The inspiration for this piece began about three months ago while visiting a Diebenkorn exhibit. I overheard a comment by one of the docents referencing an object placed within one of the paintings (I forget which one) as a “memento mori”. Her utterance of the term immediately brought me back to my undergraduate art history classes. I was struck by the idea and wanted to begin sketching immediately but I hadn’ t brought a pen or paper because I had ridden to the museum on my motorcycle. I resolved myself to begin creating some kind of work around this theme as soon as time would permit.
About 6 weeks ago I began researching and sketching for the creation of my own memento mori. As I mentioned last month, I was later invited to submit a sketch for a South American “Day of the Dead” Pyramid tribute for Burning Man this year. The sketch was accepted and set to be placed upon one of the blocks which would comprise the pyramid. The image was to be printed onto a sheet of vinyl and then mounted onto one of the blocks of the pyramid. Unfortunately, finances and family commitments prevented me from attending the event, but I assume that everything went according to plan?
Since this piece was much larger than the mock-up it took me quite a bit of time to complete it using scratchboard. In order to remain relatively consistent with the sketch I had previously submitted, I tinted the image with watercolor and color pencil after completing the initial black and white scratching process. For those of you not familiar with the medium, Scratchboard is a white clay board that is blacked over with ink. The image is then scratch back out using various scratching tools (X-acto knives, scalpels, tattoo needles…). The process is actually drawing using a reverse, subtractive approach. When drawing with a pen or pencil one adds marks and shading – while scratchboard creates shading by revealing the white clay beneath the ink.
When coloring the board it must first be covered with some kind of clear fixative in order to keep the ink from running when the dyes or watercolor are applied to the surface. For some reason, I wasn’t obtaining the effect I normally prefer and decided to add some color pencil for additional texture and opacity.
The symbols placed within this work all center around the theme of death. The animated skeleton sitting just outside of his open grave site (lower portion) hints at the notion of life after death, resurrection…while the comic caption-like heart shape spouting from his head is indicative of discussions regarding life review, judgment, and the undying power of love. I intentionally wanted some of the references to be more open to differing various mythologies concerning death and the afterlife.
The two standing figures on each side represent Aunbis (Greek), Anpu/Inpu (Egyptian) the Egyptian god of death. Anubis was responsible for: the protection of tombs and burial grounds/sites, guiding souls to the underworld, and judging their hearts upon the scales in order to decide whether or not the soul was worthy of eternal life. I purposely made the two images slightly different in order to create more variety in the composition. The function of Anubis as a guardian of tombs and judge fits in well with the imagery of the skeleton emerging from his tomb and conducting his own life review as seen in the caption.
The middle caption-like portion is an attempt to lighten up the theme a bit. It was added later in the design process after I began to deliberately link my design to the Burning Man project. Since the Day of the Dead carries more festive connotations I thought it would be good to lighten up the overall composition a bit. The skeleton below is remembering love in his life (the caption-like heart) but still doing so as if he were dead – hence the skeleton within the caption. In addition, he is seated next to a succubus. The succubus is a demonic mythical creature which was believed to seduce men in their sleep. During the act of intercourse, the succubus would drain them of their life force. In this instance, the skeleton is actually not remembering his life, but his dream through which he was drained of his essence!
The skull at the top of the image is representative of the traditional Euroethnic notion of memento mori that can be found throughout the euroethnic art-historical cannon. The symbol placed upon the skull’s forehead is the Japanese character for death.
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