Tag Archives: day of the dead

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)

 

 

 

 

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.

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: Clay Lindo’s “Joey and the Zombie”

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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:

Boo, sucka!

Run, bone-boy, run!

The piece is currently up for auction at eBay, and the opening bid is WAY too low. Check it out at the following link!

Joey and the Zombie!

Sibling Revelry (2011)

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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.