Romancing La Catrina
by Elena Díaz Bjorkquist ©2012
When I first saw José Guadalupe Posada’s etching of “La Calavera Catrina,” I was entranced by his depiction of an upper class Mexican woman’s skull. The etching was part of his series of calaveras popular in the early 1900’s. The calavera etchings soon faded from memory but were revived in the 1920’s not long after the Mexican Revolution by Jean Charlot, a French artist and historian. La Catrina became a symbol of uniquely Mexican art and has since been reproduced en masse.
The image of the skull goes back to the ancient Aztec period. Posada’s inspiration came from Mictecacihuatl (pronounced Meek-teka-see-wahdl), goddess of death and the underworld. Diego Rivera, however, was the first to portray La Catrina as a full-length figure in a Victorian dress. He painted her in his mural “Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central (Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park), standing between him and Posada.
A popular symbol during the Days of the Dead celebrations, La Catrina symbolizes not only the willingness of Mexicans to laugh at death itself, but since the original catrina was a depiction of a rich woman, it was also a reminder that death makes everyone equal in the end. La Catrina embodies the Mexican philosophy toward death—that it’s a natural part of life.
In Mexico, La Catrina has been reinterpreted in various forms, including sculpture. I admire the catrina sculptures with their carved skulls, elongated figures and elegant dresses. Rib cages are displayed through low cut necklines and the bones of their hands and feet are expertly detailed. I am fascinated by how the artists are able to carve such intricate shapes and create such elaborate costumes. As a clay artist, the idea of sculpting a catrina intrigued me. In the beginning, I didn’t really know why, just that it posed a challenge.
When I used to take clay classes, non-Latino students always asked me why I made crosses, la Virgen Guadalupe plaques, and masks from Meso-American ancient cultures. I had no ready answer, other than I was drawn to this type of art because it was a part of my culture. Most of the crosses and carved plaques were given as gifts to friends and several found their way onto the walls of my home. Whenever a family member or friend was very sick, I made them a cross with my prayers and intentions for their wellbeing. When a family member died, one of my crosses went into the coffin.
My first attempt at making a catrina turned out nothing like the Mexican ones. I labored over carving out the skull so by the time it came to making the body; I didn’t spend as much time on it. No carved bones in these hands. Yet, I was pleased with the results. She had a clunky charm to her and the coiled copper wire for her neck allowed her head to bob up and down.
The second go at making a catrina was better—at least a buyer at an arts and crafts show thought so. He admired both of the ones I’d made and pointed out the second, larger one to his wife. She didn’t want to buy it, so they left. I wasn’t surprised because he was Latino and she wasn’t. I was surprised, however, when half an hour later, they were back. He’d talked her into buying it and off they went with Catrina #2 before I had a chance to photograph her. I decided not to sell Catrina #1 after all and packed her away before anyone else could desire her. “Bobby” is now happy in the nicho of my house where I display Mexican folk art.
In my third attempt I learned a little more in constructing a catrina. I discovered that crystal glazes were great for recreating print material in the dress. The bones in the hand were still troublesome but my skulls were turning out better. I kept this catrina to use as an example of what I needed to improve. “Calla” lives in a nicho in our powder room.
Now I decided to become a serious maker of catrinas—after all, I’d sold one. I found a book that detailed the bones of a skeleton and I practiced drawing them until mine looked the same as the photos. Drawing something, however, is not easily translated into clay. It takes a lot more work to shape things out of clay and carve away until it looks like you want it to, but I find clay more expressive than drawing. Sculpting things so I can see its entirety is satisfying. Also the feel of clay in my hands allows me to be more playful. I like to feel it squishy between my fingers when it’s fresh and when it’s dried enough, that I can carve it into any shape I want. I started out sculpting wood, but after I discovered clay, I abandoned my carving tools to gather dust on the carving bench covered with spider webs in the garage. A well-known Maricopa Indian potter, Ida Redbird, once said, “good clay smells like rain.” Clay smells like wet earth after a summer monsoon storm in the desert.
To make my third catrina, I started with the skull, la calavera. First forming a round ball between my hands, I pushed the clay into a skull shape. To make sure there were no air bubbles in the ball, I pounded it with a wooden spoon I use for that purpose. Pounding clay is a stress relieving activity, one my students love. I decided to make a second skull after the hat I’d made for the first one didn’t fit. So then I had to make a second body and wound up making two catrinas at the same time.
Once I was satisfied with the shape, I carved out the eyes, nose, and mouth I’d drawn on each. I also hollowed out cheek areas and formed a neck. Through the eye holes and the neck, I was able to carve out all the clay inside the skulls. In order for an object not to blow up in the kiln, it has to be less than an inch thick or holes have to be poked into it so air can escape. I rested one of the skulls in a cup to dry while I fashioned the hat. After I decorated the hat with lace and a flower, I formed it to the skull and angled it rakishly so it would dry that way.
