Sunday, October 23, 2011

Celebrating the dead through art and memory

Last Friday was the opening night for The Dio de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) art exhibit at the Walker's Point Center for the Arts. This was the Milwaukee gallery's 19th year exhibiting altars, sculptures, and paintings that honor the Day of the Dead celebration. I've attended this event for several years, and each time it has been different. I'm going to assume that most of you are familiar with these celebrations, but I'll provide some basic information along the way.

The Walker's Point gallery is in a new location this year. The new building has a glass window in front, which is perfect for displays. This is what I saw as I approached the building.

That glamorous skeleton is of course, Marilyn Monroe. The base below her feet reads "Happy Birthday Mr. President."

This is kind of a sexy view. Check out that spinal cord!

Next to Marilyn, some little skeleton kids and their skeleton dog play with a pinata. There's Mexican candy all over the floor. 

Above them hangs papel picado. I made some of these years ago when I worked for a children's art program. I was working in a park setting, so anyone could join in the projects. Some of the kids we were working with ran off to get their grandparents, because the grandparents actually had experience with this! Papel picado is a lot more challenging to create than it looks. I thought these skull designs were impressive!

 Here's a nice view of Marilyn from the front.

Day of the Dead is a way of honoring those who have passed away. Ofrendas are left out for the dead in an act of remembrance. Lost loved ones are left food, personal belongings, objects that reflect their work or hobbies, and sometimes skeletal representations of the deceased. Marigolds are commonly seen with these displays, because they are the traditional flower for Day of the Dead.

Anyone who has been around Marigolds, knows they have a strong scent. The scent is believed to be so intense, that it can lead the spirits home. 

Marilyn wasn't the only celebrity being honored at this event. An altar was built for Elizabeth Taylor.

I realize that the woman in the painting looks nothing like her, but the eyes had been colored purple. She's also wearing a lot of bling. I like to the think the man behind her is Richard Burton.

There was also a Michael Jackson tribute! Do you see the dancing skeleton at the bottom? I think I saw that prop at Target. As I remember, it plays "Beat It" but "Thriller" would make more sense. If you own one of those dancing skeletons, remind me what it sings!

One of my favorites was the Frida Kahlo tribute. It was so colorful and filled with joy. The artist made paper butterflies and hung them around her and on the little trees surrounding her portrait. You can't see it here, but there were little paintbrushes sitting beneath her.

Here are a few photos from the tributes people made to their family members and friends.

I love that sassy little skeleton with the crossed legs! I'm guessing the person this is dedicated to liked smoking Camels.

 Loteria cards

This little scratchboard skeleton was one my favorite pieces there.

In my eyes, these two skeletons are Gomez and Wednesday Addams. They were printed on some fabric that was hanging from a table.

Plenty of works of art were displayed among the altars. This banner was high up on a wall.

An artist built a miniature bar with little drinking skeletons inside. This is a photo I took through the bar's doorway.

The little bar sat on top of an amazing metal skeleton sculpture.

Aside from the Marilyn sculpture, the next skeleton was probably my favorite piece there. She actually reminds me of a teacher I had! Isn't it great how she's reaching out of the frame?

There was also a musical performance at the gallery. The musicians played little guitar-like instruments and sang songs from different regions of Mexico. I think these may be the instruments they were playing: Mexican Vihuela. Correct me if I'm wrong. There was also a little dancing. They talked about how the stomping acted as drumming, at a time when African influenced Mexicans were being suppressed by the Spanish. The African influence was new to me, so I might have to research that.

It was so generous of this community to share their history and traditions with anyone who wanted to visit the gallery! I love learning about different cultures and perspectives.

The Mexican view of death is colorful and filled with joy as well as sadness. I think this is a much more healthy way of expressing grief and looking at death in general. In America, people seem more in denial about death. We don't even want to think about it, but this felt like a celebration!

I found a skeleton that I think is a good representation of me. See her camera?

Relating myself to a skeleton sculpture, made me think about what might be on my own display, if someone close to me made one. I wonder how it would compare to what I would design for myself? I'm not trying to be morbid, I just wonder what those close to me would think was most important to include.

