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The Day of the Dead might seem flippant or mocking on first glance, with its artistic renditions of human and animal skeletons thoroughly enjoying the world of the living. But this Mexican holiday — Dia de los Muertos — is about celebrating the lives of loved ones. The settings, clothing, and activities depicted in figurines, paintings, and other works reflect what the individuals did while they were alive.

The themes embodied in these figures (called “muertos”) seemed natural for artist Krissi Sandvik when, in 2006, she was asked to contribute a piece to the annual fundraiser for the Happy Tails Pet Sanctuary in Sacramento.

“The spirit of Dia de Los Muertos — that we remember and celebrate the lives of our loved ones — appealed to me, because animal adoption focuses on the personality of each individual animal to find them the right loving home,” Sandvik says. “I have always loved animals and strongly support pet rescue and adoption, so I was happy to create something for their auction.”

Seeking to add some of her personal aesthetic, she used “a kitschy, 1950s-style, long-necked cat as inspiration.”

Thus Skelekitty was born, and Sandvik’s artistic life was changed.

“I had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into when I created that first Skelekitty art quilt,” she says. But a fellow artist, Nik Caesar, did.

“Get ready to make those cats for the rest of your life,” she remembers him saying. “And he was so right!”

Sandvik runs a small business selling her artwork — Skelekitty and some of her pals (including Skelepups) now show up in paintings, prints, art jewelry, and greeting cards. Other items include T-shirts, license-plate frames, and a shot glass. In 2009, Skelekitty images were licensed to another business called Stampa Fe to create a line of rubber stamps. (You can see one of the images on that store’s artists page.) Sandvik sells her own Skelekitty items on Artfire.com.

“I became fascinated with the Day of the Dead celebration during the 10 years I lived in the Mission” in San Francisco, Sandvik says.

Even though pet adoption and animal care is a serious topic, she says, “Skelekitty definitely represents the lighter side of my personality.” Still, sometimes her pieces lead people to ask, “What does that mean?”

Two of the more enigmatic iterations of Skelekitty that elicit that question are an angel-and-devil image and a mermaid, she says.

Sandvik and her husband have four animals, all of them rescues or adoptions. ”Our Russian Blue/Tabby mix, Gracie, was rescued from a local wildlife sanctuary where she and her littermates were dumped in the farm animal corral,” she says.

Her other other kitty is named Mouse. Mouse was a bottle baby raised in a busy household by a woman and her Dachshund/Rottweiler mix (who Sandvik calls “the Weinerweiler”).

“Mouse is our Alpha,” she says, “and keeps everyone in line.”

Then there’s the dog, Abby, a Jack Russell Terrier. Sandvik says Mouse is so alpha, she knows the dog’s commands. “If Abby doesn’t follow one, Mouse will swat at her,” she says.

Abby had a rough start.

“We found Abby one day when we were hiking at Sutter’s Mill [the place thought to be where the Gold Rush started in 1848],” Sandvik says, “so we always say we discovered gold there too.”

The fourth animal is neither cat nor dog, but a 60-year-old tortoise named Hercules (otherwise known as “Doodle”).

“He and Abby will often follow each other around the yard or nap in the same spot,” Sandvik says. “Abby is very protective of her tortoise.”


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