Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Deer Skull Embellished in the Style of the Huichol Indians of Mexico.

While living in Los Angeles, I initiated a ramble through the scrubby hills of Laguna Beach in search of treasure. I found it in the form of the remains of a deer which had clearly slipped on a gravelly slope leading into a densely vegetated ravine. Entangled in the scrub and injured by the fall, the deer's fate was sealed, the bones scattered in the vicinity evidence that coyotes had ensured that the creatures death was not in vain. Alas, the effects of time and searing sun left my treasure clean and brightly bleached, and I hiked back to the car in possession of a fine dear skull with attached antlers!

Upon arrival back at the shop, I sat down and contemplated how I might best display the skull. I arrived upon the idea of cutting the "skull cap" with the attached antlers away from the rest of the skull, and mounting that skull cap on a plaque of some sort in the fashion of what is known as a "European Style Trophy Mount" in taxidermy circles. The cutting was performed on a bandsaw, great care having been taken to protect the eyes and lungs from the great cloud of truly awful smelling bone dust that was generated in the process. The operation was successful, and I managed to retain all of the fingers with which I was originally provided!

While finishing up the antlers, I received as a gift a curious craft which is commonly referred to as a "Huichol Yarn Painting", so named both for the tribal peoples who make the things, and the material from which they are fashioned.

I'll refrain from boring the reader with too much information on the Huichols, as there are entire websites devoted to them accessible via a quick Google search. Suffice it to say, then, that these remarkable people utilize such common materials as yarn and beads to fashion otherworldly artifacts which are truly otherworldly in the sense that much of the imagery and symbolism apparent derives from visions encountered during the ceremonial use of the hallucinogenic Peyote cactus (Lophophora Williamsii).

A quiet sort of revelation ensued when I happened upon images of ceremonial gourd bowls that the Huichols had embellished with colored glass seed beads in complex and colorful geometric patterns. The deer being of great importance in the scheme of Huichol religion, it became apparent that I should try my hand at Huichol style beadwork on the deer skull I had just prepared for display!

Some easy sleuthing revealed that the craft is affected by pushing the colored beads into a sticky coating which is applied to the substrate (wooden mask, gourd bowl, deer skull). The most commonly used "sticky substance" is a mixture of melted copal resin and beeswax blended together and applied while liquid. Upon cooling, the mixture firms up but maintains a tenacious tackiness which holds the beads firm to the substrate indefinitely. The same process is used in the yarn paintings, except colored strands of yarn are pressed into the wax blend instead of beads.

I had, from previous craft projects, a nice assortment of colored seed beads in the size "12" which is just a little smaller than the usual craft-store bought bead. There are many fine retailers of Native American crafts supplies that sell vast arrays of sizes and colors of seed beads (although I recommend avoiding Crazy Crow Trading Company as their stock is unpredictable and customer service is poor) and if you live near a Michael's or Crafts, Etc. you might peruse their selection of seed beads. It is worth noting that the Huichols make excellent use of the most vivid colors imaginable; It is mind boggling to imagine the stores of beads and yarns these folks must have on hand when one really looks closely at the stunning array of colors utilized in the average yarn painting or bead bowl. Pure beeswax is also available from your local craft supply merchant.

Now, as far as the copal is concerned, the substance is a resin which is exuded from a tree (Bursera fagaroides) in much the same way that a pine tree exudes sticky "pitch". Copal is commonly sold in Mexico and South America as an aromatic incense; it releases a heavenly aroma reminiscent of oranges when burned, and finds much use in religious ceremonies. I had some on hand which I had purchased in Tulum, Mexico, but for the purposes of the sticky base, one might very plausibly substitute pitch or sap collected from any of a number of species of conifers. If you are inclined to do things as the Huichols do, however, copal may be acquired rather inexpensively from Mazatec Garden. To make the sticky base, I simply heated equal parts broken up copal resin and beeswax in a can on a double boiler until the copal had melted completely and was thoroughly blended with the beeswax. The resulting liquid was then brushed over the whole skull such that the resulting sticky base measured about 1/8" in thickness.

Next it was time to think about an overall pattern that might look pleasing on the skull. I consulted countless photographs before arriving at the design I finally executed. The design is not a direct copy of any one Huichol piece, but rather a collection of ideas and symbolic imagery rendered in the colors available to me, and scaled to suit the shape of the skull. The application of beads began in the middle of the skull and was worked out towards the edges. An awl was used to pick up each bead individually and push it lightly into the sticky wax mixture.

The imagery used in this case was not complex; The dominant green form represents the peyote cactus, between the antlers is a representation of a deer head with antlers. Smaller peyotes are also represented, as are various colorful radiating auras of "life energy". The whole application process took maybe three days, working 5 or so hours a day.

Finally, I prepared the skull for mounting by embedding a bolt in plaster poured into the cranial cavity (back part) of the skull:

I created a plaque for the skull out of a curious type of plastic known to fans of the contemporary artist Matthew Barney as "Self-Lubricating Plastic", some scraps of which I had salvaged from the trash during the installation of his retrospective at The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art I think it makes a fine, contemporary looking background for the beaded skull, which is attached by drilling a hole in the plaque and threading the bolt through, then securing that with a nut.

The resulting artifact looks, to my eye, every bit as authentic as a true Huichol made piece, and makes a fine accompaniment to my authentic Huichol yarn painting. It is worth mentioning that, as is sadly the case with many indigenous people of the Americas, the Huichols are, monetarily, quite poor. I support purchasing true, Huichol made crafts when possible, as such support helps to ensure the survival of the people and their culture. I hope that this post will propagate a better understanding of and respect for Native craft techniques and inspire anyone who is so inclined, to roll up their shirtsleeves and try their own hand at Huichol style beadwork!


rebekamitten said...

that is beautifully amazing! i also love what you do with sculpey~ ingenious harpoon!

Paul B. said...

Thanks so much for your lovely compliment! I have a love/hate relationship with sculpey-- I cant help but associate it with swirly hippie beads (ok i'm still kind of a hippie and yes I've made plenty of those beads!) but sometimes its just the right material for making sculptures that last without too much hassle. Happy crafting!

Sandi McClure said...

I went ahead and ordered the copal resin after ordering bee's wax and seeing it was to solid for my project. I had bought a project with the resin already in it and it was smushy and able to spread with my finger over my piece do you know if this stays that way after it is cooled down. I was hoping to get it like this again, but I will try it your way first and hope it works for me. I am really in to doing this on a piece again. Thanks for your information.

Paul Baxendale said...

Hi Sandi!

I'm happy to hear you are giving this particular style of embellishment a try!

I don't specifically know about the smushy product you purchased, but I will say that temperature definitely does affect the texture of the beeswax/copal mixture that I make myself-- when it is still hot, it is quite liquid and can be brushed over the surface I am coating easily with a paintbrush, so it is important to put it on the surface (skull, etc...) while it is warm/hot. As the mixture cools (to room temperature-- it doesn't take long-- 5 to 10 minutes or so) it stiffens up and stays firmly in place. It is just soft enough to push the beads into, but not too soft-- it wont come off on your fingers or droop down on a vertical surface over time, for instance. Beeswax alone would be too hard and brittle, so it is important to add the copal to make things a little stickier and more pliable, so that the beads push in and stick there for good!

I hope that you have good luck with your project!!! I'd love to see pictures when you are down. Let me know if you have any other problems along the way!

All the Best,