Our new house guest

Chris and John Pulleyn's human skull

I’m now in possession of a human skull. I don’t own it. Like the skull on my own shoulders, it’s been loaned to me for only a little while. As I expected, it’s a completely unique experience, lifting an actual skull from the cardboard box where it’s been stored for years: to hold what once housed a human being’s eyes and mouth and ears. It didn’t feel as questionable as I thought it might to hold what’s left of someone’s head in my hands—it didn’t seem I was violating some taboo by lifting it up into the light of a pendant lamp in our kitchen. I was delighted to find that it even has a jaw, and most amazing of all, a few teeth. As weathered and aged as it looks, it sort of kept me company. It’s grinning like a Halloween pumpkin, but its look of laughter is friendly, not ghoulish. Actually, it looks kind of happy to be in my house. It sounds odd, but I felt a little less alone with this death’s head sitting on our granite countertop a few feet from the refrigerator.

I wrote earlier about how much an actual human skull costs now—not a model, but the real thing—if you order one on-line, now that the supply from India and China has been choked off by laws in those countries. When I wrote it, I put a link to my post on Facebook and a few hours later got a message from an old friend, Chris Pulleyn: “I know where you can get a skull. And it isn’t buried in my back yard. Call me.” I used to work for Chris and her husband, John, at an ad agency here in Rochester. A few weeks later we met for lunch at Jines, on Park Avenue, spent an hour catching up on the diaspora of ex-employees from their disbanded company. I told them I began my search for a skull after another artist, one of my Brooklyn friends, suggested we collaborate on a series of paintings using skull imagery. The collaboration may not work out, but I’ve gotten interested in doing several paintings, variations on the vanitas tradition, of my own using the skull. So we abandoned our corner booth, left a tip, and then walked out to the parking lot where John fetched the box from the back seat of his car and handed it to me, like contraband. “We didn’t think we should bring it into the restaurant since it says actual human skull on the side,” he said, laughing.

“Does it have the jaw?”

“Oh yes. It’s a good one. You’ll love it,” Chris said. “My father found it on his desk as a joke years ago. When John went into nursing school he sent it to us. You’ll see the note inside the box.”

My initial response to the skull is a sense of pleasure about the color: it’s a rich leathery brown, not white, as if the bone had been steeped in tea. It’s incredibly detailed, and looks like something shaped by hand with loving attention to proportion and line, the size of the apertures for eyes and nose, the curve of the chin, the slope of the brow. The mouth has eroded, so that the sockets where teeth had rooted themselves are a sawtooth row of holes. The eight surviving teeth, mostly molars, are closer to white: testimony to the durability of enamel. (The skull was used as teaching aid in dental school.) The cranial plates have fused together—when you’re alive your skull expands and contracts slightly with every breath, because the eight plates fit loosely together. (The skull itself is constructed with 22 separate bones.) There are thin sheets of bone inside the nose, faintly translucent, but very hard, not brittle. Same is true for the eye sockets—little cones of bone pointing inward. It’s beautiful in a way, the armature of a beautiful face, or at least a good-looking one, fine forehead, strong chin, nice cheekbones, a sleek face. I would guess the skull might be a century old, or close to it. As I studied the shape of this skull, I wondered about the life of the man or woman who experienced the world through its little portholes. Who was this person? I felt the sense of passing time, the sense of how insubstantial everything actually is—the sense of our fragile mortality—that overwhelmed Hamlet when he held up Yorick’s skull.

Here is the note I found in the box, what Chris wrote about how her father came into possession of the skull. He was chronically late for appointments, and after being a little too late on this particular day, he came to his office and found this skull waiting for him, rather than his friend:

 The skull was given to my dad, Dr. Demeter Christoff, when he was in dental school in the 1940s.  Dad was late for an appointment, and when he finally arrived the skull was propped up on his desk with a note reading, I died waiting for you.

So little time, so much to do. It was probably what haunted Chris’s father all day long as he struggled to keep up with his calendar. It’s what haunts me now, even more than usual, with my new friend grinning quietly at me, from his corner of the studio, whenever I pick up a paint brush.



5 Responses to “Our new house guest”

  1. Richard Harrngton

    You know I’ll be late to any number of lunches. I don’t want the skull, but I am interested to see where it takes your painting.

  2. dave dorsey

    I can’t wait to start something with it. Those Leonardo lists though–they make me finish what I’ve already got going first. 🙂

  3. New Year’s Resolution #6 at represent

    […] the right place in my studio for the human skull in my care. It’s been on loan to me from Chris and John Pulleyn for almost a year now. I finally did one painting of it last month, which is on exhibit at Viridian […]

  4. New Year’s Resolution #6 » Art Matters!

    […] the right place in my studio for the human skull in my care. It’s been on loan to me from Chris and John Pulleyn for almost a year now. I finally did one painting of it last month, which is on exhibit at Viridian […]

  5. Jundali

    Dorsey, I love this skull very much. I actually got it tattooed on my shoulder. Are you interested in parting with it? if so please contact my at my email address.