In the paintings of Heather Calderon, skeletons teach math in antiquated classrooms, their gumless mouths puckered around pointed teeth. The bony characters are also wily schoolchildren who toss paper airplanes while the teacher's back is turned, or wear dunce caps in the time-out corner when they're caught. Calderon's skeletons are busy dentists with square, low-rimmed eyeglasses in bright examination rooms, gripping their skeletal patient's canines with antique tweezers. Her skeletons even become Frida Kahlo when Calderon wants to make associations with the Mexican holiday Day of the Dead, or Napoleon Dynamite eating quesadillas when Calderon wants to be cheeky.
And if you meet the Coral Springs painter, expect her to imagine what you'd look like as a skeleton.
"I can't get the skeletons out of my head," Calderon says during a recent tour of "Skeleton Garden," her solo show opening Nov. 1 at Gallery 2014 in Hollywood. "Everyone I see is one of them. Skeletons started as a minor detail in my paintings, like, 'Oh, this painting needs a skeleton,' like a signature stroke. Now, I'm getting a flood of ideas involving skeletons. They're just lining up in my head, and they're saying, 'Paint me.' "
Calderon, self-taught since high school, says her paintings are influenced by childhood visits to Albuquerque, N.M., where her Mexican grandparents' home overlooked the Rio Grande, and meals consisted of pumpkin empanadas and chili Colorado. She never learned Spanish ("I'm the only gringa in my family") because her half-Mexican father never learned it, either. The preoccupation with skeletons, she reasons, has little to do with Day of the Dead's death-honoring traditions, and more to do with a childhood illness, when chronic sinus infections earned her a trip to the doctor's x-ray machine.
"I guess it would scare most kids to see x-rays of their own skull, but not me. Then, I started imagining what my friends would look like x-rayed," Calderon, 37, recalls. "I just like skeletons. They connect to my growing up, sort of how like Georgia O'Keeffe was inspired by all the desert skulls in New Mexico."
Besides reveling in mundane rituals, Calderon's skeletons can be surrogates of real people, as in "Addiction," a dark, revealing self-portrait of the artist during a vulnerable moment. Calderon, juxtaposed with a skeleton whose eyes are bleeding, holds a glass of red wine. The work recalls a period in 2010 when the artist, then living in Longmont, Colo., became addicted to alcohol.
"I did some really dark paintings back then. I felt stagnant out there [in Colorado]," says Calderon, who moved to Broward County in 2011. "My boyfriend had moved to Florida for a job, and I felt abandoned, tricked by life. Paintings weren't selling as well. So I left."
"Siempre Conmigo" is another self-portrait, though this time the artist is a skeleton, curled up underneath a tree. She is surrounded by several animals, including a deer, squirrels, dogs and a cat named Cassie, which belonged to her 17-year-old daughter, Veronica. In "The Wedding Photographer," a cameraman takes a portrait of a skeletal bride and groom. For "Girl Rising," Calderon painted 14 members of the Hollywood women's group Girl Rising South Florida as a series of multicolored skeletons leaping over the planet Earth.
"I think that's what my paintings are all about: stripping everyone down to their essential parts," Calderon says. "All your desires, feelings, dreams, nationalities. We're all the same."
Heather Calderon: Skeleton Garden
When: Saturday, Nov. 1 through Nov. 29 (opening reception 6-9 p.m. Nov. 1)
Where: Gallery 2014, 2014 Harrison St., Hollywood
Contact: 954-505-3291 or Gallery2014.com