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Winter 2003

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Lost and Found
Artist Illuminates Ancient Cultures

by Kathryn Gallien

“It’s an Indiana Jones–like story,” says Heather Hurst ’97 of last year’s discovery of the oldest known Maya wall painting. University of New Hampshire archaeologist William Saturno was looking for two stone monuments in San Bartolo, Guatemala. One day, seeking shade, he made his way into a looters’ trench under an unexcavated pyramid. He followed a low tunnel, switched on his flashlight, and came upon a vividly colored 2,000-year-old painting of a scene from Maya mythology. The discovery of this level of art from such an early date rocked the world of Mesoamerican studies.

Heather Hurst ’97 and Lenny Ashby work on a Maya mural reconstruction at Yale.
When Saturno returned to San Bartolo to document his finding, Hurst was part of his team. It was her job to help the rest of the world see what Saturno had gaped at in that dark tunnel. Her watercolor recreation of the visible portion of the mural was published in the April 2002 National Geographic magazine.
     Hurst has been doing this kind of work—archaeological illustration—since her student days, when Skidmore anthropologist Susan Bender encouraged her to attend field school in Honduras. “I was terrible at digging,” says Hurst, “but I was the only one who could draw.” In fact Hurst completed a double major—one in art and the other, self-determined, in architectural archaeology.
      Creating reproductions of artwork is a venerable art form, familiar to art students through the ages. For Hurst it is science as well. She might, for example, “puzzle out questions of architectural engineering—like the variable height of a stone vault, given the dimensions of the walls and the span of the space.” Before filling in the surroundings, she must ask the excavating archaeologists a lot of questions: Did they find any indications of domestic lifestyle or a ceremonial space? How would each space be used? Was there a trash pile out back? Where were the dead buried?
     A successful recreation—one that is accurate artistically, scientifically, and culturally—is highly dependent on the illustrator’s knowledge and skills in a realm “where the camera lens fails,” says Hurst. “The human eye is the best lens; the human mind surpasses any computer; and the human hand can put these together better than any printer.”
     The meticulous documentation process can take months of field work. Accommodations are spartan, usually in tents or small villages. Hurst frequently hikes steep jungle terrain and works in close proximity to scorpions, snakes, and spiders. Not much fazes her. Not the wildlife, not the food (“it can be wonderful or terrible”), not such ills as dysentery and dengue fever. Over one nine-month stretch in Copan, Honduras, she worked alone in tunnels “with bats and enormous spiders as my only companions.” And there was the time in Palenque, Mexico, while measuring nasonry work, that she came across a highly venomous fer-de-lance viper “coiled on top of a stone and ready to strike.” Yet Hurst claims it’s a privilege to live and work in rough, remote locations: deep in the jungle, she finds, “life is wonderfully simplified.”
     On long stints so far from home (and so unconnected—satellite phone calls, at $5 a minute, are limited), Hurst says, “working with people you enjoy and have fun with is crucial.” Lucky for Hurst she has an artistic collaborator, Leonard Ashby, who is her life partner as well. They recently completed a two-year project recreating the murals that cover three rooms of an ancient temple in Bonampak, Mexico. She describes working together as both “great and difficult. Creating art is largely a solitary experience; but this was a unique project, and I was really happy to share the process with Lenny.”
     A key challenge was how to divide the work. They had to let go of their instincts to paint a figure or a section completely from start to finish. Instead, both worked on each mural figure, beginning with outlines in red ochre and then blending and layering watercolor pigments—using only the few available to the original Maya artists—to achieve a range of colors. To make the process work, says Hurst, “we had to share everything, including our relationships with the material and subject.” The fruits of their combined labor—a complete half-size reconstruction—can be viewed through this spring at Yale University’s Peabody Museum (see www.peabody.yale.edu/exhibits/bonampak).
     Hurst admits, “It’s difficult as an artist to work only on reconstructions,” and she wishes she had more time for that “solitary experience” of creating her own work. But for now, the opportunity to recreate ancient masterpieces in the jungles of Central America is irresistible. This fall, Hurst returned to San Bartolo to begin drawing new parts of the mural that archaeologist Saturno pieced together from scattered fragments. Hurst will then study the scientific data, applying her knowledge of pre-Columbian history and her “strong feeling for the aesthetic of Maya art,” and do what the camera cannot: recreate vivid images from antiquity—in all their original colors, artistry, and human immediacy—and share them with the modern world.

Kathryn Gallien is a part-time Scope writer.


© 2003 Skidmore College