If you'd like to see a little of the real deal, here's a beautiful video taken in a Mexican cemetery for Day of the Dead:

Now, I know this is the never ending blog post, but there are two more things...

1. One of my blog friends, VainGlorySinner did a beautiful job of making up her face for Day of the Dead. She shared these photos about a week ago, but if you haven't seen them, you must! Here's a link:

VainGlorySinner transformed into a sugar skull

2. If any of you want to join in for the virtual Halloween party I'm having, please send me a photo of yourself in costume. I'm putting that blog entry up on October 27th. You can email your photo here:

I'm off to the country today to make a deluxe caramel apple at a caramel apple bar! It's a beautiful Autumn day, and I hope to take lots of photos to share.


  1. Some great exhibits. I love skulls and anytime I see pieces like this it just amazes me. Plus it means more here because of the cultural signifigance of the skulls and skeletons.

  2. I really enjoyed this post! I wish I could have been there to witness this magical festival or art and death. The skeleton are fabulous, they must have been really fun to make!

    Everything is so colourful and creative and beautiful!

    My favourite pieces have to be the little skeleton bar and the skeleton coming out of the frame.. I'd have that piece displayed in my home!

    I love Gomez and Wednesday Addams!

    I agree with you, if we all celebrated death in the way that the Mexicans do then we'd all be a lot happier.. not that death is a happy occasion but remembering your loved ones in this way is a lot healthier than getting depressed!

    I have the same red shiny heart which is at the bottom of the picture in the 8th photo up. I found it in a Christmas decoration shop!

    Thank you for sharing my Sugar Skull makeup with your followers :D

    Have fun making caramel apples! We call them toffee apples in the UK (thought you might find that interesting) :p xxx

  3. Ha! I'd say the little skeleton with the cigarettes could serve as a cautionary tale, as well!

    I like the little scratchboard skeleton, too! Very graphic - design wise, I mean, not shock value. I see what you mean about Gomez and Wednesday. I could see those pictures hanging in the Addams' house. They have a dark jubilance to them that is very Addams-like.

    I love the red and black heart hanging from the animal skull (not so crazy about the skull). I assume it's some sort of "sacred heart".

    I love the skeleton bar. That really appeals to me... life going in the land of the dead! Very Tim Burton!

    Haha! That must have been some teacher. At least she looks cheerful!

    Hmm... that's a thought provoking question: What kind of display would be created by loved ones to represent your life? Creating and photographing your own display would be an interesting exercise, I think. Very creative, and it would really make you think about what was important to you and what symbols represent you. I might try that. (Note to self: add another item to the loooooooong "to do" list!)

    These photos were fabulous! You were so lucky that they allowed photography. They usually don't allow photography at exhibitions here. Thanks for sharing!

  4. What a great collection of skeletons. I like the one taking the picture. BTW, I am looking for a Halloween picture of me dressed up. As soon as I find the one of me as toothpaste, I will email it to you.

  5. +1 on the scratchboard skellie. he is awesome, and that stuff is so not my medium. very unforgiving, that.

    I love DOTD celebrations and stuff. A dear friend of mine passed away last year and she collected DOTD figurines. I wonder if her children (the oldest is in middle school now) will be able to bring themselves to decorate with them this year. The remembrance is my favorite part of the holiday, by far.

    Thanks for this post. Great one.

  6. Slowdeath77 ~ I'm with you: Skulls at any time of year are cool, but these are especially cool because of their meaning. I think Day of the Dead is such a fun way of expressing memories and love for those who have passed away!

    VainGlorySinner ~ I'm glad you enjoyed this! I hope people take a peek at your sugar skull look, because you did such an outstanding job with that! I wish you'd been here to see this too. I just know you would have loved looking around!

    Yeah, I wouldn't mind having a few of these pieces around the house, either. It's not like I'm regularly a skeleton decor kind of person, but these are so fun and colorful! I kept forgetting the meaning behind these pieces, because they looked so happy.

    Right! I think the whole cultural process of honoring the dead has to be cathartic. I love it when the light can be brought out of any kind of darkness.

