Monthly Archives: November 2012

Dia de los Perros: Back in the Lab

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With the cliff in full effect–and the readership for both this blog and the CCFBHQ effectively dropping somewhere in the collective neighborhood of 98.9% in the last four days–I’m getting my shoulder back into the ol’ grindstone, and fighting of the murky malaise of Seattle’s impending winter by going full-tilt boogie into a new set of sculpts. The short-term is to keep my hands busy and my brain in some state of forward movement, while the big picture motives stem from the fact that I’ve been invited to take part in The Folk Tree’s “Hearts and Flowers” show, coming up in February. I really couldn’t have asked for a better kick in the ol’ culo proper than being included in another of their exhibitions, though it once again puts the impetus on hitting the ol’ slab and going back to work on improving the tensile strengths of my materials.

Of and by themselves, the sculpts are built solid enough: my armatures have give, but aren’t too flexible. The figures generally stay put, even years after being run off the line. They’re showroom safe, but–as proven by the USPS’s absolute demolition of my submissions for the FT show in October–are prone to cracks, bending and other unpleasantries while in any kind of extended transit. To frame it with fuzzy math: the more detailed, the more likely they are to get busted up. And as I’m planning some double-wide deluxe stuff for the V-Day jamboree, this is definitely priority one for the foreseeable future.

So, today was all about trying my hand at using polymer clay. Traditionally, I’ve avoided the stuff: it smells, it’s unwieldy, and the prohibitive curing process busts up my sculpting rhythm and “keep both hands a-movin’!” working aesthetic. However, as the work of some of my contemporary bonesmiths can attest to, it’s also fifty times stronger than even the sturdiest air-dry fare, which brings us to… this.

One part Premo Sculpey. One part Sculpey Original. Wended and mashed together with a pasta presser, applied to a standard CC-custom armature and baked for the prerequisite 15 minutes at 275 degrees, proper:

um.

 

So, aside from this being my initial reaction…

… it appears that I’m going to have a busy weekend NOT burning the flippin’ house down. The one upside is that I intended for this body to be nothing but a glorified test case, but–after this little happenstance–I think I know exactly what I’m going to turn it into. Inspiration, even amidst the asphyxiating napalm-stink of fried plastic fibers!

 

How I Spent My Day of the Dead: ddlm ’12.

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If there’s one great tragedy to my life as an artist, then it would have to be the fact that I was born and raised in the quiet shadows that preceded today’s digital filmmaking revolution. I don’t languish too heavily on what never was, but coming from a family of hearty industry folks was a primo motivator to delve awkwardly into the world of film at an early age: an enthusiastic full-bore charge that was squashed neatly by the dueling realities of cost and the steep learning curve that came with fumbling over yards and yards of 8mm celluloid.

In the consequent years, I hopped in and out of the medium through film school, scriptwriting projects and the occasional embarrassing no-budget gambit, but always wound up getting ram-rodded into the same sticking points and hurdles. Cost. Time. Energy. A dyed-in-the-black-wool case of chronic misanthropy that made recruiting actors and ruthless self-promotion a constant uphill battle. In the end, the biggest problem with making a genuine go as a filmmaker was entirely personal in nature—I’m a viciously inhibited person, and that just doesn’t click with the required vernacular—but I still find myself lapsing into the soggy arena of the “what-wouldas,” from time to time.

Anyway, the whole point of this unspooling confessional does have something to do with calacas, though that connection requires six steps back before actually pushing forward. The short of it is that in my civilian life, I teach video production and visual narrative to high schoolers, among other academic dalliances; as such, I’m blessed with a constant whit of inspiration from seeing these kids taking flight with their own creative compulsions, while being frequently laid flat on my ass by how worthless and antiquated my years of “technical experience” are, in comparison to what sort of weapons these students have at their disposal.

For a sobering—if not entirely self-indicting—idea of how this dynamic has worked: I’ve been teaching this stuff for three years, and wound up making my first all-digital short six weeks ago. It took a Herculean effort on the part of my new class (and plenty of verbal noosing, courtesy of how often I’m prone to prattling on about how “good they’ve got it, what with their HD and their smartyphones and their whatnots…”) to get me to even give it a shot, but the end result was… educational, on quite a few levels.

So: when it came to summarizing the three days I spent circulating between muertos-related events in California, I decided to throw my back out with another swing at the same fences. The practicum for this month’s exercise was “motion,” which—as the film below demonstrates—I did what I could with.

 

 

The second half of the video was spent at the ofrenda and birthday celebration for my dearly departed and always-remembered compatriot, Nick Michael Papac. It’s been seven years since his untimely passing, and his parents have held this event dutifully ever since; my sister and I—who were closest to Nick in our pre-teen and teenage years, and who only kept in spotty contact afterward—have been intending to go for quite some time, and finally decided that it was “here and now or never,” in making the trip.

