Happy Hallows and All Souls! Days of the Dead~Art & Altars

It’s not too late to create your Day of the Dead altar; a warm place to welcome traveling souls who return to visit when the veil between worlds is thinnest.

We’ve enjoyed our first day of real rain here, even pouring over San Francisco’s World Series Parade this morning ;).
And I’ve particularly enjoyed the creative rush that first rains bring; new song Muses and a few teasers for more new jewelry (coming this weekend).  I just hope the clouds linger, stay all weekend long. For now, some newly discovered Day of the Dead Art favs…

il_570xN.384265604_92cjSource: Red Hydrant Press

il_570xN.513711285_7gjzSource: Vintage Galleria, skirts, dresses, aprons.
And a little Deviant Moon Tarot imagery for All Hallows. Check out the new deck that Sir Patrick is cooking up ( TRIONFI della LUNA).


And one of my all time favorite Day of the Dead Tarot decks, Tarot of the Dead by Monica Knighton.


And it’s not too late to create your Day of the Dead altar; a warm place to welcome traveling souls who return to visit when the veil between worlds is thinnest.


I usually keep my altar up for a couple of weeks into November, or longer, in case some souls decide to take the scenic route home ;). In Oaxaca, altars are most commonly built on October 30th and October 31st in the homes of the Oaxacan people.  Be sure to have something for visiting souls to eat and drink!

“It is an old belief that the dead, after their long pilgrimage from the other life, arrive on earth tired and thirsty. Because of this belief, a gourd or glass filled with water is placed on the altar for them, as well as the other food offerings. The dead are welcome and expected to bask in the essence of this splendid fervor.” Mocadventures.com

Check out this  great article on putting your Day of the Dead altar together, with descriptions of the most traditional items, and ways to include family in commemorating loved ones who have passed- by Etsy Artisan Yreina Flores Ortiz.

I hope to visit the community ofrendas/altars that our Oakland Museum sponsors this weekend.  So check back.

Meantime, here are some fun Day of the Dead links to enjoy from other sources:

Celebrating Days of the Dead: Traditions, coloring books, baking bread

Celebrations 2014 in Oaxaco, Mexico

Myths about Day of the Dead : Previously posted to this blog.

DodVivalaMuerte3355San Antonio, TX Gallery: Artist unknown

The Tree of Life and Death- Day of the Dead Exhibit, Oakland Art Museum

What makes Oakland’s Day of the Dead exhibit special this year, is the depth of its symbolic presentation; overlapping the Day of the Dead traditions we now know, with the early, Meso-American symbolism and rituals of the first cultures- highlighting the Tree of Life and Death.


Last weekend’s festivities- Food, music, masks, and special exhibits at Oakland’s Museum of CA.

Dod-3612Much of it still going on.  This is my favorite mask from Etsy artisan MasqueFaire.

What makes this year’s exhibit special, is the symbolic presentation; overlapping the Day of the Dead traditions we know now, with the early, pre-hispanic symbolism and rituals of the first cultures- highlighting the Tree of Life and Death.

The first MesoAmerican Day of the Dead rituals, held in August and September, coincided with seasons, harvest rites, and the return of La Monarcha who carried souls back to loved ones.  Before the Europeans changed the date to coincide with their calendar, Dia de Los Muertos celebrated the natural cycles linking man with nature.

Tree of Life and Death, complete, sacred, essential-

trunk standing firm on land, limbs skyward, branches

touching heaven, roots fearlessly growing into darkness, detritus, death~

connecting man with both realms~ underworld and divinity alike.

man today with his ancestors past…


Day of the Dead was an agricultural celebration, and one recognizing the center of the life: “Axis Mundi; life-giving force at the center of the universe…”   The tree held not only the power of the life force for man within its column, but also the cause of cycles (time), and what was born of them: the movement of stars, moon, sun.


