Monday, October 31, 2011


I'm not sure there is anything easier to dress as for Halloween than a calavera, or a skull from the day of the dead. You really only need some white make-up and a black make-up pencil. You can just use eyeliner if you have nothing else.

I braided my hair back, and put on my Frida Kahlo jewlery from last year, which I created for less than ten bucks from craft store jewelry piece. Wow, my hair grew like a weed this year. It is almost past my shoulders now. This year, I decided to combine my two favorite costumes--calavera and Frida Kahlo.

Beyond that, your imagination is your only confines. I like to look at other skull designs. You can design your face to have flowers, or hearts, or anything. You can use all kinds of colors. I chose to use only black and blue (around the eyes). I also decided to wear my felted flower crown.

And a full body shot. I am wearing a skirt my sister made for me last year. We went to JoAnn's and picked some random "Mexican-y" fabric. I love the way it turned out. I have to admit that I have never considered myself someone who would take pictures of herself, or speak in front of a camera for the whole interweb, but there is something so freeing in this costume. For me, at least.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

frida sugar skulls

I did a post on sugar skulls in September. It was my first attempt and the icing situation was really sucky. Plus, I was using these skulls from Martha S. that I bought at Michaels. They were fine, don't get me wrong, but I don't know. I wanted more.

Yesterday, I went to my favorite store in Philadelphia, the Eye's Gallery. (Well, in competition with the Architect's bookstore) I went in after a long day seeing my father and driving driving driving. I went in to buy a full skeleton for my altar. I ended up purchasing two skeletons and a milagro of eyes, since St. Lucy is always pictured with her eyes on a platter.

Anyhow, whilst there, I noticed a table filled with the ingredients and tools to make sugar skulls--molds, meringue powder, gel food coloring, even the baker's bags for icing. I bought some food dye and thought I would give it another shot. This time I bought Frida Sugar Skull molds. They are also available on Mexican Sugar

 There is a more detailed recipe on the package, which helps immensely. So, first, one teaspoon of meringue to one cup of sugar. Then sprinkle the mixture with one teaspoon of water. Mix it with your clean hands. It says to mix it for four minutes to get it consistent, and that seemed about right to me.

You fill them with the mixture. You know it is done because it is like wet sand, and you can press your finger into the mixture and the impression stays.

Then press it into the molds, like it is brown sugar. Pack it down hard.


Then, use a piece of cardboard to back the molds and flip it over. 

Your sugar skulls now have to harden for eight hours. Which is why I did these around 6p and waited until morning, and different lighting to make the royal icing and decorate.

I feel like this is a good time to tell you that everything you are making here is edible. It just doesn't taste very good, particularly Royal Icing and red gel food coloring, but technically you can eat it.

Royal icing is very easy to make. It is particularly important to use gel food coloring. That is what ruined my last batch of sugar skulls, the liquid food coloring. So, this is the recipe which makes a shitload of royal icing--one pound of confectioner's sugar and 1/4 cup of meringue. Add 1/3 cup of water. Mix with a hand or standing mixer for about nine minutes, until there are peaks.

I decided I wanted five colors and so I split it up accordingly. Added some gel food coloring, which comes in these little containers. I then put them in ziploc sandwich baggies. Don't fill it too much or it will split. I think cut the smallest little corner. I mean, really small. Almost too small to see. In fact, use a magnifying glass.

My icing baggies are ready, the skulls are lined up. Then you begin the decorating. You can use sequin, little jewels, whatever you choose. The royal icing will dry to cement like hardness. You need to let it dry though. And the food coloring, like all food coloring, dyes everything. My fingers are a technicolor wonder

I loved this project. So much fun. These Frida molds are wonderful with all the flowers and fun you have the liberty to create within its bounds.

Each one is different than the next. I love this one of marigolds.

I love the touch it brings to my ofrenda too. Homemade color. Can't wait to see your sugar skulls. xo

Monday, October 24, 2011

Día de los Muertos Altar

This week on still life everyday, I am going to be writing about different Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, projects. Día de los Muertos is a Latin American holiday that celebrates the dead and the ancestors. Celebrated November 1 and November 2, it coincides with All Saints Day and All Souls Day. (Did I get those in the right order?) Did you know that in Mexico, November 1st is referred to as Día de los Inocentes ("Day of the Innocents") but also as Día de los Angelitos ("Day of the Little Angels") and November 2 as Día de los Muertos or Día de los Difuntos ("Day of the Dead")? Yes, that means that November 1st is a day set aside to honor children and babies who have died.

