The Art of the Skull: Museum Store highlights the beauty of the human skeleton

One of the most photographed pieces in the museum’s collections is the “jaw dropping” crystal quartz skull in the exhibit Gemstone Carvings: Masterworks by Harold Van Pelt.  The hollow, life-sized skull with articulated jaw, was carved from a single block of rare izoklakeite quartz.


Harold van Pelt’s quartz skull.

Our fascination with human skulls spans cultures and eras. From the Neolithic plaster-covered skulls of Jericho, the ornate Buddhist kapala skull cups, European vanitas morality paintings, Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos festivals, and all the way up to modern works of art from people like Damien Hirst, the skull represents our views about mortality and humanity.


Vanitas Still Life. 1648, Jan Jansz. Treck.


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The European Enlightenment period led to an interest in natural history, anatomy, and archaeology, and gentlemen’s cabinets of curiosities often included a collection of skulls, both animal and human. While these early wunderkammer were more about collecting the unusual and “wonderful” rather than scholarly study, they were the precursor to our modern natural history museums.


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Here in the Museum Store, we’re still fascinated with collecting skull art and imagery. One of our favorite items is the intricately beaded skull necklaces from local artist team Brassthread. Inspired by Huichol beadwork and Dia de los Muertos folk art, the tiny handmade skull is painstakingly set with miniscule beads in an intricate pattern.


While not an original Van Pelt carving, this labradorite skull was hand carved in Madagascar from a solid block of labradorite, and flashes light and rich colors from different angles.



Reminiscent of momento mori and Victorian headstone carvings, f. is for frank’s cast pewter skull ring is the work of Texas sculptors Shoshannah Frank and Casey Melton.


Our newest artist is Ashley Lyons of New Orlean’s Porter Lyons. Her Voodoo collection pays homage to the history and customs behind the religion that was so much a part of New Orleans Creole culture. Her Baron Samedi earrings reference the loa who is the spirit of both death and resurrection.


There is beauty and art in science, as shown by x-ray artist Hugh Turvey. Turvey uses industrial x-rays to photograph not just skeletons, but also the “bones” of everyday objects. Designer Michael Revil Madjus also captures the beauty of the human skull with his x-ray pillow.


We love to see the natural world transformed into art, so even if skulls and skeletons aren’t your thing, we have intriguing items from a wide range of artists and designers, both in store and online at And 100% of store proceeds benefits the museum and its educational programming. #ChillsAtHMNS

The Sphinx Moth: A Work of Art

Today we have a special guest blog from Chad Erpelding, Assistant Professor of Art at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas.  He teaches 2D Design and Painting there.  This fall the Cockrell Butterfly Center is hosting an exhibit of some of his students’ paintings that were inspired by sphinx moths.  Here is what he has to say about the project.

The overlap between art and science is a subject rich with potential and currently being investigated by many artists.  Damien Hirst suspends animal specimens in large tanks of formaldehyde.  Olafur Eliasson, who is currently having a major survey of his work at the Dallas Museum of Art, explores weather systems and natural phenomena.  Mel Chin worked closely with a scientist in realizing his piece Revival Field, which uses plants to remove toxic metals from a polluted site.  So when Dr. William Godwin, entomologist at Stephen F. Austin State University and adjunct curator at HMNS, brought up the idea of a joint project between the Biology Department and the School of Art at SFA, I jumped at the opportunity.

We decided to organize a competition for the art students centered on sphinx moths (family Sphingidae), several members of which are found locally in Nacogdoches and throughout east Texas (see Nancy’s recent blog on these fascinating moths.)  Dr. Godwin gave a lecture on the characteristics and life cycle of sphinx moths, giving the students the base of knowledge needed to understand their subject.  From here, I stressed to the students the importance of finding the balance between accuracy towards the moths and the inventiveness that happens in the studio.  The restrictions we put on the entries were only on size and weight of the pieces themselves.  We wanted the students to have the freedom to explore their own interpretations and realize their creative impulses. 

I was thrilled with some of the pieces the students created. Carolyn Norton, a graduate student from Lufkin, won first place for her piece “Sonic Defense,” an ink drawing that follows the paths of a bat and moth in battle, including an explosion of scales – a trick that moths do to fool their predators mid-air. 

Margaret Pledger, a senior from Brenham, received second place for her “Pupa Ring,” a copper ring based loosely on the shapes of sphinx moth pupae.  Chad Hines, a graduate student from Temple, received third place for his “Sphingidae,” a drawing that simultaneously explores the patterns of the moths and the joys of making marks on paper. 

The truly fascinating part of this project for me was to see the many different directions that the artists took.  You never know from where inspiration will come.  While some of the students looked at the patterns and shapes of the moths, others were interested in their habits or specific characteristics.  A few explored broader cultural connections, using the moths as a metaphor for the human experience.  Whatever the source, I think this was a great opportunity for both the science and art communities to see how our fields can interact.  It encourages us to continue to see the world in new and awe-inspiring ways.

Please be sure to stop and take a look at these interesting works of art on your next visit to the Butterfly Center.  They are in the lower level (just around the corner from the mosquito display) and will remain on display until March, 2009.

Sphinx Moth art, on display in the lower level
of the Cockrell Butterfly Center.