Day of the Dead preparations under way


Lincoln, Neb. – Schoo Middle School art teacher Adam Schwaninger shows Zach Weideman, 12, how to make a papier-mache Calavera, or skull, for the Day of the Dead celebration at the Sheldon Art Gallery in Lincoln, Neb on Oct. 26 through Nov. 14.

Story and photos by Danielle Beebe

Many artists work hard to get their work into art museums as prominent as the Sheldon Art Gallery, and Adam Schwaninger’s seventh and eighth grade art students are no exception.

This week, the Schoo Middle School students will be up to their elbows in papier-mache and glitter while they make the Calaveras, or skulls, for the Sheldon Art Gallery’s fourth annual Day of the Dead celebration on Oct. 26 through Nov. 14. Other classrooms across Lincoln will also offer their time to make decorations for the event.

Select students who elected to participate or those who have free time will be making papier-mache skulls and various other decorations to be displayed in the gallery as part of the celebration. The decorations will be auctioned off at the end of the celebration, and the proceeds go to next year’s Day of the Dead celebration.

“It’s a great opportunity for students to see their art in a space, especially the Sheldon Art Gallery, and that people are buying it,” Schwaninger said.

The students’ art will be available for viewing during the two-and-half weeks that the show is running. The silent auction will be held on the final event of the celebration on Nov. 12, from 7-10 p.m. during a Masquerade Ball. Participants are encouraged to come in costume and enjoy the sounds of the local band Mariachi Zapata.

Other events include the family day on Oct. 31 from noon to 4 p.m. The Lincoln High School theater department will perform a play titled “The Migrant Worker’s Son”, and art-making activities will begin at 1 p.m. Refreshments will be provided and participants can enjoy the sounds of Mariachi Luna y Sol.

New this year is the Calaveras poem-writing contest in which people are invited to submit what the Sheldon calls “festive, satirical obituaries in the form of poems that creatively make fun of what is around us in our daily lives.”

The idea came from Ruth Clayton, a new Day of the Dead Community Advisory Committee member. Clayton had helped with the Sheldon’s Day of the Dead celebration in the past, and wanted to offer her expertise to make it more authentic.

Clayton moved to Lincoln from Mexico four years ago, and was comforted to see such an accurate portrayal of the Day of the Dead celebration so far from the place she called home.

“It’s better than most museums,” Clayton said. “They have done a wonderful job and its very representative to what we have in Mexico.”
The Calaveras contest entries will be divided into three categories: Those in grades 9-12, college at any age, or adults over 18 years of age. Each category has a top prize of $100. Winners will be announced on family day on Oct. 31.

“It’s the best way to have more participation from the students, because at the end of the day this is an educational program,” Clayton said.
Karen Janovy, Sheldon Art Museum Director of Education, estimates 1,200-1,500 people will attend the celebration. As director of education, Janovy oversees many of the details it takes to make the Day of the Dead happen.

The Lincoln community has stepped up to be part of the small army it takes to put on the Day of the Dead celebration, Janovy said. Planning for the event starts as early as January with monthly committee meetings throughout the year and more as crunch-time approaches.

Lincoln residents help to fill in the details that bring the festival together. Much of the food and beverages are donated from local Mexican food markets. The annual budget of $7,500 is funding that comes solely from donations, some from local and corporate businesses, and profits from the silent auction of donated decorations.

The celebration began when the Sheldon recognized the need to represent all twenty-first century cultures in the gallery.

“We focus on building a twenty-first century American collection, but out American population is not just Caucasian,” Janovy said. “We are always looking at ways in which we can be more inclusive of the general population.”

The success of the Day of the Dead celebration has sparked ideas for celebrations of other cultures in Lincoln. The Sheldon is working towards what they call a transnational focus, or the idea that the gallery would include art from many cultures around the globe, Janovy said. In the future the gallery hopes to include more celebrations and collections of other cultures.

A brief history of the Day of the Dead

The Day of the Dead is a celebration in which Mexicans and Mexican Americans remember, pray for and celebrate the lives of their family and friends who have died. Loved ones gather and build an altar, sometimes called ofrendas, where offerings are placed.

The offerings can be anything from a photograph of the deceased to the person’s favorite food or drink. The altars become adorned with many colorful offerings to the dead. In the Day of the Dead celebration, it is common to decorate altars with marigolds, skeletons, toys, food, beverages and Catrinas, an elegant female skeleton version of the Calaveras, or skulls.

Groups will come together on this celebration and party into the night in hopes of waking up the spirits of loved ones. They will dance to make noise to awaken the dead. Some celebrators even attach shells to their clothing to make more noise. They partake in the deceased’s favorite foods and beverages, and poke fun at the dead, remembering humor in their life and personality.

The traditional celebration is Nov. 2, but festivities often last days before and after the main event. Although the holiday is near Halloween, the two are not related.

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