Crystal Schenk uses animal skulls to create autobiographical artworks. Employing traditional folk-art techniques from the indigenous Huichol people in the Sierra Madre, Schenk covers deer, steer and cow skulls with beaded skins that are invested with personal resonance. She also uses skulls as a base for growing quartz and crystals in her Portland home. In this interview, we begin a conversation about intimate or accessible meanings of her compelling memento mori.
AFH: What are your associations with quartz?
CS: It is not an accident that my name is Crystal, as I was named after one of my dad’s obsessions. When I was growing up my parents and aunts and uncles were really into rock and fossil hunting. They would drag my sister and I to various remote places in search of quartz crystals, sharks teeth or other interesting finds. We even had a gold claim in Northern California for a few years. At the time there was often a sense of adventure, but the hours spent digging in sometimes harsh and desolate areas could be grueling on our young attention spans. I am sure we complained a lot. Now, looking back those are some of my fondest memories. I often find myself turning over stones and passively digging at the dirt wondering what I might find – usually I turn up nothing but it is a familiar action that I feel connects me back to my parents.
AFH: Why combine particular skulls with specific iconographic references?
CS: Most of the skulls that I use have a story connected to them – many I have found on hikes in the woods, but I have also been randomly given others, such as a skull from the goat that my veterinarian practiced medicine on and a dead llama found in a friend’s field. The imagery that I tap into comes from random sources – icons of power or aggression that I see repeatedly and linger in my mind. Usually when I start a large project I have it all worked out ahead of time, both conceptually and structurally. But for this series I have been much more intuitive – which I am hesitant to say as that can be a bullshit word that means different things to different people. It has been a bit of a free-association game to me.
AFH: How is the alligator related to a hand-grenade?
CS: The alligator skull I bought in New Orleans during a road trip across the United States: Alligator backs look a lot like the prototypical ‘pineapple’ grenades that were used by the US in WWII and the Vietnam War. There is also a hot sauce sold in the tourist shops called Gator Grenade. The explosions around the grenade are pulled from the graphics of early 80’s video games, which were much more simplistic and innocent in their association to war than the very explicit games of today. And the plaid background I find symbolic of hunter machismo and the 90’s grunge fashions of the Pacific Northwest.
AFH: Do you subscribe to theories that crystals have spiritual and
CS: As for the healing power of crystals, that isn’t something I have witnessed, but I don’t think I could flat out deny it either. Unlike my father who was a true believer in healing energies I am very agnostic and pragmatic in most of my viewpoints. My connection with crystals has more to do with an awe of nature and the unfathomable vastness of geologic time. In my sculptures of cultivated crystals I am creating overnight a sense of the preciousness that can take mineral formations millennia to grow.