The Paintings of

Diego Isaias Hernández Mendez

By Joseph Johnston

The Maya who become artists will all tell you that they excelled in drawing when they young. Antonio Coche Ixtamer was no exception. His life was typical of a poor Maya campesino family. He helped his father in the fields, often getting up at four in the morning to work before going to school. For Ixtamer the big event in his childhood was when his father had enough money to buy him his first pair shoes so that he no longer had to go barefoot.

Attending the only art class in the bilingual public schools in San Juan la Laguna inspired Ixtamer’s interest in painting. This class for older students was taught one afternoon a week by San Pedro la Laguna artist Pedro Rafael Gonzalez Chavajay. In around 1986 when Ixtamer graduated from school, he convinced his father to pay for painting lessons on weekends with Pedro Rafael. For six months Ixtamer drew faces until he satisfied Pedro Rafael that he could draw well. Only then was he taught to mix colors, apply paint, and make small copies of paintings Pedro Rafael himself was working on.

After studying with Pedro Rafael intermittently over the course of two years, Ixtamer began painting on his own, selling his canvases to galleries in Santiago Atitlan. Ixtamer’s carefully painted themes did not earn him enough money to live on, because the Santiago galleries wanted inexpensive quickly-produced pictures to sell to tourists. Not only Ixtamer, but all Tz’utujil artists trying to sell paintings to the galleries in Santiago Atitlan have found that the tourists want small mementos from Guatemala to give to friends when they get home, not fine works of art. These galleries, because tourists are almost their entire market, try to buy the works as cheaply as possible. The quality of the work sold in the Santiago Atitlan galleries and the price paid to the artists has continued to diminish almost every year.

A woman from the United States named Lianna Ward, who had started a women’s weaving cooperative in San Juan, liked Ixtamer’s paintings and wanted to help him. She showed his work to Jim Bell, another U.S. citizen who had a gallery in Antigua Guatemala. Ixtamer received a telegram from Jim Bell telling him he wanted his paintings. This was a big event. Who else in his neighborhood had ever received a telegram? He now had a gallery to sell his paintings. In 1990, after having exhibited and sold Ixtamer’s paintings in Antigua for about a year, Bell grew ill and suddenly died. Bell’s family removed everything from the gallery not knowing that Ixtamer’s paintings were on consignment. When Antonio next traveled to Antigua, he found the gallery closed and his paintings gone. Questioning the neighbors, he learned that his patron was dead. Discouraged, he stopped painting.

In 1987 when Ixtamer was studying with Pedro Rafael at his house in San Pedro, I was briefly introduced to the would-be artist. A year later, having forgotten Pedro Rafael’s student, I entered a gallery in Santiago Atitlán. The wall was filled with small inconsequential paintings, but among these were several paintings with especially beautiful colors. Although they were randomly distributed, I noticed that every one of the good paintings was signed “AC Ixtamer.” After I chose one to buy, Diego Chavez, the gallery owner, asked if I wanted to meet the artist. It turned out that Antonio Ixtamer had brought the paintings to the gallery and they had just finished putting them on the wall when I arrived. He had secretly watched as I chose his painting from among the hundreds on the walls.

When I returned home to California, this painting’s beauty entranced me. I wanted to meet the artist. My woodcarver friend, Vicente Cumes Pop, arranged for me to visit Ixtamer during a trip to Guatemala in 1991. Ixtamer, on being told that a gringo wanted to visit him, finished a painting that he had been working on before the death of Jim Bell. He hadn’t been painting for over a year. Vicente and I, after viewing the few paintings he still had at his house, urged Ixtamer to take up painting again. I bought the painting he had finished, “Pascual Abaj,” and another which had languished at a local co-operative seldom visited by tourists.

Once again encouraged and with money to buy supplies, Ixtamer completed a couple of new paintings within a few weeks and walked to San Pedro hoping to sell them to Clement Puzul who ran the only art gallery in San Pedro la Laguna. Clement was not at home, and Ixtamer, discouraged, sat down on the stoop of a nearby house to rest. Unbeknownst to Ixtamer, he had chosen the stoop of the house of Vicente Cumes. Vicente noticed Ixtamer and invited the young artist in. By chance Vicente had just earned a little money and decided to buy the paintings to encourage Ixtamer.

Ixtamer clearly had skill in applying paint to the canvas and had an excellent eye for color. His themes, however, were often ordinary. Vicente and I came up with a plan to help the young artist and inspire him to do finer work. Vicente would buy Ixtamer’s paintings for me, giving Ixtamer a ready market for his paintings at a better price than he could ever get in Guatemala. By walking to San Juan to visit Ixtamer every couple of days, Vicente could also oversee the artist’s work and offer him advice on how to improve it. Vicente, being a woodcarver, had a number of original themes in his mind which he had been saving to execute himself. He decided to give four of these themes to Ixtamer, starting with the easiest and least important. The idea was to test Ixtamer to see if he had the desire and ability to become a better artist, incorporating Vicente’s suggestions into his paintings. If Ixtamer did well with these four themes and responded positively to Vicente’s advice, he would continue working with the young artist.

