Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Bejeweled scarabs, roaches, and other fantastic bugs

I used to have a jeweled Makech scarab just like the one pictured above when I was a kid. I got him during a trip to Veracruz. According to Raul Ybarra's Biblioteca de Joyeria, (Library of jewels, in Spanish) the Makech (or Maquech) are a variety of beetles from the Yucatan Peninsula. Different from other coleoptera, the Makechs are wingless. They live in decaying trees, and absorb nutrients and moisture from bark. To ancient Mexicans the association with jewelry was probably obvious: These animals have a light golden pronotum and their black, metal like legs adhere to fabric just like velcro. Yucatecans painted them and would add little crystals in order to sell them as "living jewelry". The Makech are slow, yet a little "leash" is attached to them so they can walk around without getting lost. According to Ybarra the Makech spend most of their life as larvae, once they reach full maturity they stop eating and breathing until they eventually die.

There is a legend behind the use of Makech as jewelry. Like many other Mexican legends (the one about vanilla, and the legend of the volcanoes) this one has to do with tragic love:
A beautiful Mayan princess is not allowed to marry a prince from a rival clan. Heartbroken, she stops eating and drinking, preferring to die than to live without her lover's embrace. Before dying, a powerful Medicine Man (a "Chaman") takes pity on her and transforms her into a Makech beetle, a beautiful living broach for the prince to wear on his chest, right next to his heart.

On a less romantic note: To the naked eye these animals don't seem to have a mouth, eyes or an anus. They don't appear to drink water, eat or produce waste. Native people of the Yucatan used to say that the Makech could live to be a hundred years, miracously surviving by "eating" the air around them. The lack of water and waste may have prompted the enterprising folks at Industrias Makech (creators of ecological waterless urinals) to adopt a Makech as their symbol.

To the Egyptians the beetle was also a powerful symbol associated with immortality. You can read an amazing article by Yves Cambefort about beetles as religious symbols at bug bios. Mr. Yves claims that "Ornaments used by traditional cultures are not purely for decorative appeal; they posses an auspicious nature believed to increase the bearer's strength. Therefore, as often as possible, edible objects are used as ornaments, especially if they have additional aesthetic qualities and shamanic symbolism". That statement made a lot of sense to me. There are more than 80 species of edible scarabs in Mexico. Families of the the Cerambycidae, Scarabaeidae, Melolonthidae and Passalidae are eaten in the larva stages, often called "gusanos". Adult edible scarabs are called "Chahuis" or "Xamoles". The image below comes from wikipedia's Gastronomia Prehispanica de Mesoamerica. It shows edible larvae and toasted scarabs. Some bugs like "jumiles" (or Chumiles) are eaten while they are still alive. Eating live insects may have root in ritual, and it is possible that to ancient Mexicans there was also an association between scarabs and immortality, but I haven't been able to find any research supporting that. Still.....I think the subject is fascinating: Scarabs as jewelry, a possible shamanic symbol, and you can also eat them!

Of couse, everything old is new again. Jared Gold, fashion designer for Black Chandelier claims he invented the trend of living insect jewelry. His creations were featured in the show America's Next Top Model. Ironically, Mr. Gold uses an insect with less than sacred associations, alluding instead to images of dirt and urban decay: Cockroaches. I think it is interesting that the one similarity between roaches and scarabs is resiliency. When asked by the Washington Post about his inspiration Mr. Gold replied: "You know, the whole thing where we make collections of clothes and this came to me. You know, it is my job to come up with new things like this. It is what I do". In the same interview he also mentions the trend of living things as ornamentation, specifically Victorian ladies wearing baby monkeys on their hats. He vaguely references the Mexican Makech: "A version of this originated in South America. Women would pin a dead beettle to a cork and wear it on their dress. As far as live insects go, we are Patient Zero". You can see the full transcript of the interview at Black Chandelier. or The Washington Post (The image below comes from the Washington Post).

