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home : arts & entertainment : arts & entertainment October 21, 2018

1/16/2018 1:11:00 PM
Sisters artist carves conquest
By Jim Cornelius
News Editor

In February of 1519, a mere handful of Spanish adventurers launched the conquest of the massive, sophisticated and populous Aztec Empire in what would eventually become the nation of Mexico. That epic tale of valor and tragedy has been brought to life through the carving of Sisters artist J. Chester "Skip" Armstrong.

In the summer of 2012, Armstrong created a massive five-panel depiction of the Mayan creation myth, which is housed at Javier's Mexican Restaurant in the Aria Resort & Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada. Thousands of people have seen that work. One man in particular, a resident of Belize, fell in love with it.

"He saw it whenever he went to Vegas," Armstrong told The Nugget. "Every time he went to Vegas he made a point of making a pilgrimage to see it."

Finally, he commissioned Armstrong to tell his own Mesoamerican story - the story of the Conquest of Mexico. The client is of Spanish Castilian descent - the blood of the Conquistadors flows through his veins. Armstrong's work, which flows across three panels, offers up vignettes from the saga of his ancestors.

That story, from the standpoint of 2017, is a fraught one. A handful of Spaniards, armored and armed with steel blades and mounted upon horses, conquered and subjugated a vibrant, extensive - and bloodthirsty - indigenous empire. Armstrong sought an honest and imaginative retelling of that story, in all of its tragedy and violence, but also in all of its "crazy courage and valor beyond all rationality."

History - especially difficult and racially charged history - has become a cultural flashpoint in recent years. Armstrong's carving recreates an especially charged history vividly - unsanitized and unapologetic.

"It is - like the (client) said himself - what happened," the artist said.

Noting that Western minds "read art from left to right," Armstrong started the story in the upper-left-hand corner of the first panel with the arrival of Hernan Cortés in his ships, which was seen by the Aztecs as the fulfillment of a prophecy.

"He had the benefit of mythology working for him," Armstrong mused.

The mythic stature of the new arrivals gave them a foothold in Mexico, and when the conquest turned militant, their technology - especially armor and the horse - gave them a military edge. The Spaniards also formed alliances with native peoples eager to throw off Aztec rule.

The action and violence of the conquest roars across the panels in a diagonal line, with mounted conquistadors fairly bursting out of the wood.

"This is the story of culture clashing with culture," Armstrong said. "It's a big, epic story. The horse and the rider became the dominant battle differentiation between the two cultures... The diagonal is the action line."

Bringing the clash to an individual level allows the valor of individuals of both cultures to shine through.

"I couldn't depict it any other way than just chaos," Armstrong said. "The battles are not equal, because technology is on the side of the Spanish."

The second panel depicts the Aztec world, with the top of the panel dominated by the great city of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital that would become Mexico City. Across the bottom of the triptych runs the Mayan underworld, which becomes smaller and more compressed as the might of the Spanish state and especially of the Church is brought to bear.

Through the depiction of such deep cultural elements, the story becomes more than a historical tale and delves into the realms of the spiritual.

"It's an imaginative, creative work, and it requires a creative mind to read it," Armstrong said.

The third panel represents the ascendancy of the Spanish aristocracy in colonial Mexico, with the dancing figures in the center representing the client and his wife in a Mexican hacienda.

Not only does the carving tell an epic tale - the work itself is epic in scope. The three panels are made of alder wood from Mill City, Oregon - beams that are glued and clamped together to make up the panels.

Alder is a "soft hardwood," very stable and perfect for carving. The panels will have to be crated up, then trucked to a port and put on a ship for Belize - no small undertaking in and of itself.

"It's epic all around," Armstrong acknowledged.

Before the work departs for its ancestral home at the end of the month, Armstrong plans to host an open house and unveiling at his studio, so that the public can see the art in person and hear the story behind it.

The open house is set for 2 p.m. on Sunday, January 21, at 68105 Peterson Burn Rd., 2.5 miles up Edginton Road southwest of town.

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