    I do find the toffee apple trivia interesting! I like the subtle little differences in the English language. By the way, I had a great time at the caramel apple day! Although, I ended up with my hands stuck to everything. :)

    Biff ~ Hey there! Where have you been? I hope you're back blogging again! I'm glad you enjoyed this post. :)

    Little Gothic Horrors ~ Haha! Good one. That will scare the kiddies off of smoking! :)

    Yes, the scratchboard skeleton is very graphic with its black and white design. I don't think a skeleton is really capable of being graphic in the other direction...

    Yes, I think that's a sacred heart. I'm with you, the skull above it makes a statement, but I prefer the heart. Did you catch the jaw bone sitting below the scratchboard skeleton?

    Yes, the little skeleton bar was adorable! I wish more of my photos of that turned out. It was kind of hard to photograph through the windows. Yes, it was very Corpse Bride!

    That was some teacher, alright. It's funny you say that, because when I wrote that comment I was thinking how at least the skeleton is smiling... We didn't see a lot of smiles out of her. But she did have the glasses, hair, and probably weighed about as much as the skeleton! She was scarier, though.

    Haha! Yeah, add "make myself an altar" to your list under "send Justine a Halloween photo". ;) When I was a little kid, I took an art class at our local art museum. We did a lesson about mummies, because we have an awesome sarcophagus at our museum. The lesson involved each kid drawing their own sarcophagus and filling it with pictures of the things that represented them. So mine had pictures of drawing materials, and my dog as I recall. :) It's a fun exercise that makes you think about all the little pieces that make up you!

    Well, it's sort of a nontraditional gallery. I don't think anyone would be told not to take a picture there. It was very casual and friendly. That and none of these were antique oil paintings that would be damaged by flash photography. I totally understand that rule. That and they weren't selling any postcards. So I can't think why they'd care!

    Adsila ~ I'm glad you enjoyed this! Yeah, that skeleton was a favorite of mine for obvious reasons. :) I can't put my camera down! I even had a button fall off of it recently, and the batteries are all worn out. So yeah, it gets used. I cannot wait to see your toothpaste outfit! That will be a fun, lighthearted addition to the party. :)

    Pensive ~ You've tried working with scratchboard? I can't remember if I have or not. If I did, it was a looong time ago! I can see how there's no erasing a mistake with that medium. So, what is your medium?

    I'm sorry to hear about your friend. It sounds like she had a neat idea for a collection. How hard for her kids. Yeah, it might be difficult for them to bring out her things. I know it is sometimes comforting to have a lost loved one's things around, but then the objects are hard to look at. I'm sure that with time, they will bring out her collection and enjoy it!

  7. That's great. I love the idea of Dia de los Muertos. When my family took a trip to Disney World this spring, I bought a Dia de los Muertos craft book at the Mexico pavillion because I've always admired the style of art. I didn't get to it this year, but I'm thinking next year I'll make some of my own calaveras.

    I think it's good that I didn't get to them this year, because I would have made whatever looked cool to me. After reading your post, I'm thinking they need to be more meaningful, and I should make them in honor of my abuella and my cousin who passed on in the past couple of years.

  8. I just looked at the photo again. I didn't realize that it was a jawbone the first time I saw it. I take it that animal bones must feature in the Dia de los Muertos festivities, as well as human bones?

    I'm actually working on some little Day of the Dead dolls. The plan was to have them done (along with 50,000 other things) before Halloween and Dia de los Muertos... maybe they'll be finished before the celebrations next year. Haha.

    I think the Catrinas and the sugar skulls are really interesting. Have you done any Day of the Dead themed artwork?

  9. Waht an awesome post. I love all of the tributes to the beloved dead. I wish the Day of the Dead was celebrated more. It is such a beautiful tradition. My daughter is makeing a paper mache sugar skull in art class. I can't wait till she can bring it home. i know right where I'm going to put it.

    Thanks for sharing your fun day with us.

