Alfonso Huerta, the amazingly talented illustrator of our most recent book, Maya Gods & Monsters, shares a behind-the-scenes view of how the book–and the gods–came to be.
About five years ago, I was vacationing on a beautiful lagoon in the southern part of the Yucatan with Carol Karasik, the author of Maya Gods & Monsters, and a couple of other friends. The lagoon is just north of the Belize border in the heart of the old Maya World. People might be surprised to know how firmly rooted the Maya culture, customs, food, and language remain there: often in the markets and on the street, we would hear Maya spoken and the culture remains vibrantly alive. The lagoon, formed from seven enormous springs that well up from the many subterranean rivers beneath the land, is called the “Lagoon of Seven Colors” due to the many shades of blue that range from light turquoise to deep cobalt. It flows for twenty miles and then into the Caribbean Sea.
One evening, after going to the beach, visiting markets, swimming, and eating marvelous local cuisine, Carol, my friends, and I were sitting around our funky hotel suite relaxing and having some drinks. She mentioned her idea for a book on Maya folklore and myth. As a native of Mexico, I have always had a great love and respect for my county’s history, its amazing indigenous, colonial and post-colonial cultures, and a fascination with the incredible art of the Maya. So, on the spot, I offered to illustrate it. As I recall, she mentioned that she would need about half dozen of images or so. Not surprisingly, those few, as if animated by Maya magic, turned into about twenty and the entire project took us at least two years. But, I think we can all agree that the book, due to the incredible artistry of Thrums Books’ designer, Susan Wasinger, was worth every minute.
Maya Gods Come to Life
My own art reflects my heritage and I tend toward Mexican themes and the use of lush tropical colors. I like to play with representational subjects but add a playful touch of abstraction. I also get inspiration from the natural world as well as trying to show the innate beauty of mundane objects. I love to compose my work with still life subjects, showing that even the most commonplace objects can resonate with great visual beauty. Doing the Maya gods, goddesses, and supernatural beings was a big stretch for me—I had never tried to take an image from an ancient ceramic, monument, or codex and imbue it with a new life for the modern viewer, but I’ve enjoyed the challenge and I believe it has turned out very well.
One of the big challenges was that Carol lives in Mexico, in a place that is a bit off the beaten path, so we never met face-to-face during this process and we had to do everything via email. As you can imagine, this back and forth made everything so much more complex. Also, she’s an expert on all the details and attributes that the various gods and heroes display; I am not. Much like the Greek and Norse gods, these supernatural entities are shown and are identified by wearing certain clothes and holding certain props. So, I’d create an image, show it to Carol, it would have to be corrected, and so on. It was a long and, sometimes, very difficult process; however the upshot is that I have a plethora of beautiful images now. In fact, I have so many that I can do an exhibition using only paintings and mono-prints of Maya art.
The people at Thrums Books have been great to work with. They have taken Carol’s lively and engaging text, melded them with my images, and put them together beautifully. I would like to thank all who have made this possible. As an artist, handing your work—work that took years and endless revisions—over for others to rework into something like a book can be unnerving, but I couldn’t be more pleased with the visual look of the book, and I’m sure that everyone who sees it will agree.