Belize’s Mystery Engages Artists

Xena Holzapfel ’12 knows that the history of great civilizations was written in clay.

She is absorbing the lesson this summer in the dusty Belize village of San Antonio, where chickens run through an outdoor pottery studio and the female descendants of the ancient Mayans have formed a cooperative to reconnect with the cultural and economic heritage of their forebears.

Belize, a small Central American country with a scattered population roughly the size of Buffalo, N.Y., is a relatively untapped archeologist’s goldmine.

The rain forests have swallowed most artifacts of a once-thriving civilization, but the remnants of their wondrous cultural gatherings can be found in the shards of ceramic ware left behind.

Sharing ideas and clay handling techniques with the indigenous members of the San Antonio Women’s Group in this English-speaking country, Holzapfel feels her life experience just got a big boost.

“You’re so shocked taking everything in,” said Holzapfel, who earned a BFA degree at Cortland, of the village women who send their children off to school every morning, then attempt to start an artistic operation in the style of their ancestors.

“It’s just a different approach to art, it’s learning through your sense of touch,” said Holzapfel of Lake Ronkonkoma, N.Y. “You can verbalize what you’re learning but to really experience it you have to physically do it.

“It makes me think: even people from a thousand years ago, we were so similar to them.”

Jeremiah Donovan, a SUNY Cortland professor of art and art history, has taken students to China since 1998, hosting summer classes that explore the region’s cultural traditions as reflected in its ceramics. In January. He turned his attention to the Mayan civilization that reached its pinnacle 1,000 years ago, and revised his successful formula to identify, recreate and preserve for posterity Belize’s traditional styles of pottery making.

Donovan’s pilot course, Winter Study: History, Culture, and the Arts, offered for the first time in January, provided Holzapfel and six other classmates a glimpse into the world of the former great Mayas of Belize.

Building on that success, he invited three select former student participants to help him launch a formal research project in Belize this summer.

Holzapfel, one of those chosen, knew the kind of transformative experience it was likely to be because she had experienced one of Donovan’s classes in Asia.

“Two months back from China, back home, I had had time to digest it,” Holzapfel said. “There are little things I ended up changing in my work. Now, after I’ve processed it, I can see how the experience comes out in my work. It just took a little time.”

In Belize, Donovan has created collaboration between the three students, the sparsely populated country’s indigenous artisans and Jaime Awe, a leading archeologist from San Ignacio, Belize. Charles Heasley, a SUNY Cortland professor of art and art history, is on hand documenting and keeping notes on the project this summer in multimedia, video, audio and digital still photography formats.

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