  10. Marvin ~ Cool! I'd like to see some of your projects from the craft book. That's sweet that you'd like to make a meaningful tribute to your grandmother and cousin. I'm pleased to hear that this post helped in any way with that. Still, there's no reason why you can't just make something cool for cool's sake! :)

    Little Gothic Horrors ~ Yeah! I hadn't noticed there was a jawbone sitting there until I came home and looked at the photo! I'm not sure how the bones figure in, but I did notice a few animal bones on the altars.

    How cool! I'm looking forward to seeing your Day of the Dead dolls. I'm sure those will be a hit. Haha, I know what you mean about those 50,000 other things. It's funny how projects add up! Yeah, I get inspired a little too close to the selling season too. Hey ~ There's nothing wrong with being prepared a year ahead! :)

    Strangely, I haven't made any Day of the Dead themed art. I felt really inspired to after going to this gallery, though. Many times I feel inspired to create some art with the theme of a blog post I've written. I felt that way after I posted the Venice blog entries. I think blogs are a handy way to collect ideas, for future reference!

    Vivienne ~ Thank you. :) Are you sure that Day of the Dead isn't being celebrated where you are? A google search might reveal some events nearby. Oh, I bet your daughter is having fun making the paper mache skull! Where are you planning to display it?

  11. I plan on putting the paper mache sugar skull on my ancestor altar. I'll have to check and see if there are any celebrations closer than Indy.

  12. I love the amount of images you pack into your posts. It's just the right combination of information and visual details. And a Day of the Dead themed event is the perfect kind of post to pack with images!

    Looking forward to this year's Halloween blog party! I'm sure you'll have a great turnout.

  13. Very interesting post. I learned many things about Day of the Dead that I did not know. Marigolds filled my garden this summer, I did not know of their link to this celebration. Also very interesting to look through each alter and see the person's individual likes, vices and talents show through.

  14. Vivienne ~ Great place for it! Yeah, if you find any celebrations nearby, I'd like to hear about them! I wouldn't have known about a lot of local events, if I didn't do online searches.

    King Unicorn ~ Thanks! Yeah, I'm pretty addicted to taking photos. It's nice to have a platform for sharing all of them! I agree ~ Day of the Dead is a perfect topic for photos. There are so many colors and patterns to work with!

    I'm looking forward to the Halloween blog party as well! So far, I've been sent some pretty cool photos. I can't wait to see the one you send! I bet it will be spooky, or maybe you'll surprise me. :)

    Art Bliss ~ Thank you! I'm glad that you learned some things about Day of the Dead from this post. I bet you'll think about this event as you smell your Marigolds. Just think, your garden could be attracting spirits. ;) Yes, the altars are very personal. I felt like I was getting to know the people the displays were dedicated to.

  15. It's amazing how those vibrant colors can come together to create something so macabre! haha

  16. Copyboy ~ Yeah, isn't it cool that this much color surrounds a topic that could be dark? I love bright, happy skeleton art. I'd seriously leave some of these up in the house year round!

    BeWitchy ~ Hey there! Thanks. :) I'm glad you enjoyed the photos!

  17. Awesome! I wish more people did this sort of thing. I think that making an altar to honor a passed away loved one is not only a great way to remember them, it is also cathartic for those that loved them.

    A mini bar with it's own skeleton? I think every watering hole should have one. And I agree, I think that is Richard Burton standing behind Liz Taylor in the portrait.

  18. Johnny ~ There are probably lots of Day of the Dead celebrations going on. If you look online, you might find some near you! Yes, I think the whole process is good for everyone. I'm sure it's cathartic and they get to look at these fun, colorful displays!

    Yeah, how cool would it be if every real bar came with a little skeleton bar version? Like those birdhouses that people make to look like little replicas of the actual house! Ha, I thought the guy in the painting looked more like Richard Burton than the woman did Elizabeth Taylor...

  19. <3 this post! I have always loved Dio de los Muertos because it is a celebration of the dead. I prefer to celebrate those that have passed on, not mourn that they are gone. And while there is a need to mourn some, if we get trapped in that cycle we forget that life is about living. I think the dead would want us to live.

    Anyhow, amazing post!

  20. Kweeny ~ Thanks! I'm glad you enjoyed this one. I completely agree with you. There are ways to remember people that actually leave you feeling positive, and this is one of them!