Corte de Café
(Picking Coffee)
18" x 31", oil on canvas.

Victor Vasquez Temó

This painting, Victor’s first painting about picking coffee, showing fourteen adults (two carrying infants) harvesting the coffee berries, is an astounding breakthrough in depicting this theme. Thousands of paintings about picking coffee had been painted by Tz’utuhil artists before Victor Vasquez Temó painted Corte de Café; it was the most popular subject for the lucrative tourist market.

Victor imbues the coffee plants and pickers with an incredible vitality and sense of movement. All the other artist’s versions of this theme seem static in comparison. Victor shows the faces of the pickers enveloped octopus-like by coffee branches laden with berries. He even depicts the individual coffee branches differently, more realistically, than the other artists. Individual coffee plants grow in a rather gangly fashion, not the stylistic decorative pattern favored by most Tz’utuhil artists.

Every painting which I know of painted before this painting, showed the coffee pickers either in front of the coffee plants, or rising above short plants—the plants coming up to the waist of the pickers. Victor shows coffee pickers seemingly entangled by the branches of the coffee plants arching over the pickers on all sides. When I first visited San Pedro la Laguna, I was staying in the house of a Mayan family and I insisted in helping them with the coffee harvest, something I found out later is seldom done by passing tourists. A person picking coffee is surrounded by plants on all sides, mature coffee plants rise several feet above the pickers and fill in much of the space between the plants so it is often necessary to push branches aside to find a place to stand. It is not hard to pick coffee berries; it is hard to pick coffee berries fast. (I was very slow.) Victor’s painting is a more realistic representation of the reality, than that of the other Tz’utuhil artists.

When you look at the other elements of the painting, the items around the faces and branches—the church, the volcano, the village, the palm trees, the coffee baskets and bags, the rocks and the other bushes, the legs of the coffee pickers—they seem quickly and rather sloppily painted. Somehow all of that is not important, we instinctively pay attention to the group of faces among the branches. Why did a beginning and at times rather amateurish painter create such an important painting? The answer clearly rests in the fact that Victor paints directly from his own experiences and observations. Up until this time Victor supported his family working as a mozo [literally youth, but used as hired laborer] in the fields. How is this different from the way the other artists paint? Almost all the artists in San Pedro and San Jaun la Laguna have learned to paint either directly from Mariano Gonzalez Chavajay or Pedro Rafael Gonzalez Chavajay or someone directly from their linage of students. These two painters, when they teach someone to paint, teach them to paint exactly how they, the teachers paint. The newer artists, therefore, depict things, not from their own observation of life and reality, but in part from their observation of how their teachers paint.

When Victor was about to start painting, Domingo Jonatan Perez a minor San Pedro artist who was trying to teach Victor how to draw. They showed me some pencil drawings Victor had done of coffee plants, both before instruction and after instuction. I brought Vicente Cumes to see his drawings. Vicente said that the way Victor drew the coffee plants by himself was much more interesting than the way his drawing under Jonatan’s instruction, because Jonatan was teaching Victor to draw like every other Tz’utuhil artist, whereas Victor had his own vision based on his own observation. As a result, Vicente and I set Victor up with supplies and instructions to paint completely on his own, from his own intuition, for a year without learning from other artists. Victor’s good qualities would have been steamrollered in an artist/pupil relationship. This painting validated our decision—it showcased Victor’s natural ability for depicting movement and energy, and presented the subject from an original point of view.

Victor’s observation of children differs from the other Tz’utuhil artists. The actions of his children appear more playful and childlike. In this painting one tiny child nursing at his mother’s breast, looks up at her, clearly engrossed in his nursing and oblivious to the picking around him. Another small boy on his mother’s back peeks out of the reboso tying him onto his mother. He has clearly spotted something of interest outside of the coffee picking which completely involves the attention of all the adults.