To celebrate the Day of the Dead, Dia de Los Muertos, ceramicist David Gurney put his own spin on the Mexican holiday.
In spite of what many North Americans may consider a macabre subject, the artist creates endearing, cheerful-looking skeletons. The skulls’ grins are so friendly you want to smile back, or hop into the cup of hot chocolate with the skeleton who is soaking it up as if it were a hot tub.
“I’ve always kept a sense of play in my work,” said Gurney, who credits a college art teacher for telling him “If you aren’t entertained by what you are doing, others aren’t going to be either.”
Gracing the front window of Hands Gallery, where Gurney is featured artist, are lamps whose shades are empty cans of jalapeño sauce and enchiladas, with Mexican beer caps dangling like fringe. Many of the skulls have sunflowers instead of the usual hollows where the eyes once were.
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Inside the gallery are tiles painted with skeletons wearing dresses in domestic or party scenes, wall plaques with the female skeleton in full attire, the male just bare bones, and an Adam and Eve candelabra replete with birds, bugs and fruits. Small skeletons hold tiny bowls, perhaps for offerings for the gods or the spirits.
A potter since age 17, Gurney is drawn to Mexican folk art, although he is not Latino. He grew up in a neighborhood not too far from Disneyland in Garden Grove where a lot of Mexican Americans lived, giving him an early immersion into the culture. Plus, his family made frequent trips across the border.
“We would go to Ensenada and Tijuana to buy clothes and shoes and all kinds of stuff,” Gurney said. “My bedroom was full of treasures I brought back from Tijuana, everything but velvet paintings,” which even as a youngster offended his artistic sensibilities.
After getting his degree in ceramics at Cal State Fullerton, Gurney spent four years in an isolated cabin near Riverside, devouring Thoreau books, and doing his pottery. In 1988 he moved to his fiveacre Nipomo Mesa property where he organically grows his own food year-round, and produces work for Hands Gallery and for 25 years a Los Angeles gallery, Freehand.
To create his colorful pieces, Gurney mixes his paints, then applies these underglazes during the greenware stage, before the clay has been fired. Next, he fires the work in a kiln, adds clear glaze, then fires the work again.
“It’s the painting that takes a great deal of time,” he said.
Time isn’t a concern for him, as he leads a rather Zen-like exis tence, holding Buddhist gatherings at the Prado Day Center, and flying with the Good Samaritans to impoverished areas of Mexico as an interpreter, with the “Spanglish” he picked up as a kid in Orange County.
Gurney, 53, realizes he seems like a serious person, but he enjoys the balance and contrast when it comes to his work.
“It’s like I have different sides to myself.”
Reach freelance writer Lee Sutter at firstname.lastname@example.org .