Mayan Artistry along the Ruta Puuc
Editor's Note: This article was written by guest writer Kim Romans.
Look For The Sign
The small sign reads “Restaurant Maya Ceramics.” Partially obscured by a vine, it’s easy to miss. The interior of the palapa is dark as you cross the threshold. But within seconds, a young woman greets you with a cheery buenos días as she crosses the floor; flicks the light switch and illuminates the ancient world of the Maya.
To the left, Ixcacao, the goddess of cacao, rises up from a bottom shelf. Her hair flows in rows of cacao beans. Above, a bust of King Pacal of Palenque looks out over the dominion of the showroom — as if he still rules. On a table, a small vase bookmarks a reference book; it is the very likeness of the vase captured on the page.
Welcome to Los Ceibos in Muna, a little town about 50 kilometres south of Merida. Here, three artisans – Rodrigo Martin Morales, his sister Patricia Martin and her husband Julián create quality archaeological reproductions of Mayan art in wood, stone, jade and clay – the originals housed in museums around the world.
Each has a specialty: Rodrigo sculpts; Julián spins the ceramic vases, plates and bowls on the wheel; and Patricia paints the intricate tales of Mayan life and ritual on the ceramics.
A Gift of the Earth
Patricia invites interested visitors back to the workshop. Paint brushes, plates and pigment-stained bottles, a reference book and a vase-in-progress lay across the discoloured surface of the worktable.
Los Ceibos ceramics have a lustre that comes exclusively from hand polishing with quartz stones, instead of varnishes or glazes, explains Patricia. To demonstrate, she plucks a chunk of quartz from the worktable and brushes a small piece of dry, but unfired pottery. Within a few strokes the surface is buffed to a satin sheen.
“Everything is natural,” says Julián. A good ceramic reproduction is made with natural clay and pigments, he explains. The clay at Los Ceibos, for example, is a custom blend collected in nature that produces a hard and smooth surface in the finished pottery.
Two times a year, Julián travels to Palenque in Chiapas, Tabasco and the area around Ticul to find clay for the workshop. “I go and I harvest with my own hands,” he says. Natural pigments, some collected locally, create the traditional Mayan colour palette.
Passion and Appreciation
During the classic period, 150 AD to 900 AD, Mayan art reached its zenith and the pottery of the period displays detailed and intricate images. These elaborate designs are Patricia’s passion and her favourite pieces to paint. “All are beautiful,” she says. “The more complicated the reproduction, the more I like it.”
Even without a website, word of Patricia’s talent and the quality and craftsmanship of Los Ceibos reproductions is slowly spreading. Museums in both Los Angeles and Mexico City sell Los Ceibos reproductions in their gift shops. In the Netherlands, visitors to the Maya 2012 exhibit at Leiden’s Museum of Ethnology can now purchase one of Patricia’s intricately painted classic-period vases too.
You’ll find Los Ceibos in Muna on Calle 13 (between 25 y 28). Bring cash; they accept pesos, US dollars and Euros. Note! there is no bank in Muna and the closest ATM is 16 kilometers away at the ruins of Uxmal.
Faithful Replicas in Ticul
Another 22 kilometers down the road sits Ticul, a fair-sized town known for pottery. Planter pots of every size as well as tourist keepsakes like brilliant green frogs and pink-glazed flamingos abound. The town is also home to Arte Maya, an association of artisans who have investigated and studied Mayan ceramics as a science since 1973.
Arte Maya, located on Calle 23 x 46, houses a joint workshop/showroom and a very special collector’s room. A great bas relief sculpture, easily five-feet square, dominates the entrance of the workshop. A simple wooden frame makes the relief look crated and ready for shipping. In fact, the bas relief has travelled to France, Germany and Texas as part of a Banamex Mayan art exposition.
Don Luis Echeverria Villalobos, one of Arte Maya’s artisans, is on hand to greet visitors. He graciously explains Arte Maya’s work and offers a tour of the masterpieces in the collector’s room. This smaller room, he says, displays faithful replicas of great Mayan vases, Jaina Island figurines, plates and much more. Each faithful replica matches every detail of the original: dimension, weight, pattern and patina — even the cracks and missing pieces are reproduced.
For the Love of It
To achieve a faithful replica, the artisans of Arte Maya employ the same materials and archaic ceramic techniques used by the ancient Maya. “We do it, because we love it,” says Don Luis as he proudly displays a museum-quality replica.
Just five copies of any one piece are ever created for collectors — each one taking up to six months to complete. A signed certificate of authenticity accompanies the reproduction and identifies the piece by name and its number in the series.
A vase in the collector’s room costs about $2,000 USD. The price may seem steep, but the gift shop at New York’s famous Metropolitan Museum sells these faithful replicas for 10 times that amount.
Arte Maya also produces lower-priced, quality reproductions for its main showroom. You’ll find a selection of frequently reproduced plates; small bowls and smaller Jaina Island figurines. Whether producing a piece for the main showroom or one commissioned by a collector, the artisans of Arte Maya are committed to their craft. Says Don Luis: “We use the same techniques.”
Along the Ruta Puuc, artisans like Patricia, Julián and Don Luis offer curious visitors an opportunity to unearth the ancient artistry of the Mayans for themselves. As the day ends and the car travels north-east back towards Merida, a Jaina Island figurine and a small three-footed pot sit on the back seat — two relics exhumed from an imaginary dig in Muna and Ticul.