Heather Calderon has a thing for skeletons. And after one glance at her Hollywood, Florida home and workspace, that fact becomes abundantly clear. Skeletons and skulls line the shelves, decorate the walls, and make up the majority of the subject matter of Calderon’s oil paintings which mix the horrific with the humorous and the macabre with the merry. But what led to this fascination with the human frame? We spoke with Calderon about just that and more including her process, her inspiration, and her plans for the future in this installment of Show Us Your Space.
How did you get started?
When I was 9 years-old I used to get chronic sinus infections and so I had to go to the doctor and get an x-ray of my face. When I was a kid I always wanted to have a peek at horror movies. My mom would say “Look away! Look away!” but I was looking. So this was kind of the same thing. So I was like, “Please let me look!” And the doctor said, “This might traumatize her.” But my mom said, “She can handle it” and when I saw my own skull it really impacted me. At first, I felt relief because it looked normal. I expected it to look that there’d be something wrong with it, and when I got over the initial shock of it, I thought, “Wow, that is really something. That’s beautiful. That’s how I look under there.” And then I started seeing everybody around that way and seeing things like the bone structure and it started this fascination with skeletons. And I started drawing them over and over and over. That’s the earliest memory.
At that age, when you first saw the X-ray, were you already an artist?
Yes, I’ve always been artistic, I was born this way. My earliest memory of drawing was probably when I couldn’t even talk and holding a pencil and something that I drew obsessively was spirals. My mom got me a sketch book and I drew spirals after spirals after spirals. And she gave me colored pencils and crayons and I would just color inside the spirals and I would do that over and over. And then I started drawing horses and I did that for years and was obsessed with horses. I would go through different phases. I went through a werewolf phase. [laughs]
Do you ever try to break out of phases?
No. I don’t think about it. I’m just in it and will eventually move on to something else.
How long have you been in the skeleton phase?
I slowly evolved into it and have probably been in it since 2008…maybe 2007 when they started making a true appearance in my paintings. I get a vision of what I’m going to paint and it looks like a movie screen or something and I just get the clear voice of “Paint it! This is what you’re going to paint next.” So I don’t really ask questions, I don’t take it apart, I just do it. At the time, I may not understand why I did it. With the skeletons entering into the picture – something just might be missing in the painting and I’ll put a skeleton in there somewhere and then it just looks complete! And so, “Now it’s done, now it’s finished.” I don’t really know why, but that’s just how it is.
Can you talk a bit about using horror as an inspiration and how you decide to go down the creepy road versus the playful road?
I guess it depends on my mood, by the seasons – the Fall and Halloween inspires something dark and creepy. I’m just as fascinated with dark as I am with light. I was inspired by Stephen King, I’m a big fan of his novels since I was like 14, 15. And there are just different emotions to everybody. I like going for a combination of the two to make you really think. [El Doctór] is a perfect example: it’s creepy, it’s also kind of funny. It can make you feel a variety of emotions. And that’s what I try to convey on a canvas is a variety of emotions.
Does it ever feel too intense to travel down these dark paths?
Well, there have been times. I painted a trilogy of Frida. I’ve been greatly inspire by her life. It was very sad and very dark. She had a lot of suffering and pain. I did three paintings of her and the last painting that I did, when she was in a cast and painting, I felt consumed and full of pain too; tired even, my back was hurting. After the third painting, to stay in her pain and her life, I was ready to move on. It was too much. I was eager to be finished for a while.
Are there ever any paintings that you’re not ready to see again because the feeling was too intense, or are you free from it when it’s finished?
I’m free from it. I can look at it, but if I’m tied to it creatively, then I feel like I’m inside of it, in a way. It’s kind of different than if I put it away and I finish it, then I can appreciate it more. But the creative process, it does take over.
How do you know when a painting is done?
I think that a lot of my paintings send a message. I have so many ideas waiting to be painted that when I feel like I’ve gotten the message across, it’s like if that one shade of red or that little highlight here is really not going to send a message, my work is finished, when I get the point across.
Were you formally trained at all?
I understood the concept of painting when I found a job in Colorado in 2001 copying another artist’s work on needlepoint canvas. Then, after, the finished product, they would package it with threads and sell it to different places, like shops and things for needlepoint. I’d never done needlepoint, I’d never sewed really, but all I did was just copy a very talented artist’s work. The canvas had holes in it, and I was given a black-and-white picture to lay underneath so you can see the outline and a sample of the original piece to copy and instructions of “okay you’re going to put this color down first, use this for shading, this for highlighting…” At the time I had two little kids and I had just moved back to Colorado with my first husband, and so he like, “you’re going to go to work, you have to find a job,” and I was like, well, okay, I just had high school and that was it. And so I was just waitressing and so when I found this job I thought, If I learned how to paint, I could stay at home with my kids and make the same amount of money. And I remember she just gave me the first, very simple thing to paint – the paints the brushes, everything – and I said, “okay thank you, how do you highlight?” And she said, “Oh, geez…” [laughs] “Just go home, try it, and if it works, it works for you. There are artists that can’t do this job.” And then there’s people like me, she said, I only had high school art classes and I could do it. So I was determined to learn. And that’s how I learned the basics of painting.
At this point and time, how many paintings are in your head that you can see but haven’t yet been able to create?
Oh well, for sure there’s one that I would like paint very soon and it’s of a gravestone. So I want to do somebody observing – a skeleton, of course – looking at the gravestone, reading it, then I want to have that at the middle of the painting, then I want at the top this tree with the roots all the way past the gravestone, into the bottom, with a skeleton laying in the bottom, kind of curled up, part of the roots and then coming up through the gravestone, through the tree, another skeleton sitting on top of it, looking down, and this light element shining through. It’s a cycle.
You have that completely done in your head, don’t you?
I see the whole thing! And the tree and the light and everything is going to fade from green to the red earth, and the light is going to connect the whole thing.
Do you start on canvas, do you start in your sketchbook?
I might write down a few words in a sketchbook. I might do a little sketch. It’s very simple. I find that if I spend any kind of time on a drawing or something like that, it might as well just be on the canvas because it ends up looking like, “Wow that’s great! But now I have to do it again on the canvas.” I didn’t need to waste that step. I’m actually to the point where I’m not really doing a drawing of my painting, I’m just drawing on the canvas. I’m not even using a pencil anymore, I’m just using a fine brush, because then I would have to get rid of my pencil lines and turn the drawing into a three-dimensional painting. I go straight to the canvas. Just spend a little time there and it’ll be good.
Additional interviewing was conducted by Laurie Briggs.