Whitman Students and Community Collaborate on Art for Dia de Los Muertos

Sylvie Corwin, Staff Reporter

What do a steamroller, skeletons riding a mini Ferris wheel and facepaint all have in common? Walla Walla’s Dia de los Muertos festival this past Sunday.

Dia de los Muertos is a Mexican holiday which honors and celebrates the dead. Walla Walla has celebrated the holiday along Main street every year since 2013. Art professor Nicole Pietrantoni has been involved with the festival since the beginning. Every fall, the students in Pietrantoni’s Beginning Printmaking class carve large wood blocks which are steamroll printed at the festival.

“It’s really beautiful to watch [students] grow as they work on this project from no experience with carving or relief printing to making these big beautiful blocks and printing them in the public,” Pietrantoni said. “I think students, in the end, feel a sense of accomplishment technically, as artists, but also feel like they’ve gotten off campus and got to know the community a little better, and seen that there’s more to Walla Walla than Whitman.”

Hours of learning about and researching Dia de los Muertos, planning designs, and then carving the blocks go into each print. Last Sunday, a steamroller, loaned by the city, pressed the prints onto large banners.

“Some students have done personal [prints], about a family member. Some students take it in a more political direction, they’ve done things about environmental devastation or environmental loss. Some do more traditional imagery that you see with the Day of the Dead, like marigolds and skulls,” Pietrantoni said.

Community members are also given an opportunity to carve their own smaller blocks and print them. Whitman and ArtWalla co-sponsor this project.

“We’re interested in arts advocacy, giving people the experience and ability to make art that day and letting it all be free and accessible to the community,” Pietrantoni said.

Other organizations and groups bring an array of crafts, dance, music, altars and food to the festival. Food vendors park their trucks at the end of the block while kids decorate sugar skulls and get face paint. Nelly Pilares has helped organize these activities and groups since she moved to Walla Walla in 2014.

“It’s the Walla Walla way to celebrate Day of the Dead, it’s not an authentic Mexican celebration, but it’s a mixture of everything,” Pilares said.

Pilares focused on growing the educational and cultural aspect of the festival.

“In the committee they didn’t have a Hispanic person, and then when I got in there I wanted to make sure that Hispanic culture is well represented,” Pilares said. “I started an educational program in the schools…. I covered about 1000 students going to every single class around Walla Walla and Milton Freewater, telling the kids what [Dia de los Muertos] is about and how they can have a day to honor and to have good memories about a person who passed away, rather than being sad,” Pilares said.

This year Pilares didn’t have time to go around to the schools but she hopes these visits will continue in the years to come. Ensuring that kids know the context and tradition behind the various crafts and activities at the celebration is one of her priorities.

Pilares also hopes to see more organizations creating altars for the festival. This Sunday a handful of altars lined the sides of Main street.

“A lot of community organizations will build altars,” Pietrantoni said. “Some of my favorites, the Walla Walla Latino Alliance build a really wonderful altar honoring people from the Latinx community, and then also last year the YWCA did a really great one that was about remembering women who have been victims or survivors of domestic abuse and violence.”

Senior Hans Mils, the work-study assistant for the print studio, has stayed for the whole festival both this year and last to help with the steamroller printing.

“This whole festival’s a lot of fun and people should come out next year,” Mils said.