Book Art Sculpture ~ The Day of the DeadI have always been intrigued with the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos – The Day of the Dead which is celebrated on November 1 and 2 each year. The belief is that the gates of heaven open at midnight on October 31st, and the spirits of all deceased children (angelitos) are allowed to reunite with their families for 24 hours. The next day, the spirits of the adults come to join them. I decided to do a book art sculpture to commemorate the holiday.
I think I’m attracted to the unsettling interweaving of Christian and Pagan symbolism that makes my Greek Orthodox husband get extremely creeped out. Here you’ll find smiling skeletons dressed in everyday attire, brightly decorated sugar skulls, and bold colors that seem to contradict our notion of what’s appropriate when we think of death. Altars which hold pictures of deceased relatives are heaped with food, drink, treats, and golden yellow marigolds as a way to entice the spirits of dead family members to visit them one more time and to honor their memory. The Mexicans believe that if the spirits are happy, then they will protect them, and bring good fortune to the living family members.
On the afternoon of November 2, the families go to the cemeteries. They wash and paint grave sites, play games, listen to music, and tell stories about their loved ones.
I ended up doing a series of three altered books, each one representing a different important rite of passage in a person’s life: birth, marriage, and death. I wanted to incorporate traditional symbols and decorations of the holiday. I enjoyed playing with the bright colors and making the altered books overflow with embellishments. They were time-consuming, but so much fun to make. And part of the pleasure was gaining a better understanding of a holiday that embraces and accepts the inevitability of death instead of turning away from it in fear.
Dia de los Muertos ~ First Passage
Lo que en el capillo se toma con las martaja se de ja.
~What is learned as a child remains throughout life.~
Preparing the Books
All three of my Dia de los Muertos altered books started as large sized board books that I got on sale from Barnes and Noble’s children’s department. Each book’s front and back cover was sanded, as were the first three pages inside. Then the sanded cover and pages were painted with gesso to hide the original text and illustrations.
Next I carved the niches on the right side of each book. I made a template for each page using an old file folder, and then I measured and penciled out the shape I wanted for each niche, making sure that they were correctly centered on the page. I used a pencil to lightly trace around the template onto the book page; then, the hard work of cutting through the pages begins. I cut each page one at a time using my giant exacto blade, not a namby-pamby craft knife. This exacto blade has a fat handle and a lot of heft. I cut one niche each day because my wrist and arm cannot take much more than that.
The Cover – First Step
I usually wait until the very end to wrap the cover papers around the book, but I was waiting for some supplies to arrive, so I decided to do the covers next. All the book covers have been wrapped with torn pieces of Mexican bark paper that my husband gets for me from work. He builds furniture and uses it to cover the pieces he makes. When he’s done, they cover the bark with varnish which gives it a smooth, satiny sheen that looks like marble. I tore this unfinished bark paper into pieces, and using my Golden Soft Gel medium, glued the pieces all over the front and back covers, turning the paper under around all of the edges and along the top and bottom spine opening. Then I let it dry. I did the second step, adding the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe at the very end, so I’ll tell you how I did that at the bottom of this page.
One of the prevalent images connected with the Day of the Dead is the skeleton or La Calavara. You see them in mini-altars, wearing the costumes of everyday working people or dressing up in style with fancy hats, veils, and boas. They add to the humor and fun of the Day of the Dead celebration and are meant to represent the relative who has passed away. So the next step in creating my altered books for Dia de los Muertos was to make my skeleton figurines.
I hadn’t used my polymer clay in a long time, but I knew it was just what I needed for this project. I used a mixture of white and ecru, simply because those were the colors I had. I had originally planned on painting my skeletons white and adding the typical black outlines of the eyes and teeth found in most skeletons made for Dia de los Muertos. But I wanted the bride’s wedding dress to be white, and so I decided to leave the skeletons a pale beige color with their faces unmarked.
I shaped the skulls by making oval shaped balls and then pinching in the cheeks. I used a needle tool to outline the teeth and nose and the end of a nutcracker to make the eye impressions. The bodies were oblong in shape with the bottoms cut off flat. I made the arms from snake-like pieces of clay. I used a small skewer piece to attach the head to the bodies. Then I added the arms, breasts on the women, and the baby. I baked them in the oven for about one half hour according to the directions on the clay package, and after they cooled, I painted them with acrylic paints. I glued a piece of lace on the bride’s head for her veil and a piece of black cloth to cloak the Grim Reaper. His staff was made with the remaining skewer and a piece of aluminum tape. When they were finished, I set them in a safe place to relax.
Two things I learned in this process: make sure that the bottom of your figurines are very flat and that the heads aren’t tilted back too far, otherwise you’ll have difficulty keeping your skeletons upright in their niches. I had to use my electric sander to even off the bottoms of three of the figures because they were so unsteady.
Dia de los Muertos ~ Second Passage
Matriomonio y mortaja del cielo bajan.
~Marriage and death are decided in heaven.~
Collaging and Painting the Backgrounds
My next step in creating my altered books for Dia de los Muertos was to prepare the background of the pages. I have a very old Spanish language textbook with lovely small etchings and all Spanish text. I wanted to use these images in the background. So I scanned and printed them on brown rice paper. I love this paper because it’s a little thicker than tissue paper, has a aged, brownish color, and melts right onto the page when I use fluid matte medium to adhere it.
After I had collaged down all the pieces of rice paper, I used a cosmetic sponge dipped in gesso and diluted with a teeny bit of water and washed it quickly over the entire page, trying to leave the gesso streaky and uneven. When the gesso dried, I again used a sponge to spread acrylic paint over the page, using a different color for each book. After the pages had dried thoroughly, I was ready to begin decorating my books.