Back to my pet beetle: Little Mac the Makech came to live with me more than 30 years ago. As soon as we arrived to Mexico City I removed the jewels from his head and body because I believed it was cruel for him to wear them. I made a habitat for him in one of my mother's potted plants, where he was allowed to just be a scarab. He would slowly climb on the plant, at times he would hang on a dry branch for long periods of time. He passed on several months later. I buried his remains in the park in front of our condo, under a large tree where I also buried the remains of Grumpy, my hamster and Athos and Portos, my two turtles.

Finally, you may wonder what inspired me to post this? While browsing at Kinokuniya, one of my favorite bookstores in Japantown, I came across a book featuring Keisuke Kishi's amazing sculptures. They spoke to me of Makech, imagination, ingenuity and layers of history and meaning that go beyond a fashion trend.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Inspiration Board: Gothic Mexican Wedding

I used to sell my original Day of the Dead bride and groom figurines on E-bay. Several folks told me that they used my figurines as toppers for their wedding cakes. I was incredibly flattered, having my art be a part of someone's special day. Hoping to colaborate with wedding planners and other artists I came up with this inspiration board. Many designers use these boards to help their customers choose a color scheme and a theme for their wedding.

The concept:
The inspiration for this board came from bull fights, the Day of the Dead holiday and embroidery. The colors are basic black and white and fuchsia (or "Rosa Mexicano" as we call it in Mexico). The feeling is slightly Gothic, but modern. I wanted to avoid the obvious chili peppers, maracas and colors usually associated with a Mexican theme wedding. Here's more information about the items, from right to left:

Clothing and accesories:
Bolero Jacket. The amazing southern gothic designs from Bayou Salvage are made with recycled, reclaimed and vintage materials. If you happen to travel to New Orleans make sure to visit them...or shop on-line at Etsy. The concept is southern gothic, but I think a senorita would feel right at home wearing one of their lacy bolero jackets. Guayaberas. Traditional Guayaberas are light weight shirts for men, they come in a variety of designs. The ones pictured in black and white are gorgeously embroidered, you can get them from Caracteristico. The pink and onyx earrings are from Bryan Johnson Creations. The Wedding Lasso is traditional in many Mexican weddings, it symbolizes the couple's new life together. In my board I included a double fresh Jasmine lei from leijl.com , instead of a more commonly used rosary shaped lasso.

The Cake
The beautiful black and white "brushed embroidery" cake is from The Butter Cream Studio in the San Francisco area. The realistic fuchsia anemone flowers are edible. Tracy, the owner and head baker is truly a cake artist!

The Cake Topper
The inspiration for this post: this topper is very detailed, but no taller than 3.5 inches tall. The bride and groom are cast together, they are carefully painted and decorated with tulle netting. Please contact me directly if you are interested in one, I can customize the colors of the figurine so it matches your wedding colors.

The Venue:
I wanted to keep the feeling of the board light and contemporary. An event like this could be held at a museum, art gallery or a hotel. The image in the inspiration board is from Habita Hotel in Monterrey, Mexico. Habita is a slick, modern hotel decorated in a clean and simple black and white palette.

The fuchsia anemones and eggplant mini calla lily bouquet comes from Ambience Floral Design, in Sacramento.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Dia de las Mulitas: Making a Corn Husk Mule

Do you need a little affordable favor for a Mexican themed party? Even if you have no crafting experience you can make one of these little corn husk mules! Traditionally these mules are made out of dry palm leaves, but here I'm using corn husks, widely available at Hispanic markets. You could also use stiff crepe paper, if you can't find corn husks. These little mules are easy enough for kids to make with adult supervision, the design can be adapted to create other animals. Scroll down for instructions.

The tradition:
I remember street vendors selling dozens of little mules in a variety of sizes around June the 11th, while I was growing up in Mexico City. The origin of the "Day of the Mules" tradition is obscure. I heard it originated when church goers saw a mule kneel down during mass. The believers were amused so they decided to remember mules on the Thursday before the feast of Corpus Christi.

Villagers would also bring their wares to the city on the back of mules, in order to celebrate this feast and sell their merchandise, so maybe that is how the celebration ended up being associated with these animals.

