What can I say? My Muse has a mind of her own.
This is Toby. He's a Bird Dog. Once upon a time I was pretty well known for clay critters like Toby.
Recently, I got an email from Toby's owner who explained that Toby has been a cherished member of their family for many, many years. The owner's son’s real-life dog was even named after Toby––and if that isn’t a Velveteen Rabbit moment, I can't say what is.
The owner shared that Toby’s life experiences had taken a toll. Toby had withstood curious grand-child hands, plethoras of enthusiastic pets, and three separate household moves . Toby's Bluebird of Happiness' tail-feathers had been snapped off multiple times, and finally, during the last move, Bluebird cracked clean off Toby’s nose. Toby’s owner wanted to know: could Toby be fixed?
Just to clarify, by “fixed” Toby's owner meant “repaired” and, as a long-time supporter of Sacramento’s SPCA, I feel it’s important to highlight this distinction.
I asked if Toby could come to my studio and we’d see what might be done.
When Toby arrived later that day my first thought was, "Damn! He looks pretty darn good for an old dog." His tag told me that he’d left my studio in 2002––which would make Toby about ninety-something in dog years yet , ironically, a mere pup in pottery years. Fun fact: the earliest known crockery dates back 20 millennia to what archeologists refer to as the Upper Paleolithic or Late Stone Age Period.
After a brief examination––let’s call it a CAT scan, or would you prefer Toby’s “Lab” report?––besides the overall fading of his original copper color, the tip of Toby’s ear, one eyebrow, and part of his tail had been "docked", Bluebird had no tail feathers, one of her toes was missing, and her beak had been badly chipped.
Artistic choices were made. As Toby's coat had faded to a lovely shade of platinum-gold, I decided not to return him to his original copper. Besides, isn't it unnerving when old-timers dye their hair to the colors of their youth? To my eye, it rarely translates well.
My final thought: years from now, when all of us are dust, might a future archeologist unearth Toby-shards and wonder about the civilization that produced him? Who can know? What I do know is this: as a living artist I’m grateful that a creation of mine has been loved both long and well. It was a pleasure to assist in Toby's preservation.
About a month ago, I got a call from my sister-in-law’s youngest sister.
“I have this friend Nick,” Bethany began,“His wife, Suzy, is the sweetest, kindest person in the world and they have twin daughters who were born on Suzy’s birthday. I know! Can you believe that? What are the odds? Anyway, Nick was saying Suzy’s so devoted to being their mom it’s like she doesn’t get to have her own birthday anymore and Nick wants to do something really special for her this year. He wants an artist to…”
I suggested directing Nick to my website and, if he liked my work, he might contact me. Nick emailed the very next day. Nick wrote that Suzy loved all things Day of the Dead and what he was hoping for was her portrait in full Day of The Dead regalia … and he needed that painting to fit into a 36” x 28” niche.
“Hmm,” I said, “that’s an odd size and I don’t stretch canvas but maybe there’s a work around. Are your okay with gold leaf and rhinestones?” Nick said the Magic Words.
“You’re the artist. I trust your judgment.”
Here's the work-around I came up with: one 24” x 24” canvas flanked by three 8” x 8” canvases. Suzy’s portrait would fill the big canvas and the three smaller canvases would be sugar skulls. As you can see from this mock-up on the floor of my studio, they nicely fill the 36” x 28” footprint. (Yes, visual pun intended.)
Once Nick gave the thumbs up I put on my smock. I started with black underpainting. Then I did a rough sketch of Suzy. Gold leaf came next. Then the portrait. Didn’t quite nail the angle of the head but, in my defense, I was working from a teeny tiny image and hey, it’s art, and art is subject to the artist's interpretation. Then I started in on the sugar sculls: black underpainting again, gold leaf, and iridescent pearl acrylic layered with glass bead gel, for texture and luminescence.
So far so good! Now for the embellishing. Nick said that red roses were Suzy’s favorite flower so that’s how I came up with her crown, Then I worked on her “make up”. I used pearl and glitter dimensional fabric paints for the facial tattoos because I wanted the textural quality, then I hand applied scads of tiny colorful rhinestones to the golden ribbons flowing from her crown. "Crystalizing” the sugar sculls followed after that.
The red background that I’d floated around the sugar sculls didn’t work as well as I thought it might so I covered it up with more gold leaf. (No, there’s no such thing as too much gold leaf.)
Below: the completed “La Raina de Dia de Muertos” with Suzy and Nick. Happy birthday, Suzy! And The Thoughtful Husband of the Year Award goes to ...
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