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Headed West

Jan Hearne • Jan 21, 2013 at 11:33 AM

Artist Tava Cook of Jonesborough Art Glass is working with a new medium — animal skulls. The stained glass artist bought a buffalo, a ram and a reindeer skull three years ago at the gem show in Franklin, N.C., with no clear idea of how she would use them, but they have become a new means of expression.

“I knew I was going to do something with them, but didn’t know exactly what,” Tava said. “I had them for three years sitting around waiting to see what I would do with them.”

She continued with her stained glass work until she developed an allergy to the soldering fumes. Though she still designs and cuts glass, the start-to-finish work is no longer possible. That and the “dag gum economic downturn” left her with time on her hands, so she took up mosaic work.

Her first project was the wall of their screened-in porch connected to what husband Steve calls “The Garage Mahal.” This was no small project, it was a floor-to-ceiling wall, but her decades of meticulous work with stained glass stood her in good stead.

It occurred to her mosaic work could be used to embellish the skulls, and she began working with them about a year and a half ago.

“I did them, and I sold them pretty fast, and it encouraged me,” she said. “So, I started doing them for the store. I knew all along they wouldn’t (sell) in East Tennessee as they would in the West. I love Southwestern art, and we go out there quite often, so I juried and got into an all-female gallery in Tubac, Ariz. It’s a little village about 50 miles from the Mexican border; it’s got about 60-something galleries.”

The skulls and their embellishments come from a number of sources, and the search is part of the fun for Tava. “I enjoy hunting for the skulls and all at flea markets, gem shows and crafts shows. I look for objects that will lend themselves to (the work).”

She is a collector — of old pins, pieces of metal, feathers, hats, gems, jewelry, beads and the like. The things she finds suggest a color pattern, and the centerpiece is the takeoff point for the design. “The designs come a lot from the centerpiece, everything else falls behind it,” she said. “I’ll think I’m going to do (something) but that’s not what happens.”

Currently she is creating a white buffalo. Its centerpiece is a wooden heart from Mexico. It was red and gold, but Tava has painted it white. The heart will add dimension and variation to the all-white piece, she said.

“The white buffalo is sacred to Native Americans. I’m taking it to a gallery out West when we go.”

Steve, Tava and a couple they travel with will leave for the Southwest later this month. They will be taking a truck with a trailer behind it.

“We’re taking several skulls. I hope to leave them all out there,” Tava said. “We’re stopping in Santa Fe. I would love to leave the big elk at a gallery in Santa Fe.”

The “big elk” is her most recently completed project. It took 100 hours over a two-week period to finish.

Asked if she liked the work, Tava said, “Yes and no. I enjoy it, but it is like work in that I spend hours and hours doing it. It’s a slow and tedious job, but I enjoy it. You work out your ideas and go for it.”

One of the more unusual animal skulls is the springbok, an antelope of the gazelle tribe that lives in southern Africa. Its horns are impressive, but its skull is small. “I thought this would be a quickie,” Tava said. “But it was harder. You have to work in such small spaces and work with such small pieces. I won’t be doing many of those.”

She won’t be cleaning animal skulls on her own again, either. She purchased one from the Jonesborough flea market that hadn’t been completely cleaned. Skulls are usually boiled to remove skin and hair, then placed in a solution to bleach them, but there was the problem of the antlers, which wouldn’t fit.

“I worked on it with a wood chisel,” Tava said. “I put it in a trash can with the antlers sticking out and filled the trash can with Clorox.”

She let it soak, changing out the Clorox two or three times before the skull was ready to work on. “It’s my personal one,” she said pointing to the now-embellished piece on her living room wall. “It’s not one I’m going to sell.”

Tava, a dedicated animal lover, doesn’t see the skulls as trophies hung on a wall. Hers is the work of reanimation.

“To me, it’s a way of honoring, giving them a second life, giving them a second beauty.”

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