Dia de los Muertos :: Third Passage
El muerto nada se lleva y todo se acaba.
~The dead take nothing with them, and everything comes to an end.~
Decorating the Pages
You can see from the pictures that there are a lot of things happening on these pages. I wanted them to be wild and colorful. I usually play it pretty safe with the colors I use in my art, so I wanted to break-out of my shell and try color combinations that I wouldn’t ordinarily use. I spent a lot of time on the internet looking at examples of Mexican folk art and textiles and Day of the Dead altars to get a feel for the kinds of colors that might be found in their celebration of Dia de los Muertos. I also used a color wheel to give me ideas for which colors would work best together. I wanted each book to have its own color scheme, so I also considered how I could avoid repeating big chunks of color and still have the books blend together as a unit.
Here’s a description of some of the items I used to decorate the books:
Blank Bottle Caps ~ I got these at a scrapbooking store. They’re made by Design Originals. I tried in vain to drink enough Corona with lime so that I wouldn’t have to buy them, but since I only drink a half a bottle a day, at most, I had to break down and make the investment or I never would have gotten my books done. I painted these in various colors using craft paint. Inside of them I glued some milagros, tiny Mexican charms, associated with the desire for small “miracles” to occur. I bought the milagros on eBay.
Glitter ~ Behind each niche I put a sheet of colored card stock on which I had glued cheap, chunky glitter in red, fuchsia, and turquoise. I had often seen bright glitter used to decorate the background of Dia de los Muertos tableaus of skeletons. Usually I’m very restrained in my glitter usage; here I felt free to cut loose with the crass sparkle.
Loteria Cards ~ Loteria is a Mexican game similar to our Bingo. They still produce cards with vintage style images. I picked cards that suited the colors and theme of the particular books. I bought the cards at a local Mexican supermarket so much cheaper than I could have bought them online! Believe me, I checked.
Silk Flowers ~ The Mexicans like to decorate their Dia de los Muertos altars with bright orange marigolds and chrysanthemums. I tired to capture that feeling by buying cheap silk flowers from Michael’s, cutting off the plastic stems, and gluing them along the border of the book.
Imitation Tin ~ I love the look of the tin niches and retablos that are made in Mexico, so I decided to try and imitate the look. I purchased aluminum tape from the hardware store. After I had glued all the pages together with my soft gel medium, I wrapped the inside of the niche with the tape which has a very sticky adhesive on one side. I also put a border of the tape around each opening. I made a template of the design I wanted to draw around the border and laid it on top of the tape. I used a pencil and traced over my design. Then I removed the template and went back over the pencil marks with a stylus, making the marks as deep as I could.
When that was done, I put a thick layer of acrylic paint all over the aluminum. I made sure the paint went down into the indentations I had made with my stylus. After the paint had dried, I took a little medium grit sanding sponge, and sanded off the paint on the top surfaces of the tape, trying to keep the paint within the lines I had drawn as much as possible.
Sugar Skulls ~ One of the reasons the Mexicans create these beautiful altars for Dia de los Muertos is to try to entice the spirits of dead relatives to their homes. They decorate the altars with candies, hot cocoa, and toys for the departed children, and alcohol, candy, bread, cigarettes, and anything else the adult relatives enjoyed while alive. They also buy and make sugar skulls which are molded out of a sugar batter and decorated with colorful icing. I made my own small version of these by shaping and baking skulls out of polymer clay. After they had cooled, I covered them with clear fine German Glass Glitter, which is often used to give a snowy effect to primitive-style crafts. I love the way it makes my skulls look like they’re covered with sugar. I colored each skull using a tiny brush and acrylic paint. It was a little nerve wracking painting on top of the glitter, but it was a lot of fun making all those cool skeleton faces.
Quotations ~ Each of the quotations in the book was from a book of Mexican proverbs. I typed them on the computer and printed them on blank pages from the back of one of my antique books.
Vintage Photographs ~ Two of the pictures were from my collection of vintage photographs. The other one I found on the internet. I printed them on heavy matte paper and cut around them with deckle scissors. Many Day of the Dead altars contain the photographs of departed friends and relatives.
Paper Banner ~ Another traditional Dia de los Muertos decoration is the papel picado, brightly colored tissue paper panels of varying sizes that are cut into intricate designs and strung across the room or altar. I purchased mine online, but after seeing one, I think next time I would try and make my own.
The Cover – Final Steps
The last thing I needed to do for my book was finish the covers. I had wanted to have a picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe as part of the inside of each book, but it just didn’t work out. Instead, I decided to use her image on all three covers. First I drew a simple line drawing of her on white paper with pencil. When I was happy with the image, I went over the pencil lines with black ink. Then I scanned it into the computer, made a few changes, and resized the image to fit the cover of my books.
I wanted the image to blend in with the bark paper, so using 2″ wide Safe Release Painters Masking Tape from 3M, I taped a piece of bark to a piece of card stock. I made sure I placed the bark paper over the center of the card stock where I knew the image would print. I printed out three copies of my drawing and then colored each one using colored pencil and adding individual details with black pen. Then I dabbed acrylic paint around the edges of the torn paper so it would stand out on the page and glued one picture to each cover.
Dealing with the drawing of the Virgin this way was such a relief for me. I don’t have a lot of confidence in my drawing abilities, and with a limited amount of bark paper, being able to refine one drawing and print it out three times made me happy. It made the coloring more fun too!
Here are some places on the internet that will give more information and ideas for your Dia de los Muertos book art sculptures:
~ Mexican Sugar Skulls ~ Sugar skull molds, papel picados, books, rubber stamps, skeletons. Nice place to get ideas.