Teaching in Mexico and Dia de los Muertos

Last week I taught a four-day workshop in Xalapa, Mexico through the design group, Amarillo Centro de Diseno. A special thank you to Aida Aguilera Rocha, Juan Carlos Padilla and Joan Xavier Vazquez who comprise the design group and invited me. Another big thanks to Emilia Casana who provided the translation and yummy cupcakes everyday.On Tuesday, I gave a lecture at Universidad Gestalt de Diseno. At first it was scheduled to be a casual conversation with a class or two of students. When the lecture was announced, more expressed interest in attending and the auditorium which seats 200 was filled beyond capacity with people standing in the aisle and the back. Many were from different majors in the school and they all had lots of questions at the end, which I always consider being my favorite part of a lecture.

Art created for workshop that was silk screened onto notebooks and tote bags. Two local newspapers covered my visit.
The workshop was titled “Collage as a medium, a design tool and a way of life.” The attendees, twenty six in all, traveled from all parts of Mexico to attend. Some came from nearby but others traveled from Mexico City, Puebla and a few even took an eight-hour bus ride from Guadalajara. We had a mix of students and some professionals. Our first project was to create a poster for Dia de los Muertos, Day of the Dead. This is a holiday I am fascinated with and the timing of my trip was perfect. The objective was to create a poster to honor and celebrate the life of someone who was important to them. The main restriction was not to use bones, skulls or catrinas but to celebrate the life of the person and their connection to them. I asked my hosts prior to coming if the concept was ok or maybe just interesting to me. They loved the idea especially since it returned to the original meaning of the holiday and less like Halloween.I did a short presentation of my work to begin, showing how I use my own family photos in my work. My collection began when my grandfather passed away when I was eighteen. All I took from his apartment was a box of photos filled with many relatives of mine I never got to meet. That collection has grown considerably over the years. The students were asked to bring a photo or object to work with that reminded them of their subject. We all gathered together and one by one, everyone introduced him or herself and talked about whom they were going to commemorate. There were many emotional moments; a grandmother who recently passed away, a father gone before any real memories could be established, and some chose a person who was a source of inspiration such as Frida Kahlo. Collage proved to be a perfect medium for this project, allowing us to combine layers of memories into an image.

Everyone busy working and our first critique of the final work.
We then completed a second project, which is one I give my students at the Rhode Island School of Design as well, an anthropomorphic self-portrait. At RISD, we begin sketching in the nature lab that has an amazing collection of taxidermy specimens. I give the students the choice of being their aspirational animal- the animal they wish they were or the animal they really are. I am always impressed by their honesty (I’m a bat; I like to stand in a corner and stare at people. I couldn’t be a beaver; I’m too lazy.) Collage worked well for this too as we peeled back layers to describe whom we really are.
Everyone worked incredibly hard and with great dedication. Many went home after the workshop hours and worked all night and then returned in the morning and worked all day. I encouraged the students to use the concept of collage to combine their own drawings and paintings and use it as a tool for exploring ideas. For our last day, Emilia made an intricate and delicious cake based on a painting I did of Fritzie.

Our graduation ceremony minus a few who had to leave earlier, Juan Carlos, Aida and Yume, Emilia working hard on cupcakes, Joan and Emilia. Emilia even managed to create her own self-portrait in between translating and baking.
In between the workshop hours, my wonderful hosts took me sightseeing and out to incredible meals. The second largest archaeology museum outside of Mexico City is in Xalapa. The nearby town of Coatapec is quite beautiful with great hand- painted signs everywhere. Preparations were starting for Dia de los Muertos with offrendas, flowers and decorations everywhere.

Aida hosted a wonderful meal in her home as well. I have forgotten how to feed myself after last week.

A postscript to this trip is my delay home due to the powerful storm that hit the east coast. My flight to New York was cancelled and I was stuck in Houston for three days until I could return home. David was back in New York, our neighborhood in a blanket of darkness due to major power outages. At the time of this post, the city remains in turmoil with all of downtown in the dark. We are temporarily at a friend’s apartment who generously offered shelter during this time of need.

My friends in Mexico, having endured a difficult election recently themselves have been watching with great interest the developments here. Through our many conversations, I was reminded of how much we all have in common. Everyone wants safety and comfort for their families and friends, an infrastructure that works, an empathic government to support us. What we share is so much stronger than what divides us.