builder, leaving the family to live on what was left
over. So, like most poor campesino families, they subsisted on tortillas,
rice, and beans. It wasn’t until nearly twenty years later that, with
tears in his eyes, Mario would tell me how my purchase that day had
allowed him for the first time to go to the market and buy an orange and a
small piece of meat for his mother. Mario now knew that he could earn a
living through his painting.
It took me much longer to realize how significant our meeting had been,
and that ultimately Mario would become a leading Maya artist. At the time
I bought the painting, I had no intention of becoming a promoter of
Tz’utuhil painting. That would come later. After I’d collected about sixty
paintings, I decided to have an exhibition and, as an afterthought, I sold
a few of them. This started me on the road to promoting the Tz’utuhil Maya
Every year when I returned to San Pedro, I would visit Mario and, to
encourage him, I’d sometimes buy a painting. But his colors looked muddy
and he wasn’t as careful an artist as his brother, Pedro Rafael Gonzalez
Chavajay, whose work I loved. This rather distant relationship with Mario
continued for about fifteen years.
By then I’d become close friends with Pedro Rafael, always staying at his
house when I was in town, and Mario would often come to visit his brother.
One time, Mario complained to me that the galleries in Santiago wouldn’t
pay him enough to do anything original. Creating an original painting
would take him three times longer than simply copying a canvas he’d
already done, but the galleries wouldn’t pay him any more for it. Worse,
within a few weeks, other artists would have copied his composition, and
it would be selling in all the galleries. So Mario was reduced to
repeating the same dozen pictures that galleries demanded – steady tourist
merchandise. Still, after years of painting for the galleries, his colors
had become pure and brilliant, so I offered to buy any original themes he
wanted to paint, and at a far better price than the galleries paid. Thus
began a close relationship between the two of us.
||The galleries cared little about quality;
they paid according to size and sales appeal. This caused somewhat of a
problem between the two of us. Every month Mario would calculate how
many paintings of each size he needed to paint for me in order to
support his family. What I cared most about were originality of subject
matter and painterly quality, but I couldn’t get him to slow down and
improve his brushwork. At one point, we stopped working together for
about six months, but we soon worked out a better arrangement: I’d pay
him a monthly salary, and he could paint however many paintings he
wanted. This way he could devote more time to each canvas, and the
quality of the paintings would improve. With enough money for his
family, he can pursue his themes and imagery as they unfold.
This relationship only works because of a trust level between the two of
us. I know that Mario works hard, painting for maybe ten hours every
day. For his part, Mario knows that when his paintings command a higher
price, his salary will increase. His output is impressive: in 2009 Mario
completed over forty paintings.
Feeling that he was ready for the next step, I encouraged him to spend
more time doing larger paintings rather than the small- and medium-sized
canvases. This show is a result, featuring some of his finest work to
date. As an artist, Mario Gonzalez Chavajay continues to grow in mastery
and imagination, dedicated to his craft and to his culture.