Scott at Uxmal, Yucatan, Mexico

Art history comes to life for grad student

Mary Katherine Scott went to Mexico to learn more about the wood carvings sold at various archeological sites.

“My graduate research focuses on the handicraft tradition in the Yucatan peninsula,” Scott said. “Wood carvers create reproductions of ancient Mayan carvings. They look at stone carvings, take those images, reproduce them with a different material and then turn around and sell them. It’s really interesting, and visitors might not know the significance of those pieces.”

Scott, who already has a master’s degree in Spanish, is one of several NIU graduate students in art history who have journeyed overseas to experience first-hand the art they’ve studied in books.

“Every day,” Scott said, “we were meeting with the local Mayan families. They’d invite us into their homes to have lunch with them. We’d make tortillas around the fire with the women.”

Before she could leave, though, she needed to learn more about the language of the artisans. They speak Yucatec-Maya, an indigenous language from pre-Hispanic times.

“It’s nothing like Spanish at all,” she said. “It’s still spoken by about 700,000 people in the Yucatan peninsula. It’s still very much a living language, but not many people know about it.”

That knowledge was available through the Consortium for Latin American Studies between the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University.

The program begins with two weeks in North Carolina and then sends students to Mexico for four weeks, immersing them in the language. They spend great amounts of time with Mayan families in their homes and villages, places where Spanish often is not spoken.

“It’s very intensive. You cover the equivalent of two semesters,” said Scott, who had a Foreign Language and Area Studies fellowship and a generous summer research grant from the NIU Center for Latino and Latin American Studies.

But the intensity pays off.

“It’s like any kind of relationship you build with someone. If someone is not a native speaker in your language, it’s harder for them to open up to you. It’s harder for them to articulate what they want to say,” she said.

“For me to do interviews with these people when I’m more fluent in their own language would make them more comfortable. It shows them I’m serious about what I’m doing and that I want to create a comfortable atmosphere in which to learn about their culture, their beliefs and their artistic motivations.”

-- by Mark McGowan, NIU Public Affairs