DodAztec3705And to show the natural cycles of life and death together in partnership, this Dia de los Muertos exhibit is nested in the natural history wing of the museo- alongside stuffed bears and unearthed dinosaurs.  It is very comforting actually, to find myself standing firm, tierra firma, beside trees, or grinding masa for tortillas outside, or dancing to musica in the corridors… This is a great show, with lots of activities for kids; going on through Dec. 8th.  There is more-the first accounts of Aztec festivities, tree rituals in four quadrants, as documented by the Spanish… Go see!


Altars~ Household and Community~ for Day of the Dead Holidays

This is a good way to recap the weekend~ through altars and exhibits.  This art is from Oakland muralist-artist Joaquin Alejandro Newman,  who had a booth at Noche de Los Muertos on Thurs.  It’s the newest addition to our home alter this year.

Is she the Sunmaid Raisin girl, or a visitor to the altar- happy to receive abundant gifts, food, and drink?  😉

It was the Day of the Dead altar or ofrenda, that first got me hooked on observing Dia de Los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead holidays.  An altar can serve many roles, and perhaps this, the ofrenda, is one thing that makes the holiday confusing or strange to those unfamiliar with the traditions;  in Judeo/Christian traditions, alters are for elevating and placing things you worship- gods and saints perhaps. But traditional Day of the Dead alters are both for creating a space for remembrance, and places of welcome for visiting spirits to come enjoy their favorite food, drink, and gifts- all when the ‘veil between the worlds is thin’.  I like reading the histories of the first Spanish accounts of the rituals; the Aztecs “mocking death” in dances and rituals led them to think the practices odd and barbaric. But the days were kept, folded into another Catholic holy day- All Souls day.

Source with a great key to the purpose of all items placed on an altar.

It was in college where I first discovered the holiday.  About mid-October my first year, roommates set up an altar in the living room telling all of us to feel free to place our own mementos to loved ones passed.  I had had a close friend die that summer, and had a lot of sadness around not being able to say good bye, etc., but I passed on participating, at first.   One roommate pulled me aside;  “You have some baggage around the death of your friend; it would be good to lay that on the altar.”  He suggested that I write what I didn’t get to say to my friend before he died- in a letter. “Leave it there, with his picture, next to his favorite beer- in case he comes visiting when you’re not home.  Then later, on Nov. 2, sit alone and read your words aloud to him.”

Doing this was complete cartharsis.  It gave me the release I needed.  Seeing things this way, completely spiritually was different at the time, but it got rid of my guilt in a day. I could finally move on.  I added his favorite beer nuts and climbing carabiners so I hope he was happy too.

Photo source:    (also tutorial for making papel picado).

The beauty of building an altar this time of year- is that you can make it whatever you want it to be:  a place for memories and remembrance; a space to quietly help heal and provide closure (my example above); a safe place to make light of any fears of or about death.  You can make it a hybrid- of old and new- with images of inspiring lives or statues that you believe guide spirits, whatever your beliefs, through obstacles.  It can be modest with symbols of the 4 elements:  candles (fire), salt (earth), a glass of water, and incense or copal (air). More resources to help you decorate your alter are here.

I’ve built home altars for some 20 years now, keeping them up for a month, until mid-November.  My personal alter this year honors my grandparents. It also makes light of all that I take so seriously now- so there are many musical calaveras on the altar, always.   I love how a visitor to my blog, Maureen so beautifully put it in her comment to my last post– about what her alter means to her:

“It was probably the calavera figures seen on one of my first trips to Mexico that caught my fancy. I loved how they remind us that death is really our constant companion, even as we go about our day-to-day life. Lively and meaningful ofrendas brought back real memories: her Pall Mall cigarettes, his favorite song played over and over… And the beautifully artistic altars whose symbols inspire further imaginings of life and death. Dia de los Muertos provides us the perfect opportunity to connect and remember in a loving way, with joy as well as the tears. It’s wonderful how it’s become part of my annual observance…”

This is the reason I keep little skeletons hidden all over the house; playful reminders of impermanence, and for me to make the most of life, now.