The first of these themes was “La Cena del Campesino.” It was followed by “Emigracion, Sololá,”  “Día de los Reyes, Sololá,” and “Retorno de los Refugiados.” When asked, Vicente always tells artists the truth about their paintings. This bluntness makes most artists (who would rather be praised for their last work rather than hear how they could make it better) avoid Vicente. Vicente pushed Ixtamer hard, and surprisingly Ixtamer responded well to Vicente’s encouragement and criticism. Before Ixtamer started working with Vicente, he was just one of a number of competent young painters who had sprouted up in the Tz’utujil communities. After he had completed the four themes given him by Vicente it was clear that Ixtamer had emerged as a significant Tz’utujil Maya artist. Victor introduced Vicente and me to his fellow Juanero artist Diego Isaias Hernandez Mendez. The walls of the tiny room where Isaias lived and worked were covered with his drawings in pencil, ink, crayon, colored pencils—whatever materials he could get his hands on. Among them were two unusual drawings of people being chased up trees by snakes. Many of his drawings were of accidents, people knocking other people over, or dropping such things as all the coffee berries they had spent the morning picking. At that time, Isaias was a self-taught sculptor, but although tourists showed interest in his work, none of them wanted to buy the heavy stone objects because of the impossibility of transporting them in their backpacks. Consequently Isaias was interested in trying oil painting instead. Having worked with Victor for some years before meeting Isaias, Vicente and I also counseled Isaias to paint on his own for a year or so before trying to take lessons from someone else. As with Victor, we felt this would help him preserve the unique vision he had.

Two years later, before my planned trip to Guatemala, Hurricane Mitch came through, devastating Nicaragua and Honduras, and causing significant damage in Guatemala and Belize. My plane was the first plane to be allowed in after the hurricane. It took me several days to get out of Guatemala City because the roads leaving the city were blocked by mudslides. When I arrived in San Pedro, Vicente and some compatriots were raising money for victims of the hurricane. They had gotten together around two hundred sacks containing fifty pounds each of corn, beans and  rice, and also some clothing. They traveled around the nearby countryside giving them away to the remote communities who had lost everything. They accomplished this within five days after the hurricane, before any international aid had arrived and while the governments were still discussing how the relief effort was to be handled.

The following week, Vicente and I walked to San Juan to visit Victor and Isaias. Isaias, surprisingly, had listened to our advice about painting on his own. He showed us two small paintings entitled “Mitch.” They showed people clinging to their rooftops as their houses were washed away by a torrent of water. Impressed, I asked him to paint me a large painting of the same theme. He had not done so by my visit the following year, and so I repeated my request, asking him to leave it with Vicente. Isaias finally did the painting, but he did not leave it for me with Vicente. Instead he entered it into the most important art competition in Guatemala, a biennial sponsored by Guatemala’s biggest department store, Paiz, a major patron of the arts. This painting won first place in his division, Pintura Popular, winning him 5,000 quetzales and considerable recognition.

On Victor’s first visit to the United States, he had brought up three small paintings by Isaias. They didn’t appear to be anything special. Since they were small, I scanned them, and for some reason I printed them out. The brilliant colors really surprised me with how spectacular they made Isaias’s paintings look on paper.

In 1999 I was approached by Duck Soup publishing to find a Maya artist for a children’s book on Guatemala. There was a deadline of three weeks in which the artist would have to complete about forty-five paintings for the book. Isaias seemed an obvious artist for the job because his painting reproduced well, but the fact that he  could paint more quickly than the other artists was the deciding factor. After I negotiated five weeks rather than three, I flew to Guatemala to start work with Isaias. His mother was gravely ill, so for the first five days he did no painting, only traveling across the lake to the hospital in Sololá. I knew that if she got worse the book would never get done, but fortunately she got better. In the remaining time, we had to get out about two paintings a day, a seemly impossible task. I visited him every morning and late some afternoons checking on the progress. By the time I had to leave, we had the thirty-five assigned themes and another fifteen extra paintings.

For several days I watched him as he painted. His technique was different than the other Tz’utuhil artists. Whereas they would carefully paint the painting from top to bottom, completing one part at a time, Isaias would work on the ground for the whole painting at a time, playing with the colors until he got them where he liked them. The painting would have as many as five different color incarnations in the course of the day. The next day when the original ground had dried, he would paint the figures and any defining detail.

Victor and Isaias have some similar qualities to their painting, qualities which set them apart from all the other Tz’utuhil Maya painters. They capture the motion of people. Whereas the other artists’ paintings look static, almost posed, you get the feeling from the paintings by Isaias and Victor that, if you looked away for a second, the people would be in new positions when you looked back. They are very much alive. This similarity of movement is reminiscent of the ancient Maya paintings on the sides of pottery or the murals at sites such as Bomampak. In none of the other Maya painters I have seen—self-taught Tz’utuhil or Kaqchikel, or even the schooled Maya painters—does this connection show up as strongly. Why it exists is a mystery to me. Neither Victor or Isaias had seen any ancient Maya paintings before they developed their own style, so it was something which rose up independently from within their being.