Art of the dead

Local artists cope with the passing of loved ones and make a living through Day of the Dead

John S. Huerta by his altar in his studio.

John S. Huerta by his altar in his studio.


Celebrate with the Latino Center of Art and Culture during its eighth annual Panteón de Sacramento, a Día de los Muertos celebration, on October 28-29 at 2020 J Street.
See Aztec dance ceremonies, decorate community altars and pick up some original artwork from Lila Solorzano Rivera during Souls of the City, 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. November 4 in front of the Sacramento History Museum (101 I Street)

Artist John S. Huerta’s vivid memory takes him back to a time when he and his younger sister were playing outside in the canopy of Tempe, Arizona’s heat. The siblings were running around when his sister suddenly stopped. They heard a rattling sound. Within seconds their grandfather ran around the corner of their home, slid down to the ground and picked up what resembled a belt. It turned out to be a rattlesnake.

“He killed it. He slammed the head of the rattlesnake on a rock,” Huerta says.

Sitting in the living room of his home in Natomas, Huerta points to a vibrant acrylic painting of a man with long, black hair and a single rattlesnake playfully coiled around his neck. Huerta created the artwork, titled “Snake Charmer,” to honor his late grandfather, and it’s one of many of his originals that ornament his walls.

“In the eyes of that one it shows strength. That snake’s not giving him fear whatsoever,” Huerta says.

Throughout his life, Huerta has turned to art to cope with the losses of his dear family members, the most difficult being his younger sister Rosemary when he was 35 years old. Overwhelmed with grief, he turned to Día de los Muertos and his array of paints.

For Huerta and a few other artists in Sacramento, the holiday represents a way of life as well as a livelihood.

Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is widely celebrated in Mexico to honor loved ones who’ve passed. The holiday begins on November 1, a day devoted to deceased infants and children, and continues November 2 to celebrate adults. Revelers decorate handmade altars with photographs, candles and offerings like grandpa’s favorite tequila or a mother’s favorite dish.

“It’s a fun, festive holiday,” says local artist Lila Solorzano Rivera. “We bring memories of the people that have passed away. We drink. We party. We dance. We tell stories. It’s not sad. It’s not a funeral. We give to the dead, we put pan de muerto, or we make their favorite meals and we put it out on an altar because we believe the spirits come back and they celebrate with us for a couple nights and it’s really nice.”

To Huerta, Day of the Dead artistry is part catharsis, part career.

“Painting is very therapeutic for me to deal with the passing of my family members,” Huerta says. “When I explain to people why I do it, then they associate it with a loved one who’s passed, and then they get it. Maybe a color or a certain flower or certain eye colors, anything can signify someone who made an impression in your life who was important to you.”

Huerta has worked as a full-time artist for eight years, and his paintings pop off the canvas. His skeletal figures, outfitted in strikingly colorful dresses and mariachi uniforms, sell for upwards of $5,000. Huerta also uses bold colors to depict deceased artists like Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera and musicians like Selena and Prince.

Lila Solorzano Rivera poses with her artwork

Photo BY Randy Rivera

Throughout the years, Huerta noticed the uptick in popularity of the Mexican holiday. Almost a decade ago, Día de los Muertos festivals were scarce, he says. Passersby were mystified at the sight of Huerta’s booth, and he remembers one woman was even angry at the nature of his work with its well-dressed skeletons. But Huerta took the time to explain its significance.

“I explained to her why I do this, and then she pretty much told me she lost her son, who was shot,” Huerta says. “It got to a point where we were just conversing and then she started breaking down and then she realized why I do my art.”

The men and women Huerta paints all have one thing in common: the eyes. He usually starts there and works his way outward; for him, the eyes set the mood. Although the almond-shaped eyes within his paintings are intensely detailed, Huerta softens them with the use of flower petals or butterflies to keep the viewer’s attention.

“When I paint, nothing else matters,” Huerta says.

Bittersweet skulls

When Disney calls, you answer. Sacramento sugar-skull artist Rob-O says he couldn’t believe an email he received earlier this year from an Imagineer asking him to create an original sugar skull to be exhibited at the Epcot’s Día de los Muertos display at the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida.

Rob-O finished the 14- by 14-inch piece—made entirely out of sugar and decorated with hand-mixed royal icing—and sent it to Florida the day before Hurricane Irma hit. It safely arrived and will be on display for the next five years.

