Monthly Archives: October 2012

5Qs with Comrade’s Calacas

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Hot off of the ol’ e-press: a bite-sized dose of Monday discussion between Comrade C. and the fine folks over at Dead Deco.

A big and bonafide “thank you” to Mr. Lou–as always–for making this one happen.

Dead Deco

La MascaraDead Decoshowcases the responses of a wide variety of artists in our 5Qs with… interview series.  Some interviews included artists dedicated to this genre exclusively, while others have been from the perspective of Day of the Deadoutliers whose work seamlessly includes celebrated contributions.  Though all have been informative, few present the passion for this holiday and its associated arts that Comrade’s Calacas exudes.  As in his sculptures and on his blog, Comrade’s Calacas‘ love for this holiday’s traditions and art is self evident.

Dead Deco:  Thank you for joining us here on 5Qs. How did you first learn about the Day of the Dead holiday?

Comrade’s Calacas: I was fortunate enough to be born and raised in the shadow of Los Angeles proper, which provided plenty of opportunities for early exposure to the trappings of Dia de los Muertos. I recall early…

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Loteria Number Two: La Mascara (The Mask)

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As the dia de los destinos continues to get closer and closer—and I get my bags packed for my impending California foray—my thoughts have naturally been cranking into a winter-wise direction, particularly in terms of contemplating what the heck I’m going to do after November 1st in terms of calaca-related creations. The September-October window is really the bone harvest for anybody in this line of work, as the macabre trappings and pagany celebrations of the Halloween season give way to the warmth of Christmas in a truly rapid-fire fashion. One day, an ofrenda seems like a profound reminder of those we’ve lost, and a beautiful expression of chthonic artistic traditions: the following morning, that same altar suddenly looks jarringly creepy, back-dropped against cornucopia cut-outs and daisy-chains of colored lights.

Winter just isn’t kind to skeletons, be they crafted from clay or otherwise. It’s likely that mortality—even festive, joyous recognition of the fact that we’re all giving up the minutes until we become dust—is just too heavy to labor on when the entire natural world is becoming threadbare and covered in snow, which means that I usually wind up hanging up my tools until the thaw. To date, I have yet to sell a SINGLE calaca between the months of December and April: it’s a soft market for the online casual buyer to begin with, but things get real thin around this time of year.

Fortunately, there’s at least some silver scrim on the off-season, this time around: I recently had the opportunity to touch base with an old buddy from my four-year foray into independent game design—Mr. Dave Wish—and amidst the topics we wound up hashing on was the possibility of creating branded lucha calacas for the impending release of his long-gestating PC pro wrestling opus, Pro Wrestling X. The offer was a timely one, since I’d just wrapped up the finishing touches on this fine fellow:

 

UNA CHIASO!

Next to dia de los muertos and spaghetti western serapes, lucha libre is probably the most single, immediately-identifiable iconic symbol in Mexican culture. Even a person who doesn’t know Santo from Hurican Ramirez can immediately tell you what a luchadore mask looks like, and the fact that you’re bound to find at least a ripoff of a Rey Mysterio Jr. cowl at anywhere from your local temp-class Halloween costume shop to the booths at the Puyallup State Fair (Pravda!) says a lot about the degree to which that symbol has stretched itself across the American cultural landscape. The fact that your average wrestling fan only has a passing appreciation for what “la mascara” actually means to its native culture is an interesting proxy when it comes to calaveras: on a skin-deep level, there isn’t much difference between the workaday appreciation of, say, Psicosis’ old 90’s-era WCW mask and what most people think of a sugar skull. It’s exotic, it’s interesting, and it looks badass on a t-shirt… but to stop there doesn’t really give just how truly profound that aesthetic and cultural “coolness” really is.

Suffice it to say that there’s plenty of virtual ink spilled on the tradition of the lucha mask, so I’ll spare the sharing of my own watered-down Cliff’s Notes version of that summary: instead, I’ll just use this opportunity to comment on how the pursuit of authenticity is problematic when it comes to actually selling a piece like this, since—to the lay person, anyway—it comes off as being really damn confusing.

