Jeff Karl Kowalski first glimpsed the historical and beautiful man-made wonders of Uxmal in 1974.
Kowalski, a young graduate student, had just begun work on his Ph.D. at Yale. The ancient art and architecture of the Mayan civilization had fascinated Kowalski since his childhood, when a friend of his mother's returned to Tulsa, Okla., with films of him visiting those sites.
And now Kowalski had set his own eyes on these almost-mythical structures, discovering his fiery curiosity was not quenched but stoked.
"I was amazed by the scale, the monumental presence and by the aesthetic quality of the buildings and the sculptures at these sites," he says.
"But by the same token, what really made me interested in this was not simply looking at these purely as aesthetic arrangements of form but trying to figure out what they meant. They had spent so much time and labor on them. I wanted to know what message were they trying to convey to themselves but, beyond that, I wanted to find it myself."
Guided by the teaching of two art historian mentors, Esther Pasztory and George Kubler, he set out on a path of discovery.
Studies under Floyd Lounsbury, a noted linguist, anthropologist and Mayan scholar and epigrapher, helped Kowalski to decipher hieroglyphic inscriptions at Uxmal and to identify the name of an influential and powerful divine king who ruled from a major palace, today known as the House of the Governor, around 900 A.D.
His theories on what those pieces mean contained in his doctoral dissertation and, later published as The House of the Governor, A Maya Palace at Uxmal, Yucatan, Mexico, has shaped much of modern thought on pre-Columbian art and archeology.
These were important breakthroughs because, up until that time, Uxmal's rulers were essentially anonymous and its history was largely a blank says Virginia Miller, professor and director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Art History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Even now, 20 years later, more experienced epigraphers have not added much to our knowledge of Uxmal's dates and dynasty, so Jeff's decipherments still retain their original value.
Kowalski joined the NIU School of Art in 1982 and led the art history division from 1996 to 2004.
Colleagues here and elsewhere consider him ambitious, generous, modest, reliable and â€œone of the most important scholars of his generation of art historians.
In 1988 and '89, Kowalski was awarded a J. Paul Getty Foundation grant to conduct research at Uxmal. He researched and interpreted architectural sculptures at the Nunnery Quadrangle there. In 1992, the National Geographic Society funded Kowalski's collaboration with Alfredo Barrera Rubio, director of the Centro Regional de Yucatan, to excavate a round temple structure at Uxmal.
Kowalski edited and collaboratively contributed chapters on Teotijuacan, Xochicalco and Uxmal to the 1999 book, â€œMesoamerica Architecture as a Cultural Symbol. In 2007, he co-edited Twin Tollans: Chichan Itz¡, Tula, and the Epiclassic to Early Postclassic Mesoamerican World, a book of new insights into the special relationship between these two major pre-Columbian capitals. Last fall, he was co-curator of Crafting Maya Identity: Contemporary Wood Sculptures from the Puuc Region of YucatÃ¡n, Mexico.
"There is not the slightest doubt that Jeff is the world's leading authority on the imagery, writing and architecture of the zone," said Stephen Houston, Dupee Family Professor of Social Sciences in the Department of Anthropology at Brown University and MacArthur Foundation fellow, "and the person that the rest of us turn to for guidance and insight."