I think we all knew that deep within us, which is why we connect with Día de los Muertos so viscerally.

Dia de los Muertos Ofrenda from 2010
Anyway, this week, I am going to share with you some projects I will be doing this week. First, I have created my Día de los Muertos ofrenda, or offering, or altar if you will. This might be a little more detailed than you want, but I am going to share how I got from point A to point semi-finished. And I say semi-finished because I am going to be working on projects all week to add to my ofrenda that I will share with you, then I will post the final altar picture.

This year, I was kind of stupefied by where I was going to put my altar. I have traditionally always used a small Shaker table I use for my altar, and it gets filled quickly. So I wanted to go bigger, or more self-contained. My husband is a woodworker by hobby, and I thought I might use some scrap wood and building something. I also was referring to the book Day of the Dead Crafts (You need to buy this book, if you don't have it already). In this book, there are a few ofrendas that use a painting as the centerpiece or theme of the ofrenda, and I wanted to do that.

I have been wanting to paint something not jizo or Zen or Buddhist, but that touched my Catholicism and love of Catholic art, in particular ex-voto or retablos. Latin American and Catholic art do death really well. It is part pathos, part horror, part worshipful, but all real life. Exaggerated and dramatic and beautiful in the way it embraces the darker sides of life. Ex-votos are paintings of tragedies and deaths with a pleading to a saint or gratitude for intercession. Like a visual prayer, it exemplifies the chaos of praying in suffering. In my humble opinion. Frida Kahlo painted a lot of these works. A retablo is a painting of how a saint or the Virgin. It may or may not depict the way the saint was martyred. I have been particularly intrigued by them because I have been re-discovering my saint books. I love this one by Giselle Potter called Lucy's Eyes and Margaret's Dragon. Giselle Potter is such a distinctive illustrator and her work is beautiful in this book. It is mostly illustrated. You need to check it out. It is a bargain book on Amazon.

I am frustrated because I wrote this post, then somehow deleted everything but the first paragraph.
So bear with me here.

Anyway, I sketched very little. Just a vague idea then, painted for an afternoon. I loved painting this work. It is exactly the way I had envisioned it, and a perfect centerpiece for my ofrenda.

The Stillbirth of Lucia, acrylic on canvas, 16" x 20"
Part of the inspiration of this piece and the entire ofrenda really is this comment that a nun said during a spiritual retreat I attended in June. She had been sexually abused as a child, and she became an alcoholic later in life. She said that she thought God abandoned her when she was being abused. But after she went into recovery, she realized that God was crying with her. And that was such a powerful statement to me. Because when you lose a child you hear often about God's plan, and it is hard not to take God's plan personally. I just don't like that phrase, but I like the idea that God mourns with us when we are grieving. That He couldn't intercede, he could only stand beside us and abide.

I have painted myself a few times holding Lucia in hospital gown. One for the sketchbook project. One in this painting featured on Exhale. I know this sounds weird, but there is something so hobo about that image that I like. I'm wearing borrowed clothes (hospital gown) in slouchy socks, holding a dead baby. It is all so stark and exactly as it happened, but more so. More stark. Horrifying. More lonely. I think it is like when we say our baby is DEAD instead of talking in euphemism. This is what happened. I gave birth to her. She was dead. I held her wearing ugly clothing, my ass hanging out. It didn't seem right.

In this painting, though, I found myself shrouded, mourning, beautiful. That is the forgiveness coming through, years of getting used to her death, possibly. And I don't think it was a mistake I came out looking like Mary. I like that ambiguity--is it me or the Virgin? I also always wanted to capture the redness of the lips of my baby. I think anyone who gave birth to a stillborn child remarks on it. It is unnerving and lovely. I wanted our lips to be the only red things, but after I painted it, I had this urge to paint a big sacred heart in the field of yellow. I will show you later how I solved that.

