The Art of Death

Kate Heyhoe weaves Dreams of the Dead via sugar skulls

The Art of Death
Photos by John Anderson

After the death of her mother in 2008, Kate Heyhoe found herself submerged in grief and in need of an outlet. "I knew she wouldn't want me to be sad, she would want me to find a way to celebrate her life," Heyhoe says. Inspired by the festive, colorful traditions of Day of the Dead, Heyhoe came up with the idea of making her own unique style of sugar skulls. "I'm a person who cooks with garlic and onions. Sugar is definitely not my medium, but somehow I started doing it and figured it out," she recalls. It makes perfect sense that visual art would be the medium Heyhoe chose to pay tribute to her beloved mom. After all, her mother had designed distinctive wrapping papers and gift packaging for the legendary Stanley Marcus for 30 years. An amazing array of antique papers, ribbons, and art supplies that once stocked her mother's home work space are now meticulously arranged in her daughter's home workshop – an artistic legacy that continues to bear creative fruit.

The Art of Death

I first wrote about Kate Heyhoe's Dreams of the Dead sugar skulls shortly after she started making them in 2010. Recently, I received an email from the cookbook author and online food writing pioneer (see sidebar, "Before Art, Kate Heyhoe's First Act") with a video showcasing her newest works of art. With Día de los Muertos approaching, I decided to pay a visit to her Wimberley home studio to witness firsthand the evolution of her amazing creations and to see the place where they, so to speak, come to life.

Cast in store-bought molds from a sugar paste recipe she's developed, Heyhoe's skulls are nothing like the traditional Mexican calaveritas. They range from golf ball-sized mini-skulls with exterior adornments to large, almost life-sized pieces. These are not only decorated on the outside, they also contain meticulously handcrafted miniature scenes on the inside, which she calls "skullscapes." Using her mother's vast collection of handmade wrapping papers, paints, color markers, ribbons, and a lifetime of art supplies, Heyhoe adds feathers, bones, and all kinds of found objects and miniatures to create these tiny scenes. Most skulls include white or black-light LED lights that can be battery-powered or used as plug-in night-light fixtures, and many feature elaborate headdresses.

The Art of Death

Heyhoe and her husband, Thomas Way, have transformed their garage and one of the bedrooms in their lovely Hill Country home into what they call "the skull factory." The impossibly cramped yet scrupulously organized studio would bring Martha Stewart to tears. Every square inch is carefully ordered, with stacks of labeled plastic drawers containing all sorts of supplies. "When I was growing up, my mother had walls of stuff," Heyhoe says. "One wall was nothing but gift papers, another nothing but ribbons, another had boxes full of things like birds and bees and roses and sequins and stuff. That was my playground. I never grew out of that! So, things like these end up in my skulls."

Each skull undergoes nearly 30 stages of development, from casting to carving, drilling, painting, decorating, and lighting. First, Heyhoe casts the sugar into front and back molds and lets it cure partially to the right consistency so she can scoop out the interiors; next the molds are allowed to cure completely. Then comes the tricky part: drilling eyes, nostrils, LED slots, and headdress holes. Some skulls meet their demise during this step, and Heyhoe has to start over. If the skull survives the drilling, she seals the interiors with a sugar-based coating, letting it dry before sealing the exterior. After it's completely dry, the skull is airbrushed with food-grade coloring, up to three or more layers of different colors to create the desired effect, such as the copperlike patina on her Steampunk Skulls.

The Art of Death

Next, Heyhoe maps out the skullscape interior design. For this purpose, she painstakingly paints miniatures she finds in hobby stores and online. Her latest online score was a bag full of miniature plastic zombie girls, with which she is enamored. "Dollar stores are also wonderful," Heyhoe adds. "You can find all kinds of stuff to use in the skulls." Devils and angels in battle, as well as ancient Meso-American motifs, are also favorites. Before affixing the skullscape, she airbrushes, stencils, paints, or stamps interior elements and backgrounds, then sprays interior halves with acrylic sealant. After the skullscape has dried in place, the two halves are glued together; once firmly set, Heyhoe starts the process of outer decoration. For this, she dyes and rolls out sugar paste, which she purchases from baking supply stores, to make the custom cutout designs that will embellish the outside. She then hand-paints all sugar paste details with a mix of luster dust and lemon extract to add sheen.

The last steps include constructing and affixing a headdress, made from materials ranging from feathers to foam, copper to ceramics, antique papers to original art. Lastly, she introduces LED lights and seals the outside with an acrylic coating to resist fading and humidity. She recommends keeping her skulls out of direct/bright light (to retain color) and avoiding humidity. "I know," she says, "hard to do here. But indoors away from windows or bathrooms is fine." Displaying the finished works of art in glass domes works well.

The results of Heyhoe's work are stunning. The scenes are designed to be looked at from different angles, so peeking through each eye socket provides the viewer a different perspective. "Each skull tells a story, but I let the story develop on its own," says Heyhoe. "And I want each person to interpret them in whichever way they feel, to create a story of their own."

Dreams of the Dead skulls are available at Yard Dog Art Gallery; Heyhoe also customizes skulls, using submitted objects and photos. Order directly from her website:

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sugar skull, Kate Heyhoe, Dreams of the Dead, calaveras, Inside My Skull, Day of the Dead, Día de los Muertos, Thomas Way, Yard Dog, Mexic-Arte

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