Dia de los Muertos Festival Brings Students and Community Members Together

Michelle Foster, A&E Editor

Although clouds occupied the sky, the atmosphere was sunny in downtown Walla Walla as music played and people walked around the fifth annual Dia de los Muertos Festival. The festival went from Saturday, Oct. 21, where a procession and concert kicked off the celebration, to Sunday, Oct. 22, a day of various festivities. Community members made their way around the festival at their leisure, listened to live music, and tried out arts and crafts stations, such as decorating sugar skulls and making paper flowers.

One of the major components of the festival was the Steamroller Print Project, headed by Professor Nicole Pietrantoni of the Whitman Art Department. Students from her Beginning and Intermediate Printmaking classes spent weeks carving Dia de los Muertos designs into four-by-four foot wooden boards. At the festival, they applied ink to the carved wood, placed them on fabric and drove a steam roller over the wood, creating the print. Nearby was another station where people could try carving wood themselves. Their smaller woodblocks could then be printed onto shirts and tote bags for them to take home.

Peitrantoni helped start this Walla Walla Dia de los Muertos festival in her second year teaching at Whitman.

“I was interested in starting [the festival] here, knowing that we have a large Latino community here and wanting to bring in community partners from the arts, but also from the Latino community as well,” Pietrantoni said.

Pietrantoni also spoke about the importance of the Steamroller Print Project in conjunction with the festival.

“There’s often a disconnect between Whitman and our community in that a lot of students … don’t have the opportunity to take what they learn outside of campus,” Pietrantoni said. “So I find that it’s important we have a lot of conversations about the arts in our community and the lack of art education in our public schools here. So for the students, I think for them to be able to take their art, display their art, talk about their art with the community, it creates this opportunity where we have more people in Walla Walla seeing art, making art, and then also our students realizing the need for the arts in our community.”

While Dia de los Muertos, which is a celebration to honor the dead observed by many countries but primarily in Mexico and Latin America, is not usually called an art festival, it does traditionally include art. This is one reason art is such a prominent part of the celebration in Walla Walla.

Laura Jessich, a student who participated in the Steamroller Print Project, expanded on the way art can speak to a festival such as this.

“Art has always been an expression of ideas or emotions or beliefs, and art in connection with Dia de los Muertos is really important, I feel, because there are so many emotions that come with someone dying,” Jessich said. “[Art is] a way to make it more lighthearted, but also to convey the seriousness of life.”

With this in mind, Laura spoke about her interpretation of Dia de los Muertos and how that influenced her carving, which is of a skull with a candle underneath it that burns from both ends, based on the poem “First Fig” by Edna St. Vincent Millay.

“Dia de los Muertos is a celebration of life,” Jessich said. “My understanding of it is it’s not supposed to be sad at all … If you really just live your life and yes, your candle’s burning at both ends … you might die out sooner, but you are living your life to the fullest and celebrating your life.”

Other students in the class drew inspiration for their carvings from different places, as well as from different areas of interest. Akane Kleinkopf’s print featured Mexican Revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata, reflecting her own interest in history.

“Hopefully [my print] will just make people want to know more about Dia de los Muertos and Mexican culture, and also the huge Mexican population that we have here,” Kleinkopf said. “Whitman is such a white space that I think we should try to learn more about Walla Walla.”

One thing that was kept in mind as the students made their art was cultural appropriation. As many of the students are not from cultures that celebrate Dia de los Muertos, Pietrantoni stressed the importance of examining one’s position in the festival in order to respectfully engage in it.

“I’ve found that for Whitman students the best thing we can do is to have lots of conversations to do a lot of education, a lot of research and then to be as thoughtful as we can when making imagery that we put in the public to ensure that it is imagery that is in line with what the Day of the Dead festival is,” Pietrantoni said.

Overall, the festival was lively and well-attended. The artwork from the Steamroller Print Project will be displayed in the Sheehan Gallery from Nov. 1 through Nov. 8, with a reception on Nov. 2, the actual date of Dia de los Muertos.