The Sculptor and the Skull – A conversation with Trevor Foster

Written By Meg Elison

Meg Elison is a Philip K. Dick and Locus award winning author, as well as a Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon, and Otherwise awards finalist. A prolific short story writer and essayist, Elison has been published in Slate, McSweeney’s, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Fangoria, Uncanny, Lightspeed, Nightmare, and Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy. Elison is a high school dropout and a graduate of UC Berkeley.

I caught up with Trevor Foster, naturalist and sculptor, across a 12-hour time difference. The University of Washington graduate lives in Thailand now, my morning dialing into his nightfall. I called because I wanted to talk about the skulls.

Foster launched an enormously successful Kickstarter to introduce more people to his lifelike skull-shaped ceramic bowls. Nothing madcap or whimsical here; these bowls look like one has piled up Froot Loops inside an actual human cranium. The level of detail in the work leads one to the inevitable contemplation of mortality; as the artist told me as we spoke, the skull is what is left when “life’s final mask is removed.”

The bowls are the latest in a series of Foster’s works focused on the inexorable nature of death and our relationship to it. I had to ask him: why memento mori?

Foster sighed before he began. “In the depths of the pandemic, in March 2020 when everybody was losing their minds, I started working on that series. Skulls had come into my work before, but it all connected during that time. It put so much in perspective—it’s almost a cliché, but at the time, death was at the forefront of my thoughts. And that was a healthy thing. Inevitable situation death. And there it was, staring at me in the face. So, I was driving home the connection with the Latin motto memento mori.”

A common choice for tombstones in Europe from the Middle Ages until the 18th century, the phrase means: remember you will die.

“Death has been a theme of some of the things I make,” Foster continued.  But it’s not macabre. I think of the skull as an object. It’s not gruesome or violent. It’s a symbol; and I connect to it as a form and as a symbol.”

Who is the ideal customer? Who do you imagine using this bowl?

“I think that the ideal thing with art is connection. I’m tired of putting art in white square rooms, going to a gallery where you clasp a glass of wine and feel awkward while you look at squares on the wall.  My ideal experience is one where you feel more comfortable with the art. But the utilitarian stuff is more intimate. It goes direct to customer, to their living room. They hold it in their hand, they drink their coffee from it. It’s integrated. Art on the wall can be forgotten. A detailed art piece like the mug or bowl can be integrated into their life. And the same level of care and detail that I put into fine art, I do all that in this practical work.”

And what an exciting Kickstarter! Raising almost $200,000 for these practical objets d’art.

“I was basically a starving artist, just scraping by in Seattle. I had Kickstarted a few things before, but none of them had taken off like this. I saved up some money to move to Thailand, and just to lived bare-bones in an empty room, reading and making art every day. The pandemic got to this work and to Kickstarter again, and this was the first time I sold a substantial amount of art. I think that happened because a lot of people connected to the message. That allowed me to make more art, and more of a range of art. Before, I had to take commissions. Now I do this full time.”

Were you inspired by other forms of skull art? Like the Sedlec Ossuary in Prague, or the ascetic kapala in India?  

“I was inspired by seeing smuggled skulls! Not from Thailand, but definitely from other places. The oddities trading circle was very popular about seven years ago. A lot of people I knew were into it, collecting bones and strange things. It seems like a skull is the archetype of death, meaning different things to Buddhists or headhunters, but I was attracted to it. It’s a powerful symbol, wherever it is. As an artist, you look for those innate symbols of power.

But I also got turned off of it—human remains is not always the most ethical field to be in. A lot of these things, we don’t really know where they came from.”

Why do you call yourself a naturalist?

“I appreciate nature, but I’m also a hunter. I have a relationship with the land. I want to be in nature, but not in a passive way. I climb mountains. I collect insects, study etymology. I study anatomy. I think that I see art in terms of science, but I’m not a scientist. I chose that word because it describes my interests in anatomy and animals, but it’s not academic or environmentalist. You can’t get a job at it. Art and science don’t have strong defining lines between them.”

What’s next for you?

“I’ve always been interested in finding beauty in dark places. I have fulfilled the Kickstarter orders; they all shipped by Halloween.

“I want to go deeper into primates, that’s my next series. I want to present it in a philosophical way. The anatomy I know is mostly people, and I want to infuse personality, human qualities into ape anatomy. And then make them into a more utilitarian form, both realistic and suited for daily use. I like the idea of having a cup of coffee and reflecting on this thing. It’s hard to keep attention these days, to get people to look at art is next to impossible. And the people who have ethe time to stare at useless objects are not the ones I’m interested in. But people who can sit with the art and have a cup of coffee are exciting.

“I’m also planning a Cthulhu-esque octopus series. Not directly, not by that name. But I’m interested in a different form of intelligence that isn’t the human or primate form. The octopus is closer related to a snail than to us, but highly intelligent. It would be interesting if I could create this creature and show that mental energy. I’ve been diving deep into that very different anatomy—they’re aliens on earth.

Finally, I’ve been really into Goethe and Mephistopheles. I’m thinking about a Faustian devil. That idea is very much in progress. Faust is a great story for our times; everything is at our fingertips, and we have to endlessly strive through all that knowledge to keep ourselves sane.”

To keep track of the future in primate skulls and utilitarian octopus sculptures, find Trevor Foster in his online studio, or follow him on Instagram.

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