 

Uno… dos… tres… PALMADAS!

For a lucha aficionado, the  basic premise is fairly self-evident: with the mask of a conquered foe firmly in fist, El Payaso Gigante, here, enjoys a moment of violent victory. For some reason, I remember seeing tons of images in this vein when I was a kid, taken from such venerable Mexican wrestling venues as Arena Naucalpan (on postcards, even!): a pair of bloodied, barely-conscious man-hulks trying to rip the eyeholes out of each other’s sacred mascaras, with both fans and officials staring on in bloodthirsty amusement. In the traditional trenches of lucha libre, few things are more serious than a wrestler putting his mask up against another wrestler’s (The variations of this stipulation—hair versus hair, belt versus mask, and so forth—have similar gravitas, but nothing’s quite as potentially ruinous for a combatant’s career than the loss of their cowl, and the identity that it provides), and so—bingo, bango, bongo—we have the basis of the second in the loteria series.

 

Sustantivos, sustantivos, sustantivos.

La Mascara. Not a mask. The mask.

But, as noted above, something gets lost in translation, in terms of the depiction. People wonder why the guy’s got two masks; they don’t get why he’s missing a piece of his own. The iterative of “mascara” leads to assumptions that there’s eye makeup involved, which really shoots the works. Compared to the relative simplicity of this piece…

 

El Capitan.

… the efforts to really capture an essential aspect of something that I’ve loved the stuffing out of since I was a wee geek really works against it’s commercial appeal. The piece above, which was entitled Capitan Chiapas is—in hindsight, anyway—a less detailed and sophisticated piece of work (I had a hell of a time figuring out how to model a set of relatively anatomically-correct ribs, and getting them to stay put), with as generic a base as I’ve ever committed to a piece, but it sold—literally—within an hour of being put up on Etsy.

Ol’ EPG, on the other hand, has been sitting patiently at The Folk Tree for two weeks now, and was collecting dust on that same Etsy tip for at least a month and a half prior. It’s a classic case of how even the most seemingly infinitesimal differences in a basic premise can have a blunt-ended impact on a piece’s commercial prospects… but it also reminds me just how important it is to do what you want in this artistic arena, rather than trying to figure out what the heck people are actually going to be falling all over themselves to buy.

As the great Joel Hodgson once put it: “(We) never ask ourselves who’s going to get it… we always tell ourselves that the right people will get it.”

Words to live by; words to craft by.

Loteria Number Nineteen: La Pirata (The Pirate)

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(AUTHOR’S NOTE: The following post starts out with one of those weird-ass tangents about something that may or may not speak to the whole bonesmithing process, specifically the importance of numbers. As someone who hates math with a kerosene-burning passion, I won’t be all creaky or weepy if you just bump down to where the rest of the pictures are. Seriously, now.)

One of the biggest design-related pratfalls that I’ve had to contend with during my shift into making “commercial-caliber calacas” was coming up with some sort of uniform concept for the bases. I use the same standard three-by-five, off-the-shelf craft plaques that artists like Jerry Vigil and Clay Lindo do, but I’ve also bumped up against fundamental design issues when figuring out what the heck to do with them: is it enough to have a character standing on a street? Does it screw up the basic aesthetic (or hedge on offensiveness) if I use a flag motif? Should I try to incorporate some basic impression of a setting (i.e. floorboards, a carpet, a hopscotch game) or just try to separate it from the design of the figure, itself?

As I touched on during my meandering write-up about the La Revolucionaria piece, a lot of this was alleviated the moment that I came up with the loteria concept. This didn’t just give me a solid, brand-style “go-to” in terms of differentiating my work from that of my talented contemporaries (Much like Jerry’s preference for using a striking cobalt blue on his calaveras, there’s no mistaking a “Tamra Kohl skull” or a Nee “micro-sculpt.” In a medium where you’re basically all playing with the same half-dozen bones, having something that separates you from being just another person messing around with another culture’s tradition is pretty damn important, all said), but provided for another unexpected benefit: raw, unalloyed inspiration.

