On view: ‘Day of the Dead Altars and Ephemera’ at Folk Tree gallery in Pasadena

It’s a common misconception that the Day of the Dead is an extension of Halloween. With its macabre moniker and heavy emphasis on skulls and skeletons, it’s easy to make the connection since the Mexican holiday is celebrated on Nov. 1 and 2, just after trick-or-treating ends.

Helping to dispel that and other myths, the Folk Tree gallery in Pasadena is honoring the holiday with its 27th annual “Day of the Dead Altars and Ephemera” exhibit.

“It’s a day of remembrance, a happy time, nothing is scary,” said Sergio Diazvelez, a Pasadena artist who created an altar in honor of friend and artist Jorge Rosano, who died last summer.

The building of altars in remembrance of deceased loved ones is a popular ritual during this time. Personal items, favorite foods and other mementos are placed around the altars. Rosano was a cut-paper sculptor known to wash his hands frequently, so Diazvelez created the altar from a sink surrounded by scissors and X-Acto knives.


“We like to make it a community event,” said curator Gail Mishkin. “We have a wide range of people involved with well-known artists to college students.”

More than 70 artists contributed roughly 150 pieces, including paintings, mosaics, ceramics, jewelry and installations.

Patssi Valdez, an artist whose work has been on display at the Smithsonian, has been participating in the show for three years. Carolyn Potter has been creating altars and clay art since the exhibit began.

The celebration, which occurs in connection with the Catholic holiday of All Saints’ Day (Nov. 1) and All Souls’ Day (Nov. 2), traces its roots back hundreds of years to an Aztec festival dedicated to a goddess of the dead named Mictecacihuatl.


The exhibit would not be possible without gallery owner Rocky Behr, 81, an authority on Mexican folk art. For the last two decades, she has led annual tours to Michoacán coinciding with the Day of the Dead observance in Mexico. “No one in the area was supporting or promoting the holiday like Rocky was. She has maintained the tradition for so many years and introduced it to many in the community,” said Diazvelez.

“It’s supposed to be fun, not serious like a funeral,” said Diazvelez, referring to one particular custom that could be interpreted as a tad bit spooky to an outsider. At midnight on the first day, relatives and close family members gather to walk to the cemetery together to adorn grave sites with candles, marigolds and food and wait for the spirits of the deceased to visit.

The show covers both the celebratory nature of the holiday as well as more somber aspects, such as Janet Olenik’s “Las Muertas de Juárez” (“The Dead Women of Juárez”), a painting of geometric crosses in memory of the murder of hundreds of women in Juarez, Mexico.

The art is on display through Nov. 6.