Octavio Medellin: Maya Toltec Temples and Carvings, 1938

Central University Libraries, Southern Methodist University

"I went to Mexico to see art. Actually, the art was the people. To see the people. To learn about the people. Because I have a spirit of their universe. People to me are all the same. It makes no difference what color they are...Sculpture, I do it the same way. I don't care to do a particular race or anything, but I do a figure.. " - Octavio Medellin
Octavio Medellin
Octavio Medellin was born in San Luis Potosi, Mexico in 1907. His family, of Otomi Indian heritage, moved to San Antonio, Texas in 1920 where the young Medellin began his art studies at the San Antonio Art Institute with José Arpa and Xavier Gonzales, Spanish artists who had relocated to San Antonio and established flourishing art careers. In 1928 Medellin left San Antonio and moved to Chicago where he studied at the Chicago Art Institute. A year later he returned to Mexico to begin a two year study of his native country’s art, customs, and history – a period that proved to be a major influence in the young artist’s artistic evolution. While in Mexico, he met and became friends with artist Carlos Mérida, a friendship that lasted until Mérida’s death in 1985. Medellin traveled throughout the Gulf Coast, including the Yucatan, and studied the local crafts produced in small villages and the ancient ruins and sculpture of the Mayan and Toltec Indians. Mexico’s unique artistic culture profoundly influenced Medellin’s art and that of the many students he taught over the next four decades. In 1931 Medellin moved back to San Antonio and taught sculpture at the Witte Museum and a few years later, with several other local artists, opened La Villita Art Gallery. There he met Lucy Maverick, herself a young artist whose family was influential in the historic preservation of San Antonio during the late 19th/early 20th centuries. In 1938, interested in encouraging Medellin’s art development, Maverick sponsored the artist’s journey to Mexico for a six-month study of the ruins at Chichén Itzá. 
In 1938, Octavio Medellin spent six months studying the Mayan ruins at Chichén Itzá and Uxmal, located on the Yucatán in Mexico, and documented his travels with 181 black and white photographs that he compiled into a scrapbook entitled Maya – Toltec, Temples and Carvings, 1938.  The following images are selections from this scrapbook. [note: the camera used by Medellin was heavily taped to prevent a light leak.] Medellin and his wife, Consuelo, and their two young children, Patsy and Sergio, traveled from New Orleans to Progreso, Yucatán, and toured other towns and historical sites, including Mérida and Izamal, with fellow American artist and sculptor David Slivka and his wife, Kayla, before arriving at Chichén Itzá.
Octavio Medellin and his wife Consuelo with their two children at their home at the Carnegie Institution research center. The Medellins and Slivkas first stayed in Pisté for three months as guests of the local residents but were later invited by Dr. Sylvanus Morley to stay at the Carnegie Institution research center, located next to the ruins at Chichén Itzá.  In 1913, Dr. Morley had been instrumental in initiating and directing the first Chichén Itzá project, funded by the Carnegie Institution of Washington, but excavations did not start until the 1920s due to the Mexican Revolution and World War I.  The Carnegie Institution continued to support excavations at the site until the 1940s.  
Mrs. Marrufo [first name unknown] and her daughter, Ophelia Marrufo with Conseulo Medellin. Mrs. Marrufo’s father was Edward Herbert Thompson, who was an archaeologist and U.S. Consul in the Yucatán in 1885.  In 1894, with the assistance of a Chicago patron, Mr. Allison V. Armour, Thompson purchased the land that included Chichén Itzá and the old Hacienda Chichén.  Thompson rebuilt the hacienda that would later become the compound for the Carnegie Institution research center established by Dr. Morley.  Thompson is known for dredging the Cenote Sagrado, a natural sink hole at Chichén Itzá which the Mayans considered to be a sacred well, from 1904 to 1910.  Mayan artifacts were found including items made of gold, copper, and jade.  

David and Kayla Slivka’s “departure” dinner. Consuelo [lower left], Kayla [seated, lower step], David [standing]; others are their friends from Pisté and Chichén Itzá. The dinner was held in the dining room of the Carnegie compound.

