Skulls And Bones | Santa Fe Monthly - November 5, 2014

"It hit me like a bolt from the beyond: deceased wild animals are ancestors too."

I’ll start with full disclosure: I am obsessed with ancestors. I feel like we owe our existence to them on the most fundamental level: if they hadn’t lived, we wouldn’t be here. Even though they may have dealt with poverty, persecution and perils, they also knew how to survive, which is no meager accomplishment.

So one day, about a year ago, when my husband Paul and I were at Ted Turner’s Vermejo Park Ranch in Raton, New Mexico, I found myself staring at an elk skull on the ground. It hit me like a bolt from the beyond: deceased wild animals are ancestors too. They had children who ran and gamboled, grazed, and maybe died, and they needed to be remembered too. And I am not sure how I made this leap, but I decided that I had to memorialize them.

First, I gathered bones everywhere I went on the 593,000 acre ranch. Skulls, leg bones, vertebrae, scapulae, ribs. I piled them into our car, and Paul good-naturedly agreed to drive around with the smell of putrifying animal meat that clung to the bones. He said he was a little concerned that a police officer would stop us and think we were serial killers who were looking for a place to bury the evidence.

Next, I tried to find a taxidermist who would clean the bones, which was a difficult affair. Most of them were busy preparing beasts for display in homes and hunting lodges and museums. But my animal bones wanted to be cleaned, so I finally found Sierra Taxidermy in Espanola, where they soaked the bones for almost a week. When I picked them up, I was awed by their pristine, alabaster, sculptural beauty. I just kept holding them, touching them, examining them, hoping they would tell me what they wanted me to do. 

Finally, they did. They wanted to be transformed into art. So I went all over Santa Fe, buying paints, finding objects to adhere to the bones, collecting bits of wallpaper, yarn, pennies, jewelry, colored washcloths, safety pins, paper flowers. And then I took one bone at a time, and asked it what it wanted to be. One skull wanted to be a tribute to the allergy clinic where my husband was treated, so I used a mask, nose clips, and the other indignities of allergy testing. Another said it wanted to be a girlie skull, so it became a riot of pinkness, with lush, purple grapes that signify fertility and are also a nod to girls who like to tipple. A foreleg bone was clearly the long arm of the Inquisition, decorated with the colors of the Spanish and Portuguese flags. A lower elk jaw transformed into an ode to dental work, replete with gold inlays (to honor the Maya dentists who gilded royal choppers), dental floss and dental pics. A leg bone became an homage to my ancestors in the shtetls of Eastern Europe—who dressed plainly during the week and then put on the shtetl ritz and glitz for the Sabbath.

Somehow, in the process, the human ancestors and the animal ancestors became one, with the latter generously suggesting human ancestral themes. It was all the same: animal forebears with forelegs and human forebears without them. One afternoon, I picked up a string of vertebrae that had fallen apart during the soaking process. It was as clear as the nib on the bones: the mothers were the spines of their families, and each vertebra became a different kind of mother: a blabbermouth mother, a Mary Kay mother, a mother who was going nuts from her kids, a mother who was crazy, but a good cook, a loving mother, a mother having a bad hair day. Every time I lifted up a spinal column bone, another mother cried out to be acknowledged.

One of the biggest surprises of my ancestral bone art adventure was that two of the hunting guides at Vermejo, who only took me hunting for bones, started sending me parts of skeletons in the mail. Gene Coons provided me with antlers, skulls, and leg bones. I transformed the first rack into an ode to autumn: with the vibrant colors of aging leaves, and the red blood that splattered when they were shot. Frank Long sent me a petrified whale vertebra; it probably weighs 10 pounds. I observed it for a while, and then it became a beachgoer, maybe in the l920’s, replete with contemporary sunglasses.

I am not sure what I will do with the ancestor art bones. Sell them? Put them back on the land? Keep them around me to remind me to honor all those who came before me? The bones told me what they wanted to be. And I have confidence they will tell me where they want to go.