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Skulls and skeletons star in art exhibit at Lakeland Community College

KIRTLAND, Ohio — Good art can thrill you to the marrow. “The Skull & Skeleton in Art: Folk Art to Pop Culture” at Lakeland Community College makes no bones about trying to do just that. College gallery director and teacher Mary Urbas has curated a perfect-for-Halloween show with more than 280 pieces from 55 artists, most local, who range in age from 18 to their 80s — an exhibit all about her beloved “skeles.” Urbas, a Cleveland Institute of Art graduate who specializes in textiles, led Lakeland teacher Susan Herrick’s “Introduction to Humanities” class through the largest exhibition space in Lake County earlier this week. She was perfectly attired for the job, sporting an “aloha bowling shirt” adorned with colorful and mischievous skulls. She and her niece (and fellow artist) Christina Selvey-Urbas created the intricately appliqued and embroidered shirt. Carved skulls dangled from her earlobes as Urbas walked students through the space and explained what they were seeing. “This is a show about death,” she said. Ah, yes, it is, but it’s a whimsical one, based more on the Mexican “Day of the Dead” kind of memento mori (“remember your mortality”). How serious can it be, really, if one piece is a necklace constructed of Victorian-era porcelain teeth? The tea stains on the incisors, by the way, are a pretty good hint either at authenticity or the artist’s intent to simulate authenticity. Then there are the dolls that conjure up thoughts of “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” a Tim Burton stop-motion animated film that starred a skeleton named Jack. Oh, and there’s the chair made of medical-school-quality fake human bones, with a real X-ray of the artist’s wife’s kidneys as the seat. One piece seems to reflect a skeleton as a harlequin. A wood-and-ceramic figure, secured to a slate base, sits chest-up, its expressive eyes staring skyward and slabs in its thorax that could be lungs opening and closing. And it’s hard not to fall in love — or at least in serious like — with a couple of mini-quilts, one featuring a skeletal Elvis (complete with gold pelvis) and one depicting the inevitable result of a caller spending too much time on hold, even if “your call is very important to us.” Ceramic masks adorn one wall, with intricate changes in the thickness of the glazing giving subtle color variations in the myriad whirls etched into them. Physics professor John Zilka created stone carvings of skulls, some as small as talismans from a Mexican bric-a-brac shop and some large enough to be at home amid the statues of Easter Island. The most popular image, though, seems to be one called “Thanatos With Cigarette,” a large piece that dominates a wall in what Urbas called “the smoking and alcohol section” of the show. The room is off to the side, just to avoid offending the sensibilities of some patrons, and among other things it features drawings of skeletal versions of Popeye and an oddly busty Olive Oyl. Skeletons as art are immensely popular — and increasingly mainstream. Naturally, there’s the whole tattoo thing and skater culture, Urbas said, but it goes beyond that. “You can get a onesie with a skull on it,” she said, referring to the one-piece staple of newborn attire. Urbas, who curates eight shows a year at The Gallery in the college’s D Building, last did a “skeles” exhibit two years ago. Its immense popularity gave her cause for the newest installation. She told Herrick’s students her goal was an exhibition of skeletons and skulls that covered the subject but incorporated “the visual impact and expression of color.” Urbas said she sought pieces that displayed the crazy, the satirical, the deep, the spiritual and the intellectual side of skeletons. It took “a good solid week of 12- to 15-hour days” to hang the show once she had determined “the story line” she wanted it to convey, Urbas said. The works are, as she said, mostly from local artists, but there also are pieces from California, New York, Minnesota, Iowa and Pennsylvania. Urbas, a self-described social-networking fiend, knew many of the artists from her days at CIA, from shows and such. But at least 10 came through contacts on Facebook. Most of the pieces are for sale, with prices ranging from $20 to $5,000. The school gets a 30 percent commission on all sales, but the money goes into the general fund, not to the Gallery. Urbas said she’s just glad she gets to put together a show that shines the spotlight on her “skele” fixation. Apparently, that makes the hard work and the, ahem, skull sweat worth it.

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