When Kevin Harmer recently returned to Winnipeg from Guatemala he brought home with him more than just a few souvenirs.
Harmer, an artist and photographer, spent the past 10 winters in the Central American nation working with Mayan artists to create paintings and traditional wall hangings.
After collecting dozens of pieces of work, he was inspired to share his fellow artists’ work as well as his own with art lovers here at home.
His Mayan Families exhibit is on display at the Mennonite Heritage Centre Gallery until Aug. 11. The gallery is located at 600 Shaftesbury Blvd., south of the Canadian Mennonite University campus in Tuxedo.
"I wanted to display their works in the context of their home environment," he said.
Harmer, who lives in Transcona, hopes the exhibit will provide Winnipeggers with some insight into traditional Mayan culture.
"Most of the artists are self-taught, and are using traditional themes," he said. "They’re weaving, beading, doing embroidery and traditional paintings and leather work. They haven’t lost it."
Harmer added all of the fabric art he and the artists created is made from second-hand fabric purchased at Guatemalan markets. He said it was the fabric itself which initially inspired him to start creating his art while in Guatemala. Eventually, his creations drew the interest of a number of local artists.
"I got interested in the fabric and started making things. People would come over and see what I’d made and ask if I had a job for them. I would ask them what they do, and then would look for jobs for them," he said.
Harmer is currently working with five Mayan artists. He provides them with ideas and guidance while they do much of the hands-on work.
"We’re pretty locked in. I know where almost all of my pieces came from and how they came about, so it gives a different feel to me," he said.
Harmer acknowledges he has developed a close relationship with the artists he is currently working with and said he considers them family.
In addition to creating art with them, he provides the artists with tools to make their work even better and help them to archive their work.
"Previously, once they sold a painting that would be it, they wouldn’t have any record of it. I started working to make sure everyone has a camera to help them keep archives," he said, adding that each artist now has a camera.
"We’re also working to provide everyone who is of higher education with a computer."
But Harmer’s philanthropy doesn’t end there.
"Any profit I make from the art all goes back to them. They live in tourist towns, and a lot of times in the off-season there aren’t any tourists, and it’s especially hard on these families," he said. "A lot of times they just don’t have enough money to send their kids to school, so I’ll send them money in the off-season, and when I get down there in the winter they will pay me back with art."
All profits from the Mayan Families exhibit will go to support Harmer’s Mayan friends and other families.