November 7, 2013

How Day of the Dead Art Helps You Heal, Part 1

Listening to AC/DC’s Highway to Hell, I saw this girl walk over and sit next to me on the bleachers.  She seemed just as annoyed as I was.  Not being dressed for gym, we were  banished to “to think about why we were not prepared for class”. I was just happy to have a Walkman and not get sweaty.  It was 1987.

“What are you listening to?” this tall, thin girl asked.

“Uh, AC/DC,” I replied, wondering if she even knew the band.

“They’re friggin’ awesome! Do you have Back in Black?” she asked.

“Like, Totally,” I replied. Remember, it was the 80s.

And so began our friendship, sitting on the bleachers in 10th grade.  If you think about it, you probably can’t remember the very moment you met your closest friend- it just seems to evolve over time.  I remember meeting Lynette.

Most people don’t know what to do wDay of the Dead tributehen someone dies.  I usually go to the thing that has never failed me, my art.  I’ve made a number of artifacts in the style of Day of the Dead holiday with my students, but this was different.  It was personal. This was a tribute to someone I knew most of my life- someone for whom I had unbelievable memories. Where do I even start?

Simply put, Las Dias de Los Muertos is a Mexican holiday that honors the life of someone who is deceased.
For Lynette, I made an ofrenda and a calavera. I’ll share with you my thought process and some images of the final work.




How to make a Day of the Dead  ofrenda and calavera of someone special:

First you have to choose someone you would like to honor- it may be personal or even someone famous.  Think of someone for whom you can think of symbols and images for.  I chose my childhood friend, Lynette, to commemorate.

sketching and planning the ofrendaI started with a skull- you can easily find one to trace if you don’t feel comfortable making one on your own.  I traced the outline of mine, then I filled it with symbols that represent Lynette.  She was full of faith and belief that there is a higher power, so I chose to put a cross on her forehead leading into her nose. Lynette was all about nature and living a healthy lifestyle, so using colored pencils I blended earth tone colors around the skull and extended those colors to the background. Think about your loved one and what colors and symbols would represent that person.  You can also find symbols and Day of the Dead imagery online for inspiration.

Lynette felt strongly about the protection and preservation of elephants and whales, so I used that imagery in the background.  My ofrenda is almost symmetrical, but yours doesn’t have to be. I feel words and images are both essential to expressive art- so I wrote down a bunch of words I think of when I think of her: elephants, God, love, natural, Layla, trust, biology, health, and faith.  Putting words together like found poetry, I thought the concept of “Natural Faith” worked well.

ofrenda design

I also encourage you to look for a quote that relates to your person. Working on another art project, I came across a Shakespeare quote, “Defer no time, delays have dangerous ends,” from the first part of King Henry VI.  I couldn’t help but think of her- she died of melanoma, an aggressive form of skin cancer.  Unfortunately, she waited to go to the doctor. By the time she went, it had spread.

In addition to her waiting to “dangerous ends”, I also think this quote can represent anything we want to do in our lives- we don’t know how much time we have, so we should not wait to go out, take chances and succeed.  We must banish fear, and go after what we want.

“Defer no time, delays have dangerous ends.”- William Shakespeare

Talk is great, but action is better. I learned much from Lynette, and that is probably the biggest lesson.

In addition to the ofrenda, I painted a calavera- a decorated skull.  I used some of the same imagery, but working on a three dimensional surface has its own challenges. Make sure your symbols fit in the area you have.  The most important thing to do when painting a skull is to constantly look at it from all sides, Sculptures are made to be look at in the round.  I drew on the symbols, and then painted them.  After the paint was dry, I added beads with hot glue.

Natural Faith, ofrenda and calavera for Lynette Basta

Day of the Dead ofrenda

lyenette calavera 2

Day of the Dead Calavera












Celebrating the Day of the Dead holiday can help you reflect on the relationship you had with your loved one, and honor them with symbols and art.  For, me, it helped to think about our relationship and what she meant to me over many years.  Making art helps you heal because you are in control.  We can’t stop our loved ones from dying, but we can absolutely control how we remember them and their impact on us.  Once again, through words and images, we can share this person with the world.

Who will you honor? Send me an image of your art and I will attach it to this post. In Part 2 I will share with you some student work along with their stories. Be inspired, make art and feel better!

Art Resources:

Video: Flickering Lights, Days of the Dead by Crizmac.  It is a short video which delves into the history and culture of the holiday, complete with rituals and artifacts.  It is appropriate for ages 10 and up, but younger kids would appreciate the images as well.   I use this video to start my lesson.

Art Books:

  • Day of the Dead Crafts, Kerry Arquette, Andres Zocchi, Jerry Vigil (very cool art projects)
  • Posada, Mexican Engraver, Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporaneo & Editorial, Extensive background on Jose Guadelupe Posada

Craft Materials:

Melanoma Resources:

Mayo Clinic– Melanoma information symptoms causes and treatment

National Cancer Institute: Resources for cancer patients


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