Donovan Richard knows how to get inside an artist's head. That's why he handed out 130 ceramic clay skulls he molded, cast and fired—for free. He asked artists to render the white skulls into a token of remembrance for a lost loved one to be enshrined in an altar. It's all part of a project titled A Day to Remember: Día de los Muertos, culminating at Downtown's Boro Gallery.
Richard says he was inspired to create the project about eight months ago when he was reading about Judy Chicago's collaboration with hundreds of artists in "the Dinner Party." Richard, a 33-year-old working to complete his fifth arts-related degree from CNM, says he saw Día de los Muertos as a perfect avenue for that sort of collaboration and artistic camaraderie. The day carries a good message, “not only to celebrate the remembrance of people that have passed away but also in the way that it brings families and friends together to celebrate instead of to mourn," Richard says. "I just thought that was a fitting way to bring artists together as well."
One of the participating artists is Kyle Erickson, who works primarily in cut stained glass mosaics. Erickson says while he doesn't have any close family members who've died, he used the predicament of his ailing grandmother as inspiration for his calavera. He talks about the strangeness of the hospital environment and how modernized inventions play into our lives. "I feel like sometimes technology is a hindrance,” he says, “but it's also needed and kind of beautiful at the same time.”
With this in mind, Erickson incorporated rusted metal parts into his piece. The eyes are made of old cable coils, and a cigarette dips from the skull's mouth in the form of an AA battery. An ornate puzzle of mostly white and red glass fragments are embedded in the skull with thin-set mortar. Erickson has knocked out some of the plaster teeth and replaced them with rusted bolts, and he’s bling-ed out the rest of the chompers with gold glass. The detail continues into the forehead, where bolts with circles of red glass form what looks like a receding mohawk.
Another striking piece comes from Nick Wahl, who's been working as a professional tattoo artist for 13 years. His skull is painted a deep, shiny, candy apple red, with gold eye sockets, gold teeth and a metal cross affixed to the forehead. On the back of the skull in graffiti-style calligraphy are the words pax vobiscum ("peace be with you"), something he remembers his father once quoting to him from Ivanhoe. The skull rests in a wooden altar with inset mirrors reflecting that post-mortal message. The altar is furnished with gold paint in the form of fleur-de-lis designs that give the piece a royal feeling. It's powerful—like beholding the temple of a great king.
Wahl grew up in North Hollywood, where he used to paint sugar skulls in the tradition of Día de los Muertos. But this piece was a new adventure for him. He says it's part Catholic-inspired, part homage to his dad, part hot rods and tattoos, and part voodoo. "I wanted to make something that was a zinger," Wahl says. "I wanted to integrate the cultural thing, the religious thing; the whole nine yards."
Richard began handing out the skulls in May. He financed the initial phase of the project completely out of pocket and is not asking artists for any commission, although the skulls will be on sale at Boro. Richard says he expects about 80 to 100 skulls at the opening. It’s a heady and ambitious undertaking, and probably the next best thing to a trip to the Paris Catacombs.