Dia de Muertos: Paper Mache Skulls

She often waited for her husband to leave the house before she embarked on such experiments for this very reason; to spare him the anxiety of the chaos she sometimes created. White spots flecked the cabinets, the windows, the ceiling, the floor, the light fixture, her body. It seemed no surface was spared from Plaster of Paris bomb she had inadvertently dropped. As she hoisted her pregnant body upon the kitchen counters in order to scrub clean the windows above the sink, she reflected on the experiences gained so far during this project.

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When I enter a box store, I do not spend time trying to find things on my own. My time is too precious to wander about square miles of shelves packed full of consumer goods just to find that one $10 item that I truly desire. For this reason, I often shop at the Home Depot where the orange-apron-clad workers never seemed bothered by the fact that I seek of them out and ask them where to find whatever it is I am looking for that day.

Did you know that four out of five Home Depot workers will have no clue what Plaster of Paris is? I wandered about the box store with a team of dedicated workers who were determined to provide me with top-notch customer even if this just meant finding that one worker who might confirm the existence of a product that they seemed to suspect only existed within my mind. I blame it on their youth. Though I am unable to explain why twenty-somethings would have no knowledge of Plaster of Paris, it is a fact that the man with the graying hair, obviously decades older than his coworkers accompanying me on my mile hike through the aisles of home improvement products, knew exactly what I was talking about and could show me the shortest route through the store to said product.

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Whenever I feel uncertain about how to proceed on a project, I (like many others) turn to University of YouTube. You can find videos on every subject imaginable. You don’t have to take one person’s word for something. you can listen to eight different people and then decide how best to proceed given the range of experiences presented to you FOR FREE. Yet despite all this free knowledge, one can still screw things up in one’s own unique way.

First off, most Youtubers suggested a 2 parts Plaster of Paris to 1 part water mixture for art projects. That advice was complete nonsense in my kitchen. I had to add much more water to make the concoction pourable. Also, many suggest that one should let the mixture set a few minutes before one pours it into a mold. This didn’t work out for me either. I found myself adding water directly from the kitchen faucet until the slug in my bucket seemed pourable and then running as fast as possible into my dining room where I poured the quickly drying goop into molds.

It was during one of these runs that I dropped my bucket on the kitchen floor. One might view a bucket full of ‘liquid’ falling right side up as a blessing. However, this ‘liquid’ shot out the top of the bucket, hit the ceiling, and then seemed to explode outward in every direction, at which point it immediately dried where it landed. I spent the next hour furiously cleaning up my mess before Mel got home.

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To produce my Plaster of Paris skull molds, I purchased plastic sugar skull molds off mexicansugarskull.com and filled them with the Plaster of Paris mixture. I propped the molds up with bowles to keep them level during the pouring and drying process. Once the surface of the mold felt dry to the touch, I simply flipped them over and ‘dropped’ them a few times on the counter before they popped out of the mold. Despite the rough handling, none of the pieces broke. I then glued then glued the front and back sections together. Other than the hic-ups described above, this process worked pretty well to produce the molds.

Once the molds were ready, I covered them with plastic wrap and then covered them with a layer of paper mache. Once one skull mold had a layer of paper, I would set it aside to dry as I added a paper layer to another skull mold. I added at least three layers of paper to each mold before cutting the paper skull off the mold. This cutting process was facilitated by the seam in the mold where the two pieces were glued together. Basically I could run my exacto knife along this seam once I located it after a few test stabs.
After the paper skull was cut from the mold, I reattached the two paper pieces with a bit of masking tape and then a few layers of paper mache around this cut seam. After the paper mache dried completely, the paper skulls were sturdy and ready to paint.

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I started this project after a colleague of mine asked me if I might teach a Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead) arts-and-craft class for some extra money. Since I’m always excited at the prospect of earning a bit of mad money, I said yes without much thought and began pulling together a plan for a two hour arts-and-craft class.

To be fair, I didn’t know much about this holiday. My colleague assumed I did because she had seen the collection of crochet skulls I had created and my artwork that I produced for a 5” x 5” Northern Arts Council exhibit which all fortuitously seemed Day-of-the-Dead-ish to her. I spent much time educating myself by reading every Day of the Dead craft book in my local library (of which there are surprisingly many), reading Stanley Brandes ‘Skulls to the Living, Bread to the Dead: The Day of the Dead in Mexico and Beyond’ (which I really enjoyed), and scouring the web for whatever I could find.

In the end, I decided that I would have the class paint paper mache skulls as I shared a slide show covering the history of Day of the Dead, the many customs surrounding the holiday, and the various crafts utilized in the celebration, and a discussion of how various cultures view death in contrast to Day of the Dead. It worked out fairly well.
In addition to the amount of time I spent researching this topic, I also spent days creating molds to gift to those paying for the class. I put days more of time creating paper skulls from those molds since there would not be enough time to do the actual paper mache aspect of this project during the relatively brief duration of the class. I put together the slide show. I gathered all the needed materials and put effort into making sure the classroom was set up properly.

If I am honest with myself, all the effort I put into this class was beyond the bit of a stipend got paid. However on some level, I am glad I said yes to this project because I learned so much on such an interesting topic, I experimented with a material I had never before used, and I met interesting people in my class who also taught me things I didn’t know. In this way, this project was totally worth it.

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