Travel | William J. Kalwick Jr.

William Kalwick

By Dottie Indyke

Earlier this year Texas artist William J. Kalwick Jr. visited Guatemala. Kalwick has traveled to the Central American country to paint about three times annually for the past 18 years. He usually travels alone and stays for about three weeks. We caught up with him via e-mail when Kalwick stopped briefly at La Antigua Galeria de Arte, a gallery in Antigua, on his way to various remote locations. the market at todos santos was begun in Guatemala, completed in his Houston studio, and will be on view in June at the Prix de West Invitational Exhibition & Sale at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, OK. This is the first in a series of columns that invite you to travel along with artists to their far-flung destinations.

What do you enjoy about painting in Guatemala? The first thing that attracted me to Guatemala was the colors. The clothing the Indians wear is so vivid. I had never seen anything like it before in my life. Also, the primitive aspect of the culture, which has changed considerably since the first time I visited Guatemala, attracted me.

You have said that when you first started going to Guatemala, it reminded you of the Old West. Why? It reminded me of the old photos of American Indians from the turn of the century.

The Market at Todos Santos by William KalwickWhat are the major changes you have seen in Guatemala over the past 18 years? Modernization has affected all aspects of life. The clothing was, for the most part, handmade and very colorful. It was this color that first inspired me. Every year there is less handmade clothing and more manufactured by machine. The architecture has changed from picturesque adobe structures with red tile roofs to cement block, bunker-style buildings. Religious celebrations also are changing.

Would you talk about some traditions that are fading from the culture? A few years ago in the village of San Ildefonso Ixtahuacan, during their annual fiesta, there would be a religious procession and nearby villagers in Colotenango would carry their saints to San Ildefonso. Villagers in San Ildefonso would meet them with all their saints down by the river, creating a large, colorful procession. This procession is no longer done.

What are the most challenging parts of painting in Guatemala? Getting to where I want to go, carrying my painting supplies, and crowd control. The people in these villages have never seen anyone paint before and are naturally curious. But they can get in my way and really be disruptive. Many times I just have to pack up my gear, take a photo, and leave.

What painting supplies do you bring with you? I have an easel that I borrow from a gallery owner, an American painter living in Guatemala. He has a studio that I also use while I am here. I bring watercolors to use in more remote areas.

What are some of the unusual experiences you have had painting in the villages? One time I was painting in the town of Joyabaj, and it was market day. There was a man selling vegetables in the plaza. I liked the way the light was hitting him and the colors of the produce. So I set up my easel and started painting. It was not long before there was a crowd behind me. I heard an onlooker remark that the painting was like a camera but slower.

Where do you stay? Usually there will be a family that rents out rooms, or I will have a hotel in a larger town that I use for my base. I don’t spend much because I am usually somewhere remote, and the hotel is $3.00 a night.

You traveled in Guatemala during the country’s civil war. What precautions did you take? When traveling in Guatemala, then as well as now, I try to be aware of my surroundings. I feel more comfortable in the countryside. I have had so many wonderful experiences and very few negative ones. In the 1980s, when I first fell in love with Guatemala, there were a lot of political problems, with demonstrations and people disappearing. My friends thought I was crazy going to Guatemala to paint. But nobody really bothered me, even though there was military presence everywhere.

What is it about traveling that you find inspiring? Traveling reinvigorates me. When I go to Guatemala, I see so many great subjects and I can’t wait to get back to my studio to start new paintings.

What do you miss about going to Guatemala in 2006 as opposed to 18 years ago? The traditions and costumes are what I miss the most. I know that this is a culture in transition. Time does not stay still; it has just been a little slower in the Guatemalan highlands. I feel fortunate that I have been able to capture it on canvas before it is part of history.

Kalwick is represented by Galeria Antigua, Antigua, Guatemala; The Sylvan Gallery, Charleston, SC; Whistle Pik Galleries, Fredericksburg, TX; Texas Art Gallery, Dallas, TX; Wilcox Gallery, Jackson, WY; Gallery Shoal Creek, Austin, TX; Wadle Galleries, Santa Fe, NM; and

Featured in “Dispatches” April 2006