Donna Clair

Southwest Contemporary Artist

How I Came to New Mexico and learned about Art and Life


5 May 2024 (Llano Quemado, New Mexico) It is a mystery to me why this past Easter Season brought back so many vivid memories of my trip to Guatemala… the magnificent processions, the colorful village life, the ever present sense of danger. This past month I have read most of The Blindfold’s Eye by Sister Dianna Ortiz, the Ursuline nun kidnapped from Posada de Belen  in November 1989. The intensity of that trip returned to me as I read the of her courage and resilience. For a time I was back in that cold damp room at La Posada and imagined her presence in that same place.  Have been reluctant to share this last part of my “photo tour”.  Am certain that what is happening in Palestine has much to do with my vivid recollections from thirty-three years ago.

HONDURAS – COPAN – Our bus stopped at a military checkpoint at the border between Guatemala and Honduras.   It was a small building with an open door and a large desk. Behind the desk was an older man surrounded by three young men with guns. Another young man with an AK47 stood guard at the door. We were instructed to present our papers to the comandante for his approval.

Passports stamped and approved, we stood outside the hut to wait for another bus to take us to the ruins at Copan. Directly in front of me was a young woman in a light summer dress carrying some parcels. The man with the gun stood close beside her and with his gun touched her leg and began to lift her skirt.  Her body stiffened but she continued to look straight ahead. The area was quite crowded and the three of us seemed to morph into a unit – he smirked, she stiffened with palpable fear and I stared in disbelief at the gun rising on her leg. The bus arrived and we were on our merry way to visit the ruins at Copan.

Considering the bloody warfare that took place here so long ago, Copan was incredibly peaceful and serene compared to the noise of Guatemala City.  The pyramid towered over the  smaller structures and stelae.  A very large round ceremonial stone was carved with the images of thirteen kings, homage to the ruling dynasties.  I was standing in the very center of the Forest of Kings! The ruins are stark and overwhelming.   In place for centuries fierce sculpted faces jutted and stared from long stone walls. One of our guides pointed in the direction of the river and said that thousands of farmers and laborers had once lived there. It was easy to imagine the bustle of community needed to support the kings that once ruled Copan.  Farmers, stone carvers, builders, priests, astronomers and scribes…all necessary to keep this once powerful city-state thriving in all its glory! At the Inscription Staircase I floated off again to wander alone.  Separating myself in this way intensified my experience.   

Transported by the stories of the ancient Maya, I wondered what earthly magic conspired to bring me to this place!    Does anyone remember the powerful paintings in National Geographic of the king sitting atop the pyramid looking down on the scene below? If one of the guides announced that they were hiring archaeological helpers, I would have been the first to raise my hand!  Enthralled by the Mysteries yet to be uncovered, hoped that someone would step up, hand me a sun hat, a little shovel, some potent bug spray and told me where to start digging!

Sadly later that afternoon we were again on our way back to Guatemala.  Perhaps the quiet of the day silenced the normal buzz of chatter. The atmosphere on our return was quite subdued.  We were coming to the end of a whirlwind tour of a very mysterious adventure. Heading into a golden sunset, it was a perfect ending to this trip! The rutted dirt road had a gentle rocking effect and a few fellow adventurers had closed their eyes and nodded off.  Suddenly the bus jerked to a screeching stop.  Silhouetted against the sun  and blocking the road stood six men with machine guns.  One man separated from their group.  Our bus driver opened the door and was instructed to collect all our papers which we handed over. He was then sent down the aisle telling each of us to give a “ransom” and we would be released to go on our way.  After giving up a few quetzales, I looked through the window to my right at a steep drop off. Who would miss a busload of sweaty old Americans? Once the “banditos” had their money in hand, they returned our papers.  Definitely an Indiana Jones experience! 

Even though it was the same dark place, protected by men with machine guns, the airport in Guatemala City was strangely welcoming.  I lugged my duffel bag of weavings onto the plane and settled in for the long ride home.  What had just happened?  I slept one night in a cloud forest, listened to howler monkeys and spent one afternoon searching the canopy for quetzal birds….colorful markets, ancient ruins….and Easter Sunday in Chichicastenango!!  Completely ignorant to the truth of my experiences,  I spent the next years learning from many books and films about the brutal “civil” war.  It was seven years before I could do a very limited series of oil paintings.  I understood the tension and fear I felt all throughout the trip. Finally the paintings became a sincere homage to the people of Guatemala. DC


NOTES: “Copán is thought to have been inhabited as early as 2000 BC, despite the fact that there is sparse evidence to this effect. It was certainly at its peak between 300 AD and 900 AD, when it was the capital of an extensive kingdom in the southernmost Maya area and home to at least 20,000 people. The extensive stelae found at Copán give us a detailed description of the city’s history.

In the eighth century AD, Copán experienced a significant military defeat when its leader, the otherwise glorious Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil, was captured and beheaded by the rulers of the city of Quirigua in what is now Guatemala. Copán collapsed relatively suddenly in the early 9th century: it seems that a combination of poor agricultural land, malnutrition and disease meant the population was ravaged.

Copán is often extremely quiet: the border crossing deters many less hardy tourists, and it’s a corner of Honduras that not many visit otherwise. Having the site to yourself is a particular treat – there’s quite a bit of ground to cover, and some of the ruins are still on the edge of the jungle.”

“Copan’s Hieroglyphic Stairway, is the longest and perhaps the most famous inscription in the Maya area. It was the most significant feature of Outstanding Universal Value cited by UNESCO for designating Copan a World Heritage Site in 1980. It records the dynastic history of the Copan’s 5th to 8th century rulers carved on more than 1100 glyph blocks spanning 63 steps. A first shorter version was dedicated to commemorate Ruler 12 and mentions his burial. Additions to that version were dedicated in 756 CE. 

John Lloyd Stephens, an American explorer and railway builder, was born Nov. 28, 1805. In 1839, Stephens went to Central America with artist and architect Frederick Catherwood to investigate rumors of ancient ruins. They went first to Copán, then to Palenque and three dozen more sites. They found ruins in abundance. Catherwood recorded the glyphs and carvings as accurately as if he had a camera. What makes the pair special in the annals of Mesoamerican archaeology is that they recognized almost immediately that the ruins must have been built by native Mesoamericans and not by European invaders, as everyone else seemed to assume. They also realized that since the living Mayas had no such abilities or inclinations, the builders must have lived long ago, and the history of Central America must go back much further than anyone imagined.