Community altars are the other amazing wonder of Day of the Dead holidays.  Community ofrendas and art exhibits held in most large cities museums, galleries and art walks this time of year, are powerful showing everything from shrines built by children to large installations by professional artists, sculptors, and painters.  And there is nothing like working out your grief as a community, be it local losses, or national- like lives lost in war.  I can never forget the alters of September 11th made by artists and children in galleries and warehouses throughout the City of Sacramento 10 years ago.  They really did provide solace, as I’m sure community alters in cities across the country did during this time.

Right now, the Oakland Art Museum’s exhibit is dedicated to all of the people and cultures who made California what it is today.  There are memorials to grandfathers, and Oakland’s youth,

and one dedicated to Filipino culture, and lore in the after life.

Is Day of the Dead Morbid? and Other Myths About Dia de Los Muertos

Here are three questions that reflect popular misconceptions about Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) festivities, and because they may be on the tip of many tongues out there- I will pose them here. With lots of great pics, and a wonderful quote on how the living challenge death during this wonderful family-oriented holiday.

Here are 3 questions I was just asked about Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) festivities, and because they may be on the tip of many tongues out there- I will pose them here.  They reflect popular misconceptions.

To help answer each question- my music amigo Gilberto responds first; he grew up in Texas celebrating all of the Mexican traditions of Dia de Los Muertos on both sides of the border.  I add bits from my experience of 20 years adapting customs from celebrations in Texas and California. Other info sources as noted.

Is Dia de Los Muertos Ancestor worship?  

No, not at all.  Day of the Dead festivities are our traditional way in Mexico and Chicano households to honor the lives of loved ones we have known who have passed from this world.  Ancient customs of the Aztecs involved worship and offerings to a goddess named Mictecacihuatl.

Why are the Days of the Dead about celebration?  Shouldn’t we be mourning the dead instead of partying?

In family oriented cultures (i.e. Mexico, India, China, Japan…), life and death are not so far apart, and every family milestone is marked by celebration by all generations. This is very much so in Mexican and Chicano families; birthdays, coming of age ceremonies, weddings, births, jobs, and deaths are all major family events.

Unlike a western memorial service that may be more on the quiet side, preparation for the Days of the Dead involves color, light, music, arranging bright alters, and making special food and drink. This isn’t to say that the family isn’t sad or mourning if there has been a recent death- just that the family and culture overall honor the lives of the dead with joy and festivity.

For Dia de Los Muertos, families and entire towns in Mexico and now the US, come to life with a bustle of special activities to honor the dead. What would this look like in a typical home in the weeks and days leading up to Oct. 31- Nov. 2?  While the father would be constructing the ofrenda or alter, small children would be fashioning bright masks, or painting smiles of icing on sugar skulls. Older children would be cutting templates of bright, many-colored tissue papers for papel picado banners to hang inside and out of the house, with large groups of relatives coming over- events are held outside.  Strings of lights are hung too. “Mother would be cooking a big traditional meal of all of our favorites; there would be the smell of Pan de Muerto (special decorated bread for the dead) wafting from the kitchen.  Our grandparents would arrange photos of family and friends on the alter- some of whom have passed in the current year.”  All would help place candy, mementos, and flowers.  There is color (bright marigolds) everywhere, the smell of copal (resin incense), cinnamon from the atole stirring on the stove. There is laughter, stories told, music, and the buzz of family.

Communities honor the Days of the Dead too with celebration; artists perform and comedians act in skits and plays- casting death in roles where they are mocked and called names.  In Mexico, and the larger US cities, after a party in the town center, a parade or procession follows to the cemetery. Graves are cleaned, families bring picnic baskets of food and drink to the gravesite, and music and partying can go on all night, usually the night of Nov. 2nd.

 Is Day of the Dead Morbid? 

