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Middle Schoolers Design Sugar Skulls with a Focus on Symbolism

student works on sugar skull design

Students in Angela Spreter’s seventh grade art class at Henry H. Wells Middle School leaned over their art tables, carefully coloring in ornate sugar skull designs with vibrant colors. While students all started with plain white paper and a black background, they used Sharpies, colored pencils and oil pastels to create very personal designs.

“We discussed the meaning and symbolism behind Día de Los Muertos, and looked at pictures of altars and real sugar skulls,” Spreter said. “Some students even shared their experiences celebrating this holiday with their families.”

Before getting started, the class discussed the symbolism in sugar skulls, which are often used to decorate altars during the holiday. To complete the project, each artist had to use at least two different symbols in their work, whether they were traditional sugar skull symbols or something more personalized.

The designs created were as colorful as they were unique.

“I went with a freedom theme,” said Samantha Sanchez, whose design included big blue wings, mountains and intricate cracks. “The wings symbolize flying away, the mountains show how high you can go when you’re free and the cracks on the skull represent letting your spirit loose.”

Alexandra Berger’s design had a garden theme and featured different flowers. She explained that hers was dedicated to her dog. “He loved playing in the garden,” she said.

Andrea Cobos also had a design featuring flowers, but she described her theme as “transition” noting that she used marigolds because they are often used on ofrendas, or altars, on Día de Los Muertos.

The difference in meaning in the girls’ seemingly similar design choices showcased how personal sugar skull designs are. Students enjoyed finding meaning in symbols that were almost like a secret code to their lives.

“I really liked how we got to express our creativity with this project,” Alexandra said.

student stands in front of her sugar skull artwork