Whistling a Pre-Columbian Tune

By Varmecky, John A. | School Arts, November 1994 | Go to article overview

Whistling a Pre-Columbian Tune


Varmecky, John A., School Arts


On the European continent in the fifth century, the Roman Empire was just past its zenith and the Dark Ages were settling in. Across the ocean, many civilizations like the Inca, the Maya and the Toltec were refining their artistic skills.

These civilizations on the Central and South American continents had been flourishing for centuries and had built mighty temples, carved massive stone figures and fashioned striking jewelry from gold.

Clay as a Sculptural Medium

The artwork of these pre-Columbian civilizations was dignified and energetic. The potters were skilled craftsmen. They mastered the physical and plastic possibilities of clay as a sculptural medium. They pushed the limits that clay could be stretched, pulled and twisted into various forms without coming apart. Often, they sculpted their pottery to represent a human, animal, bird or fish, perfectly blending the representational form with the function of the object, such as a serving bowl or storage jar.

These craftsmen were anonymous servants of society. They were governed by artistic conventions and customs. Yet, their work was also characterized by individuality.

Figurative Whistles

Among the many items made by pre-Columbian potters were small clay whistles, some of which produced several tones. These whistles were shaped like living forms. The potters were keen observers of nature and showed a deep understanding of animal and human figures. They had a sophisticated way of portraying these figures. While keeping the essentials of the figures, they abstracted and simplified the forms and details. As they shaped their whistles, they made the pottery forms come alive with vivid contrasts between broad, bland areas and well-chosen, textured details. …

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