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Dr. Alan R. Sawyer was born on June 18, 1919, in Wakefield Massachusetts. He completed his undergraduate degree at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, graduating with a Bachelors of Science in 1941, majoring in Geology and minoring in Physics and Chemistry. After the United States joined the Second World War, Sawyer enlisted in the US Army as 1st Lieutenant in 1942. Once the War was over, he separated from the army in 1946. In that same year, Sawyer married Erika Heininger and they later had five children together.
From 1946 to 1948, Sawyer completed his first graduate degree at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. While he studied subjects such as painting, drawing, and art history, Sawyer conducted research in Mayan art. During intersession and summer sessions, Sawyer also took courses in art history and anthropology at the Boston University College of Liberal Arts Graduate School. In 1948, Sawyer began his second graduate degree in art history at Harvard University. He graduated with his Masters in 1949 and although he was recommended as a Ph.D candidate, he did not pursue a doctorate degree.
Upon graduating from Harvard, Sawyer was hired as an instructor for the Art Department at the Texas State College for Women in Denton, Texas where he taught courses in art history and studio art. It was there that Sawyer became interested in pre-Columbian art of the Americas, and he arranged an exhibit of that art from the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at the Texas State College.
In 1952, Sawyer was hired as an Assistant to the Curator of Decorative Arts at the Art Institute of Chicago. He later rose to the rank of Curator of Primitive Art in 1956. In that same year, Sawyer became the director of the Park Forest Art Center, a small art museum located in Park Forest, a small town located outside of Chicago. In addition to his roles at the Art Institute and at the Art Center, Sawyer taught courses in primitive art at the University of Chicago and Notre Dame University from 1954-1959.
In 1959, Sawyer became the Director at the Textile Museum in Washington DC, where he stayed until 1971. While there, Sawyer made significant additions to the pre-Columbian textiles collection. In addition to his director role, Sawyer also made several trips to Peru in order to carry out fieldwork assignments, including several aerial surveys and a stratigraphic excavation in the Inca Valley. In 1975, Sawyer became a professor of Indigenous American Art at the University of British Columbia, where he remained until 1985.
In addition to his official roles, Sawyer also participated in several additional professional activities. In 1964, he served as a guide for the Brooklyn Museum Members’ Tour of Archaeological Sites in Peru. From 1964-1968, Sawyer served as the Curator of the Master Craftsmen of Ancient Peru Exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. He made several trips to Peru where he selected and negotiated loans for the Ancient Peru Exhibit with the Peruvian government. In 1968-1969, Sawyer taught as an adjunct professor at Columbia University, teaching courses in art and archaeology.
Although his main area of interest lay in Pre-Columbian art, Sawyer became interested in the artifacts and the art of First Nations communities of British Columbia and Alaska, specifically those living on the Northwest Coast. In the late 1970s – early 1980s, Sawyer received a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada to discern the provenance of and to determine the approximate dates of undocumented NWC masks and other artifacts housed in museums in North America and in Europe. Sawyer also traveled to several First Nation villages located on British Columbia’s and Alaska’s northwest coast where he photographed the villages’ totem poles and log cabins Although he never published his findings as intended, Sawyer used his large slide collection as a teaching aid in his art classes at UBC.
In 1969, in recognition of Sawyer’s achievements, his alma mater, Bates College, awarded Sawyer a honourary doctorate degree. He died in Vancouver, BC on January 31, 2002.