Tag Archives: calvera

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


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.

Loteria Number One: La Revolucionaria (The Revolutionary)


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.)

Sibling Revelry (2011)


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.

… gloriously goofy as it may be.

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.

Kart One: The “Silverfire 6000.” Front view.

Kart One: The “Silverfire 6000.” Rear-view.

Kart Two: The “Cannibal Twin-8.” Front View.

Kart Two: The “Cannibal Twin-8.” Rear view.

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.

If you gotta say it, say it with a mush-slap and a Bob-omb.

Loteria Number Three: La Pitonisa (The Fortune Teller)


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:

Q-bert: @#&?!

“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.

… pay no attention to that dope in the reflection.

It’s not worthy of being called a brand yet, but it feels like it’s getting closer and closer by the day.

Loteria Number Four: El Organillero (The Organ Grinder)


So, after about a year of being outward bound and completely consumed by an ongoing junkie-trip with work, I find myself not only slowly reeled back towards the bedrock of artistic expression, but—bim, bam, zap—also, this blog. There’s a lot of water to tread in going through the wheres and whats of the last fourteen months, but rather than commit an undue amount of text to yammering on about such, I think I’ll just nip straight to the nines and share a bit about what’s currently cluttering up my workshop display shelves and the too-cramped interior of my skull.

First and foremost is the matter of The Folk Tree. For those of you who aren’t privy to the cultural hotspots of my one-time hometown—Pasadena, California—The Folk Tree is an imports and folk art shop located just a few blocks removed from the ol’ Route 66 arterial of Colorado Boulevard.

Actually, let me amend that: it’s not “an” import store. Rather, it’s the import store. If there exists a shrine to the greatest of the Oaxacan arts that rivals this particular shop, then I’ve never seen it; it’s an unequaled emporium for the lover of the Mexican folk arts, which—in an area which is stewed in the glory of said culture—is really saying quite a bit. The Folk Tree’s annual dia de los muertos exhibition is as close to a Super Bowl/Pimms Cup/Video Armageddon as exists in this artistic sub-set, and so I was mildly shocked when they responded favorably to including my work with that of fifty other blank-shot brilliant creative talents. I wanted to buckle down and make a serious go at expanding my profile and bettering my work, but I didn’t expect to start at the contextual nose-end of Mount Crumpit in terms of making that happen.

In any case, this brought out the defining question of the last two weeks: what makes the proverbial cut, when it comes to the five works that I’d be contributing? I just rolled out the Loterias label a month or so ago—a more traditional brand of sculpture, having decided to get over geekery commissions for the time being; they maintain an excellent profile in terms of notice but do gash-all when it comes to actually selling—but this show requires more than simply shrugging off existing inventory. It demands something ambitious, something that captures that suitably smack-dab line between the creepy and comedic, and something which will stand out in an exhibition absolutely sagging with the crema de la crema.

So I thinks to myself: how about something relating to an organ grinder? That’s culture-ready, speaks to the kitschy Victorian and the essentially Latin (being that Mexico City is one of the few locales on the face of the planet where this particular street-show fare is still a viable trade).

Then I suddenly get an odd, dull spark of recollection, which brings me to this…


Tamra, Tamra, Tamra. If there’s a standard of brilliance for this form, then you’ve met its equal at the link above; she was one of the most supportive voices in encouraging my own commercial work, and—in a genre which is littered with sub-par crap, undersculpted junk and plenty of “hey, put some skull paint on that thing, and it’ll be DAY OF THE DEAD-Y!”—she commands a level of respect that’s absolutely unparalleled.

She also apparently has the same malformed sense of humor that I do, since we wind up skidding around in the same circles in terms of our subject matter. Circus freaks? Yes. Creepy clowns frightening children? Yep. Organ grinders? Oh, f’sho.

In any case, I would sooner chop off a toe than replicate anything that was done by Clay Lindo (and done perfectly, it might be added), so I went back to the drawing board. Which, in this case, apparently just involved standing on my head and turning things around in a very slight creative clockwise direction…


Ta-da. Professor Lurio and his partner in panhandling, Mono Joe.


The idea of a giant organ-grinder monkey was admittedly not some stroke of random inspiration, but actually owes itself to last year’s Halloween celebration; that would be me on the left, and—in a giant Day of the Dead monkey costume—my younger sister.

But in any case, this does well in demonstrating how those creative cogs can click and clack, resulting in a deluxe Loteria entry that turned out to be surprisingly easy to sculpt… unlike the OTHER mondo piece that wound up being created for The Folk Tree show.

