How did you get started as an artist? What obstacles did you have to overcome to get where you are?
I have been an artist for as long as I can remember. I've always had a fondness for skeletons and devils. I remember as a kid, my grandmother gave me a batman watch and a rubber devil. I endowed my devil with super powers and loved playing with him. As a kid I used to draw devil faces on homework, not all of the teachers were okay with this. Even my dad once asked me "when are you going to stop being so weird?" He doesn't remember this now, and insists that he supported me in all my endeavors, I find it's best to let him have that belief.
I was lucky in that I had a job that I enjoyed, but they hired a boss who hated me. I had already started doing my artwork on the side and selling hand painted glassware at farmers' markets in california, but my partner at the time and I discussed it, and I quit my job and took on artwork full time. Eventually we went from doing festivals to doing wholesale shows and being carried in several museum and gift stores across the US. I am now in just a couple of shops. After my partner, Chris, passed away, it was hard for me to keep everything going full force. I've managed to keep things going, on a smaller scale.
What are some of the traditional ways of celebrating Day of the Dead, and how have these traditions inspired your art?
Day of the Dead is a holiday that I've known about for as long as I can recall. I have always had a fondness for skulls and devils, but after Chris died, my skulls took on a more realistic tone than the ones that came before. Early on they were more like interpretations of skulls, rather than depictions of actual skulls. Once Chris was diagnosed with cancer things changed for me. I did one of him and his dog, called Mejores Amigos ("best friends"). I wanted to honor him while he was still here with me. After he passed away I took a year off from illustrating, but the first one I did was for him and it was going to be a black and while illustration. He loved the black and white ones that I had done. But after I was finished with it, I knew that it needed some grey for depth. Then, I decided it could use a little bit of yellow, then a lot of pink. I eventually decided that Chris would forgive me for adding so much color to it. I called it Ramillete del Luto ("mourning bouquet"). For a couple of years after that, my illustrations were significantly more realistic than before. After a couple of years, the playfulness returned and while the skulls were still more realistic than before, they were also having a pretty good time.
Ramillete del Luto ("Mourning Bouquet")
Many people are scared of death, and do everything they can to avoid thinking about it. I find it fascinating that in your work, you are able to focus on death in a way that is joyful and life affirming. How are you able to approach such a potentially dark subject in an uplifting way?
Day of the Dead is November 2nd, but it is a holiday I celebrate all year long. I don’t think a day goes by that I don’t think of someone who made an impact on my life and is now, at least physically dead. Relatives, friends, icons, pets. I think about them all, from Karen Carpenter to my grandmother, from Phantom, a cat we found and tried to save but didn’t make it, to Snowflake, a family dog that we were all sure would outlive the family-out of spite if nothing else, to Kelly, a dear friend who died of an AIDS related illness many years ago, and to Chris who passed away in 2010.
These beings, any many more, are always haunting my thoughts (I mean that in a good way) and sometimes I find myself talking out loud to them, or laughing at something they did or said years ago. I find that sometimes I am saddened by the loss of their physical presence, but I am always glad for the time, brief as it may have been, that I spent with my dear family and friends, and my relationship with them is as real to me as any relationship with those breathing beings who are also celebrated parts of my life.
Can you share some of the most meaningful images you have created over the years?
Mejores Amigos (best friends) is one I did to honor Chris and his dog Penny. I did this after he was diagnosed because I wanted to honor him while he was still here with me.
Ramillete del Luto (mourning bouquet) is the first illustration I did after Chris passed away. It was originally supposed to be black and white, but pink and yellow snuck in there.
Sueño (dream) is probably my favorite illustration that I've ever done. People love it, after they hear the story behind it, they hate it until they hear the story. It is based on a dream I had about a dozen years ago. Here is the story of the dream:
I am standing in a rickety boat on a stormy sea. I can hear the thunder and see the lighting all around us. There is a man in a red suit.
A nice suit. Very red. He binds my legs together and my arms to my sides. He then lifts me over his shoulders and tosses me in the shark infested waters.
I felt myself die, but it wasn’t what I expected. I remember becoming part of the fish that ate me, and as they were eaten by larger fish I felt myself become part of them. Inversely as I was broken down to the tiniest elements possible I found that I became the sea.
As the water evaporated to form new clouds I felt myself become sky.
As the sky turned dark and rained down I felt myself become rain.
As the rain landed on the ground I felt myself become earth.
And as the earth fed the roots of the trees and plants I felt myself become whole. I was never ending. A constant and continuing evolution into something new and something old, into something that’s always existed.
Unlike most dreams this one stayed as I woke. I knew it was just a dream, but then I thought to myself “what makes you so sure this isn’t a dream as well?”
How has your work changed over the years, and what are your goals as an artist for the future?
I think my work has changed to better reflect who I am. For several years I worked on illustrations that were requested by folks. They wanted to see themselves. I still do this, but I also make it a priority to do what I want to see. To honor the ones who meant something to me. To release something in me. I think that my artwork, which is centered around death, is a way to help folks deal with a subject that most people ignore until they must face it. It is meant to show that no matter how much we feel alone when facing death, ours or someone else's, we aren't really alone. It has been faced by everyone who was here before us and it will be faced by everyone who is here now. It is the most "in common" thing we have, regardless of where you are on the political spectrum, religious spectrum, or any spectrum you use to divide the universe. By facing it now, it doesn't become the enemy at our door, it becomes the crazy uncle at the wedding. The uncle that no one wants to talk to, but he's always there. On that day when it's time for us to go, death will be that crazy uncle. He's always been there and we always avoided him as much as we could. But when he's the only other one in the room with us, we'll be glad for his company.