Let’s Talk SHOP: Malinda Henning

Abby Leon, Paradigm Gallery Director

Paradigm Gallery artist Malinda Henning creates a variety of seasonal artwork, but those for Día de los Muertos are by far the fan favorite! Among these creations are her stylized skeleton ornaments, which embody the most recognizable imagery of this beloved multi-day holiday that honors and celebrates the lives of the dead. In this “Let’s Talk SHOP” we learn more about Malinda and her art, recognizing and paying tribute to the festivities widely participated in around the world to celebrate Día de los Muertos.

A photo of the artist, Malinda Henning. Photo courtesy of Malinda Henning.

Although I cherish my formal training as a figurative sculptor and ‘drawer’, I’m equally drawn to folk art. My influences were Robert Godfrey at Indiana University (who told me if I didn’t have the means to do anything else to keep drawing), Walter Erlebacher at Philadelphia College of Art (who offered me links of science and philosophy to images), Natalie Charkow (who understood my artistic experiments), and the women in my family who didn’t believe hands should be idle. It was a woman in my family, my mom, who showed me a book about outsider art. These artists used whatever was handy for their art, as did folk artists. I made a pilgrimage to Fred Smith’s Concrete Park in Phillips, Wisconsin and was awed.

I am also fascinated by the unique yet universal images of self-taught artists. The Day of the Dead art I saw in the Southwest and Mexico took these images to another level, depicting everyday life with humor in the face of mortality within a celebration of ancestors and religion. I started making little figures to share the humor with friends, and then to folks who might enjoy them. I dressed some of the ornaments to give them personality but left others ‘naked’ for someone else to dress.

To make these ornaments, I use the following supplies:

  • Toothpicks
  • Coffee stir straws
  • Paint
  • Jewelry eye wires and a beading needle
  • Glass beads and cotton string
  • Polymer clay
  • Oven or toaster oven

Once I’ve gathered all my supplies, I’ll start with making a porcupine of toothpicks in Styrofoam to hold the red coffee straws while I paint them white (see photo on the left). After they’ve dried, I’ll cut the straws into four long and four slightly shorter lengths for the leg and arm bones, respectively.

For each figure, I’ll roll eight small polymer clay balls for the hands and joints and four larger balls for feet and shoulders. I use a toothpick to drill a hole all the way through the balls to turn them into beads. I start from one side and finish the hole from the other to avoid cracks. Next, I’ll roll a jellybean shape and pinch both ends to form the neck and hips of the body. Then I’ll roll a ball larger than the beads to form a skull, denting the bottom to form a chin and dragging my finger around both sides to make the jaw. I use a pencil eraser to define the eye sockets. After all the rolling and shaping, I’ll run an eye wire through the center, top to bottom, of the skull, making a slight crimp in the end of the wire to anchor it in the body. In addition, I’m pushing the wire into the bead to attach the skull and turning the eye loop to face front.

Next, I’ll use a toothpick to drill holes through the shoulders and hips, avoiding the wire. I always make sure the holes are wide enough for needle and string in both the beads and the body.

Then I press black pony beads in the eye sockets and smooth out any warping or marks I’ve made during construction. I use a toothpick and empty mechanical pencil to indent ear holes, nose, mouth, ribs, and spine. Sometimes I’ll even use small seed beads for the teeth, spine, or a belly button!

Finally, I’ll place the clay beads and joined skull and body on a foil lined tray (see image to the right). Bake at 275F for 15 minutes for each 1/4-inch thickness!

After the pieces cool, I’ll start stringing with a hand or foot, hiding the knot in the bead. I’ll string through a straw bone, through an elbow or knee bead, into another straw bone. Usually the hip bead will be larger and the shoulders smaller for a female, and the opposite for a male. (My formal background coming through!). Then, I’ll string through the hip or neck of the figure and reverse the process on the other side. I like to put a touch of glue on the knots.

I’ll touch up any chipped white paint and define the features with a black ultra-fine permanent marker or paint marker and let dry. Then, I’ll slip a string through the wire eye to hang.

Lastly, I’ll adorn and dress the ornaments. Unraveled yarn makes great hair!

    Skeleton Ornaments, $10.00 each

Enjoy Malinda Henning’s skeleton ornaments and other Día de los Muertos artwork now on display in the FWMoA Paradigm Gallery: Tuesday-Saturday 10am-6pm; Thursday 10am-8pm; Sunday 12pm-5pm.

Currently in the #shop we’re decorating for the upcoming holidays and festivities. See how artist Malinda Henning makes her handmade Día de los Muertos ornaments, now available at the #fwmoa Paradigm Gallery, and join us on Sunday for the celebration!

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