Sunday, February 19, 2012

OBJECT #3: Replica skulls

    I’m not quite sure why I have a skull collection on the mantle in my basement workshop.  I’ve never been a collector of any sort (although I do remember collecting those “Wacky Cards” when I was a kid-- the ones that came with bubble gum and featured silly ads for funny (parody) products such as “Vomit Cleanser” and “Swiss Mess” hot chocolate packets).  (Okay, I did keep all my baby teeth in a little plastic case, but wasn’t throwing them out at the end of that silly Tooth Fairy charade a bit of a waste?)  And though I admire naturalists who have vast collections from nature, I’ve never really thought of myself as one.   Sure, I had a fetal pig in a jar as part of my bedroom decor when I was about 12, but I had normal things, too, like Star Trek posters on the wall and stuffed animals on my bed.

    I think my adventures with skulls began when I started teaching art.  I was looking for interesting shapes that my students could draw using only a monochrome pallet (no color).  I wanted objects that were odd enough that the students wouldn’t be overly concerned about getting it to look “just right.”   I think I saw these replica skulls in a surplus catalog (probably American Science and Surplus) and thought the price was low enough that I didn’t have much to lose if they turned out to be a disappointment.  When they arrived I was quite delighted with them and they’ve been a standard still life item in my art classes every since.  They are made of tough resin, and are therefore practically indestructible, but are so lifelike that my students often don’t realize they aren’t real.  I’ve got a coyote, a cougar, an ape, and a small monkey.  I would have purchased more, but those were the only skulls listed.  That’s surplus for you.

    My favorite assignment is to have the students draw the skulls using black and white conte pencils on gray paper.  I’ve found that this is assignment almost always produces nice drawings, even with beginning students.  I’ve also had them try white pencil on black paper, and this works pretty well, too.

    I’ve always had in the back of my mind that I would use these skulls somehow as part of a hands-on exhibit in my summer science museum project (a free hands-on science museum at various outdoor venues in my town).   I have a few other skulls I could use, too, as well as a picture book I came across, “The Skull Alphabet Book” by Jerry Pallota.  This book is the most kid-friendly skull book I’ve ever seen.  It was a “must-purchase” for me.  The whimsical sense of humor is so right down my alley, and I love the simple and striking (artistic) compositions on each page.   It’s a brilliant combination of science, humor and artwork.  (I don’t understand why the author felt compelled to hide the faces of US presidents in the pictures, but, oh well.)   The first page sets the tone: Warning-- this book contains the alphabet. If you are afraid of the alphabet, do not read any further,”  What a clever way to get the focus of the skulls being scary!  After reading, “A is for... we are not going to tell you!” I was sold.  It’s an engaging book that makes you think while you are reading.  Some day I will think of a way to combine this book with my skull collection and make a fun hands-on exhibit.   Until then, I guess both my collection and the book are... “junk in my basement.”  


  1. That looks like a terrific book! We have almost 400 acres in Oklahoma and I found a skeleton there a few months ago! I was sad that I couldn't find the skull, though I found a LOT of other bones - including the mandible. I think it might be a coyote. Then, just a few weeks later, I found the skeleton of a cat in a friend's backyard! He lives near some woods and saw a bear a few weeks ago! (This was in Florida.) Again, unfortunately, the skull was missing. Drat! I hope to find a skull some day!

  2. P.S. I'd love to see an example of the art work you mentioned! I am in the middle of my first-ever drawing class myself! I'd love to try to draw a skull...or some other bone.

  3. I'll have to see if I have any bone drawings lurking. Of course, my students all took their drawings home, so I don't have those drawings. Occasionally I do a sample ahead of time-- I can't remember if I did a bone one.

    The only skull I've actually dug and cleaned myself is a cow skull I found in a refuse pile at my in-laws' farm. But it had already been mostly cleaned out by bugs and bacteria, so all I had to do was scrub it with bleach then set it in the sun. I've seen the Dirty Jobs episode featuring professional bone cleaners, and I'm pretty wimpy compared to them! I still have a few more bones and skills for future posts. (Like the vulture skull I found, believe it or not, at a yard sale.) Nice to know other folks are interested in bones and skulls! ;)