Make your way through a dimly lit room surrounded by candles, beautifully decorated altars and multicultural art at the Día de los Muertos exhibition "Honoring Fallen Heroes in our Lives" at Avenue 50 Studio in Highland Park this Saturday.
Curator Kathy Gallegos says this year's exhibition is dedicated to the many heroes, mentors and loved ones who have passed away and left a lasting imprint in our lives.
"Día de los Muertos is a time when we honor loved ones and the people we love. We remember them and connect with our ancestors. There are so many things that have gone wrong in this world, and it would be great to talk about the heroes in our lives and the impact they have made," Gallegos told KPCC.
Rather than mourning the passing of a loved one, Día de los Muertos creates a comforting space where family and friends can come together and celebrate the memory of loved ones through various communal activities and festivals. This includes elaborate skeleton face paintings, live mariachi music and decorated sugar candy skulls, among other activities. Food offerings are often placed at altars, and grave sites are thoroughly cleaned to pay respect to the dead.
Gallegos explained that Día de los Muertos — also known as the Day of the Dead — is a now a mainstream celebration recognized and celebrated by different nationalities.
"Día de los Muertos celebrated here in L.A. was mainly focused in the Chicano community, but now it has crossed cultures and now all nationalities are celebrating it," said Gallegos.
One of the most important features of the exhibition is the creation of a large community altar which will be decorated and placed in front of the building. Guests can also expect to see four other altars installed at the studio. Gallegos says the gallery is situated near a low-income area in Highland Park — a place where many people have experienced a lot of loss through violence and gangs.
"We wanted to have an altar where our community members could put candles, photographs of their loved ones, because we are pretty far from a cemetery," said Gallegos.
The main exhibition will feature the works of Donald Gialanella, best known for his use of iconic imagery and surrealism in his varied collection of sculptural illusions and skull paintings.
Gialanella's popular steel sculpture "Última Canción De Cuna" – also known as "the Last Lullaby" –will be showcased during the main exhibit. The sculpture takes the form of a gargoyle and devil, whose main purpose is to ward off evil spirits and demons, he says.
Gialanella's artwork has been influenced by many cultural festivals he attended while living in Taos, New Mexico. His artwork is also reflective of his fascination with La Calavera Catrina — elegant skull paintings which have become a staple of the Day of the Dead.
"My interpretation of this idea became the grotesque central figure in the sculpture, 'Last Lullaby.' He contains the polar opposites: life and death within himself," Gialanella told KPCC.
"While the entrapped doll faces evoke associations with children and untimely death, I also see an element of hope and rebirth in the piece," said Gialanella.
Other artists in the exhibit include Cola Smith, Lalo Alcaraz, Consuelo Flores and others. The gallery will also feature the works of artist Carl Heinz. His artistic figure, known as "Spirit of the Fire Within," will serve to honor the memory of firefighters who lost their lives in the 2009 Station Fire in the San Gabriel Mountains, as well as those who lost their lives in the Yarnell Fire.
This year, Gallegos and her team at Avenue 50 wanted to do something slightly different to go along with the theme. This means dimming the lights a bit and creating a relaxed ambiance for guests to admire and reflect on the art.
In the Annex Room, guests will have the opportunity to view and purchase colorful antique masks as a way to celebrate the powerful concept of transformation. The exhibition — "Transformations: Masks from Los Angeles and Beyond" — is curated by Beth Peterson, master puppeteer and mask maker who has collaborated with top puppeteer designers and is best known for her eclectic use of recycled and eco-friendly material.
Gallegos says she hopes guests will be able to enjoy the comforting atmosphere while celebrating and contemplating the meaning behind the paintings.
Fun fact: America's favorite comedian Cheech Marin (of "Nash Bridges" and "Cheech and Chong" fame) even paid a recent visit to Avenue 50 Studio, which he notes as one of his top six favorite multicultural galleries in Southern California.
The opening night reception will take place on Saturday, Oct. 12 from 7-10 p.m. at Avenue 50 Studio located at 131 North Avenue 50, Highland Park, CA 90042. For more information visit avenue50studio.org or call (323) 258-1435. The exhibit will run through November 3.