Although he was born in the United States, Peter (Sunshine) Cahill lived most of his life in Guatemala.
During the past three years, Cahill has returned to Guatemala four times with a specific purpose: to research the ceramic work of the Q’eqchi’ people in Alta Verapaz, Guatemala.
The first time he made the trip was as an undergraduate studying art at Calvin College.
Since graduating in 2016, Cahill has carried this project into his postgraduate life, most recently to the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA), where he presented his research findings in a lecture titled “Q'eqchi' Pak'ok: Village Potters in Guatemalan Highlands.”
This year’s NCECA conference was held March 22-25 in Portland, Ore., with approximately 6,000 participants. According to Calvin art professor Anna Greidanus, who was Cahill’s professor, NCECA is the primary national and international forum for professionals in ceramics arts. It also provides a forum for students to submit proposals for conference presentations.
“I encouraged Peter early on in his research to aim for the goal of sharing it at NCECA, recognizing that the research was worthy and well-suited for this forum,” said Greidanus, who accompanied and introduced Cahill at the conference.
Cahill’s research was based on his findings during his trips to Guatemala from 2014-2016—a total of about seven months. He has been searching for methods of dialogue expressed in clay—methods that seek intercultural reconciliation. He has also been exploring the concept of what it means, through art, to be indigenous.
“What I brought to NCECA was a small window into a series of conversations I engaged in with several potters in Alta Verapaz,” Cahill said.
Cahill would often visit the potters at their homes or at the village school. All conversations took place in Q’eqchi’. “At first, I would ask them if I could see their work, depending on how interested they were in talking to me or hearing from me,” Cahill said.
“Then I would continue to build a relationship with them and share about myself. Of course, some people simply weren’t interested in talking to me, which was good too, as I wanted to make sure I wasn’t being [intrusive] or rude.”
A majority of the artists Cahill spoke with were women of the Q’eqchi’ ethnic group and a few other ethnicities. To understand the Q’eqchi’ ceramic art practice, he looked for answers pertaining not only to the technical aspects, but also the motivations. In his presentation at NCECA, Cahill highlighted the careers of three women: Elvire Bol, Leonicia Yoj, and Dolores Aisg, each from a different subregion and working to overcome her own set of challenges through ceramic art.
“[Cahill’s presentation] was well-attended and well-received,” Greidanus said. “The NCECA Conference is one of the most respected venues in the field of ceramics for presentation and representation. Needless to say, when members of the Calvin community contribute, it benefits the reputation of Calvin College, but more importantly, our contributions become meaningful in the broader field.”
Cahill plans to continue working on this project and remain invested in the field. “Since graduating, I've been following wherever the path goes—mostly on my own accord, but with the advice of a few friends, mentors, and other wise individuals,” Cahill said. “I have been really blessed to have people from many different disciplines and places of life who keep helping and encouraging this to go on.”