Monday, October 24, 2011

Día de los Muertos Altar

This week on still life everyday, I am going to be writing about different Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, projects. Día de los Muertos is a Latin American holiday that celebrates the dead and the ancestors. Celebrated November 1 and November 2, it coincides with All Saints Day and All Souls Day. (Did I get those in the right order?) Did you know that in Mexico, November 1st is referred to as Día de los Inocentes ("Day of the Innocents") but also as Día de los Angelitos ("Day of the Little Angels") and November 2 as Día de los Muertos or Día de los Difuntos ("Day of the Dead")? Yes, that means that November 1st is a day set aside to honor children and babies who have died.

I think we all knew that deep within us, which is why we connect with Día de los Muertos so viscerally.

Dia de los Muertos Ofrenda from 2010
Anyway, this week, I am going to share with you some projects I will be doing this week. First, I have created my Día de los Muertos ofrenda, or offering, or altar if you will. This might be a little more detailed than you want, but I am going to share how I got from point A to point semi-finished. And I say semi-finished because I am going to be working on projects all week to add to my ofrenda that I will share with you, then I will post the final altar picture.

This year, I was kind of stupefied by where I was going to put my altar. I have traditionally always used a small Shaker table I use for my altar, and it gets filled quickly. So I wanted to go bigger, or more self-contained. My husband is a woodworker by hobby, and I thought I might use some scrap wood and building something. I also was referring to the book Day of the Dead Crafts (You need to buy this book, if you don't have it already). In this book, there are a few ofrendas that use a painting as the centerpiece or theme of the ofrenda, and I wanted to do that.

I have been wanting to paint something not jizo or Zen or Buddhist, but that touched my Catholicism and love of Catholic art, in particular ex-voto or retablos. Latin American and Catholic art do death really well. It is part pathos, part horror, part worshipful, but all real life. Exaggerated and dramatic and beautiful in the way it embraces the darker sides of life. Ex-votos are paintings of tragedies and deaths with a pleading to a saint or gratitude for intercession. Like a visual prayer, it exemplifies the chaos of praying in suffering. In my humble opinion. Frida Kahlo painted a lot of these works. A retablo is a painting of how a saint or the Virgin. It may or may not depict the way the saint was martyred. I have been particularly intrigued by them because I have been re-discovering my saint books. I love this one by Giselle Potter called Lucy's Eyes and Margaret's Dragon. Giselle Potter is such a distinctive illustrator and her work is beautiful in this book. It is mostly illustrated. You need to check it out. It is a bargain book on Amazon.

I am frustrated because I wrote this post, then somehow deleted everything but the first paragraph.
So bear with me here.

Anyway, I sketched very little. Just a vague idea then, painted for an afternoon. I loved painting this work. It is exactly the way I had envisioned it, and a perfect centerpiece for my ofrenda.

The Stillbirth of Lucia, acrylic on canvas, 16" x 20"
Part of the inspiration of this piece and the entire ofrenda really is this comment that a nun said during a spiritual retreat I attended in June. She had been sexually abused as a child, and she became an alcoholic later in life. She said that she thought God abandoned her when she was being abused. But after she went into recovery, she realized that God was crying with her. And that was such a powerful statement to me. Because when you lose a child you hear often about God's plan, and it is hard not to take God's plan personally. I just don't like that phrase, but I like the idea that God mourns with us when we are grieving. That He couldn't intercede, he could only stand beside us and abide.

I have painted myself a few times holding Lucia in hospital gown. One for the sketchbook project. One in this painting featured on Exhale. I know this sounds weird, but there is something so hobo about that image that I like. I'm wearing borrowed clothes (hospital gown) in slouchy socks, holding a dead baby. It is all so stark and exactly as it happened, but more so. More stark. Horrifying. More lonely. I think it is like when we say our baby is DEAD instead of talking in euphemism. This is what happened. I gave birth to her. She was dead. I held her wearing ugly clothing, my ass hanging out. It didn't seem right.

In this painting, though, I found myself shrouded, mourning, beautiful. That is the forgiveness coming through, years of getting used to her death, possibly. And I don't think it was a mistake I came out looking like Mary. I like that ambiguity--is it me or the Virgin? I also always wanted to capture the redness of the lips of my baby. I think anyone who gave birth to a stillborn child remarks on it. It is unnerving and lovely. I wanted our lips to be the only red things, but after I painted it, I had this urge to paint a big sacred heart in the field of yellow. I will show you later how I solved that.