While artists offer many interpretations of Day of the Dead art and iconography, personal or sometimes gothic in nature, traditional Mexican folk art for the holidays- like sugar skulls- are usually smiling or laughing, shown fearless and free of worry. Some even wear braces on their teeth 😉

As to our fear of death while living?  Here is a wonderful description by an author who writes on how exactly death is challenged by all of the activities we do during Days of the Dead:

“The Mexican flatters and woos death, he sings to her, dances with her, lifts his glass to her, he laughs at her. Finally, he challenges her, and in the challenging, death loses her power to intimidate him. Once he knows death intimately, death is no longer wrapped in a cloak of mystery or causes him to fear the darkness.

Once the fear of death has been defeated, the clutch she has on the hearts and minds of the living is lessened once and for all. Death’s morbid side is buried under music and remembrances, while skeletons laugh and dance and sing as Mexico celebrates life in its embrace of death.”                                     Author-Judy King (www.mexconnect.com)

Source: Frenzy Art- I love all this artists work.

What is the Holiday- Dia De Los Muertos?

The El Dia de Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead is a family holiday to honor loved ones. It is “a family-centered celebration rooted in the belief that, beginning on Oct. 31st and continuing through Nov. 2nd, the spirits of the dead visit the living. Families spend these days


The El Dia de Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead is a family holiday to honor loved ones.  It is “a family-centered celebration rooted in the belief that, beginning on Oct. 31st and continuing through Nov. 2nd, the spirits of the dead visit the living. Families spend these days in communion with departed friends and relatives sharing food and music.”  Oakland Museum of Art- Day of the Dead Exhibit.

Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico can be traced back to indigenous pagan cultures 2,500–3,000 years. Rituals celebrating the lives of ancestors passed, have long been observed by ancient civilizations of the region. The festival now known as the modern “Day of the Dead” originally fell in the ninth month of the Aztec calendar- about the beginning of August, and was celebrated for an entire month. The festivities were dedicated to the goddess known as the “Lady of the Dead”- Mictecacihuatl, now loosely corresponding to the modern Catrina.

Catrina Photo Booth
Catrina Photo Booth (Photo credit: gozamos)

The original timing of El dia de Los Muertos coincided with the migratory return of the monarch butterflies who were believed to play a key role in carrying the souls of the deceased to families and loved ones. The Catholic church moved the holiday from August, to Nov. 1 & 2nd, to coincide with All Souls Day.

Source: Frenzy Art- Frida

The holiday has spread throughout the world and is celebrated in some form in many countries: in Brazil, Dia de Finados is a public holiday that many Brazilians celebrate by visiting cemeteries and churches. In Spain, there are festivals and parades, and, at the end of the day, people gather at cemeteries and pray for their dead loved ones. (adapted from Wikipedia & other sources.)

Because souls are migrating on long journeys, food and drink are arranged on alters for those who have passed, to comfort and sustain them on their journeys ahead. Copal incense, marigolds, and favored breads, food, and drink are offered on alters during this time.

Here is a guide for what you can use to prepare for your alter.  Click to enlarge pic.

I’ll be posting more about the day, how it’s celebrated, and myths and rituals over the next 2 weeks.

Celebrating October

October activities include, planting tons of flowers, camping, Fall purging (like spring cleaning), building my Day of the dead alter, and making special jewelry for the holiday. I love October so much, I could marry it. And this just might be the dress I’d wear.

If you’ve been following my blog for at least a year, then you know of my love affair with October;   hands down the best month for celebrations!  On the list to celebrate are:  Fall, an anniversary, my birthday, my self-appointed New Year’s, Halloween, and Dia de Los Muertos– which carries the joy into November by a week.  October activities include, planting tons of flowers, camping, Fall purging (like spring cleaning), building my Day of the dead alter, and making special jewelry for the holiday.  I love October so much, I could marry it.  And this just might be the dress I’d wear.

It’s made out of paper!- wood block prints and papel picado.  I like it because the dress looks both Indian and Mexican in design.

