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Day of the Dead

What brought me here today:

I’ve made mention in recent posts, of Day of the Dead. Part of the reason I’d be writing about it is due to my creating skull pins that reference this celebration. While I lived in New Mexico, seeing decorated skulls and skeletons was not an uncommon thing. Even when it was not October or November, these motifs could be found around town. As an art teacher, I had several different lesson plans that I delighted in teaching during the month leading up to the November 1st and 2nd celebration.

I was confident that placing some Day of the Dead adjacent artwork in my online shop would result in some solid sales for me. This is not what happened. I’ve sold two, and given away one. For the life of me, I could not understand why the pins aren’t selling better. I mean, come on! They’re super cute! Everyone wants a skull with their name on it! Right?

Okay. Back up a bit:

When I moved to New Mexico in my middle 20’s I felt as though I was either moving to the moon, or another country entirely. New Mexico’s a fascinating place that’s easy to fall in love with. As I’ve grown older, I’ve noticed that I tend to place myself into new living situations in which I’m the newbie, or in the minority in some manner. I was sucked-in by the vibrant cultures that were so new to me. It was an amazing experience to have as a young person.

New Mexico was the right place for me to be at that time in my life. There was so much to learn and explore just in the arts. Artistic traditions from Mexico were just too vibrant to ignore. The use of colour was something that was an arrow straight into my creative heart. For me, what Sesame Street and 1970’s Fisher-Price toys started as it related to my personal colour sense, the artisans of Mexico sewed up neatly into a complete package.

Traditional artwork:

The influence of colour that Mexican artists and artisans have had on my art creation is not the only thing I admired. There’s an element of creating something beautiful out of something that’s not so beautiful. The use of recycled and upcycled materials speaks to the ingenuity and creativity of the artisans. It’s the “What do I have?” and “What can I make out if it?” mindset that I utilise myself.

Carton board and newspaper is made into dolls and paper mache sculpture. Including amazing masks and intricate nativity scenes. Tin and aluminum cans are turned into laterns, frames, and intricate ornaments. One of my favourite types of metal work is the folding nativity scenes.

Oxacan animal carvings are also an artform that has influenced me greatly. Again, the use of colour! The imaginative designs of each of the creatures! And then to find out that it’s a fairly recent artform as well. Wow. There are so many artists and pieces of art to discover. Go here and have some fun looking through the different artists and their artwork.


There’s so much more artists and types of artwork to discover in New Mexico. After writing that, I feel as though I need to make a distinction between Mexican and New Mexican art. You can’t just lump them together. They’re definitely related to one another. But there are distinct differences as well.

For instance,

Day of the Dead:

I need to acknowedge that I’m a white woman here. I cannot hope to adequtely explain the deeply held beliefs of the the peoples who have celebrated Day of the Dead in some form or another for centuries. At best, I see myself as a person who has a genuine interest and reverence for the celebration, culture, and the peoples to whom this celebration belongs.

You can understand why I don’t want to “white-splain” this celebration. When I feel as though I’m not knowledgable enough to adequately explain something to the readers of my blog, I add links. Wikipedia is something I use as a ‘jumping off point’ for subjects I may not know a lot about. Lateral reading is always needed before any real understand can be done concerning any subject. Then, trips to the libary and seeking out people who are part of the culture/are people who celebrate the Day of the Dead.

So, if you would like to start here at Wikipedia, it’s got some interesting information on how different Central and South American cultures celebrate Day of the Dead. If you’re interested in something that is more child-centered, with an activity, try here. There are also some cool websites like this one. This short video is also very good. It was created for a PBS affiliate.

Sausage and bones:

Now that you maybe know a thing or two more about Day of the Dead than before, let me tell you about my semester of student teaching at the high school level. Okay, maybe not the whole story. Perhaps just one thing. There was a student. He was a sophomore or junior (15 to 17-ish years old). This kid was ridiculously talented. I was in awe of some of the cartoons he’d just scribble off nonchalantly. His general attidude was in the crapper most of the time. He was a typical teenage boy in that regard.

One day, he drew this incredibly detailed pen drawing of skeletons on bicycles. The amount of depth that he acheived was insane. All along the winding hills the skeletons cycled on bikes. The path was lined with sharp, pointy sicks onto which large cartoonish sausages were skewered. The depth and detail drew me in. I remember asking him about the piece, and he blew me off. Oh, yeah. The kid detested me too.

Not long after seeing his drawing, I created my first skeleton doll. It was pretty simple. I used felt. The body was black. I appliqued the white bones onto the arms, legs, and head. The dress was bright red felt edged in burgundy, with appliqued sausages all the way around the bottom edge of the dress. I put a red bow on the top of her head. She also had little matching red panteloons, edged with burgundy felt. This doll wasn’t named.

Additional work:

This first skeleton doll was inspired by the cranky teenaged student who hated my breathing guts. Additional skeleton dolls took on more reference to the Day of the Dead types of skeletons I came into contact with. I honestly don’t know how many of these larger dolls (at least 40 cm; 18-20 in.) I created over the years. Some were gifted. There were times in which I was paid for them as well.

These larger dolls took so much time to create. I’m not sure that I would be up to doing this kind of work again today. Right now, the remaining 30 cm (12 inch) Day of the Dead inspired skeleton doll  have in my online shop is as large as I want to create dolls anymore. I like how intimate this size of doll is.

Back to the skull pins:

What I didn’t realize when I created the Day of the Dead inspired customisable skull pins is that not everyone is familiar with the Day of the Dead. Not everyone lookng at the items for sale in my shop are going to want a skull pin with their name embroidered on it. Hindsight would also make me think that not everyone wants to wear a giant name badge when out in crowds of strangers either.

For me, a Day of the Dead skull with my name on it is a beautiful reminder of how I’m part of earth. I have a life to live, and someday that life will come to an end. Just like everything and everyone who has come before me. And for everyone who will come after me. This is the only life that I have. So I’d better not waste it either. Soon enough, there won’t be any proof I ever lived besides maybe a few bones.

I don’t view this as scary, or macabre either. Death is just part of life. The very end part of life. It doesn’t always seem just or fair. Especially for those whom we love who have died too soon, or in pain. It’s an equalizer among humans though. No matter how rich, or beautiful, or smart you are. You’re going to die just like everyone else will some day. So yeah. A skull made of sugar and icing, with my name on it seems appropriate. At least to me.

So now what?

I hope that you enjoy some of the links that I provided above. And that they can prove useful in understanding the Day of the Dead a little better. As for me, I have a lot of work to do yet today. My fingers are itchy to start sewing.

Thank you for reading, and I’ll see you again next Tuesday.