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Crystal Schenk turns bones and beads into poetic ruminations on loss, memory, deprivation, and death. Infusing beadwork traditions from the indigenous Huichol people of the Sierra Madre mountains in Mexico with personal meanings, the Portland-based artist makes moving memento mori using homegrown crystals, vibrant beads, and authentic animal skulls. “By cultivating crystals over objects,” she explains, “I create overnight a sense of the preciousness that can take mineral formations millennia to grow.” The crystal clusters that emerge to coat the skulls of steer and other animals have a precious shimmer like piles of salt. In the vanitas tradition, salt is a reminder that life can be bitter. But for Schenk the semblance of salt as a preservative alludes to art’s aspiration to immortalize transient beauty and turns the remains of unknown animals into emblems of her personal memories.
Schenk makes these connections more explicit with her beaded skulls. “The imagery that I tap into comes from random sources,” she says, “icons of power or aggression that I see repeatedly and linger in my mind.” Her iconography for the “Revolución” series includes a U.S. Civil War–era syringe, antique pistols, video game graphics, and quartz. For Revolución, she covered a delicate unidentified skull with red, blue, gray, black, and white beads depicting the colonial star, and twin antique pistols design on her favorite from tequila bottle’s label. An alligator skull she bought in New Orleans served as the base for a lavender and yellow design disrupted by eighties-style graphics of an explosion and green grenade.
Schenk’s earlier work was more subtly contemplative. For her 2012 installation Artifacts of Memory, she separated 1,100 silk rose petals containing magnets by a one-inch gap. Half of the petals ascend from the floor on transparent wire while their twins hang above them, nearly touching at her eye-level. Magnetic attraction and gravity maintain the distance between the petals. As she explains, “If the pods were any closer together, the magnetic force would rip the pods from their tethers and they would snap together. Any farther apart and they would draw slack and succumb to the force/influence of gravity. Yet in this balance, the attraction is strong enough that you can hold your hand in between the two.”
Separated by a sliver of space, the magnetized petals communicate Schenk’s feelings of loss and longing following her mother’s suicide. Schenk chose petals to represent her mother’s hobby of drying homegrown flowers. “This pastime was not nearly as elegant a hobby as traditional Japanese floral arrangement,” she says, “but it was still an art form in her own Midwestern manner. The silk petals are a tribute to my mother in this way, more of a personal symbol. While the petals are not from my mother’s body, in many ways they are a stand in for her physicality and former vitality.” Schenk traces this theme throughout her work, using real and imagined natural references to mourn and to draw attention to the urgency of appreciating life as it passes.
This article is published in Whitewall‘s spring 2015 issue.