Which I will be happy to gripe about in over-verbose fashion in very short order.

Scott Pilgrim vs. The Day of the Dead (2010)


You come across an interesting development, as you get older; the artistic heroes that you held so dear in your chrysaline stages of youth age right along with you, and the results aren’t always pretty. Ask any wayward love-child of the nihilistic media backwash of the mid-nineties how the latest Kevin Smith film was, and you’ll likely get a faceful of insta-heat comments about the myriad ways in which the poor bastard has gone from the defining auteur of his era to an irrelevant, balding bop-’em bag.

Short version of the above statement: it gets tougher and tougher to find artists worth believing in, as the years churn on. Which isn’t to strike some gauche’ pose about how all the greatest songs were written before 2003, or how there hasn’t been a decent novel on store shelves since Pahalniuk lost his stroke… creative and commercial appeal are ultimately arbitrary concepts. Intimate at their best, obstinate when they aren’t. We’re often left at a loggerheads between our gossamer, gold-jacketed memories of dream-state experiences that we had while staying up all night playing Mario Kart twenty years ago and the realization that nothing is ever going to make us feel that way, again. Or so we tell ourselves.

But anyway. Edgar Wright.

Wright is–more than Seth MacFarlane, more than Judd Apatow, and more than Fred Durst (aharharjoex)–the singular most effective spirit of the 90’s zeitgeist. Spaced was a hot-shot confection which hit the mid-waist of my viewing palette with the combined zing of a Jolly Rancher and the narrative weirdness of an E tab; Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz were like watching your five-year-old mash up a war between his Lego mini-men and a few of the old Kenner Star Wars figures… if you were able to keep up with the action through his own unfettered little stream of consciousness. Wright is a man who plays in his own sandbox with furious passion, and he does things as a visual narrator which defy explanation or analysis, let alone exploitation by other filmmakers.

So, it was no small wonder that I wound up making this, shortly after watching Scott Pilgrim vs. The World:

Up until this point, I had never had an urge to base a calaca on anybody else’s work. Everything preceding this point was either an original brain-bubble, or something crafted for a specific recipient; I’m not quite sure what the hell it was about Scott Pilgrim (aside from the obvious) that snapped that trend’s spine, but it wound me up in a new direction, artistically. I still work at a 3:1 ratio between commercially-oriented calveras and original pieces, but I find that the challenge of really doing a character justice–and not just mailing in some quarter-assed “HEY KIDS, YOU KNOW WHAT’S HOT RIGHT NOW? TEAM DIA DE LOS JACOB”–attention-grab is something entirely new.

Plus, it gives me an excuse to flip the script and indulge in my creepy, overbearing fan persona whenever the piece doesn’t sell, and I wind up trying to find ways to get it into the hands of the original creator… Mssrs. Lee O’Malley and Wright can consider themselves served with due notice.

The Juju Box (1999)


Prying back the hands of the cosmic clock a bit, this whole thing really began nearly a dozen years ago. My first foray into making calacas was the result of making a birthday present for my then-girlfriend, Jynx; I don’t think that I could convince anybody of my carpentry skills with a straight face, but I was stricken by this randomly weirdo concept of creating a box-style nicho.

I’m honestly STILL not sure how the hell I managed to put this thing together. I expected it to collapse or to crack around the edges within a month or two; however, eleven years later, it’s still sitting pretty on a shelf in our living room. It wasn’t until some time after I’d built it that I realized that there ISN’T a sub-genre of calaca that actually uses this type of diorama, which is odd, because I have a difficult time giving myself credit in coming up with something entirely unique, at least in terms of concept.

The box itself is painted with a Burton-esque checker pattern on the interior (The use of tessellated patterns is one of those “awhellihavenocluewhatI’mgoingtodowiththisbase”-type saves that never fails to look good, with this type of subject matter), and a lacquered purple and black zig-zag stripe on the outside. In what can only be termed another totally random decision, I opted to place a hinged hatch in the top of the box itself:

And as an amusing aside about just how damn sweet my actual hands-on skills were at this point, it can be noted that the figures are seated… due to the fact that I couldn’t figure out how to sculpt them in a standing position. Seriously. The armatures consisted of bent paper clips, which weren’t even braided; thank goodness I went with a basic, non-polymer clay, or I would have wound up gluing the individual bits and bobs together in some Frankenstein-ian fashion.

Of course, I gave Jynx some line about how the sitting pose was intentional, so that our skeletal proxies would be staring into each others’ eyes for all eternity… which I don’t think she bought, but which also didn’t stop her from marrying me.