Inspired by the symbolism of the ancient Maya, artist Richard Mazzola has transformed their iconic glyphs into his own modern art.
His works — oils, acrylics and mixed-media — are exhibited on the walls at the Encinitas Community Center. “The End of an Era, a New Dawn” will be displayed through July 16.
For 25 years, Mazzola and his wife, Cami, traveled and lived among the modern-day Maya in the Yucatan Peninsula.
They became fascinated with Maya ruins, Maya beliefs and the beautiful environment. These influences led Mazzola to create his Mayan Series of paintings, which he is now sharing with the public.
The works are filled with symbolism, said Mazzola, reflecting ancient beliefs. The Maya symbols include the celestial snake representing birth; the quetzal bird, a symbol of the heavens; the jaguar, the greeter to the afterlife; Maya death masks, for courageous warriors; and crosses, birth and rebirth.
The Maya Long Count Calendar, which ended Dec. 21, 2012 — a date that some believed was a signal of mankind’s demise — is also depicted in his art.
Mazzola is quick to state that the date actually represented a revelation. “For the Maya, it wasn’t the end of the world — it was the beginning of a new way of thought,” he explained. “And they probably ran out of chisels,” he joked about a possible explanation as to why the Maya calendar stopped abruptly.
With his sense of humor, and a greater sense of adventure, Mazzola traveled extensively with Cami beyond the Yucatan Peninsula and into Guatemala. They explored many Maya villages meeting and mingling with the native residents. In 2001, they settled in a village about 90 miles south of Cancun called Akumal, which translates to “a place of the turtle.”
Mazzola opened a gallery there and was prolific at interpreting the turquoise water and the protected turtles.
His body of work from this period is eclectic, depicting landscapes and seascapes, animals and people. “I tell their story through abstract expressionism, realism and surrealism,” he explained.
While in Akumal, Mazzola befriended the contemporary Maya, who aided his research on their ancient ancestors. “I went to a lot of ruins and studied the reliefs, and read about them. At one point I was re-creating their masks,” he said.
A local craftsman, whom Mazzola had met in the jungle outside of Chichén Itzá, was hired to carve those masks. Mazzola layered the masks with multi-material finishes to create vibrant artifacts inspired by those of the ancient Maya. These designs were later reinterpreted as clay-fired masks, brilliantly colored with glazes and paint.
Mazzola taught art in the school of one of the remote villages. Asked whether the young students were in touch with their ancient roots, Mazzola said they were not. “It’s unfortunate that even though 90 percent of the children in this school were of Maya descent, their knowledge of history only goes back to Benito Juárez,” said Mazzola. “They are not in touch with their own culture.”
Earlier this year, Mazzola closed his gallery and left the idyllic village of Akumal. He is now living in La Costa. He said his life has come full circle. He lived in San Diego as a young man, graduating from San Diego State University with a degree in art in the 1970s.
But his love for the Maya culture and traditions remains strong. His latest works represent the radical change of the Maya as Christianity swept through Mexico.
To illuminate the beginning of this new era, Mazzola uses the metaphor of nude figures ascending into the universe. His art work, like that of the Maya, combines Christian iconography with Maya iconography.
“Whether the Maya people liked it or not, Christianity was here to stay,” said Mazzola. “And it played a major role in the later years of the Mayan epoch, further defining their culture.”
A reception to meet Richard Mazzola is planned from 1-4 p.m. May 16 at the Encinitas Community Center, 1140 Oakcrest Park Drive, Encinitas. Light refreshments will be served. Visit https://www.mazzolagallery.com/ to find out more about Mazzola’s work.