I can’t claim to know much about numerology, but I do know that numbers are sewn right into the fabric of who we are. The whirligig of life only stops occasionally for birthdays, anniversaries, death-dates and other points of interest, the majority of which are stapled firmly into our consciousness through the indelible presence of a number: I may not remember what color my shirt was on the night of my first kiss with the woman who would eventually become my wife, but I can tell you that it happened thirteen years ago, on November the 16th. Memories slip, feelings fade, but numbers—once committed—do not slide.

That being the case, the use of a number—simple as it seems—has become something to strike sparks off of. For example, this piece: originally intended to just be a “lady pirate” (Inspired from the Anne Bonney frescos that were once in the Pirates of the Caribbean ride queue at Disneyland) it instead turned itself into a gift for a longtime friend, based on little more than the question of what its designated numero would be.

“A dolly? The surprise is a dolly?”

Sequentially, it would have been number five, in the series. But in terms of impressing a specific point—that being the fact that I had known the person in question for nearly twenty years—it suddenly seemed more appropriate to brand it as number nineteen. At this point, I’m still clinging to the silly vanity that I’ll be able to make it to the century mark with these suckers, someday: as such, each number should only wind up being used, once.

19.

Nineteen won’t get a better or more-deserving shake, which sealed it: as a result, I completely changed the character’s design and shifted gears from it being a generic conversation piece to a tailor-made token of my appreciation for a nearly life-long friendship. As a new mom, “Captain TEC” wound up cameo-ing her lovely baby daughter, along with another earmark of our mutual, geeky interest: a copy of the same Guybrush Threepwood voodoo doll that Ghost Pirate LeChuck is brandishing on the cover of the original Monkey Island 2 game box. The simple inclination of changing a number breathed an entirely new degree of life into what would have been just another skeleton in search of someone to love it, which—as I’ve rambled on about before—is one of those things that keeps you going, as an artist. Ebb or flow, you can at least count on the gratitude of the people you care about to keep your levels of inspiration on the up-and-up.

Another bonus: making these for friends means that they probably won’t send them back. On some days, that’s a cause worth fighting for.

The Bonesmith’s Union: Jtnee’s Ode to Django Reinhardt

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Jody Travous Nee–or Jtnee, as her Etsy faithful know her as–has been one of my favorite artisans for a while and a half, now. Aside from the endlessly quirky creations that she’s constantly milling out (Seriously; her work output–and the quality that she somehow maintains while doing so–puts even the heartiest and hardcore craftsfolks to shame), the fact that she specializes in sculpture that’s truly palm-size is something that I’m constantly amazed by. And while she doesn’t exclusively deal in dia de los muertes fare, she nevertheless rocks the genre with her occasional pieces which feature one of her token characters–“Mr. Muerte”–in a number of poses and purposes. In the link below, he’s channeling the late gypsy guitar maestro, Django Reinhardt:

Heeere’s Django. Or a 1/20th version of him, anywho.

Jody’s cavalcade of half-pint masterbits can be enjoyed at her Etsy headquarters, here. Definitely worth a look for anybody who loves them some calacaliciousness, or just well-crafted fare for decorating one’s desk.

5Qs with Tamra Kohl of Clay Lindo

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Oye! Dead Deco puts the pedal down for five questions with one of my all-time favorite purveyors of the modern muerte arts: go on with your bad bonesmithin’ self, Tamra.

Dead Deco

We, at Dead Deco, love to hear different experiences and opinions related to the Day of the Dead.  Every week, we offer a segment called 5Qs in which we take the opportunity to share some insight into an artists opinions of Muerte Art, Calavera Culture and Dia de los Muertes.  This week we have a special guest from the world of sculpture: Tamra Kohl of Clay Lindo.

Dead Deco:  Thank you for taking a moment during this exceptionally busy time of year to answer our five questions.  Before we begin, Tamra, we would like to first say that we appreciate your wonderful talent and the way you are contributing to this longstanding Day of the Dead sculptor tradition.  How did you first learn about the Day of the Dead?

