Like many artists, I spend a lot of time in the company of my friend, Imagination. Like the rest of us, my friend often gets thirsty. Hungry too, and it craves nourishment. Favorite foods include the sounds of birds and the music of Sergei Prokofiev. Rivers and trees are also tasty, and so is dirt.
William Blake wrote about seeing a World “in a Grain of Sand And a Heaven in a Wild Flower.” He was right, says my friend. “Put on a jacket and warm socks and give of yourself a couple of hours to drawing this nameless plant. It will talk with you in the voices of stars. Are you listening?”
Often I feel a presence, something that used to be here, and now is not. You can’t see it, or touch it, or hear it — it hovers just beyond reach, like a whisper of a melody you can barely remember.The flame and its heat and light are gone. And the blade. So is a little creature who lived in trees and clouds. And gone is the one who wore her masks with an elegance and grace you remember all too well.
For those paying attention, the edges of the worlds of the dead and the worlds of the living constantly overlap. Sometimes they interpenetrate. The veils between them evaporate, and the worlds flow into each other.
Those not paying attention notice an opening, perhaps, on the last days of October.
“To the people of New York, Paris, or London, ‘death’ is a word that is never pronounced because it burns the lips,” observed Octavio Paz, the Nobel Prize-winning Mexican poet. In the United States, the “festival” of “All Hallow’s Eve” seems to focus primarily on what we most fear: Death, above all. So dark thoughts predominate our imaginations, the creepy, the macabre: ghouls, zombies, spooks, malevolent ghosts, whatever puts the frighteners on people.
Paz continues: “The Mexican, however, frequents (Death), jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his favorite toys and most steadfast love.” This joyful spirit becomes most visible on the second day of November, the Day of the Dead. On this day, and the night before, families visit the graves of those they love and bring offerings of food, flowers, drinks, music, that is, whatever the soul who now lives in the world of shadows used to love when he or she lived with us on this side of the veils.
An ofrenda is a temporary altar constructed to honor those who are not alive – in our sense of the word — in this world. My sketch was inspired by this ofrenda I saw a few days ago in a Vidanta resort in Mexico, in Nuevo Vallarta.
Here’s the first sketch, from Nuevo Vallarta when I realized that I didn’t want an altar in the traditional sense. I noticed that the shapes of the clouds echoed the shapes of the marigolds, (or xempatzuchil), the traditional ofrenda flower. I wanted instead to create an intersection of worlds in which clouds, the sea, marigolds, birds, forces of nature, were all part of the altar. Several sketches later, I ended with this one. I don’t know whether I’ll turn it into a real painting or not.
Above all, I wanted my ofrenda to be light and good-humored, to reflect the spirit of a fiesta. We enjoy dancing with Life, don’t we? As Octavio Paz suggests, learning how to dance with her twin sister should be fun as well. After all, we’ll be dancing with that one soon enough — and for a long time. ¡Feliz Día de Los Muertos!