While Balam Soto was working on a giant kite as part of his installation for an upcoming exhibit at the Everhart Museum of Natural History, Science & Art, he got a call from his mother in Guatemala. She had bad news: His uncle had died.
The project, already a personal one for Soto, became a dedication.
“I was very much making it in his name,” says Soto.
The Scranton museum’s “Day of the Dead: Art & Culture in the Americas,” which opens Friday, Sept. 25, should prove to be equally personal to many, with its connections to the Day of the Dead tradition dating back to ancient Mayan and Aztec cultures up through modern times. Day of the Dead, or El Dia de los Muertos in Spanish, is a holiday celebrated in Mexico, the Caribbean and many South and Central American countries. It’s held on Nov. 1 and 2 in association with the Roman Catholic All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days, a result of the Spanish colonizing Central and South America and converting many of the natives to Catholicism, merging their existing holiday with the Christian holy days.
It’s believed that during Day of the Dead, it is easier for the souls of the deceased to contact the living. It’s a joyous celebration, one meant to encourage contact with loved ones that have passed, not mourn them.
“I grew up in Guatemala, and very much since I have memory I have been celebrating Day of the Dead,” says Soto, a new media artist. “I have very nice memories, very happy memories. The whole town becomes like a celebration day instead of being sad.”
Soto, who runs Balam Soto Studio in Hartford, Conn., where he now lives, was honored last year with a Diploma of Recognition as a “Maestro,” a Master of Visual Arts, by the National Constitutional Assembly of Guatemala, for “being a valuable and outstanding Guatemalan with international success.” He has exhibited his artwork in New York City, Belgium, Italy, West Africa, Guatemala, Las Vegas and elsewhere.
The Everhart show will showcase contemporary art from artists and photographers from all over the world, as well as Latino folk art and pieces from the museum’s pre-Columbian collection.
“The museum in recent years has been addressing how to create offerings that would appeal to different parts of the community,” says Everhart Curator Nezka Pfeifer. “Our goal is to be more relevant with the exhibits. We all know about the growing number of Latino immigrants in the region and the political issues that took place in Hazleton and Northeastern Pa.; it became the touchstone for the entire country. Also, we saw that more Latino families were coming in and using the museum.”
With those community connections in mind, the exhibit will be interactive. It will feature a community ofrenda, or altar, where visitors are invited to leave photos and mementos of deceased loved ones. And Soto’s installation will include LED lights that will react to the people around them in a sequence of colors he coded based on Mayan traditions, he says.
Additionally, the museum will hold a Day of the Dead Community Day on Nov. 1 and is reaching out to the Latino community, as well as organizations — like the Wilkes-Barre CYC, with which the Everhart has a “wonderful relationship,” Pfeifer says — to spread the word. She adds that a lot of high school and college Spanish classes include Day of the Dead in their curriculums, and a few University of Scranton professors have shown interest, like Ignacio Díaz, who is from Oaxaca, Mexico, famous for its Day of the Dead celebrations.
Pfeifer believes the Everhart’s is the first-ever Day of the Dead exhibit in NEPA.
“I can only assume that it is,” she says. “I really do, because we haven’t come across anything. One of the things is, with a lot of the Latino immigrants that are living here, many of them haven’t been here all that long.”
Many of the Mexican immigrants in the area, Pfeifer says, still send their dead back to Mexico to be buried.
Day of the Dead is not part of Pittsburgh artist Mike Egan’s cultural background, but when he was a funeral employee, where, among other things, he embalmed bodies, every day was a day of the dead. Egan, whose painting “My Blood is Holy” appears on the cover of this week’s Weekender, says he was first introduced to the holiday through Mexican art, “more specifically the woodcuts of Jose Guadalupe Posada; he really opened my eyes to the skulls and devils.”
Egan, who has several pieces in the Everhart show, creates his works using acrylic paint, shellac and sandpaper on wood panels and stretched canvases.
“All of the paintings that I do come from my imagination,” he explains. “I don’t really do any research on any cultures or eras. Most of the work in the museum is a self-portrait in one way or another. I use the number seven to represent my birth year 1977. If I’m upset or mad, then I tend to paint devils, or my characters will be crying.”
The Mariposa Gallery in Albuquerque, N.M., included Egan’s paintings in its Day of the Dead show last year.
“They saw my work and thought that it would be a good fit,” Egan says. “I’m actually doing the show again this year, as well as Day of the Dead shows in Portland, Ore., and San Francisco. This tends to be the busier time of the year for me — people love the skulls!”
Pfeifer says about a third of the pieces in the Scranton exhibit, which will be up until the end of the year, are from the Everhart’s existing collection. The museum acquired the rest by working its contacts with other artists or curators.
“Actually, it was a little bit of a challenge in the Northeast,” says Pfeifer. “While Day of the Dead is an important aspect in the Southwest, a lot of Latino artists that work in the Northeast aren’t tapped into the Day of the Dead. My goal was to really find artists that were inspired by Day of the Dead in some way.
“It’s a different way of looking at the dead and the deceased,” she continues. “The basic premise is that the dead are invited to come back and party with the living.”
“Day of the Dead: Art & Culture in the Americas,” Friday, Sept. 25-Thursday, Dec. 31, Everhart Museum of Natural History, Science & Art (1901 Mulberry St., Scranton). Museum hours: Noon-4 p.m. Monday, Thursday, Friday; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday; noon-5 p.m. Sunday. Admission: $5 adults, $3 students/seniors, $2 children 6-12, free for museum members. Opening reception, Thursday, Oct. 1, 6-8 p.m.
Registration required, $25. Day of the Dead Community Day, Nov. 1, noon-4 p.m. Info: 570.346.7186,