"It was a shock to see such beautiful buildings. To me it was and to see the carvings. To me it was hard to see them to start with because they're old and they're deteriorating, but now probably you don't see them, it's been so many years...I started to do some drawings, then I began to see traces of color. When it rained, the moist would bring color on the walls. Imagine there was still coloring there in places." - Octavio Medellin

Octavio Medellin [1998, Oral History, Bywaters Special Collections, Southern Methodist University]

Large Stone Jaguar. Temple of the Jaguar, Chichén Itzá

Relief carving, Chichén Itzá

"I didn't look at it [Chichen Itza] from an archaeological end, more or less...as an artist." - Octavio Medellin

Consuelo Medellin sitting on altar [chacmool or chac-mool] with daughter Patsy and friends, Chichén Itzá

Sculpture, Chichén Itzá

"I remember when I first became interested in sculpture. I was about 18 or 19 years old and was walking along the river in San Antonio and found this old mesquite log. I picked it up and took it home to carve. I think it gave me the incentive to continue as an artist."
- Octavio Medellin

Temple of the Warriors, Chichén Itzá

Upon his return to the U.S., Medellin continued to teach at various institutions (University of North Texas, Dallas Museum of Arts and Southern Methodist University) while finding time to do his own work. Throughout his career Medellin explored other media including ceramics, mosaics, glass, and lost-wax process in bronze casting, and introduced them to his students. During the 1950s, Medellin designed and implemented major art projects in Dallas that included Temple Emanu-El and the Mercantile National Bank. In 1966 he opened the Medellin School of Sculpture in Dallas [now the Creative Arts Center of Dallas] and continued to teach until semi-retirement in 1979 when he and his wife moved to Bandera, Texas. Medellin’s work has been represented in exhibitions and museums including the Dallas Museum of Arts, the Huntington Art Gallery at the University of Texas in Austin, the Meadows Museum at Southern Methodist University, the Witte Museum in San Antonio, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In 1977, he was awarded an honorary lifetime membership from the Texas Fine Arts Association, and in 1996 the Dallas Visual Arts Center, now the Dallas Contemporary, honored Medellin with the prestigious Legends Award. Medellin died in Dallas, Texas in 1999.

This color block print of an image of a hummingbird [with printing blocks] by Octavio Medellin is based from the bas-relief carvings in the Lower Temple of the Temple of the Jaguar at Chichén Itzá. Image: Octavio Medellin, Untitled, Linocut,1975

Relief carving, Temple of the Jaguar. This carving was used as inspiration for Medellin's colorful 1975 print.

Octavio Medellin [1998, Oral History, Bywaters Special Collections, Southern Methodist University
XTOL – Dance of the Ancient Mayan People
In 1947, Octavio Medellin’s drawings were developed into the portfolio XTOL – Dance of the Ancient Mayan People, published by the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts. The images were taken from the first register of the bas-relief carvings in the Lower Temple of the Jaguars at Chichén Itzá. The portfolio consists of ten two-color prints; Medellin drew and cut the blocks for printing.  Dallas artist Dan Wingren pulled the one five-color silkscreen print. One hundred copies were printed; each portfolio is signed and numbered by Octavio Medellin. Jerry Bywaters, director of the museum, wrote the text for the prints, entitled “Murals from the Temple of the Tigers [Jaguars].”  Salvador Toscano, head of the Department of Fine Arts for Public Education in Mexico, provided an additional essay entitled “A Note on the Murals by Salvador Toscano.” 

Xtol: Dance of the Ancient Mayan People, [Introduction]

Octavio Medellin [1998, Oral History, Bywaters Special Collections, Southern Methodist University]
Medellin dedicated the portfolio to San Antonio art patron Lucy Maverick, who had encouraged the young artist to return to his native Mexico to study the Mayan ruins. Maverick had traveled in Mexico in the 1920s and became enamored with Mexican culture, participating in early archeological excavations.  Medellin met Lucy Maverick in San Antonio at the La Villita Art Gallery that he and several other artists opened in the early 1930s.

"A person's art or an artist's work should come from within themselves and of themselves- not be a copy of even their own heritage. Their own individuality must come through."
- Octavio Medellin

Credits: Story

Jerry Bywaters Special Collections, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas.


Additional Resources:

Octavio Medellin Art Work and Papers Digital Collection

Octavio Medellin Art Work and Papers Finding Aid

Evaline Sellors Art Work and Papers Finding Aid

Texas Artists: Paintings, Sculpture, and Works on Paper Digital Collection

Octavio Medellin Oral History Interview, July 30, 1998, by Sam Ratcliffe, Ellen Buie Niewyk and Judy Searles, Bywaters Special Collections, Southern Methodist University.

Credits: All media
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