Far be it from the Anglo geek to go sounding off on the finer points of culture-gutting, but… really, Mouse House? Really?
Paging Mr. Lou. Mr. Lou, you have a call to arms at the front desk.
Far be it from the Anglo geek to go sounding off on the finer points of culture-gutting, but… really, Mouse House? Really?
Paging Mr. Lou. Mr. Lou, you have a call to arms at the front desk.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
(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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.)
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.
(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.)
I was contemplating doing something Halloween-themed this year, but–thanks to the endless talent and unparalleled quirkiness of Ms. Tamra Kohl–the holiday’s calavera-related needs have been effectively handled:
The piece is currently up for auction at eBay, and the opening bid is WAY too low. Check it out at the following link!
If there’s one lesson that I’ve really taken to the chin in the last two years, it’s that the actual process of creation is only one minor, finite aspect of the whole artistic identity. That isn’t to imply deep and profound realizations on the soul of expression or even some sense of newly-minted creative confidence, but—in giving myself at least a spoonful of credit—I have to say that I’ve become more at peace with the ups and downs that this craft brings with it in recent months than I have… hell, maybe ever. A lot of that has to do with being blessed by great support from the usual suspects, but a lot of it also has to do with the ongoing process of making these things for loved ones.
There’s a decided similarity between struggling towards consistent, artistic credibility and having your creative Id repeatedly donkey-punched, as I’ve found. One month, you can’t do anything wrong: you make the right pieces, you sell the lights out, and you make those deeply-rooted connections with your local community that only a really resonant art show can bring.
Then, two weeks later, you find yourself with cluttered shelves and a serious case of doubt in not only your abilities, but also your judgment. You glare warily at the crap you’ve put together, and wonder what the hell compelled you to believe that anybody in their right mind would ever cough up a nickel for something like that. You hem and haw and swear that you’re done with trying to impress your imaginary constituency (Much like Homer Simpson shaking his fist at “the people who don’t live there!”), and then—like clockwork—you trip over your principles and find yourself furiously winding the whole thing up again, slashing up clay and twisting wires at 3AM on some Tuesday morning.
But it’s those bounce-back times that always wind up being a good excuse to knock out a personal piece. The unsolicited, unexpected expression of appreciation for a friend or family member; that shot in the eyeballs that one needs to get out of the muck, and back onto the ol’ bone-horse.
In the case of today’s throwback—from about a year ago—the means really did dress the ends nicely. Exhausted from work, finding absolutely no joy in the usual creative outlets, I wound up finally cashing in on that one calaca that I’d been saving for a rainy day: the inevitable diorama that I’d been promising my sister for months.
As probably goes without saying, this piece went from being a relatively manageable calaca-built-for-one to the monster wall-hanging seen here. The base is about 10”x7” with a custom (and badly) scrolled piece of pine serving as the backdrop; additional to that was the insidiously detailed assembly required for each “kart.” As you can likely guess, each piece was inspired by those long and forever-lost hours of hitting each other with SNES controllers while playing endless Mario Kart tourneys among friends.
It should also confirm that despite that being twenty years ago, my sister and I are apparently the same self-referential, ridiculous knobs that we’ve always been. For a relationship that’s defined the better part of my life, nothing short of total excess would do, and—looking back—the resulting creative high that came with actually succeeding at building this thing was enough to fuel my absurdist pursuits for another full year. Even divided by miles and decades, making somebody you care about happy is one of the most potent weapons at a person’s disposal… whether it’s the art of expression, or just the ol’ art of being alive and kicking.
With the completion of El Organillero, I officially had four of my five pieces set, and just needed to settle on a design for the last sculpt. I’d been kicking around a couple of lucha-inspired throw-ins, as well as some more Victorian-inspired fare; however, with nine days left, that need to once again kick and punch at the edges of my previous design experience started doing their thing.
And this, of course, led to a series of increasingly ambitious (see: dumb) decisions that culminated with the creation of Loteria Number Three: La Pitonisa.
It should be noted here that I am not—and let me repeat that, with a gratuitous degree of italic emphasis: not—anything resembling a woodworker. I can barely cut a straight line with a jigsaw, and the previous cabinet and wall-mounted creations that I’ve dabbled in have consisted of more pine putty than actual plank-age. So the fact that I apparently figured that a ridiculously intricate wood-and-glass-housed calaca was something that REALLY needed to happen is, in sad admission, totally par for course.
Miraculously, however, the design actually worked. It consisted of a ton of basswood strips and half-finished sections being laid out, cussed at and then re-worked, but—with just two days to go until shipping time—I was actually in damn fine shape. Painting took another day and a half (Again, my hands are limited in terms of what they can do with a brush… and of course, my day job opted to become absolutely savage over the course of that 48 hours), and I was still curing the glue when it came time to start packing the pieces up in their little cardboard shipping coffins, but I had done it. I’d accomplished something that was, in acknowledgment of my limited skills, really flippin’ cool.
And then, of course, it happened.
I looked up from filling a box with packing peanuts, just in time to catch a single, solitary bead of what appeared to be Gorilla Glue lazily teasing a slide down the inside of the center plexiglass pane. I made a sound sort of like an ostrich chick (presumably) and lunged for the piece, fumbling for my Goo-Gone and a clean paper towel. The top of the casing needed to be cut loose, but—by Godfrey—I managed to get the glue before it hardened. Sagging with relief, I replaced the lid portion and re-fixed it, before touching up a few cracks and chips with a new coat of paint.
And then, of course, it happened. Again. I glanced up and realized that for some reason that I can only assume was chemical or karmic in nature, the Goo-Gone had somehow dried onto the glass in a single, hideous smear. It had only lifted the glue itself, but had apparently fused with the rest, which resulted in this:
“Oh, it’s not so bad,” I muttered. “I can still do this.”
And so I carried on. I made it about halfway to the post office before abruptly kicking myself in the ass, the recognition coming on in fast and loose fashion that the Folk Tree merited nothing less than THE best. Smear or not, the piece was flawed; consequently, it found itself completely gutted from the waist up, new glass and wood fashioned to fit the design, and—a day later than I’d hoped for—snatched up by our friendly neighborhood PO-folks and shuttled on its way.
If nothing else, this entire debacle was a great indication of how my artistic mentality has changed in the last year, or so. Time was that a splatter of paint or a hairline crack were worth a quick patch-up with glue and an assumption that whoever received the sculpt would know better than to tug on its head too hard… but now and again, I’ve proudly taken that possibility to the chest, and treat every potential flaw as something to be considered and bested during the design phase.
It’s not worthy of being called a brand yet, but it feels like it’s getting closer and closer by the day.