Under the Sun

Welcome to Teacher Kyllan Maney's Mutant Pinata Class

The piñata on the left was made by Hiram, who was a no-show.
The piñata on the left was made by Hiram, who was a no-show. Robrt L. Pela
A pinata wearing a Catholic schoolgirl uniform glanced warily at a neon paper-mache cat. Behind her, a giant hot pink baby head loomed, its cutout mouth wide with what looked like an expression of alarm. Just behind them, a pinata wearing a gem-encrusted ball gown stared with half-closed cardboard eyes.

“That one was made by a student named Hiram,” said Kyllan Maney of the sleepy, ball-gowned pinata. She poked at her cellphone. “He was supposed to be here to talk about how he made her, but he’s not answering my texts.”

Maney is a teacher at Tempe’s New School for the Arts and Academics. Her mixed-media class made all these paper mache sculptures last week. Each of the pieces was to be included in the 13th Annual Mutant Piñata Show, part of Art Detour weekend at Weird Garden, a downtown gallery at 1008 North 15th Avenue. The event was canceled in support of social distancing.

“We’ve been doing this project, oh my gosh, for years,” she said and pointed to a lumpy brown pinata with a startled expression. “Let’s see, my daughter was 8 when she made that. She’s 14 now. She named it Potato Kitty. She’s like, ‘Stop showing people Potato Kitty!’ But I’m like, ‘He’s a wonderful classroom example!’”

Her students had a short deadline for the pinata project, so Beatrice Moore, who runs the Mutant Pinata exhibit, gave Maney a big box of leftover pinata parts: arms, tails, and torsos covered in curly tissue paper.

“This one started out as a teddy bear, I think,” Maney offered, pointing to the Catholic schoolgirl pinata. The sculpture was wearing a lot of bright makeup, and her long, lavender hair was pulled back with teddy bear heads. “The artist actually sacrificed one of her cosplay wigs for this. My daughter saw it and was like, ‘Oh my god, a cosplay wig!’”

Arms were a thing this year with the pinatas, Maney thought. Hiram’s sculpture had tiny, Barbie-sized arms. The schoolgirl had no arms at all.

Maney considered the pinata’s facial expression and cheerful rouge. “She’s a very naughty schoolgirl,” she observed. “The artist who made this, she’s always sitting with her friend, joking and giggling, but when I ask, ‘Guys, what’s so funny?’ they just giggle more.”

She grabbed her cellphone and tapped at it. “Let me try to call Hiram again,” she said. When Hiram didn’t answer, she sighed.

click to enlarge Kyllan Maney's piñata class is in session. - ROBRT L. PELA
Kyllan Maney's piñata class is in session.
Robrt L. Pela

When they’re not making pinatas, Maney explained, her students studied drawing mediums, how to work with water-soluble graphite and watercolor, and then how to combine them.

“For the sculptural element, we do pinatas,” she said, glancing at her phone. “We do sculpture class every other year, and students usually choose to do three-dimensional objects.” Next, the students will study needlepoint.

“This one looks like its butt is on fire,” Maney said, holding up a white bull with orange feathers and red pom-poms shooting from its backside. “Hiram’s pinata is all done, but this one could use a little touch-up.”

The sculptures, once they were completed, were meant to be representative of real pinatas, Maney explained. They would not be beaten with sticks, or have candy exploding out of them. She remembered that one year at the Mutant Pinata show, Moore had a performance artist who called herself The Living Pinata. She hung from the ceiling and threw candy at spectators down below.

Maney didn’t think it was sad that pinatas typically get beaten with sticks and broken into pieces. “Because then you have candy,” she said. “Plus all those great pinata parts. I always like to save pinata parts, like Beatrice does. This year she gave me two bags of parts! You can use them to make a lot of different things.”

The Mutant Pinata thing happened because Maney knew Beatrice Moore. Normally, she said, she gave her students more time to create something for the exhibit. “When you’re a young artist, you can sit in Decision Land for a long time, overthinking things and not get anything done,” she suggested. “That’s part of the lesson here: How to get things done on a deadline.”

She took one last stab at getting Hiram on the phone. While his cell rang, she straightened the stiff, crinkly skirt on his pinata. “He’s got strings of glue hanging on here,” she muttered to herself. “I wonder if he plans to leave them there.”

While Maney fussed, the naughty schoolgirl pinata stared her down.
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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela