WHITEFISH — For the past decade and a half, when the leaves change and the school bells ring, when the days get shorter and the tales get spookier, the skulls come out at Stumptown Art Studio.
Gorgeous in their diversity and alive with color, these skulls mark the autumnal season in Whitefish. They line the walls in drawings and hang from the ceiling in bowed lines of colorfully decorated paper.
It’s time for Stumptown Art Studio’s annual tradition of celebrating Dia de Los Muertos (translated as Day of the Dead), a multi-day festival originating in Mexico, during which people honor their departed ancestors, family and friends.
At the studio, Dia de Los Muertos has been the basis for an exhibit for 15 years. Students from around the Flathead Valley created 2-D and 3-D paintings and sculptures to celebrate, showing off their work in one of two student shows during the year.
“I have seen more of an awareness about Dia de Los Muertos than I have before,” Aida Hebard, the exhibit coordinator at Stumptown Art Studio, said. “It’s a great project for art teachers.”
The exhibit held its opening reception on Oct. 5 for Whitefish Gallery Nights, during which the art studio also invited participants to create their own sugar skull paintings with canvasses and paint provided at the studio.
It’s a fun art project, Hebard said, but it also helped add to the ranks of the exhibit. It was a little lean on student art this year, she said, because of missed school days during three days of closures due to cyber threats against schools in September.
“A lot of them didn’t get their projects done because of the cyber attacks,” Hebard said. “It’s a little lean.”
It’s a naturally spooky time of year, so the skulls fit right in. But Hebard noted that the traditions of Dia de Los Muertos are different from Halloween.
“The traditional Mexican Day of the Dead is really about honoring the departed and celebrating loved ones,” she said.
Originating in indigenous populations in Mexico, Dia de Los Muertos focuses on family and friends gathering to remember their loved ones, to pray for them, and to help them on their spiritual journeys.
Before the Spanish colonized Mexico in the 16th century, the festival was celebrated in early summer. But post-colonization, it was eventually changed to coincide with Halloween, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day.
Traditions for the holiday include building family altars to honor the departed using flowers, favorite foods and delectable beverages. Generally, these treats include candied pumpkin, the traditional “pan de muerto” (bread of the dead) and sugar skulls (also called “Calaveras”). Toys and candies are left for dead children, while dead adults get shots of mezcal.
Celebrants also leave these gifts on graves; the festival generally includes journeys to cemeteries to spruce up neglected graves.
At the art studio, Hebard said many of the local high schools and a couple middle schools participated with art this year, as did the studio’s Afterschool Art Club. Students ages 8 to 13 gather in the studio’s basement, usually just walking over from Whitefish Middle School, for a safe place to go after the school day.
Last week, before the opening reception, roughly 15 of these students huddled to create more skulls to decorate. Preparations were also underway for Halloween in the studio, which will have a witch theme this year with plenty of surprises.
Hebard said the commingling holidays work together in tandem, capturing people’s imaginations and oftentimes flaring up their artistic abilities. Adults painting sugar skulls often have just as much fun as the kids, she said.
“It’s a way for adults to participate also,” she said. “A lot of times, art is about the process, not the end product.”
For more information on Stumptown Art Studio, visit www.stumptownartstudio.org or call (406) 862-5929.