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Unburied Treasure 

Patricia Amlin holds one of her hand painted film cells.
Patricia Amlin holds one of her hand painted film cells.

Chris Miller wasn’t expecting to find a piece of film history in her friend’s storage unit. Yet there it was, hidden away in 36 dusty boxes and a stack of old film reels. There, where the elements and mice were starting to inflict a slow demise, were the illustrations that brought the Maya culture to life for tens of thousands of students.  

The storage unit could have been the end of the road for such an esoteric collection of hand-painted cells and old film from the original production of Patricia Amlin’s Popol Vuh: Creation Myth of the Maya. Instead, it turned out to be just the start of a new chapter in the film’s long history. Over the next few years, it would travel from storage to an art gallery on Gunnison’s Main Street. When COVID forced the gallery to close, Miller’s daughter and the director of Western’s Academic Resource Center, Katie Wheaton, suggested they take the boxes and reels to campus, where a room was available in the basement of the Leslie J. Savage Library.  

There in the basement room, Allie Weatherill, Troy Brown, and several other dedicated students would spend the next year going through the boxes page by page and cell by cell. With their work finally done in the spring of 2023, the whole collection was sent to the archives of the International Animated Film Association in Hollywood. From that relatively brief interaction, the histories of the film, the students, and Western would be bound forever.   

The journey from artist to filmmaker 

Amlin, who has now spent almost 30 years living and painting in the Gunnison Valley, had been preparing most of her life, even before she had heard of the Maya or their creation story, to create the film that would define a wide swath of her career. “When I was born, I could draw,” she said. “That’s my gift.” As a young girl in Chicago, she was singled out as someone with real artistic talent. Her parents and her teachers saw it and nurtured her abilities and allowed them to guide her as she grew. As a young bohemian in 1960s Greenwich Village, she honed her craft alongside some of the great artists of her generation. When she was chosen as a Fulbright Scholar, she set off for Europe to study art history and learn what she could from the masters. Still, she’d never heard of the Popol Vuh.   

Patricia Amlin holds up one of her hand painted film cells for a photo.

After returning from Europe, she fell into the fight for civil rights, which eventually took her to Mississippi. There, because of her activism, she was hired to be an instructor at Rust College, a historically black institution founded just after the Civil War. But her ideas were too progressive for the time and the place. After she wasn’t invited back to the college, she was approached by members of the community to teach black children in a rural Head Start program how to count and identify colors. It was during her time in the South that she saw things she’d never imagined as a white girl from Chicago. It was an experience that never left her and would take her one step closer to creating her magnum opus.  

Like the story of any life, Amlin’s journey from Mississippi to what came next wasn’t exactly linear. Within a few years of moving from Mississippi to California, she was a single mother of four who had taken up teaching at San Francisco State University where she discovered the film department would be thrilled to have an artist on the faculty. She was happy to start “the only real job I had in my life,” she said. That’s where the Popol Vuh film project first started to come into focus. 

On a 1970 trip to Tikal, Guatemala, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that was once one of the most powerful kingdoms of the ancient Maya, Amlin was sitting on a bench below a tree full of howler monkeys when she decided to get up and walk over to a bodega selling pots looted from the pyramids. “That’s where I fell in love,” she said. “I fell in love with the calligraphy on the pots. Then it became a total emersion [in the culture].” Soon, Amlin heard the creation myth of the Maya. 

The Popol Vuh was handed down by the K’iche people of Central Mexico, Belize, Honduras, and Guatemala. It’s a story of the hero twins, Hunahpú and Xbalanqué, who travel to the underworld, Xibalba, to play a ballgame to avenge the deaths of their father and uncle, ultimately defeating the Death Lords of the Underworld. After their victory, they rise into the heavens to become the sun and the moon. They are responsible for planting the first corn, for the humans living on earth, and for the creation of the Maya. “After conquering all of Xibalba, they walked into the sky … and together they  
light the heavens and the earth,” the film’s narrator says. 

When Amlin returned to California, she applied for a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and was denied. She applied again and again and was denied every time until finally, after seven applications, she got the grant she was asking for. All the while, she would sit in her studio and draw scenes, first on paper and then on plastic cells, that were based on the drawings found in Mayan pyramids. “I drew those films with a pencil,” she said. “I sat at an old drawing table and did that.” Then she would add color with cartoon paint to bring her drawings to life.  

The project consumed her, and as word of her work spread, she got visitors from the Maya population living in the Bay Area who would come to her house and ask for help, hoping she could do something to stop the Maya genocide that was taking place during the decades-long Guatemalan Civil War. Once again, the civil rights struggle had come home, and her heart ached for the people. She continued to work on her film. When she was done writing the script and hand-painting every one of the 76,000 cells, Amlin had enough for an hour of animation, which she produced and released in 1989 to critical acclaim. Popol Vuh: Creation Myth of the Maya was distributed to schools around the country and shown around the world.  

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“It was my life’s work. If you asked if I had a life’s work that I got to travel for and won prizes for and be known for and was appreciated, that was it,” Amlin said. “That was a full and exciting and wonderful time. That happened until I got to Colorado.” By then, the cells had been packed into boxes and put into storage. When she moved to Gunnison in 1995 so her son could take the science classes he needed at Western to prepare for veterinary school, they moved with her.  

The effort to organize begins 

“Why did I bring those boxes? Damned if I know. I guess because, like any artist, I was attached to my art,” Amlin said.  

The day her friend Chris Miller found the boxes and film canisters, she knew Amlin’s work might still have a life yet to live. She put her in touch with Wheaton, who assembled the students who helped organize the boxes.  

In the basement of the library, Weatherill, a senior double majoring in Art and History, led the organizational effort. She watched the film over and over, “too many times to count,” she said, to familiarize herself with the characters and the scenes. Then she spent dozens of hours making notes on the script and going through the boxes of cells, organizing them scene by scene. She even volunteered her time and continued working on the project after her internship ended. “I wanted to be with Patricia and help with the project,” she said.  “I was truly an asset to her, and I didn’t want to walk away from that when I knew I could help. So, I volunteered and continued to do so until they paid me. But  I would have worked anyway, even if they didn’t pay me.” 

Patricia Amlin holds one of her hand painted film cells.

In the process, Weatherill and Brown, who majored in anthropology, learned about the story and the Maya culture. They both had characters and scenes from the story they grew fond of. They learned about archiving, the artistic process, and the incredible life and activism of the woman responsible for it, not to mention lessons in filmmaking and the institutions that support it.  

“It bridged the gap for me between art and history. For Western to have something like this here, it’s like a gem. It’s this rare thing that Troy and I got to see,” Weatherill said. “It felt sort of unreal to think about. Just a year ago, it was a bunch of boxes, with no organization, down in the library. And it was just me and Patricia in there trying to make some sort of sense of it. So, knowing that it’s now in California in this prestigious, acclaimed film [archive] and that I played a part, even in a small way, to get it there, it’s remarkable to me and makes me extremely proud.” 

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