Sacramento artist Rob-O builds exquisitely detailed skulls using ingredients most of us can find in our pantry. His elaborate sugar skulls pay homage to a sacred Mexican tradition while simultaneously expanding the scope of his medium. See his current collection of sugar skulls at the Shiny Nickel Art Gallery, located at 1518 21st Street, and at La Raza Galería Posada, located at 1022 22nd Street, through mid-November.
Tell me about the tradition of sugar skulls.
The idea comes from Día de los Muertos [Mexican “Day of the Dead”]. Basically, you would decorate a sugar skull for a loved one who has passed. You build a three-tiered altar. Then, you bring their favorite food, play their favorite music, and bring things that remind you of them and put that all on the altar. You light a candle for them, and then traditionally you would decorate the sugar skull with their name and place it on the altar to commemorate them. And then there’s a window of time between October 31 and November 3 when the spirit can actually come back and visit.
How did you get started making these skulls?
The sugar-skull art started when my mom passed away three years ago. We celebrated Día de los Muertos. We had sugar skulls and we had all of our friends come over. They’d all put their loved ones on the altar, and then we’d all decorate our skulls. I was working on them for a few days after, and then finally my wife was like, “You’re putting a lot of time and detail into these. Why don’t you see if you can sell them?”
I like it because it’s a totally different medium that people don’t normally come across. I’m trying to keep the Hispanic culture alive in that aspect, but also give the tradition a twist by adding my own variations. I keep it true to the authentic form by following the traditional process, so they’re actually true sugar skulls.
What kind of responses have you received from the community?
It’s really been phenomenal. We’ve only been around for about 11 months doing this. From magazines to TV interviews, it’s been intense for the short amount of time we’ve existed, but it’s been really great.
What inspires your ideas?
I’m always trying to change it up. My “Faces of Life” piece, which breaks apart, was inspired by an Aztec piece. Also, I’m drawn to larger pieces. I like to stand in front of a huge canvas and take it all in. And that’s what inspired me to start making these larger [skulls] that stand at over 2 feet tall and weigh more than 35 pounds.
How have the skulls evolved since you started?
They’ve gotten a lot bigger and a lot more detailed. I’ve learned how to make my own molds. That took a while. And I’ve learned to make this clear coating that locks everything in so they last forever, so you can pass them down from generation to generation.
You’re a full-time artist now. Did you have doubts making that decision?
When you start out, you do wonder how people are going to react. I mean, everybody has a doubt. And sometimes you stand too close to the project, so you need to step back and acknowledge that it actually is good. So it wasn’t really that I had doubts, more just that I didn’t know how people would react.
Any upcoming projects?
I’m working on making sugar molds of human faces. So what I can do is, I make a mold of your face and fill it with the sugar mixture, then decorate it in the style of Día de los Muertos. Then I would put it in a shadow box and give you a veil. I’m also working on building sugar wings. So that’s the stuff for next year.
What is your typical workday like?
I usually start at 7 or 7:30 at night and work until 7:30 or 8 in the morning. I like working at night because no phones are ringing and everyone’s asleep. Besides the fact that I enjoy it, they also say that you’re more creative at night. When I’m really into something, I usually spend about 12 to 14 hours a night on these skulls.
Yeah, I work on them every day. I don’t really see much changing with what I’m doing. My mom’s in all these pieces. I’m thinking of her when I’m working on them. She knows I’m thinking of her when I’m working on the skulls. So really, it’s like I’m celebrating [Día de los Muertos] all year round, since I’m always working on them. I’m doing it for her, and also to keep this Mexican heritage alive. For the last 11 months, I’ve been in the happiest place I’ve ever been. I’m enjoying what I’m doing, and when you love what you’re doing, then it’s really not work.