Of Minks and Monkey Skulls: Creating when you don't know what you're doing

It's perverse, really, but it really is my favorite kind of project:  when someone asks me to do something I've never, ever done.  Never thought of doing.  And have no idea how to go about doing.  I love that moment when the idea comes like a flash, sort of a picture of how it all might fit together.



A few months ago, I was asked by a virtual stranger to wire wrap a couple of mink skulls.  We'd been having a casual conversation at a mutual friend's house, and I mentioned that I work with copper wire.  So he brought me two mink skulls and asked me to make small wall hangings from them.  I'd never worked with bone before, but I thought, "How hard could it be?"


The thing I didn't know is that tiny little skulls have all the tensile strength of tiny little eggshells in the thinner parts, depending on how they've been cleaned and handled.  My usual methods of wrapping stones usually put a fair amount of stress on the stone.  That obviously wouldn't work here. I tried--very gingerly--to start something like a cage wrap, but every time my pliers slipped a little, my heart stopped. 


Because the skulls weren't mine to start with, I didn't want to do anything that would damage them.  Aside from the obvious need to avoid breaking the skulls with my pliers, it meant no drilling (as I haven't used drills often and didn't want to shatter the bone) and no wrapping wire around the fragile spots.  Before I started this project, I had been playing with various kinds of weaves for texture.  I decided that a weave might be a good place to start; it would be pliable enough to cradle the skull without scarring it up. A wire netting across an oval frame made a sturdy backing to attach wires to, and two wires passed through the spinal opening and out the mouth held the skull in place while weaving.  A woven wire "bridle" further secured the skull without putting too much tension in any one place.


I was pretty pleased with myself.  The client was too; when I delivered the mink skulls, he was delighted. So delighted, in fact, that he handed me a monkey skull and a pile of feathers and told me he trusted my "artistic judgment."


 Right then, that monkey skull was the scariest thing I'd ever seen.  I sat it on my workbench, right where it looked me in the eyes every time I sat down.  I'd pick it up, turn it over, put it back down again.  Maybe shape some wire, sketch some ideas.  But there was no "aha!" moment where I knew just how I was going to put this beast together.


 In the end, it's easiest to build on what you already know.  That mink skull had taught me a bit about unusual structure.  I started with a variation on the same method that I used to build the mink's backing.  I would attach this to the skull with wires through the naturally existing holes; eye sockets, nostrils, mouth.  


For the rest of the piece, I decided to go with the first thing I usually think of when looking at feathers: a big fan.  Several of the feathers the client gave me to use were large parrot feathers; these would go behind and offset the smaller, bright blue feathers.  To hold everything together, I wove a fan-shaped frame and netting.


The hardest part was wrapping in the feathers.  I had never done anything with feathers at all.  Like, ever.  The quills split easily, and they don't just lie flat for you to wrap them neatly.  They have minds of their own.  I wrapped the feathers (all of them!) individually so one twisting or turning wouldn't disturb the others around it.


The last bit, and the most fun bit, was attaching the skull and its frame to the feathers and their frame.  Why fun?  Because this is where I got to decorate the monkey's face.

I wanted to make something that looked like tribal tattoos, but that kept the monkey snug against the frame.  I shaped the spirals and attached them to the mesh frame by threading them through the natural openings in the skull, and then wrapped the mesh frame to the wire of the feather fan.  Per the client's request, I added some wire braids as decoration.



And he loves it.  Every time I see him, he greets me as "The Artist," and tells whomever he's with about these amazing skulls he's got in his house.  These kinds of projects epitomize why I make things.  To discover new ways of doing things, and to create something that's more than the sum of its parts.  That's the point of it all, really.


So go do something new.  Pick up something strange, something you wouldn't ordinarily use, and see what you can make out of it.  When you set a challenge for yourself, you'll likely find yourself rising to it.







I especially love the mink skulls!

Thank you!

Thank you very much, BriggidlyPunk!

nice post

nice post

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