Audrey Love

The first two days of November denote a colorful, festive Día de los Muertos holiday for many of Mexican and Latin descent. However, the “Day of the Dead” celebration in the U.S. generally pales in comparison to Mexico’s or is missed altogether.

This year, La Grande’s Art Center East sought to incorporate culture and community in its free Día de los Muertos (or ‘Day of the Dead’) celebration Nov. 2 in honor of the traditional Mexican holiday. Practiced annually, the holiday is a celebration of both life and death in which families commemorate their deceased loved ones.

“I think it was a huge success,” said Sarah West, community outreach coordinator at ACE, after the event. “We didn’t know what to expect, but hoped for a minimum attendance in line with our usual gallery receptions. We more than doubled that and it was one of our largest event attendances ever.”

In keeping with Day of the Dead aesthetic elements, the event offered face painting, sugar skull (or “calavera”) cookie decorating and art activities, a photo area with traditional-style costume items, refreshments, more than 200 tamales and a homemade salsa bar, and a sponsored screening of Disney Pixar’s “Coco” by the Union County Safe Communities Coalition.

“We saw a wider range of ages than usual. We expected families, because that’s what the event was designed around, but also saw college students and adults of all ages attending,” West said. “Based on (observation), a decent number of people in attendance were not people who regularly attend events at Art Center East.”

K-12 schools in the Grande Ronde Valley submitted a range of art projects on display in the center’s main gallery, which will remain open for viewing through Nov. 14. Created in the folk art tradition with bright colors and patterns of Día de los Muertos imagery, the space was adorned with “alebrijes,” or sculptures of fantastical animals; “calacas,” decorative skull figures; “calavera,” sugar skull masks; and “papel picado,” “pierced paper” tissue banners. A three-piece mural created by EOU art student and ACE board member Damian Garcia, also dominated one of the gallery walls.

“One of the focuses of this event was to make the gallery an interactive and fun space, and I think we achieved that goal,” West said. “Kids were getting their faces painted, then trying on costumes for the photo booth. Families posed together for pictures. All of it together, combined with the festive crowd, created a nice feedback loop.”

A centerpiece of the event was an “ofrenda,” or altar, built around the gallery’s fireplace as a space for community members to display photos and mementos honoring their deceased loved ones. Paper and pens were available to write a name or a message in memoriam to place among the candles and paper flowers decorating the altar.

“Lots of people left photos and wrote messages to loved ones on the ofrenda,” West said, noting that many of the notes left were in children’s handwriting.

“I particularly loved how kids explored the ofrenda, their eyes running over it, searching its contents and reaching out to touch the colorful items or peer at a photograph,” West said. “It’s a visually exciting thing, and everyone was drawn to that side of the room, taking time to look at all the photos and objects. I think it left an impression on people.”

See more in Monday's edition of The Observer.