I can’t really convey how happy I am that we were able to attend. To see someone celebrated not only by the people they knew at the time of their unexpected passing—but to also have those in attendance from five, ten, twenty years prior—puts a lot into perspective. This was the first time that I’ve ever contributed to the ofrenda of someone that I knew personally, but it really meant more than simple words can do justice to.

It’s also tough to type about, at the moment. So I’ll leave it here, and spell out the rest on a sunnier day.

The Bonesmith’s Union: Melanie’s Menagerie and the Danse Macabre of the DEADutante’s Ball

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As we slide neatly across the waist of the halfway point of dia de los muertos observances and prepare to pull the curtain on The Folk Tree’s seasonal exhibit, I’m reminded once again of just how fortunate I’ve been over the last few months. In addition to the explosive promotional gains that the Comrade’s Calacas FB Group has been making, there’s the fact that this blog’s resurrection has put me in touch with an entire cadre of fascinating artists and editors, the inspiration from which has helped tremendously in terms of dealing with the inevitable “off-season” that the muerte arts typically take throughout the winter months.

One such fellow bonesmith is Melanie Nord-Monsees, or–as she’s known in her Etsy circles–Melanie’s Menagerie. I was unfamiliar with Melanie’s work before firing myself back into the blogosphere in August, but I’ve become quite a fan of her style in the time since: as I’ve mumbled on about before, calacas and calaveras are an artistic genre that’s easy to pick up, but extremely difficult to personalize in any profound or intriguing fashion. There’s only so much that a sculptor or painter can do with a human skeleton, which means that a considerable amount of “day of the dead” artisans are content to simply slap some candy-skull detailing on their work and call it qualified; it fits the bare minimum requirement to compel the observer or buyer to acknowledge what it’s supposed to be, but not much else.

la bella morte.

Melanie’s work, on the other hand, is completely unique and truly elegant. Much like a Clay Lindo diorama, there’s no mistaking the deft touch of the creator when canvassing her offerings: her characters are meticulously sculpted and beautifully dressed, with equal attention paid to both the delicate build of her calaveras and their shelf-ready aesthetic. Like the best bonesmiths, she maneuvers effortlessly between the gleeful and the ghoulish, and is seldom content to painting herself into just one corner of the genre.

la diabolita.

I would wholeheartedly invite you to check out Melanie’s Etsy offerings here, and to give her blog a due read-over, if you’re in the market for some entertaining insights into her process. Good stuff abounds.

Comrade’s Commentary: The Who of It (and Why It Doesn’t Matter)

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EDITOR’S NOTE: I actually wrote this piece about a month ago–while sifting through the mush of what was left of my brain and preparing to book my tickets to California for The Folk Tree’s exhibition–and then promptly forgot about it, in the midst of the hubbubbery of the weeks that followed.

As I don’t really have much profundity left in the tank for today–but would like to light my candles for the occasion, all the same–I’m going to go ahead and let loose with it, sans further revision. I think the point it makes is a sage one, and after having been heartwarmed by the wonderfully invested and encouraging reception in Pasadena (Including the sales of at least three of my featured pieces!), its basic premise ring-a-ding-dongs with a taste of truth. 

Mr. Lou and I have recently been kicking around the great question of artistic identity and credibility in relation to the “muerte arts” in the comments section of this fine blog, with one of the primary nuggets of discussion relating to my recent struggles to find a “resting place” for my work, especially in light of the upcoming holiday. I thought I’d take his kind offer to run with editorial talking-stick and expand on that experience a bit, as well as a few other related scattershot thoughts that I’ve scraped together on the topic.

As I’ve mentioned in my own blog, I’ve been graced with the chance to exhibit my work at The Folk Tree in Pasadena this year, which—for me—is equal parts homecoming, as well as the fulfillment of an artistic mission. For my dollar, there exists no other folk art entity so devoted to the betterment not only of international practitioners of the “dia de los muertos” art form and its numerous peer genres (Oaxacan sculpture, tinsmithing and native Mexican woodworking, for example), and my own interest in the craft can be traced back to the many afternoons that I spent there, wandering the aisles and staring, slack-jawed, at the curios on display*.

So with that duly noted, it may be a bit shocking that The Folk Tree was NOT my first choice, in terms of display queries… though not for the reasons that might immediately come stampeding forth. The blunt fact is that I didn’t think my work was good enough to sit alongside shelves reserved for the ofrendas of actual native artisans, jockeying for attention alongside the works of the contemporary Linares clan; this wasn’t due to some lapse in artistic confidence—not this week, anyhow—but rather the ongoing, craw-boning issue that I find myself facing as a self-identified Russian-American white guy who happens to be deeply and personally invested in what is, objectively speaking, an wholly “repurposed” form of international art.