Alright, enough of that. I had the centerpiece, now what? Like I said, I began sketching altars, large wooden pieces--shadow box and shelves with traditional Catholic imagery, but then I went to the basement and saw this mirror that was here when we bought the house. It was moldy along the bottom where our basement flooded, but had some cool woodcarvings I thought I could nick, then I took the mirror off. I found this odd picture and a Fender Jazz Bass authentication label. I think I might take Kristin's advice and use it as inspiration for my NaNoWriMo novel. (Still need a plot, people.)

Once the mirror was off, I saw that I could use it as is. I cleaned it up and it looked pretty cool. I thought about knocking the back out, and creating a shadow box with different levels for display, but in the end, I kept it as is.

And I also now have a cool carved mirror which I might paint some day with roses and thorns and a sacred heart or something. You can see Thor in that mirror

I had intended on building a base for the frame so it could stand alone, but it had very heavy duty hanging wire and could support weight, so I went in another direction all together. I also found a lovely spot for my ofrenda--my dining room sideboard. I hung it. In that space in the yellow field of the painting, I hung my large sacred heart milagro.

I then decided to make differing levels. I went into my husband's workshop and found this raw edged, round sawed piece of wood that my stepfather gave us. He thought we could make a bench out of it, but we just hadn't really gotten to it. It looks awesome in this capacity. I used terrine jars to prop it up.

I forgot to mention that I used an antiqued sacred heart image for the top of the frame. It looks cool, not wonderful, but okay. I liked the terrine jars holding up the shelf, but wanted to fill them with something. Not having any marigolds (and unable to find them in the local nurseries around here) I decided to decapitate the mums I had outside my house. They were dying and in the jars they look lovely and intentional.

I then found a nice piece of slate from our fireplace project and used that for my old wood carved Virgin of Guadalupe. I bought her in Mexico and her rays have broken off through the years, but I still love her fiercely.

At this point, it was about bringing in some lighting. I had these flower lights from Beatrice's tea  birthday party, so I hung them around the frame. I also found a cross that I bought from Peru, which I hung from the middle of the mirror frame. And I decided to make a fabric sign for my ofrenda that reads, "El Senor lloro conmigo" (forgive the lack of tildes and accents in that sentence) which means "The Lord Cried with Me." (I moved the Virgin so you can read it in the picture below.) I actually had old sheets in the basement and this light blue one was rough and looked like sack cloth, so I ripped it into shreds and wrote this on it.

Then it was a matter of adding the beautiful things. I added four votive candles each with a milagro in them. A large Virgin of Guadalupe candle. A rosary given to me by my great-grandmother which was made my a blind nun. The death announcements, photographs and prayer cards for my grandmother, grandfather, great-grandmother and aunt. Lucy's picture. Harry's pictures (my father-in-law). Family Catholic Prayer Missals from the 50s which were my grandmother and grandfather's.

I put a wine glass of water out, in my favorite wine glass. Maybe I am mourning my drinking too. A black clay vase and paper flowers that Sam and I bought on our honeymoon to Sayulita, Mexico. I put a silver bowl my mother bought me from Mexico with a nice towel and some Nag Champa soap, which is making this entire ofrenda smell amazing.

On the other side of the ofrenda, I put a wooden bowl of fruit. We always keep our fruit in a bowl on our sideboard, so that was always there. There is also an incense holder.

Conspicuously missing from my ofrenda are calaveras, particularly when last year, that was all there was, no? That wasn't intentional, but I think I am going to either make or buy some full skeletons to hang on either side of the painting. And I will be making some sugar skulls this week for the ofrenda. I love the rustic earthy charm of this year's ofrenda. Also grateful to not have spent any money this year. I just wanted it to be home-y comfortable and lovely.

What does your ofrenda look like? What do you think should be added to my ofrenda?

Thursday, October 20, 2011

art table

I am constantly trying to make our studio space more efficient, because it does triple duty--computer/writing room, art studio and kids' art space. I have a table for my creations with two chairs. A desk for writing. I have four shelves in there to store art supplies, books and toys. I have an easel that folds up and stores in the corner, as well as a stool to use with that easel. And for the kids, I was using Melissa and Doug's kid easel. One side is dry erase board/paper roll holder and the other a chalk board. It worked great for a long time, but Thor had begun taking it apart, unscrewing the screws, hiding them in small spaces. So, it was falling apart basically. And Beezus and Thor argued about who got what side. The paper roll was the medium of choice for them, so lots of shoving and pinching in the name of art.