The next step was to make a body. I still hadn’t figured out how Mexican sculptors made the long, lithe bodies so I decided the only bones showing on my catrinas would be in the hands. Their dresses would allow them to stand. I used a funnel shaped Styrofoam base to model the bodies. The base held up the clay until it stiffened enough to stand on its own. I carved out the hand bones and added details such as ruffles, flower, and a rebozo.
Both catrinas dried for a couple of weeks before I placed them in the kiln for the first firing. The clay has to be thoroughly dried before firing or the least bit of moisture could cause it to explode. As I tell my students, it’s the process not the product so don’t think about what you’re going to do with it until your work comes out of the final firing. You can spend hours making something only to have it explode in the kiln. So enjoy the journey—the thought that goes into making something, the actual playing with the clay, the selection of glazes and the memory of our time spent together in conversation while we worked listening to jazz and Latin classical guitar. These could be all we have left of a piece that didn’t make it.
Usually if a piece makes it through the bisque firing, you can count on it making it through the glaze firing. However, one of my students had pieces that made it through both firings but she broke them getting them home. Fortunately, she was handy with ceramic glue. The Mata Ortiz potters who only do one firing tell me that after spending days making and decorating a single pot, they could lose all of their pots in a firing. They dung-fire on the ground, not in a kiln so it’s harder to control the firing temperature.
After the bisque firing, the catrinas were ready for glazes. The glazes have to be painted on three times to get the desired effect, so it’s a time consuming process. The colors of the glazes don’t look anything like the finished product will look so it’s always a surprise to open the kiln from a glaze firing to see if they came out like I envisioned. There are samples of the glazes in catalogs but they are only close approximations. Too many other factors enter into whether a color will turn out exactly what you want. A former student, a painter, didn’t continue with clay because she was used to controlling the paint. I like being surprised. When I open the kiln from a glaze firing, it’s like unwrapping Christmas gifts.
After the bisque firing the catrinas turned white. I applied white glaze on the calla lily carved on one’s dress. The glaze looked pink but turned white after the glaze firing. I didn’t attach the head until after that firing because it takes less room in the kiln not to connect them. However, I fired them on the same shelf so that the glaze on the hats and dresses turned out the same. If I’d placed them in separate parts of the kiln, they could have looked different.
After the glaze firing the finished catrinas came out like I’d hoped. The glazes I used on their dresses and hats had crystals that explode in the firing so the result looked like printed cloth. I also painted red glaze above the teeth of one of them to look like lipstick. “Lily” is enjoying a spot on the hearth in front of the dining room fireplace.
The other catrina, “Miss Blue” was a surprise. The flowers in her hat and at her waist turned blue in the glaze firing even though the glaze was supposed to be red. The blue matches her dress better so maybe she wanted it that way!
I may not have made catrinas exactly like the ones made by Mexican artists but I’ve developed my own style. Friends ask me why I’ve kept all of them. The answer I’ve given is that I’m pleased with the results and I use them as models to help me improve on their design, but on deeper reflection, I’ve come to understand it’s more than that. They are a constant reminder of my own mortality and of a near death experience when I was nine years old. Since then I have not been afraid of it. My catrinas remind me that anything can happen; not just to me, but also to my loved ones. They remind me not to leave things unsaid, quarrels unresolved, or do anything I’ll regret.
Maybe now that I have sufficient catrinas in the rooms I frequent the most, I can continue romancing La Catrina and can make more—ones that I can bear to part with. In the meantime these treasured ones smile at me from their places in my home.
Elena Díaz Björkquist (bio)
“I love that clay can be formed and fired to a near-permanent state. The act of making something out of wet earth is mysterious and enthralling. Clay offers me unseen potential and provides me with tangible signs of accomplishment and progress.
My favorite things to make out of clay are masks and Dia de los Muertos folkart. I get inspiration from ancient Meso-American, African, and Native American cultures; however, I give my own creative interpretation to the traditional forms.”
A writer, historian, and artist from Tucson, Elena writes about Morenci, Arizona where she was born. She is the author of two books, Suffer Smoke and Water from the Moon. Elena is co-editor of Sowing the Seeds, una cosecha de recuerdos and Our Spirit, Our Reality; our life experiences in stories and poems, anthologies written by her writers collective Sowing the Seeds.
As an Arizona Humanities Council (AHC) Scholar, Elena has performed as Teresa Urrea in a Chautauqua living history presentation and done presentations about Morenci, Arizona for twelve years. She recently received the 2012 Arizona Commission on the Arts Bill Desmond Writing Award for excelling nonfiction writing and the 2012 Arizona Humanities Council Dan Schilling Public Humanities Scholar Award in recognition of her work to enhance public awareness and understanding of the role that the humanities play in transforming lives and strengthening communities.
Elena is one of the poet moderators for the Facebook page “Poets Responding to SB1070 and has written many poems which have been published not only on that page but also on La Bloga. Her website is at http://elenadiazbjorkquist.com/.