In Steve Liggett's black unlined datebook/journal/scrapbook is a simple ink sketch marked "Ofrenda por mi madre & padre."
Liggett, the artistic director of Living Arts of Tulsa and owner of Liggett Studio, is busily preparing for the annual Dia de los Muertos Arts Festival.
He's also preparing to honor his mom and dad with an ofrenda, the Spanish word for altar.
In the early 1990s, the popular Mexican festival meant to respect and honor dead ancestors, Dia de los Muertos, piqued Liggett's interest. At first, he didn't know much about it except that it involved throwing colorful backyard parties with his neighbor Ruperto Hernandez, a Mexican painter.
In 1993, Liggett and a few other Tulsans traveled down to Oaxaca, Mexico, to "see what it was all about and it was unlike anything I've ever experienced," Liggett said.
On their three-day trip, they witnessed people partying and drinking right next door to someone "fervently praying over a family member," he said.
In Oaxaca's graveyards, people gathered to light candles and fires, offer cigarettes and tequila, and sketch drawings in the sand to honor their dead.
In rural Mexican homes, people assembled touching ofrendas (altars) for beloved ancestors that featured photos of saints and Disneyland alongside deftly prepared mole and pan de los Muertos (bread of the dead).
"In our culture, why do we not understand death?" Liggett wondered aloud. "Why do we not eat with it or dance with it?"
He saw Day of the Dead altars as installation art at its most personal level.
When Liggett came back from his trip, he decided to bring together a small showing of altars made by individual artists. There weren't many altars that first year but since then the annual event, now in its 17th year, has grown slowly and steadily.
Last year, Dia de Los Muertos Arts Festival featured about 35 altars made by artists and people in the community who honored loved ones.
This year, on Tues., Nov. 1 from 5 to 10pm, about 50 altars will line the inside and outside of Living Arts, 307 E. Brady St. The festival is $5 and free for children 12 and under.
The only boundary for making an altar is the imagination -- as long as the space contains ideas and images that reflect the personality of the honored person and respects Hispanic culture. Altars range from as small as a hat box or cigar box to full-scale environments with doors, windows and tables, Liggett said.
On the evening of the festival, Hispanic dancers and musicians will perform on an indoor and outdoor stage, while more than 30 artists show and sell their works in booths.
Kids can eat sugar skulls, build an altar in chalk and shake their bones in a skeleton dance.
Try some tasty Hispanic treats like churros, Mexican hot chocolate and pan de los Muertos, write a letter to a dead friend or family member, or bid on paintings during a silent auction.
A community altar and a communal fallen soldier altar will be in place for those who don't want to build an entire altar by themselves.
Before the festival begins, a three-part workshop will kick off on Sat., Oct. 29, with papier mache skeleton building at Living Arts from 1-5pm. Cost is $25.
On Sun., Oct. 30, paint your just-dried skeleton at Living Arts from 1-5pm. Then, bring your new skeleton to the festival and dance with it after dark.
As for Liggett, he's putting together his parents' altar by incorporating some of the nine traditional Day of the Dead elements, which include water, salt, candles, copal, flowers, a petate (for rest), toys, an image and bread or tamales.
His sketch showed bright squiggles for marigolds with an Uzbekistani marriage quilt checkered along the back.
A tradition that began last year, a priest -- Carl Medina from St. Francis Catholic Church -- blesses the altars one by one, followed behind by a group of 20 or so Matachines dancers.
Also jotted in Liggett's notebook is a quote by the late Steve Jobs, which reads, "Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow you heart."
Celebrating the Day of the Dead, Liggett said, is also a way to become more at peace with death as a natural part of life.
During that fateful trip in 1993, Liggett was surprised to see little children playing on the tombs in a Mexican graveyard. Through a translator, he asked the kids, "What do you think of death?"
The little ones responded, "Muy triste."
Though they considered death "very sad," the kids also told Liggett they jumped, ran and climbed in the graveyard because it was a perfect place to play.
Day of the Dead hinges on the delicate play between the sadness of death and the joy of living.
In the future, Liggett hopes to see many more Tulsans celebrate their loved ones during this holiday. "My ultimate dream," Liggett said, "is for the entire town of Tulsa, everyone at this time of year, to remember in their own way, someone who has died that they loved."
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