It’s tough to talk turkey on this issue without feeling like I’m somehow struggling towards qualifiers**, honestly. It isn’t something that sits heavily on my conscience or which I try to infuse into my works; I love calacas because of what they represent in their most essential form (and because they’re one of the few forms of raw artistic expression that I’ve ever been truly good at), not because I’m deeply invested in the related trappings of sociopolitical stances and commentary. For me, the act of creation is a self-contained one: I sculpt for the sake of sculpting, and—more often than not—leave the conclusions to be drawn by the people who stop to take a look at the resulting work, be in in realtime or in the virtual arena.

This sense of autonomy is a luxury, though I’m prone to forgetting that… until reminded otherwise. This was the proverbial “tale of the tape” through late August and early September, as I went through the motions of contacting five or six local, Seattle-area folk art shops, and inquiring as to whether or not they would have any interest in including my calaveras with their dia de los muertos displays***.  In every case (Save for two whose business licenses require that they only sell legitimate import work), the initial contacts resulted in an expression of interest, all of which quickly dried up the moment that it was revealed that I was not only local, but not Hispanic. This wasn’t overtly or explicitly stated at any point (Hell, most of them just stopped responding to e-mails the moment that the cat was out of the bag), but the general feeling had a familiar kind of weight to it. In a sense of summary:

“Good for you, but that’s not really our thing…”

Now, let me take a moment to get the nines straight, in terms of this thinking. I don’t actually have any sort of issue with it, in bare principle; if the modus operandi of an individual who runs such a business is to exclusively show the work—whether based on appreciation of certain aesthetics, or a sense of investment in the international artistic community—of Hispanic artists, then that’s exactly what they should be doing. The highest possible function of an art gallery or folk arts importer is to expand their customers’ exposure to—and understanding of—outsider forms of expression, whether indigenous in nature or simply alternative in their creative aesthetic. And given the unparalleled amount of investment that this region provides for its Native artists, it’d be a qualified oversight to imply that the gallery culture, as a whole, was somehow lacking…

… but that doesn’t really do much to address the fact that the majority of the calaca-related pieces that are offered by these dealers have the care and craft of a deep-fried cerote****. I’d have absolutely nothing to get wound up about if the shelf space reserved for ofrendas and calaveras were being put to proper use, showcasing the creative fruits of legitimate bonesmiths: instead, they’re clogged up with dime-quality sweatshop garbage, overpriced and sloppy “worry-men” style skeletons, and the prerequisite liquid clay-injected catrinas, all obscenely “marked up” due to the fact that they’re “imported,” ostensibly from somewhere that’s, you know, not within driving distance. That’s worth at least a 35% gouge, right?

So, I don’t know. What this is all wending towards is the big question of what really constitutes a “legitimate” practitioner of dia de los muertes-related crafts. To look around Seattle, one can’t help but to come away with the overbearing sense that the city’s “profile” for a legitimate muerte artist—at least in terms of gallery and show cred—requires an appropriately exotic pedigree (or at least an address near Sonora), in order to make the cut… while in Southern California—the cradle of Chicano creativity, the greatest diaspora of Latino culture in this entire country and the epicenter of the Mexican-American rights movement—it’s the quality of the work that wins out, rather than the color of the artisan’s skin.

The brushstrokes being applied here are naturally broad, but it makes me thankful for the opportunities that I’ve been provided with. I love my city of endless rain and glorious gloom, but I won’t weep for the fact that there’s no support for what I do here: I’ll simply kick on like a tumbleweed, and send my little bonemen and bonewomen off to a sunny place where who I am is of less importance than the love I put into my work*****.

 

 

*This year’s show did not disappoint, in that regard: if you were to artfully smash up the eccentric fun of the Honeyduke’s candy shoppe from the Harry Potter flicks with some of the finest alebrijes and ofrendas imaginable, you’d get a good sense of just how cool this exhibition was. A huge nod of gratitude and mild awe to Gail Mishkin for what must have been an absolutely exhausting organization process.
**Much like some whiskey-tanned Arizonian who sports plenty of tarnished silver and turquoise and talks about the Latinos and Res folks that he’s “friends with” while casually voting Republican. It’s an absurd #whitepersonproblem, but is–nevertheless–something I find myself tussling with, routinely.
***The majority of which are basically the same displays that are up for the duration of the calendar year, with the addition of some slap-assed, poster-paint “DIA DE LOS MUERTOS!” sign tacked up over them. Having spent the recent holiday weekend cruising the Olympic Peninsula–and being staggered by the beauty of the tribal art galleries that are peppered along the main inroads between Sequim, Port Angeles and Forks–this bit becomes even more mortifying.
****There were only two exceptions to this apparent rule, both of which are nestled within the confines of the Pike’s Market sprawl (and both of which deal in quality goods, regardless of the season). At the very least, I can nose up all this highfallutin disgust by noting that Seattle’s most high-profile purveyors of Oaxacan goods saw fit to rise to the occasion in an appropriately festive fashion.
*****Which, in another note of ironic hindsight, may include at least one high-profile outlet on Olvera Street. In keeping with the unspoken trend of this trip, a casual conversation about las calaveras with the shop’s owner turned into a potential consignment opportunity. If there was an issue with my lumbering around the joint looking like an un-sunned sasquatch who happened to have Mexican folk arts on his resume’, then it certainly didn’t rear its head as an issue du jour.