I believe there could also be an older pre-hispanic tradition having to do with the summer harvest but I haven't been able to find much information. Whatever the reason, I think it is a charming tradition to keep alive. To make your "mulitas" you'll need the following materials:

  • One bag of dry corn husks, traditionally used to make tamales
  • Several strands of raffia
  • Embroidery floss
  • Sticky glue (I use Eileen's)
  • Match sticks
  • Scissors
  • Miniature embellishments (mini pots, dry flowers, beads, glitter, etc.)
Start by soaking the corn husks in water for about 30 minutes until they become soft and pliable. For mule that is about 3 inches tall you'll need two to three husks

Once the husks are soft, dry them with a towel. Trim the pointy ends with scissors. Start by rolling one husk in order to create a cylinder as thick as a pencil or a drinking straw. Corn husks have veins. It is easier to roll the husks in the direction of the veins, not against them.

Once your husk is rolled tie one end with the embroidery floss in order to create a snout. Trim with scissors. Bend the end of the cylinder to create a head.

Cut a piece of husk and fold it under the head you just created. Pull the ends up in order to create the mule's ears.
Tie the "ears" together with a piece of raffia. This will create the mule's face and will keep everything in place.

Tie the raffia tightly behind the head, them trim the ends. Secure the knot with a little bit of glue. Trim the ears with your scissors and make them pointy.

Take another husk and wrap it around the neck of your mule. Tuck the rest of the neck under the body you just created.

Securely tie down the mule's body and neck. Wrap the rest of the husk around to the front of the body.

Wrap everything together tightly and tie once again. If necessary add more leaves to bulk up the body.
Cover a match stick with sticky glue and wrap around the end of it with a piece of corn husk. Tie one of the ends to crate "hoofs". Do this four times.

Add a dot of glue to an end of the match and stick it to the body of the mule, to create the legs. If necessary sharpen the match sticks a little bit with an x-acto knife. Don't forget to supervise kids and keep them away from sharp objects.

Repeat the process with all the legs. Stand your mule up and pose it to your liking. You can manipulate the legs while the glue is still wet.
Take small pieces of corn husk and raffia and wrap them around the neck and extremities in order to strengthen the pieces if necessary. You can also create a tail with raffia if you want. You now have a basic mule ready to decorate!

The miniature basket and shovel come from "Create-a- Mission", suppliers of school project materials. The mini pottery is from Mexico, but you can easily create some with self-hardening clay available at craft stores. I also use yarn and fabric scraps to create mini saddles, and match sticks to make a crate. Have fun creating your mules!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

New Fabric: Merman

Last month I posted a sketch of a merman figurine I made. I cleaned up the image and had this new fabric created. I turned the image upside down in order to create a two way layout. The gray blue stripes repeat horizontally. I hope the color palette conveys a peaceful, quiet mood...sort of like a crisp cool day at the beach.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Hacienda Colors: Accurate splendor, or marketing ploy?

The folks at Hacienda Style have created a collection of paints for those that want to bring the feel of an hacienda to their own home! I like how they posted interior photos that illustrate the color swatch in a real room.

The names of the paints are aptly named in Spanish, from fun names like "Cantaloupe Sorbet" to others that invoke history like "Maya Gold". I could almost swear that my bedroom is painted in "Cantaloupe Sorbet". I also like how the colors are subtle, not the usual garish colors associated with Mexican design north of the border.

There are different schools of thought when it comes to haciendas in Mexico. Some folks see haciendas as bitter reminders of colonial times synonymous with exploitation of indigenous workers, while others see them as historic symbols of romantic times gone by.

The style and aesthetics of haciendas have received some new attention lately. Many of these properties have been restored by foreign nationals living in Mexico, and are now being used as tourist attractions and hotels. The folks at Hacienda Style literally wrote the book(s) on the subject.

In the same vein of different schools of thought: Is it this a wonderful effort to preserve and bring attention to a historic way of life, or an attempt to pre-package and market a period in time by non-Mexican folks...to a non-Mexican audience? What do you think?

If you are interested in the Hacienda Color collection visit Pittsburg Paint's "The Voice of Color"

Monday, June 1, 2009

Pajaritos y luchadoras

Have a wonderful Monday, enjoy some amazing
bird/Mexican wrestler themed graphic art by Milk