I finally just put the easel downstairs. THAT'S IT! BASTA YA, MIJOS!

But what to do for the kids? I moved their itty bitty table to their room for art, which they love. And they use it as a table to play restaurant, teacher, tea is too good up there. After our Open House, I had an old table upstairs. This table, actually, is a perennial favorite of mine. I bought it at a second hand shop for thirty bucks. It was an old diner table that someone painted red/orange. I used it as my kitchen table when I lived in the city. Sam and I brought it up from the basement for the party (dessert table.) Anyway, it was sitting in my dining room for a week or so. Too heavy to carry downstairs alone. I was drinking tea, sitting on the floor on the dining room with the kids, and I started cocking my head to the side. Yes, that would be perfect.

See, I love this table at Container Store, and so do the kids. Every time we go there, they want to just sit at it and pretend they are making art. I am not spending almost four hundred dollars on a table for art making. Not when I can create it myself. See, the downside and benefit of this table I have is that it was once a diner table, so it is a pedestal. When I used it to create art, I would lean on the table, and one side would come up, but the kids are not strong enough to do that. So, I bought a new roll of paper, tied a string around it, and created our own art table. I also had two wooden high chairs that I bought for the kids at flea markets, which they sometimes use for dining chairs. They are the perfect height for the kids to use.

The pedestal leaves the ends available to hang the paper roll.

I also had this old wrapping paper cutter, which you put under the paper and just move across, so it cuts it. It works perfectly for this paper roll, and the kids can't cut themselves on it. Looks like Sam was doing some calculations on it himself, probably calculations about how much wood he scavenged this weekend. (880 lbs of it.)

In the end, it was a great way to use this fabulous table, the kids love it, and actually share the space really well.

 I think I will eventually tweak the design to hold the roll by drilling two holes into the opposing sides of the table, and hanging the string/twine on each side. Right now, I have to untie the string to change the roll. Not a big deal, but eventually, it would be nice to just slide one roll off and put the other on. I should also mention that I am use the dowel from the M&D easel, which has a hole on each side, the string is strung through those holes, and then loops around the table. It stays quite nicely. This project basically cost me the price of the paper roll.

Love to all.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

autumn color order

I admit that I had a few weeks of overbusy-ness and now catching up on some posts from those weeks. As most of you know, I am slightly obsessed with things in color order. And by obsessed, I mean, that I like to keep things in color order, even though it is more inconvenient in the case of books for example, but look how lovely.

Anyway, we like to do nature-based crafts and projects in the afternoon. The leaves are just lovely right now--all the shades of flames and heart and loves. So, our project yesterday was to go on a long walk around the neighborhood and find leaves in all the colors of the rainbow, so we could arrange them in color order. We also collected acorns, pinecones, and we pulled out our gladiola bulbs from our tea garden bed, because well, they weren't supposed to still be there. I am planting them somewhere else next spring.

Then we played with the leaves and made an enso/circle of life out of them.

It was so beautiful, we moved the candles from our autumn centerpiece and lit it in the center for dinner.

Beezus was sad to realize there are no blue leaves, and come to think of it, so am I.

Monday, October 17, 2011

ensō meditations with children.

My approach to meditation both in my own individual life and the lives of my kids has been to think of many things as an opportunity to meditate. I know meditation has a specific meaning in Buddhist context, or new age context, in a recovery context and still in a psychotherapy context. For me, I think of meditation as an intentional practice, to clear of the mind, remain present, train the brain to sit in quiet. Many times that involves me pulling out my meditation cushion, lighting candles, incense and sitting still. I focus on my breath, or an object, or a mantra. I don't always just sit to meditate, though. I practice meditation when I do the dishes, walk, paint.

Teaching my children meditation, I hope, will be a gift for them later in life. A way of coping that I just simply never learned. I teach my children that meditation can take place in all kinds of ways. We do sit and chant together. I do many guided meditations. We do spirit animal meditations, which I know sounds hokey and new age-y, but is a really wonderful way to connect children to nature and other sentient beings. We often go on walking meditation where we try not to speak for a few minutes and just take in the present moment. We focus on our breath and steps. The other way I have done this is to teach them about painting meditations. Since Beezus was two and since Thor's birth, I have done painting meditation, so they are very aware of the interconnectedness of painting and spirituality for me. They also respect the serenity and austerity of the moments I paint for grieving women and men. It is pretty cool.

