Art honors dead at Dia de los Muertos exhibit (Video)

Elena Watts By Elena Watts

Nov. 2, 2013 at 6:02 a.m.
Updated Nov. 3, 2013 at 5:03 a.m.

Nine-year-old Paula Swanson, a fourth-grader at Dudley Elementary School, painted her skull-shaped, muslin-stuffed pillow blue. She decorated it with rhinestones, beads, feathers and other embellishments.

Swanson was among more than 60 children in the Manhattan Art Program who created lively skulls and colorful maracas to help celebrate Dia de los Muertos at the Nave Museum on Saturday.

The holiday is not a Mexican version of Halloween, said Amy Leissner, executive director of the Nave Museum. The observance, which began in 1800 B.C., is based in the Aztec and Mayan beliefs that the soul exists after death.

"When the Spanish arrived, they mixed Catholic traditions with indigenous traditions, and it became a religious holiday," Leissner said.

Altars built to celebrate the life of deceased loved ones sometimes feature the departed's favorite foods, drinks or souvenirs.

For the museum exhibit, the children painted skull pillows, clay skulls and wooden maracas, which were on display.

The Manhattan Art Program also provided a long table on the museum's lawn, where adults and children filled in flowers with colorful markers.

The nonprofit, New York-based educational organization, which is funded through grants and private donations, provides art programs to underserved communities.

Paula and nine other fourth-graders were recommended by their teachers for the program's after-school lessons. This is the first year she has been in the free program.

"It worked out perfectly because she wasn't taking art this year," said Gregg Swanson, Paula's father.

Swanson said his daughter is passionate about art and greatly appreciates the opportunity to enrich her experience.

Her passion was evident at the Dia de los Muertos exhibit.

"I found decorations like the green bead on the side of the skull, which I made a long time ago," she said. "You can create anything, and if you make a mistake, there's always a way to fix it."

The rest of the children in the program, 4 years old through fifth grade, attend free classes Saturdays from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. at the Pine Street Community Center.

Nine-year-old Alex Galarza, a Hopkins Elementary School fourth-grader, has participated in the Manhattan Art Program's lessons for two years. It is the only time he is able to create art.

"He enjoys being around the other children, too," said his grandmother, Ophelia Galarza.

Alex gave his clay skull star-shaped eyes and teardrop-shaped rhinestone teeth.

"I like the eyes because it looks like he's going to Hollywood," Alex said. "And his teeth look like SpongeBob's."

Art is an expression of oneself, and there is not one way to do it, said Michele Evans, the program's instructor.

"We lost art in schools," she said. "But we need creativity for video games, graphic design, movies, advertising and inventions."

Art develops the right side of the brain, which is responsible for conceptualization, Evans said.

Those without the creativity to see possibilities might not meet their potential, she said. And art teaches problem-solving approaches outside of linear thinking.

The Saturday program at Pine Street Community Center hopes to attract neighborhood children, among others.

"Creating art makes the children feel competent and good about themselves," she said.



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