El Dia de los Muertos Comes to the Peninsula School of Art

El Dia de los Muertos may involve cemeteries and skeletons, but the autumn Mexican holiday has nothing to do with Halloween. No one pretends to be a spook and no one shouts, “Trick or treat!”

The November 1 and 2 Days of the Dead celebration, despite its subject, is a warm gathering of family and friends to remember loved ones who have died. Observances include the creation of altars for the departed, adorned with marigolds and sugar skulls along with favorite foods, and family gatherings at gravesites.

While the Days of the Dead ritual is connected with the traditional Catholic holy days All Saints’ Day on November 1 and All Souls’ Day on November 2, scholars trace the holiday back to indigenous observances dating back thousands of years and find similar celebrations in other parts of the world.

The Peninsula School of Art at Fish Creek has mounted an exhibit inspired by El Dia de los Muertos, and has invited students from Door County schools to experience this cultural tradition first hand.

Five years ago artists Sandra and Wence Martinez spearheaded a similar display at the art school. The couple earlier had been invited to the annual show at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago, Wence recalled. When the idea was presented to host a similar presentation at the art school, Wence and Sandra agreed to curate it and arranged for artists to create and display a variety of work that responded to the Days of the Dead theme.

Visitors to the exhibit were encouraged to bring non-perishable food items to be donated to the Hispanic Resource Center in Sturgeon Bay, and to leave notes and photos that capture memories of their departed family members and friends.

“In our American culture I have never found a grieving ritual that comes close to the positive caring and warmth I feel during Dia de los Muertos,” Sandra said. She considers herself Latina by her marriage to Wence.

“I have found that taking time each year to pull out the photographs of our family and friends who have passed and to arrange them lovingly around candles, flowers, favorite foods and fruits, to tell the stories and relive those memories gives me great comfort.”

Sandra’s mother passed away nine years ago. “When I revisit her by adding her things to our altar, I feel that our connection is strong and we are visiting with each other.”

The annual ritual, she said, “provides a way for our relationship to continue and for my forgiveness and acceptance to grow.”

In Mexico the holiday has the cultural impact that Christmas does in the U.S. and functions somewhat like Memorial Day.

“The holiday goes on for a month and a half,” Wence said, “as people get ready for it and the spirit that is there.” As Wence was born in Mexico, the event was an important part of his childhood.

“When the actual date arrives,” he continued, “you really feel it and are ready to celebrate it. It’s a very joyful time, people going to other houses to visit, taking food there and bringing food back, a time to reconnect.”

The holiday officially begins at 3 pm on November 1, the time spirits of the departed are thought to arrive, and it ends at 3 pm on November 2, when they leave. As people offer private prayers, place food on a home’s altar, light candles, tell stories and remember, the spirits of the dead are present for them.

And the holiday is especially a treat for children, Wence recalls; when they leave the homes of their godparents they are laden with treats such as fruit, pecans, peanuts, and hot chocolate.

Because of the success of the earlier exhibit, the Board of Directors at the Peninsula Art School wanted to recreate a similar show, again featuring both the work of professional artists and the creations of other people who wanted to participate.

Liz Pangerl, an artist formerly from Los Angeles but now of Minneapolis, created an altar and gave a gallery talk prior to the opening reception, one she called “Days of the Dead 101.”

Featured artist Russ Cockburn created an altar 16 feet in diameter that is shaped to look like a skull but allows visitors to walk inside it where they may add notes, photos, and other mementos of their own departed family and friends. And again, they are encouraged to leave non-perishable foodstuffs that will be donated to the Hispanic Resource Center in Sturgeon Bay.

Chicago artist Juan Carlos Frias created a large non-traditional rosary piece for his ofrenda, one that included Aztec symbols. The work merges two cultures, that of an indigenous people with that of the Spanish Catholic conquistadors.

The Martinezes also solicited the work of Line of ASARO (Assembly of Revolutionary Artists of Oaxaca), a collection of Mexican artists who have banded together both for commercial and political purposes.

Sandra explained that because Dias de los Muertos is the most important holiday of Mexican culture, and because Mexico is a foot-traffic culture, the two days are a prime time for ASARO to make their artistic statements. Thus two traditions are mingled, honoring the memory of the dead and political activism.

Other featured artists creating altars for the show include Skye and Peter Ciesla, sisters Neva and Polly Sills, Allin Walker and Margaret Lockwood, and Kristine Diekman.

Peninsula School of Art Director Cathy Hoke-Gonzales created an ofrenda in memory of her two sets of grandparents. Along with the memorabilia she assembled, she added sculptures that she had made of them.

Kay McKinley Arneson, Director of Marketing and Exhibitions at the Art School, made a piece in memory of her mother who loved the English language. Her ofrenda included things her mother had read to her children when they were young.

In addition to the altars, the exhibit includes folk art on loan from private collectors.

The Dias de los Muertos exhibit offers a formal educational component.

“Over 500 students from area Spanish and English Language Learners classes will immerse themselves in Mexican culture by touring the ‘Days of the Dead’ exhibit,” Arneson said, “and creating artwork that promotes understanding of the celebration.”

Young participants may choose to dedicate their artwork to a deceased relative or friend, or on a more public fallen hero.

“Students will be able to experience Days of the Dead on several levels,” Peninsula School of Art Community Relations Director Cinnamon Rossman said. “They’ll first be greeted with the authentic, colorful atmosphere in the gallery; and then they’ll create traditional works with personal meaning. Finally, they’ll reinforce the knowledge they’ve received in their Spanish classes.”

Rossman divides each visiting class into two or three groups and with the help of volunteers, gives each one a gallery talk, a print making activity, and a sculpture project.

“When I walk students through the gallery,” she said, “I show them how contemporary artists have interpreted the history through the selection of components for their altars. Specifically I point out to students the concept of remembering the dead in a playful, joyful way.”

Students have found the project engaging and are curious, asking many questions. In particular, students in a fourth grade class were intrigued by a hologram Jesus that was part of the Martinez altar. And as they made their skeleton print, they sang Dry Bones, a song they had learned as third graders, the lyrics appropriate for the project!

Classes from Southern Door, Sturgeon Bay, Sevastopol, and Gibraltar schools are participating in the event which continues until November 14, and is open to the public, Monday through Saturday, 9 am to 5 pm. For more information visit