Tamra Kohl:  I spent all of my childhood summers in a trailer…

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Loteria Number One: La Revolucionaria (The Revolutionary)

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When it comes to cobbling together calaca-related inspiration, I pretty much take on the countenance of some creepy-ass character from an old “Hammer Studios” horror flick. I’m constantly marauding around in the shadows of pop culture, traditional bonesmithery and anything I happen to stagger into on a day-to-day basis; whether fantastic or fundamental, the sparks for a new piece can be struck off of pretty much anything, as long as the light’s right.

Of course, that isn’t always the case. In regards to my first loteria piece—La Revolucionaria—the visual was pretty much spoon-fed straight off of the page, courtesy of a book on Mesoamerican culture that I happened to get a hold of during a visit to (yup) The Folk Tree. The picture depicted a Chiapan woman brandishing a club in one hand and leading her toddler around with the other, both sporting the “neckerchief/balaclava” trappings of the EZLN group. It was a striking photograph, and I immediately started putting it together in my head for a sculpt, but—when it came time to start laying down clay—I actually found myself moderately conflicted about the depiction, itself.

(Author’s note: the editorial gibbering about said conflict will be explained below, but—out of awareness that you might not find that kind of gringo-centric ranting and raving to be the least bit interesting—I’ll spare the intrigue and just provide the pictures of Mama Zapatista below, for your enjoyment. More text, after the snaps.)

The Revolutionary, front-on.

The Revolutionary, straight-up.

The Revolutionary, back-aways. This was my first time using a new “sculpted pleat” technique for the dress, which turned out to be an interesting experiment.

Anyway, the heart of the second-guessing relates to a fundamental issue, and one that I’ve been fortunate enough to find myself in an ongoing discussion with, over at the Dead Deco blog. Put in brass-tacks terms, there’s a certain degree of what feels like lame-ass exploitation in trying to iconize the EZLN’s culture war; it’s easy to slap Comandante Marcos on a t-shirt or drape your Che flag over that pot-leaf flag you’ve got on your dorm room wall, but few people—and myself included, objectively speaking—have the slightest inkling what the hell the finer points of that conflict involve, or could even find Chiapas on a map of the Americas.  To just take the most surface aspect of that revolutionary movement—the raw visual—and slap-dash it onto a Hot Topic keychain irks me not so much on some level of overly-concerned consumer activism, but rather just from a position of piss-poor taste.

So. Not to gut a good diatribe-in-the-making, I eventually settled on making the piece, albeit from an interpretive standpoint. It was originally going to have the EZLN’s “red star logo” on its base, but after some thought, I figured that it would be better to strip down the symbolism to something simple: revolutionary, not as a regional concept, but in its barest essence. It’s a piece that speaks to the badass qualities of women everywhere, the didactic of a mother and a warrior woman, and the notion that anybody can rise up against the evils that they’re beset by, even if doing so means strapping your kid to one hip and brandishing a Kalashnikov in the other.

… like so.

(Author’s note: La Revolucionaria is currently part of The Folk Tree’s dia de los muertos exhibition, which will be running from tomorrow through November 4th. For those of you in the greater Los Angeles area, I would give this a five-star, A+, getcha-there endorsement for a stopover, if you’re interested and able.)

The Bonesmith’s Union

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Dead Deco spots some digital ink on the state of the “muerte arts” union, and shares a bit of our ongoing exchange on the calavera culture…

Dead Deco

Comrade's CalacasWhat a great week on Dead Deco.  We heard from Laura Barbosa on 5Qs about her Day of the Dead paintings and the growing popularity of this holiday on the New Jersey shore.  On Tat Tues, looked at some interesting matching finger tattoos and investigated their meaning.  This week, our editor & chief, mr.Lou, shared some insight into his personal attempt to hand make every piece of art for hisofrenda this year.  T-shirt Thursday was made extra special this week by announcing Dead Deco‘s pledge to donate all profits from the sale of our “Calavera Help” shirt to SAY Sí.

Dead Deco was inspired to take action for SAY Sí, a nonprofit that provides year-round free art education to kids, because of a recent comment by Comrade’s Calacas of the Bonesmith’s Union.  The comment was written in response to our posting from…

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