One meditation practice I have cultivated in the past few years is doing ensō meditations and paintings. I actually do ensō painting meditation a few times a week these days. It is one of my main practices. I paint them onto watercolor cards and use them for all kinds of things--anniversaries, birthdays, sympathy cards. I first painted an ensō because a client requested it on her mizuko jizo painting. I did a lot of research after that, looked at and meditated on many pictures of ensō painted by monks and enlightened beings. But that simple request started a journey in this ancient zen artist meditation. I first wrote about that practice here.

This is an ensō I painted in acrylic on canvas paper. It hangs in my studio.
Ensō represent both everything and nothing. The beginning and the ending. It is a symbol of enlightenment, and imperfection. Actually, the open ensō and the closed ensō mean different things. The closed one means the "totality of experience and life" while the open one represents the imperfection in all things. I think it embodies the Zen concept of wabi sabi, or the feeling that everything is exactly as it is supposed to be--imperfect. I use it as a mediation on imperfection, even though I generally close my ensō. Basically, it is an expression of the moment. One brush stroke. One circle. And though we strive for its perfection, its expression at its core, is always imperfect. And so the wisdom is simply that the ensō is a denial of perfection and in that way is exactly as it should be.

And making circles is a wonderful way to teach children about imperfection, your own, theirs, without challenging them to be perfect. I think a good tie-in to an ensō meditation with children would be to read the book Dot. Dot is a beautiful book about art and self-doubt. Ish, also by Peter Reynolds, is a lovely book about, essentially, accepting the imperfection of your art as the beauty.

At any rate, a few weeks ago, Beezus asked me if she could join me for my ensō meditation, and it occurred to me how absolutely perfect ensō painting is to teach children about working meditation and incorporating mindfulness into every activity. And so, we did a meditation session, lit a candle, incense, sat still, imagined the circle. We talked about its meaning and how we will spend our lives making absolutely beautiful imperfect circles. And we painted ensō after ensō after ensō.

She got pretty good.

Saturday, October 15, 2011


I love terrariums. I even wrote about them once here. Part of why I love them is that they are so easy to construct, and so beautiful. So, here is a little quick terrarium primer.

First, find a cool container. I bought this at the Re-Store for two bits (or twenty-five cents.)

Then get some cool river rocks, or stones for drainage. Put them in the bottom of the bottle/jar/container. Careful not to drop them too hard, or the glass will break.

Add some activated charcoal, then some spaghnam moss, which prevents your soil from going into your rocks. (didn't take pictures of this very exciting step, because I fell asleep. [joking]) Then add potting soil.

This next part is super fun. MOSS HUNTING. We have a few different species of moss growing in various parts of our yard. Feather moss.

And this other kind of moss, which is green and grows in a clump, so I am calling it green clump moss.

We found this one with little clovers growing in it, which is beautiful. We added it to the feather moss. And then we considered it done, though we may add a wee little gnome we make out of Sculpty. Who knows?

Such a fun easy project, and as you can see, the entire thing was mostly done by my four year old.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

open house and jizos

Yesterday, I had an Open House for other families who have lost children, really it was to display the travel journal. I cooked and cleaned last week, like a fullhouse deep cleaning, which was nice. I do that every Fall and Spring, Summer and Winter. It is like a seasonal change thing, but I spend a week just scrubbing the tiles I don't usually scrub and spit shining the faucets. Okay, not really. But this one was for my homies, so I took time. I also hung lots of my babylost art around my house, pieces I never display in open. These three I painted for a show next January. I shared them here already, but I hadn't seen them together.
From left to right they are: I Wish You Understood (But I'm Grateful You Don't), She's Not an Angel. She Was My Baby. the last one is untitled as of yet, but it is me holding a picture of Lucia. I think it might said, I want my baby, instead of a picture I can't show anyone. I'm taking suggestions.

This morning, I needed to meditate, so I painted some jizo cards. I just needed to sit and clear my head after all the week of busy.

And I started a jizo wall in my studio, since I have so many dang jizos around. I have some in my lounge, so I need to get them on the, fun, fun.