Saturday Studio: Not-So-Spooky Skeletons

Galeena Gephart, FWMoA High School Intern

As we near the end of October, most of us are preparing for Halloween festivities, but, here at FWMoA, we’re already celebrating a different holiday! Not to be confused with Halloween, Día de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead), observed each November 1st and 2nd, is a two-day celebration of both life and death that originated in Mexico. In this celebration, families come together with their deceased loved ones. Our Día de los Muertos exhibition is on display now through November 29.

One of the biggest activities of this holiday is creating or putting together ofrendas (offerings) to their family members who have passed. So, each year, FWMoA invites the community to construct ofrendas in our galleries. These altars are decorated with meaningful items, photos, bright colors, food and drinks, and vivid marigold flowers. The ofrendas welcome the deceased family members to join in on the celebrations!

Calaveras (skulls) are a huge part of this celebration as well. They are often drawn to mimic life itself, and remind people that death is inevitable. They are decorated in many different ways and laid on the altars, or seen in the form of face painting, drawings, sugar candies, clay decorations, and much more. One pioneering figure in making these calaveras is José Guadalupe Posada. During his creative career, he created lots of political and satirical skeletons in different situations. These skeletons rose to fame quickly and became a symbol for Day of the Dead. One of the most famous skeletons created by Posada, La Calavera Catrina, is considered to personify Day of the Dead and is used as a symbol for this holiday. Posada worked for nearly 40 years, producing a wide variety of skeletons. He most commonly used lithographs to produce these skeletons. You can listen to a book about Posada and his calaveras. (Browse further to find more Day of the Dead-related activities!).

La Catrina on an ofrenda in the current exhibition at FWMoA. Photo courtesy of Galeena Gephart.

For this “Saturday Studio”, we created a common decoration used in Day of the Dead altars called cartonerías. Cartonerías are traditional Mexican decorations made with papier-mâché. These are usually constructed using newspaper, cardboard, foil, and paint. These decorations are commonly used in Mexico on religious and civic events. Lots of piñatas, masks, figures, and dolls are also made using this technique year-round. They sometimes are used to present a wide variety of different scenes or issues going on in the world. Below you can find an example of some cartonerías on an altar, and in a past year’s Day of the Dead exhibition.

Materials

-Newspaper strips

-Paints

-Paintbrushes

-Aluminum foil

-Engrudo (a homemade papier-mâché paste made from 1 cup of flour, 1½ cups of hot water, and 1 teaspoon of sugar. Keep refrigerated when not in use and see tips for making below!)

-Pencils

Process

  1. First, find some newspaper and tear or cut it into long, skinny strips of paper.
  2. Mix the engrudo and refrigerate it until it is used. To avoid lumps, add the 1 cup of flour slowly into the 1 ½ cups of hot water.
  1. Tear off a decent sized chunk of the aluminum foil. Begin to mold the base of your skeleton. Here are some tips to help guide you!:

-Begin by making the legs and torso of your skeleton to have a basic base.

-Mold your strip of aluminum foil to make one long, skinny piece. Bend those almost in half. This part will be the legs of the skeleton. 

-Tear off a new piece of aluminum and begin molding an oval-like shape for the torso.

-Using the folded legs, start wrapping the legs around the end of the torso. (If it doesn’t stay put right away, keep playing with it to get it to stay!)

-Continue this same process with the arms and head

-It is best to get the foil as smooth as you can, since this will be the base for the skeleton. To do this, keep smoothing the foil out with your fingers, gently pressing on difficult areas. 

  1. Now that the skeleton is molded with the aluminum foil, begin either dipping your newspaper strip in the engrudo mix or using your fingers to coat the newspaper. (Try not to use too much mix on the newspaper, or it will get soggy and tear easily!)
  2. Gently start to wrap the newspaper onto the aluminum foil. It might be easier to start with a bigger section (like the torso) to test this method out!
  3. Smooth out the newspaper onto the foil with light pressure to make it appear soft.
  4. Keep wrapping the foil with the newspaper until it is all smooth and to your liking! (Using more layers of newspaper can help achieve this effect.) 

TIP: You can play with the effects of papier-mâché by leaving certain areas more rough and others smooth!

  1. Let the engrudo dry completely onto the newspaper.
  1. Once the skeleton is completely dry, grab your brushes and paints (we used acrylics, but most paints would work) and start painting the base of your skeleton. (We used white to prime it, but you can play around with different colors of base paint for your skeleton!)
  1. From here, continue decorating your skeleton with various designs! Think about creating today’s version of Posada’s calaveras, and consider adding additional materials like colored paper to act as your skeleton’s clothing.

As always, share your creations with us here on the blog or on FWMoA’s social media: Facebook, Instagram, & Twitter.

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