What is there not to love about this, the tenth month?  The minutia of the change of seasons is fascinating enough; the colors of change in leaves and landscape everywhere you look- from the ground to the trees and sky.  The winds come, the first rains and storms of the season along with cooler and shorter days, and with it all comes that desire to pull in— to conserve energy.

This year, I feel a need to un-scatter, to nest and read more—in short, to slow down and make ready for the encroaching cold and darkness.  To some this may all sound dismal and macabre, but I feel the natural resistance of inertia- just before the inevitable turn of the wheel; the spiral on its way to something new.  Thus, my need to clear some head space, to simplify, to un-clutter my studio and make room for it. Whatever “it” will be.


October holds my ‘New Year’s day’ because I tend to tether down my dreams into goals and plans around my birthday, instead of in January.  So when the birthday comes, more than tripping about age, I check in (sometimes reluctantly) about whether I got anywhere in the dreaming department.  If not, no worries- I have about 75 days before Jan. 1 to do something about it; to either jump start, finish, or fine-tune what I hoped to do.

We’ve been planting lots lately.  Thankfully, Oakland is temperate; bulbs are confused and are coming up again, and we can plant winter gardens now. In preparation for Dia de Los Muertos, Day of the Dead festivities, I plant as many marigolds as possible, inside and out of the house.  Besides brightening up the place- they will decorate my alter again this year.  Why marigolds for the Day of the Dead holiday?

“Flowers, symbolizing the brevity of life, are massed and fashioned into garlands, wreaths and crosses to decorate the altar… The marigold is the most traditional flower of the season. In Aztec times it was called the cempasuchil, the “flower of 400 lives.”  The fragrance of the cempasuchil leads the spirits home… (www.mexconnect.comhttp://www.mexconnect.com/articles/1427

Other links to explore:

Embellish Yourself! Calavera Style

My Love affair with October begins with the wonderful Day of the Dead practice of decorating oneself as Calavera.

This happy custom comes from traditional Dia de Los Muertos celebrations back in the day in Mexico, where people would paint their faces and dress as a skeleton (calavera), and pretend to be either themselves or someone else- in plays, parades, and publicly performed skits.  I love this tradition! To come back as your skeleton self to the world of the living, means a slightly altered perspective no doubt- and helps create the funniest parodies of life and all our petty concerns within it. Of course, politicians and famous folks were the favored personas to target and enact.   Wouldn’t it be awesome to have this low-brow entertainment again! Every year in your local town plazuela!! It seems like it would bring release, and instant perspective into an often silly too-serious world.  So I start with myself, sing into a skeleton, add marigolds, swallows, and a few tattoos…

And its just ONE-more thing to adore about PicMonkey.  I think they must have these features seasonally- So I’m going to doll up everyone I have pics of. (heeeheee- beware my friends…;)

You can make yourself scary too. Especially if the photo is out-of-focus, your eyes were closed and you need to open them up with bright, orange, cat eyes!

A few fun things I’ve slipped into the timeline of late, between working/ touring/ performing:  is getting my recording gear spinning again, redesigning my studio, and making a few new jewelry bits.  Yay!!!

First, I’m finally on Pinterest.  I got on to figure out how to bring together different ideas for the studio I want, and a new artistic vibe in my space.  Of course Dia de los Muertos and mermaids will always reign supreme, but I’ve decided to let my scientific roots show a bit too within my artistic world.  In my previous incarnation, I studied marine biology, researched and raised fish, and moon lighted as an environmental scientist- all while playing drums in punk and power pop bands on weekends.

Only when music started to ‘eat my lunch’, did I decide to choose my Master.  Occasionally, science would appear: a band call ‘The Succulents’; sea sirens, lyrics of deep-sea lovers, secret powers of cyanobacteria…

Now, coincident with Fall, I’m craving bathymetry, scientific illustration, & glasswork in my soon-to-be new Apothecary Studio!