“They commissioned three or four artists from all over the world to make art pieces for the Día de los Muertos exhibit,” Rob-O says before joking, “I guess if you’re going to die, you sell to Disney, right? That’s what George Lucas did.”

Nine years ago, Rob-O’s wife, a first generation Mexican-American, suggested the two celebrate Día de los Muertos after his mother passed away. Determined to turn an unfortunate situation into a positive memorial, Rob-O and his wife created a large altar in their garage and invited 25 of their closest friends over to celebrate not just Rob-O’s mother, but also their respective loved ones.

“Everybody brought pictures and their loved ones’ favorite dishes and we all decorated sugar skulls and put them on the altar and played games, and it really helped me get through it,” Rob-O says.

Easygoing Rob-O has a knack for creating friendly conversation. When he’s not busy during October and November exhibiting in galleries or participating in festivals, Rob-O spends time visiting various K-12 schools from Sacramento to the Bay Area, teaching students about Día de los Muertos. He shares dozens of blank, hand-crafted sugar skulls for the classes to decorate.

“This is a really important holiday. When I go to schools, how do I know one of those kids hasn’t lost a parent and maybe they’re on that path of, ’Screw the world,’” Rob-O says. “For kids, it gives them something to look forward to in a positive way. As Americans, we look at death as, ’Poor me.’ It is ’poor you’ to a point, but there’s also a point where you need to remember the people who’ve passed on.”

Rob O.’s sugar skull commissioned by Disney

Photo Courtesy of Rob-O

Rob-O’s been working as a full-time sugar skull artist for seven years. This year, he purchased 1,500 pounds of sugar to meet the demands of his art workshops held in museums and at schools. By the time Día de los Muertos arrives, he will have molded more than 1,300 skulls along with the help of his wife’s parents.

His most enduring works are the intricately decorated candy craniums coated with resin, encased in an oak frame and protected by UV glass. These pieces have graced gallery walls at the California Museum and even Mayor Darrell Steinberg’s office and can weigh up to 35 pounds.

“My hope is these will last 500 years because I want them to be passed on through generations,” Rob-O says.

When November passes, Rob-O says he focuses on testing his skills and pushing the medium to new heights. Next year, he plans to create a model of the Golden Gate Bridge out of sugar. But it’s his work with youth that rekindles his inspiration with the sweet medium.

“They’re just excited. It’s made out of sugar,” Rob-O says. “I think they’re all amazed that it’s made out of sugar and it’s a three-dimensional piece. It’s not just, ’Let’s put some macaroni on a piece of paper and paint it.’ If somebody would have [brought sugar skulls] into my high school art class I would have been interested.”

The bright side of death

On a Sunday morning in Marysville, women adorned with black-and-white face paint—in the style of calaveras catrinas—resemble elegant skeletons. They browse colorful vendor booths slinging bow ties and earrings stamped with images of Frida Kahlo.

Inside the Celebration of Souls art show, event curator Lila Solorzano Rivera points vendors to open spaces where they can set up shop. Her glossy, brown eyes stand out behind her own calaveras-style face paint. This show may be Rivera’s first time as curator, but it’s certainly not the artist’s first exhibition.

Six years ago, Rivera began looking into the meaning behind Día de los Muertos, a tradition she says she hadn’t grown up with as a second-generation Mexican-American. She was searching for a healthy way to cope with the death of her only grandfather.

“This time of year I always feel like he’s closer to me and I feel like all of this, everything I do, is because of him, because he’s bringing me that luck and he’s watching over me,” Rivera says. “It’s his way of showing that he is proud of what I’m doing.”

Rivera’s vivid watercolor and pastel portraits of glamorous Hollywood icons like Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn add pops of color to the gallery’s gray walls. Each deceased starlet is graced with her own calaveras catrinas face paint.

Rivera says she hopes those who stop by to appreciate her artwork walk away with a better understanding of the age-old tradition. It’s a rarity in American culture: a buoyant way to memorialize the dead.

“My fireplace is one big altar right now. I have pictures of my grandpa and Frida Kahlo,” Rivera says. “I put a bottle of tequila and I just bought a cigar, so I’m going to have that on there too. I also buy pan dulce [sweet bread] and then we make beans because he always made the best beans.”