Lawndale sugar skulls

10 Nov

I moved back to Houston one year ago, and while I am constantly learning new things about this city, some of the best experiences are those that I’m finding again after being away for ten years.

In my junior year of high school, I had a wonderful art history teacher.  Not only did she make a potentially boring topic interesting and fun, she organized a trip to Paris for our class.  For the life of me, I can’t remember her name, but I am scouring my high school yearbooks as I type.  I guess it’s a sad commentary on my memory/brain function it cannot recall the name of a teacher with whom I travelled thousands of miles for a week.

Another wonderful gift my teacher gave me was teaching our class about Dia de los Muertos, a Mexican holiday which honors the memories of family and friends who have passed away.  It’s more a time of reflection and paying respects than the ghoulish and gory Halloween, though the two holidays do share a sense of fun.  She taught us to create skulls from papier mache, taught us the history, brought us the candy skulls and other treats made especially for the holiday, and entered us into a revered Houston tradition – the Lawndale Dia de los Muertos exhibition.


Houston is a city with strong ties across the nearby border with Mexico, as well as an international port that brings us into contact with nearly every country in the world.  It’s not surprising that there are plenty of diverse cultural experiences on offer.  One of the best, and long-lived, is the Lawndale Art Center’s Dia de los Muertos celebration.  This year marks the 22nd anniversary, and featured an open call for retablos (small tin boards which traditionally feature homages to the dead), as well as a subsequent retablo exhibition and auction.

Here are some of my favorite retablos this year:





There are other programs during the two weeks besides the exhibition.  One night I was particularly excited to attend was the Sugar Skull Workshop.  The last day of the exhibit is Family Day, which features candy skull decorating, so they have a workshop the Thursday before to make all the skulls needed.

sugar skull

sugar skull workshop

Interested in making your own sugar skulls?  Here’s how!

Materials Needed: sugar skull molds, 2 rounded teaspoons meringue powder, 2 1/8 cups granulated sugar, paste food coloring, 2+ teaspoons of water, and a small, firm piece of cardboard

1. Mix the meringue powder, sugar, and water in a large bowl.  Best mixed with your hands.  Mix until the texture is that of “moist beach sand”.

2. Pack the moist sugar into the mold.  (Each mold has two pieces, one for the back and one for the front, or “face”.)  Make sure the mold is firmly packed, then scrape the back edge with a straight edge, like a ruler or spatula.  Pack again, and smooth all indentations.

3. Lay the cardboard on the back, then invert the mold to lay flat on a drying platform.  Gently lift the mold away from the sugar skull.  Dry for 8 hours.

4. After the skull is sufficiently dry, gently hold the skull in one hand, while scooping out the back with a spoon, until the skull is about 1/2 inch thick.  (Avoid the neck area, as it is the most fragile part and might break.)  Allow the hollow skulls to dry upside down on the drying platform for an additional 12 hours.

5.  Once the skulls are completely dry, they can be assembled.  Use a simple powdered sugar icing to fuse the two halves of the skull together.  Once the seam has dried, decorate with food coloring, foils, feathers, beads, and whatever you feel like!

Visit Lawndale’s website to check out more of their upcoming exhibits!


One Response to “Lawndale sugar skulls”

  1. Carmen November 11, 2009 at 10:29 pm #

    I *love* Lawndale! I have volunteered at many an event there (including a performance art piece where someone loaded milk via pulley into a deer blind and then sucked it out through a giant nipple — uh, yeah) and have even bought two retablos at the Day of the Dead. I was planning to visit the Menil when I’m home for the holidays, but I might need to add a trip to Lawndale, as well.

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