Alright, enough of that. I had the centerpiece, now what? Like I said, I began sketching altars, large wooden pieces--shadow box and shelves with traditional Catholic imagery, but then I went to the basement and saw this mirror that was here when we bought the house. It was moldy along the bottom where our basement flooded, but had some cool woodcarvings I thought I could nick, then I took the mirror off. I found this odd picture and a Fender Jazz Bass authentication label. I think I might take Kristin's advice and use it as inspiration for my NaNoWriMo novel. (Still need a plot, people.)

Once the mirror was off, I saw that I could use it as is. I cleaned it up and it looked pretty cool. I thought about knocking the back out, and creating a shadow box with different levels for display, but in the end, I kept it as is.

And I also now have a cool carved mirror which I might paint some day with roses and thorns and a sacred heart or something. You can see Thor in that mirror

I had intended on building a base for the frame so it could stand alone, but it had very heavy duty hanging wire and could support weight, so I went in another direction all together. I also found a lovely spot for my ofrenda--my dining room sideboard. I hung it. In that space in the yellow field of the painting, I hung my large sacred heart milagro.

I then decided to make differing levels. I went into my husband's workshop and found this raw edged, round sawed piece of wood that my stepfather gave us. He thought we could make a bench out of it, but we just hadn't really gotten to it. It looks awesome in this capacity. I used terrine jars to prop it up.

I forgot to mention that I used an antiqued sacred heart image for the top of the frame. It looks cool, not wonderful, but okay. I liked the terrine jars holding up the shelf, but wanted to fill them with something. Not having any marigolds (and unable to find them in the local nurseries around here) I decided to decapitate the mums I had outside my house. They were dying and in the jars they look lovely and intentional.

I then found a nice piece of slate from our fireplace project and used that for my old wood carved Virgin of Guadalupe. I bought her in Mexico and her rays have broken off through the years, but I still love her fiercely.

At this point, it was about bringing in some lighting. I had these flower lights from Beatrice's tea  birthday party, so I hung them around the frame. I also found a cross that I bought from Peru, which I hung from the middle of the mirror frame. And I decided to make a fabric sign for my ofrenda that reads, "El Senor lloro conmigo" (forgive the lack of tildes and accents in that sentence) which means "The Lord Cried with Me." (I moved the Virgin so you can read it in the picture below.) I actually had old sheets in the basement and this light blue one was rough and looked like sack cloth, so I ripped it into shreds and wrote this on it.

Then it was a matter of adding the beautiful things. I added four votive candles each with a milagro in them. A large Virgin of Guadalupe candle. A rosary given to me by my great-grandmother which was made my a blind nun. The death announcements, photographs and prayer cards for my grandmother, grandfather, great-grandmother and aunt. Lucy's picture. Harry's pictures (my father-in-law). Family Catholic Prayer Missals from the 50s which were my grandmother and grandfather's.

I put a wine glass of water out, in my favorite wine glass. Maybe I am mourning my drinking too. A black clay vase and paper flowers that Sam and I bought on our honeymoon to Sayulita, Mexico. I put a silver bowl my mother bought me from Mexico with a nice towel and some Nag Champa soap, which is making this entire ofrenda smell amazing.

On the other side of the ofrenda, I put a wooden bowl of fruit. We always keep our fruit in a bowl on our sideboard, so that was always there. There is also an incense holder.

Conspicuously missing from my ofrenda are calaveras, particularly when last year, that was all there was, no? That wasn't intentional, but I think I am going to either make or buy some full skeletons to hang on either side of the painting. And I will be making some sugar skulls this week for the ofrenda. I love the rustic earthy charm of this year's ofrenda. Also grateful to not have spent any money this year. I just wanted it to be home-y comfortable and lovely.

What does your ofrenda look like? What do you think should be added to my ofrenda?


Sara said...

I love the way this came together.

Anita K said...

That is quite nice. Seems more personal than 2010 version. I do like the earthiness and the repurposing.

Hope's Mama said...

I'd only ever heard of the day of the dead when I joined this community and I must say, I'm so taken by it all. I love the space you've created this year. Your creativity and attention to detail astounds me.

Anonymous said...

Perfect... just perfect. I love the mirror/altar thing and what you made out if it. The drawing in the middle: wow.

Anonymous said...

Very Beautiful!

KnottedFingers said...

I wasn't sure if you really wanted to see other Ofrendas. But if you did I posted mine here