Friday, February 02, 2024

From the Depths of SDSU Press: Four Trips to Antiquity (1991)

 Hello, and welcome again, loyal readers. This is Robert Lang, full-time MFA student, SDSU Press editorial assistant, and part-time archeologist. I'm proud to welcome you back to yet another edition of 'FROM THE DEPTHS OF SDSU PRESS'. This week we'll be journeying through ancient Mayan ruins with an artist and anthropologist, but FIRST a bit of modern archaeological anthropology.

Perched above the desk of hardworking Press staffers is what I've come to lovingly refer to as the 'Winnebago of Wonders'.

Where else will you see Godzilla, a moose, a carnivorous dinosaur, Rambo, and Regan on the same bus? Only at SDSU Press!

The 'Winnebago of Wonders' is one the first things that draws the eye of any weary traveller coming across our offices. I ask you, dear reader, what does the 'Winnebago of Wonders' say about our humble little publication? I recently had a colleague and friend ask me, "What is it you do here?" while sitting across from my desk staring directly at our yellow cavalcade of terror and delights. No matter what I responded with, the only thing they were leaving this office with was the image of this bus so amazing that even planes want to get on board. 

Working under these conditions, I hope you understand how much work is required to keep ourselves grounded here at SDSU Press. My outlet is reviewing our catalog with you fine folks. In the spirit of travel, inspired by the 'Winnebago of Wonders', today's publication takes us to Guatemala City and through the ruins of an ancient civilization. Join me as we check out "Four Trips to Antiquity" by Everett Gee Jackson.

Published in 1991

The book opens with preface about Jackson's childhood encounters with thoughts of indigenous peoples and sets the stage for his future artistic urge to continue coming back to Guatemala and the ancient city Copán.

Our first trip with Jackson starts in 1952. There's political turmoil in Guatemala City with bombs exploding constantly. Jackson receives a letter from the Limited Editions Club of New York to illustrate an english edition of the Popol Vuh. The text is an ancient manuscript that is something akin to a religious narrative text of the Kʼicheʼ(spelled Quiché by Jackson) people. The title roughly translates to the 'Book of the People', which is deliciously poetic given the contents of Four Trips to Antiquity. 

Jackson is an artist, not just an artist but an art instructor at none other than our very own San Diego State University. With his journalist wife attached to her work, Jackson is ready to set off for the ancient Mayan city of Copán on a solo adventure...

Until he gets a call from an old friend. His friend's 18 year old son is going to be tagging along. 

I realize this sounds like the setup to a 80s buddy comedy film, but bear with me. 

Craig, the 18-year-old son is one of my favorite characters in literature and to know that he's a real person who existed brings me immense joy. 

What follows in the first three chapters of the book IS an 80s buddy comedy film as Everett and young Craig traverse ancient cities in Honduras and Guatemala with the Guatemalan Revolution as the backdrop. 

There's a great scene in the book where Jackson and Craig are entering their hotel for the first time and there is a loud explosive sound nearby. The clerk tells them there's nothing to worry about as Craig's eyes light up. Later the two have dinner with the hotel owner who tells them they have to keep quiet around the waiters as some of them might by Communist spies. Craig is very excited to be involved with espionage.

I love Craig. 

Jackson is eventually taken to a Quiché village where he witnesses the local culture and the distinct class between the Spanish Christian influence and local traditions. They travel up a steep mountain side to find a stone altar that the locals pray to after sending smoke up to the Christian God. A local religious figure warns Jackson that the locals might not be too happy with him drawing their altar.

On the way up the side of the mountain, Craig wanders off the path to find a big stick to protect Jackson, becoming his de facto body guard. Craig is the best. 

Each description of an artifact, ruin, or structure is accompanied by Jackson's artworks. It's like peering into the mind of artist at work. 

The first two chapters cover Jackson's first time really visiting and taking in the Maya ruins with the intent of painting for the commissioned artwork, but interspersed are his first encounters with a very complicated culture. There's another great sequence set before Jackson and Craig are supposed to set out on a plane ride to another part of Honduras and they stumble across a market full of bananas.

Craig, of course, wants an entire bundle of bananas to bring on their tiny charted plane before Jackson talks him down to just a dozen (Bless you, innocent Craig). While talking to the women who operate the stands, he learns that they don't have many bananas to sell and offer them only a few. This confuses Jackson, initially, realizing that the 'bananas' he was seeing were different types of plantains. This leaves Craig to make a truly philosophical statement, "Not Every Banana is a Banana in Central America". 

As profoundly silly as that may sound, that statement winds being very illustrative of Jackson's further exploits in Guatemala. While he's focused on the history and the art not everything is as it seems in the land. 

Craig makes yet another profound observation "We are in a football field!" before quickly changing his mind. I didn't even mention that he befriends and has a conversation in English with a local who can only speak Spanish. Craig is truly a treasure. 

Jackson describes his process throughout the book, but here is an instance of visualizing it. It's incredibly cool for anyone interested in the creative process.

As the book goes on it follows Jackson back to Guatemala in 1954, 1962, and later 1978. The section covering 1954 is probably the juiciest part of the book covering his time with a San Diego State Anthropologist, an archaeologist, his run in with the Communist presidential candidate Seńor Williams, and his prolonged encounter with an enigmatic Tobacco company representative 'Mr. Smith'. 

The 'Torchman' Carving that inspired the cover painting. 

The book is an incredibly breezy read at 170 pages, and it's manages to tell one of those stories that keeps you wondering what other bizarre and extraordinary encounter is going to happen next. What I love most about it is how it's nested in an appreciation and consideration of the indigenous history, art, and culture. There is admittedly some dated language in the book, but Jackson's writing actually holds up as very approachable.

This book could just as easily sit on your shelf as an art book full of representations of Mayan works, but it comes attached with the somehow more incredible anecdotes of the artist behind them. This is an part-art book, part-adventure story, part-anthropology book. A revolution viewed through the eyes of a wandering artist focused on the past. 

I'd love to gush about it more, but I'm not being paid to shill for this book but it's genuinely something better experienced then discussed, much like any historical site or artwork. 

If nothing else, I say read this book for Craig. He's not in it for as long as I would have wanted, but his spirit for adventure is infectious enough to inspire any reader to go out into the world and experience it in full. 

I wasn't sure what I was getting into when I first dug this artifact from the depths of the archive, but what I found was a genuine treasure. As artist and a student who has recently had his own experience traveling amongst the ruins of an ancient civilization, I found a lot of heart and inspiration in Jackson taking me along on his journey. 

Everett Gee Jackson passed away the year I was born (realize I'm literally dating myself here), so I never would have had the chance to speak with him but this book has managed to make me feel like I've known and travelled with him for years. It's an experience I highly recommend.

Thank you so much for joining me on yet another look through the annals of SDSU Press history. Join me next time as I wander through a sea of cardboard to venture deeper into the depths of time here at SDSU Press. Wish me luck, for I'll need it. Until then, take care loyal reader!


If you're interested in picking up the book, you can find it from our catalogue -> HERE <- and contribute in the effort to help clean up these four walls of chaos we call an office.