Dr. Mark Van Stone can read the writing on the wall—even if its Mayan, Aztec, Olmec or Egyptian. He is, in fact, the rare man who prefers messages written in stone.
Spring 2014 loomed as a temple of doom for Van Stone’s Art of Hieroglyphics class at Southwestern College due to low enrollment. Van Stone channeled his inner Indiana Jones and persevered. He put up flyers around campus in an effort to spread the word. From out of the jungles, deserts and mountains of the South Bay, students came forward and took the leap. His class survived. Van Stone lived to teach another day.
Van Stone became interested in hieroglyphic writing systems early in his career, he said, but it originally developed out of his love for art. He said there is a common bond between art and written language.
“I have always been interested in abstract art,” he said. “I was never interested in what I call lazy abstract art where people just let the paint do its own thing.”
His research into calligraphy led him to discover many styles of writing that helped him diversify his own work. Fascinated by the history of writing and guided by his research of the English alphabet, Van Stone said he explored the Arabic alphabet’s roots in the Egyptian alphabet. Discovering how beautiful Mayan hieroglyphs made him realize there was a lack of appreciation and understanding of the art form of written language.
Ernest M. Saenz, a retired psychotherapist and SWC alumnus, is currently pursuing a Master of Fine Arts. He used Mayan hieroglyphs in his Chicano-styled art for years before fully comprehending their significance. Saenz said he hopes Van Stone’s class will help him as a muralist by giving him a better understanding of Mesoamerican art.
“It is exactly what I expected,” Saenz said. “I am getting a very in-depth introduction to the material.”
In Van Stone’s class typical homework assignments include translating ancient texts, researching Egyptian kings and discovering the history of written language.
Citlali Marshburn, a former student, took Van Stone’s hieroglyphics class out of curiosity after taking his Mesoamerican Art class last semester.
“He is a really good teacher,” she said. “He knows how to explain everything so that you will understand it perfectly.”
Van Stone said he wants to demonstrate how different ancient cultures used language as an art form. Hieroglyphs adorning temples and pyramids were used not only to show beauty through complex characters, but also to signify the importance of the buildings they decorated.
Characters of Mayan glyphs resemble jaguars, frogs and many symbols are abstractions of the environment. More complex characters are subtle fusions of two different glyphs that form new words or ideas. For everyday functions, the scribes of Mayan culture would use a simplified script that was far less pictorial than the hieroglyphs found on important buildings.
Van Stone said putting so much work into adorning buildings with beautiful glyphs served as political propaganda to the rest of the illiterate population. Even though 99 percent of Mayans could not read, they were still able to appreciate beautiful art and recognize the power behind the symbols.
“Writing, written forms and inscriptions in particular are a very important form of cultural abstract art,” said Van Stone. “Their meaning is not obvious and is derived by a gut reaction.”
Van Stone said he was eventually able to fill his class, but SWC’s new add date deadline policy has hurt students and teachers. He said the strict add dates alleviated some of the chaos administrators deal with during the first few weeks of school, but are not in the best interest of the students.
“The decisions are wrong-headed with top-down interests in mind,” he said
At one point the possibility of The Art of Hieroglyphics and Asian Art getting cancelled was high, but Van Stone’s own on-the-wall advertising paid off.
Noah Werner, a radiation therapist and fan of Van Stone’s work, said he has been waiting two years for this class to be taught. He is not a regular student at SWC, but wanted to take the course due to his own fascination with the Mayan culture.
“Mark is an awesome teacher,” Werner said. “He is very entertaining and keeps class interesting.”