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November 16, 2006

Art Beat

Dia de Los Muertos

story and photos by KATHERINE ALMY


Being of Jewish extraction, I have a personal connection to the bagel. I've lived in New York City, where my mother was born and raised, and tasted the best bagels the city had to offer. But I had to come to Humboldt County to experience the jalapeno bagel. I was a bit taken aback at first, but I have come to love this unique mingling of cultures. I've gotten used to lox and pan dulce, challah and empanadas, and I've come to expect the calacas at this time of year.photo of dia de los muertos retablos

This month, in the Truchas gallery of their Eureka location (405 2nd St.), Los Bagels is featuring the work of artists Susana Oropeza, who created several retablos and some clay wall plaques for the occasion. The retablos are small boxes with scenes of everyday life. Susana's boxes are populated with the calacas, or skeletons, that the Mexicans use for decorations on the Day of the Dead.

The tradition of small boxes with scenes in them came from Europe. They were originally used as portable altars by medieval travelers and pilgrims and were carried by soldiers into battle during the Crusades. They were brought to Peru in the 16th century by the Spanish conquistadors. Susana's boxes are a blend of this Peruvian tradition and the Mexican tradition of small, handmade Day of the Dead figurines involved in daily activity.

The boxes include a wedding scene, a hat shop, a shoe store, a candy store, a farmer's market. The little skeletons dance, play musical instruments, try on shoes, agonize over which hat to buy. Susana has a story for each character -- they're not just skeletons captured in a moment of time, they have a whole history, as well as a future. "This one's asking her friend which hat she should choose, but in the end, she's going to pick the purple hat because it goes with her outfit. Don't you think that's what she's going to do?" she asks my son, who's entranced by the tiny scenes. They reflect her memories, her friends, experiences she's had. They are busily going about the little tasks of life.

But they're dead, aren't they? My question was, what does it mean to have skeletons bustling about in bakeries and shoe stores? It reflects a basic difference in the philosophies of death in her culture and mine. All cultures have a certain respect and fear of death, but different people deal with it in different ways. European culture tends to shy away from talking about things it doesn't like. If we ignore it, maybe it will go away.

photo of retablos in progressThe attitude toward death is fundamentally different in Mexico. I have a quote -- which, unfortunately, I cannot attribute -- that puts it nicely: "Our children grow up with death. When they are small they play with death. For us, it is another part of life." And that's what the playful skeleton people and the festive Dia de los Muertos is all about. The dead are welcomed into our daily lives and participate once again in it. We remember them with fondness, laugh with them, share stories. We recognize that we will be among them at some time, as will all of our loved ones.

Susana and I talked about this response to death, as she shared stories of her own experiences with tragedy. She told me about a nephew, younger than my son, who was with the family in an orchard. He was wearing a green outfit, and was hidden by the tall grass. The boy was killed by a tractor with the father and grandfather watching -- nearby, but not close enough to stop the accident. "What have you done," the father raged. The tractor driver was overcome by guilt and remorse. But the grandfather remained calm, the voice of reason between the two passionate younger men. "It was an accident," he said, reminding the father that turning his rage against the other man wouldn't bring back his son. Reminding the tractor driver that guilt wouldn't either. These things happen, life goes on. All we can control is how we're going to react to the blows life deals.

After talking with her at the gallery, I went to Susana's studio to see how the boxes come together. In her small Myrtletown apartment, with a picture window overlooking the bay, she's made her living room into a studio and filled it with bits and pieces of things that might look like other things. A plastic box for a glass bakery counter, scraps of material for clothing, bottle caps, beads, polyester batting for hair and, of course, hundreds of clip clothespins painted white with black skeleton faces.

As we talk, she puts together a calaca for me. She dresses her in a salmon-and-white-checked dress, a scarf with brightly colored pattern and a necklace made of red wire with a little silver pendant. She glues on a tuft of hair and toys with it. "Maybe we'll put her hair up." She holds up the figure and in a funny skeleton voice she says, "I need a do." With a bit of blue wire, she wraps the figure's hair into a bun and puts a peach-colored rose in it. She snips off the end of a yellow toothpick, paints the point black and the blunt end pink to make a pencil. In the figure's other hand, she glues a clipboard and a piece of paper with an inspirational saying on it. "See, she's a writer," says Susana, and I realize she's not just making this for me -- it is me.

I left her house with my little calaca and a better understanding of what they mean. Maybe it is better to embrace death then run from it, since it just runs right along with us. We can't avoid the tears and anguish when a loved one dies, but allowing ourselves to laugh at the same time seems like a good strategy. The retablos at Los Bagels are full of the warmth and humor of the artist herself. A joyful reminder of our wonderful, somewhat goofy humanness. They will be on display through the month of November.

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Got a local exhibit or art event that might make a good story? Send your art news to almy@arcatanet.com or write in care of the North Coast Journal, 145 South G Street, Suite A, Arcata, CA. 95521.


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