Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is unlike any other holiday in the United States. It confronts death head-on by celebrating the deceased, rather than mourning their loss through sadness and fear of death.
Front Room Gallery in the Bayview Cash Store has brought a bit of that morbid but celebratory atmosphere with an art show that captures the holiday’s energy.
“We’re bringing this community art show back after 10 or 12 years with the reopening of Front Room Gallery this year,” organizer Mary Ann Mansfield said. “We’re not only focusing on art associated with Day of the Dead. We’ve set up an altar for community members to use to remember their lost ones.”
The Day of the Dead exhibit, displayed in Front Room Gallery upstairs in the Bayview Cash Store, features art and crafts made by Whidbey-based artists who are inspired by the colorful holiday. The exhibit is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday and runs through Oct. 29. An opening reception is slated for 5 to 7:30 p.m. this evening. Clinton resident Gretchen Lawlor is expected to speak about her experience with the holiday when she lived in Mexico for years.
Artists from across the island are represented with pieces that span a variety of mediums, including paintings, multi-media and metalworks. The gallery space is decked out in vibrant Mexican colors and designs, and an altar designed by Lawlor dominates the room as a centerpiece. In Mexico, this kind of altar is called an ofrenda. To demonstrate how Day of the Dead is celebrated, the ofrenda is decorated with the iconic painted skulls, called calaveras, marigolds and bowls of food, candy, and even an empty bottle of whiskey in the altar’s center.
It’s a tradition to place a deceased loved one’s favorite material things on the altar, such as their favorite food and drinks. Visitors to the gallery are invited to post photos and leave items for their beloved departed, including animals. The organizers are hoping to cover a wall with photos of the departed.
“altars with favorite foods, candies and photographs are set up to feed the souls of the departed,” KeKe Cribbs, a well-known South Whidbey artist helping set up the exhibit, said.
A tradition with indigenous Aztec roots, the holiday over time was organized to coincide with All Saint’s Day. The celebratory tradition stems from the belief that there are three deaths: real death, spiritual death and to be forgotten. The dead are celebrated in order to make sure loved ones never experience the third death.
For some of the participating artists, the contrast between the morbid nature of the holiday and the vibrant colors and celebratory mood is what makes the holiday fascinating. They say we can learn a thing or two from the holiday’s concept.
“I think it’s the juxtaposition of the colors with the skeletons that intrigues people,” Sandra Whiting, artist and Goosefoot executive director, said. “The whole idea of a skeleton is a scary thing in our culture, so seeing them in a different light with more humor and color associated with it makes you think about how we view death.”
“I love the reality of the confrontation of death and looking at it as a celebratory manner,” Mansfield said. “I think we could learn from that.”