Loteria Number Twenty-Eight: El Bolidor

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Now, that was a hell of a thing.

This time of year is seldom merciful to me and mine, as the combination of Halloween (practically a religious undertaking in this household) and dia de los muertos makes for flaming pu-pu platter of creative breakdowns, headcolds, and a metric crap-ton of other grandiose, art-related suffering. This year didn’t disappoint, and was exacerbated in particularly masochistic fashion by my decision to—in the middle of the mess—pry up my roots and head on down to Los Angeles for observations, ofrendas, and some too-short quality time with friends and loved ones.

I’m planning some sort of “maybe this will work and not come off like a thumbheaded moron trying to make magic happen with his smartphone’s video function”-type recap that I’m hoping to have put together by the weekend, but—barring that—it seems almost mildly blasphemous to let this occasion pass without at least ONE bit of calaca-related bloggadoccio.

So, the subject of today’s overwrought ranting is: 28.

28 happens to be  the age that I decided to go back to college. It’s sometimes the number of days in February. It’s a multiple of seven, which I think everybody can agree is a pretty damn cool number. It also happens to be the number of years that I’ve known the recipient of today’s featured sculpture, which I’ve opted to overreachingly entitle “El Bolidor.”

 

BA BOOM BOOM VA-ROOM

The piece represents Capital D, who I’ve known since I was about six years old. CD’s somebody who I’ve been blessed to grow up and around with, who’s always been a bonafide, true-blooded bud in every sense of the word. We came up on a steady diet of weird movies, video games, bleary-eyed sleepovers and were hardcore car-culture mutts well before we even got anywhere near our learner’s permits, which was where the genesis of this particular piece came from.

 

A little of that, a little of this, a little from here…

Occasional visitors of this bloghole might recall “Sibling Revelry,” from a few months ago: it’s an essential homage to a consistent theme of weird, go-kart related fascination that probably started with Mario Kart and has carried itself steadily through the decades that followed. Initially, I thought it would be awesome to somehow incorporate Bolidor into that diorama, somehow—a concept that likely stemmed from those old die-cast Kenner Star Wars deals that locked together to form awesome little playscapes  of Bespin and Hoth—but the realization that this would require us somehow all converging on a predetermined meeting spot with our calacas in hand was…. somehow offensively sobering.  It also resulted in Bolidor’s kart getting bigger. And bigger. And BIGGER. And somewhere in the mix, turning from a simple road-beast into some bizarre smash-up of Big Daddy Roth and the 1955 Chevy that D and I used to burn rubber around Pasadena in, during our misspent youth.

 

bolidor, con (badaduhduhduhduhdubbaduhduh) base.

Sharp and nerdy eyes will probably note the fact that the fender detailing resembles a Bullet Bill, and—rather randomly—the engine (and the artist’s complete lack of insight into what the hell one actually looks like, aside from when he’s filling up his wiper fluid) has somehow wound up incorporating pieces of the Ghostbuster’s proto-packs.

 

fwoosh.

You KNOW something’s on point when your geekish tendencies are on autopilot. Fortunately, Bolidor survived the trip to California and was presented lovingly during an ofrenda celebration for a mutual and dearly departed pal of ours, which somehow split the clouds of a frantic weekend and put a dovetail on the stresses surrounding the holiday. There was also a lot to love at The Folk Tree’s magnificent celebracion’ (Adios, El Organillero and La Revolucionaria: you’ve sold, and I couldn’t wish you better in your new home!), as well as during our daytrip to Olvera Street, which I hope to spill some virtual ink on in a future post.

In the interim—and while I’m shrugging off this migraine—here’s some assorted ephemera from the building process for this piece. A couple of folks have asked (both at the show and via FB) how I put these things together, to which I reply: “CAREFULLY AND OFTEN INCORRECTLY.”

 

to the side, to the side.

 

the goggles: a good excuse to try and use the rest of my Testor’s window-building epoxy.

 

also, a fine case in point: the first sculpt of this guy’s head somehow made him look like a tiki mask, once the goggles and hat were in place. I have NO idea how the hell I messed this up so poorly, but I’m also embarrassed to admit that I didn’t even notice until the arms and primer were on.
“Wait a second…”

 

q: what do colonel sanders and comrade have in common?
a: we’re both working on an eighteen-piece bucket.
(ohhhhwuh)