We recently attended the first Nova Con held in McLean, Virginia. The event heralded Northern Virginia’s entry into the ever popular world of graphic novel gatherings raging across the country.
It was small in comparison to larger Comic Con gatherings in New York and San Diego, but was ell organized. Nova Con was held in the beautiful Ritz-Carlton Hotel and the displays spread over three floors. These included artist and vendor booths, gaming rooms, restaurants, and small convention rooms where artists met and talked with fans.
One such artist we met had a highly unusual, and some would say gruesome, display of human skulls with beautifully hand crafted carvings. The artist’s name is Zane Wylie, known as ‘The Skull Guy’.
TAEM- Wylie, please tell our readers about your craft and how you received your nickname.
ZW- I carve on human skulls, both real and replica. When I meet people they don’t always remember my name, so for networking purposes when I follow-up I call myself “The Skull Guy” and then they always remember.
ZW- I’ll find retired medical training skulls and then depending on shape, origin, size, age or some other distinguishing features, I then decide what I’ll carve on it. I get a lot of inspiration from old religious designs. I’ll either stencil or draw the shapes I like and then use a high-speed dental drill to start carving.
TAEM- What first inspired you into making your creations?
ZW- Originally I was studying muscle movements of the human face as part of a program to look for micro facial expressions and to detect deception. The program used something called the facial action coding system of FACS to illustrate these muscle movements. I wanted to own a real human skull so I could see where these muscles attached so I could understand things better. Well at least that’s the lie I told myself to justify buying one. Well I found a place that was selling them but they were too expensive at the time. The seller suggested I sell carved or painted animal skulls on E-bay to build up a bankroll, since animals were popular at that time. I had a couple in my garage from my hunting days (and by hunting I mean never killing anything since I was a lousy shot with a bow and just found animal skulls in the woods.) and gave it a shot.
I painted and carved these really arcane looking symbols with Hebrew and Latin words that made them look really creepy and they sold for a lot. Of course if they were ever translated they were actually the opposite of their demonic presentation but that’s just my sense of humor.
Somewhere along the way I got better and made enough money to buy a couple of real human skulls. The seller suggested that I try carving on human ones, to which I immediately said “No way! That was someone’s skull. What if I mess up?”
So getting another peek into personality, you can imagine that when someone, even myself, says “You could never do that!” I did. I listed on E-bay (back then you could sell human skulls on E-bay) and it sold in 15 minutes. I carved another and sold it for double the price. After that I bought a lot more, carved them and then listed them on E-bay. Once I did that the other skull dealers started reporting me saying that I was breaking the rules so that my listings would get shut down. I was selling pieces that were in worse condition than theirs and for triple their prices. So I pulled out of E-bay and started my own site.
ZW- One of the favorite things I like saying at conventions is “The ones under glass are real”, because of the expressions that I get. I get mixed responses, mostly positive. Some say “I don’t know how I feel about that” to which I reply, “I feel the same way”. Most women find in fascinating and the guys recoil. It’s hilarious.
TAEM- I understand that many of the skulls you display are recreations, but a good number of them are actually real human skulls. Tell us about how your carvings on them relate to their origin.
ZW- So if I have a skull from Europe I’ll look into the cultures that have effected that area of the world and decide what I’d like to carve. The majority of the time I’ll just get a crazy idea and try to imagine how it would look. Some designs go better on different skull shapes. It also depends on what condition the skull is in as to how deep I can carve on it.
TAEM- How difficult is it to work your designs on their surfaces, and what responses do you receive from the public when you display them?
ZW- The condition of the bone is key when I’m carving. I’ll use wood hardener, or a clear acrylic spray to help with the preservation of the bone and to make carving easier.
TAEM- How long does it take to work on each piece?
ZW- From conception to completion it can take anywhere from 20 to 120 hours. I have a day job that starts at 3AM and goes to 4PM so a project can take a very long time. Unless I get a commission and then personal projects take a back seat and then I work through the night. Currently I’m on retainer with a law firm analyzing anything from handwriting to video depositions (mostly both) to build personality profiles on clients or opponents so decisions can be made by them on how to proceed. From time to time I also evaluate for employee screening as long as there isn’t any conflict of interest. As part of my contract with the law firm I have to submit my client list for any side work evaluations that I do. I keep those two areas of my life separate. Zane Wylie isn’t my real name (as you probably imagined). Zane is actually my middle name and Wylie was my grandfather’s nickname. He was a dare devil and earned that name jumping motorcycles. He was an adrenaline junky after being a ball turret gunner in the service. Also, sometimes skull people (including myself) can be a little wack-a-doo so an alias works.
TAEM- We understand that your products are for sale. Is there any problems in selling them, and what restrictions, if any, have been imposed by local laws for your craft?
ZW- Every person that purchases real bone is responsible for knowing the rules and regulations for their state. With that being said, this is what I know: In Louisiana it’s illegal to possess human remains (simply because of all the voodoo issues and, when ever it rains, coffins float down the street). In New York, Georgia and Tennessee, it’s illegal to ship human remains across state lines. It’s not illegal, however, to own or display them in those states.
ZW- I purchase skulls from places that buy old medical training bones from dental schools, and other types of medical schools, and then sell them in better condition .
TAEM- Are all the replicas designed on the original skulls that you received, and how do you recreate these?
ZW- I carve on either real or replica… BUT… the replicas are ALWAYS of real human skulls. So I’ll buy one and decide if I first want to make a replica of it so that I can carve on those replicas later. If I don’t make a replica of it, I’ll carve on it and then make a replica of that. It’s important to me that all the replicas I have are of real skulls, whether they are replicas of real ones that I’ve carved on, or replicas of replicas that I’ve carved on. There are plenty of sculptures made to look like carved skulls. That’s not the look I’m going for.
TAEM- How do you see your craft proceeding in the future, and is there any offshoots planned for your artistic talents?
ZW- Right now I’m building up a library of un-carved replica skulls of different shapes, locations and ages so that I can primarily carve on those instead of the real human skulls. It’s just easier to carve on the replica material and more cost effective.
TAEM- Zane, we want to thank you for discussing your work with us and I am sure that it has inspired our readers to see more of it. Where can they locate your work, and when will it be displayed to the public again?
ZW- People can go to my websites listed below and join the mailing list. I have special skulls that are only available there. I would also suggest ‘friending’ me on Facebook because I post the newest stuff as well as progress of current projects and any upcoming shows I’ll be doing. I also just had the TV show ‘Preacher’ on AMC lease 14 different skulls for their show, and had another appear on the show ‘Constantine’.
TAEM- Many thanks again, Zane, and we wish you great success in the future!