Tz’utujil Mayan paintings at Chico Art Center
José and Henry Méndez’s artwork celebrates Guatemala’s colorful Mayan culture
“Vibrant” and “full of life” is how Mira Talbott-Pope—a 75-year-old retired Chicoan who moved to Guatemala 4 1/2 years ago—described José and Henry Méndez’s striking work by phone recently from her home in San Pedro la Laguna.
Talbott-Pope has known 27-year-old Henry and his older brother José, who is 33, since she befriended them and began helping them raise funds in late 2009 for Ayudame a Pintar Mi Futuro (Help Me Paint My Future), which she describes as “a cross between a school and a gallery.” Part of the funding for the San Pedro art program, which costs nothing for the children it serves, said Talbott-Pope, comes from the sale of the brothers’ artwork.
Talbott-Pope will be accompanying José Méndez when he comes to Chico to speak at the opening reception (Saturday, April 16, 7 p.m.) of his and Henry’s Chico Art Center show—she’ll be translating his talk from Spanish into English. The Méndez brothers’ touching, colorful paintings of Tz’utujil Mayan life will be on exhibit from April 16-May 8.
“José always liked to draw,” Talbott-Pope said. “An uncle noticed this and gave him some direction in using oils. He sold his first painting—a portrait of his grandfather—when he was 15. A year or so later he moved to the capital [Guatemala City] to attend a plastic-arts [visual arts] college, but could only afford to attend for one year. He returned to San Pedro, and has remained here ever since. He’s had no academic schooling since sixth grade, and no arts education since returning.”
Henry, she said, learned to paint from José. “Henry also completed only the sixth grade—fairly common here—and has had no other schooling,” added Talbott-Pope.
Their father had problems both with violence and alcoholism when they were young. Thus, the brothers are “particularly sensitive to the problems of the children in their program.”
Henry—a recovering alcoholic—and José have two children each.
“Originally, they simply responded to the interest of half a dozen children who were hanging around their gallery in learning to paint, as the children saw José and Henry doing,” Talbott-Pope said of how the brothers started Ayudame a Pintar Mi Futuro (online at www.paintmyfuture.org). “Secondly, José and Henry learned that the mothers of these children were mostly single and struggling to raise their children. So they wanted to help them out with school supplies and food. So they developed the idea of occasional benefit events and giving 20 percent of their sales to the project.” The Mendez brothers’ work with the children—ages 6 to 13—also “develops the right side of their brains so they can learn better in school, develops their imagination and creativity, as well as manual dexterity, for the little ones,” Talbott-Pope said, adding that “the painters’ behavior with them helps them learn to trust adults, and especially men, again.”
Henry and José’s passion for life can be seen in their paintings of people engaging in everyday life in San Pedro—paintings of women harvesting colorful fruits or washing their family’s laundry at the lake.
José likes to paint “traditional activities from here,” said Talbott-Pope, as well as flowers and birds, and ceremonial events, such as “the ceremony of the crowning of the indigenous queen, which takes place here in the pueblo. … I love their work.”