Eugene Weekly : Visual Art : 10.23.08

The Bearable Lightness of Unbeing
Día de los Muertos returns to Maude Kerns
by Inka Bajandas

Death and laughter. Skeletons, marigolds, sugar and memory.

That’s what you’ll find at the Maude Kerns Art Center in the 15th annual Day of the Dead exhibit, featuring artwork and altars celebrating the Nov. 1 Mexican holiday. The exhibit showcases the work of artists from across the U.S. and altars from local groups as well.

On Her Lap, by Erik R. Pearson
Jiga para los muertos, by Daniel Tuttle

The 25 artists from nine states responded to a national call for art with a Día de los Muertos theme. Folklorist Susan Dearborn Jackson and art administrator Sandra Dominguez juried the show.

“There is wonderful artwork this year,” says Jackson, who curated the original Maude Kerns Day of the Dead show 15 years ago. “It’s a very lively show that brings out the best of Día de los Muertos.”

She emphasizes that the show is “an honoring and acknowledgement of the Latino/Hispanic community and their contribution to our changing culture.”

Scattered throughout the exhibit are altars created by local organizations and community members. The altars were put together by Amigos Multicultural Services Center, Amity Cleary-Evans and Rocio Díaz of Bag Ladies of the World, Elke Richers and Carmelita Thompson. 

Juventud FACETA, the youth group of the Amigos, dedicated its altar to farm workers like 17-year-old Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez, who died in a heat wave this summer. “We are a group that promotes human rights and immigrant rights,” says FACETA advisor Patricia Cortez. “We dedicated our space to inform the community about issues that are usually invisible, to put a seed out there that these kind of atrocites exist.” (More info about farm workers and heat at the United Farm Workers’ website,

The Bag Ladies of the World, a women’s group that has been around for decades and has spread to other areas, dedicated its altar to various mothers.

Jackson, a folklorist, has become an expert on the Day the Dead. “The Mexican culture has a very different relationship with death” from what has been typical in the U.S., she says. She says that artists in the show are not only drawing from contemporary celebrations of the Day of the Dead but also pre-Hispanic traditions. “Typically you see the iconography of the skulls and bones, but you also see that whimsical depiction of death,” she adds.

Local photographer Robin Cushman is exhibiting two photographs about her mother in the show. Her mother’s death, Cushman says, made her confront her own mortality and ponder the idea of being that much closer to her own death. Cushman says she has been very interested in Day of the Dead and how differently it addresses death than in white U.S. culture. “Día de los Muertos acknowledges death as part of the life cycle,” she says. “There’s a lightness about it and joyfulness.” Having been through the death of her mother, she says she understands that lightness and humor is also part of dying. “We laughed as much as cried,” she says.

Daniel Tuttle, an artist from Washington, created a plaster of Paris print depicting skeletons playing the violin and accordion. Tuttle, who is interested in Irish music, depicts Irish ancestors playing their traditional music. Catholics in Ireland celebrate All Souls’ Day on the same day as Día de los Muertos, so his piece, he says, is “Irishmen playing their version of the Day of the Dead.”

El Día de los Muertos/The Day of the Dead exhibit runs through Nov. 7 at Maude Kerns Art Center at 15th and Villard. 345-1571 for more info.