WALNUT CREEK -- This is the summer of the skull.
With "The Skull Show" running at the city's Bedford Gallery through Aug. 31 and California Academy of Sciences' "Skull" exhibit open through Nov. 30, the iconic mascot of death gains its due recognition.
It's fair to say Americans have an ambiguous relationship with their own heads. Coddled when newborn, concussed in the name of physical sport, simultaneously connoting death and the immortality of evolution, skulls are common -- we all have one -- and one-of-a-kind.
Mexican culture celebrates the end-of-life a skull represents; witness their Day of the Dead. Asian traditions reflect Buddhists' belief in reincarnation, rejecting Western views on death's permanence. Religious rituals worldwide embrace mourning while we, in America, perform a dance of avoidance or denial, or so historians report.
Not surprisingly, artists' depictions of skulls are equally diverse. The collective expression of the 90 contemporary artists from all over the world represented at the Bedford includes skulls fashioned with yarn, wood, clay, silver, brass, copper, papier-mâché, rope, glass, birdseed, flowers and traditional paint and pen. From tattoos to tightly-engraved tin plates, from skateboards to surreal sculptures, the exhibit is "an international survey, with historic pieces and riveting Bay Area artists," said Bedford curator Carrie Lederer. Robert Baron, who attended the show's June 12 opening reception, agreed.
"I'm impressed by the whole range," said Barton, a 20-year Walnut Creek resident. Skulls, Barton said, have fascinated him since he was a young boy. On his phone, the 61-year-old art appreciator showed a "Midnight at the Museum" ink drawing he did at age 8 that won him the San Francisco Chronicle's "Junior Art Champ" award. "I come to the openings to meet the artists; they bring attention to unexpected aspects," he said.
Indeed, several artists with insider stories were in attendance, including Santa Cruz-based Marc D'Estout.
"I found a black plastic skull in my dad's desk when I was a kid: that was the trigger," D'Estout said about his earliest interest in objects as art. Later, World War I airplane insignia incorporating skulls in their design and Hot Rod's adoption of the counterculture symbol furthered his longtime fascination.
During a recent studio renovation, reduced to using wax and sticks, D'Estout took his handcrafted models to a local foundry to be cast in bronze.
His "Little boy (shifter)," 2005, is not unlike the tiny skull he never asked his father to explain and which still intrigues him.
Other highlights of the exhibit speak volumes, even in the absence of their creators. Fort Worth, Texas artist Helen Altman's grid of 42 mixed media skulls, "End of Day," made of everything from pickling spices to Hemp seed to coconut shells, manages to be stunning, hilarious and gruesome.
Mendocino sculptor Evan Hobart's "Carbon Child #2" ingeniously suggests prisons, road trips and related dangers.
A gelatin silver print by Gordon Parks and Robert Arneson's "Nuclear War Head #6" add historical importance to the exhibit. With artists hailing from San Leandro, Oakland, Berkeley, Castro Valley and San Francisco, the Bay Area is well represented.
Alma DeBisschop, a 37-year resident of Walnut Creek, proved visitors to the museum are as compelling as the artists.
"Actually, we have lots of skulls in our backyard," she said, when asked what drew her to the exhibit. Quickly correcting a possible false impression, she added, "I mean animals -- family pets who died and are underground, of course."
Ellen Williams and Brad Macy, a Concord couple whose "Room with a View" by Hobart is on loan for the exhibit, predicted some people will be uncomfortable contemplating their mortality.
Even so, they said the Bedford exhibit "elevates the art consciousness of the suburban community" and proved skull-centric art is more inspiring than scary.