The famous dead

A California Museum exhibit returns with its tribute to fallen pop idols and Latino ancestors

“The Last Song” by Raul Mejia

“The Last Song” by Raul Mejia

Courtesy of Raul Mejia

El Arte de las Almas: Dia de los Muertos runs through Dec. 15. Admission is $6.50-$9 (children 5 and under get in free). Open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., and Sunday noon-5 p.m. 1020 O St.; (916) 653-7524;
Editor’s note: The author is not related to artist John S. Huerta.

Miniature mariachi skeletons laughing in the palm of singer Selena Quintanilla-Pérez and a Native warrior Hamlet-ing a skull. Vibrant paintings are the way three artists are celebrating the dead, and their tributes are on display at the California Museum through Dec. 15.

El Dia de los Muertos (Oct. 31-Nov. 2) is celebrated in Mexico and other Latin-American countries to honor late ancestors. For the past five years, the O Street museum has continued the ancient tradition through El Arte de Las Almas: Dia de Los Muertos, an exhibit where local artists build brightly colored monuments that honor mostly deceased pop idols.

John S. Huerta, one of the featured artists, has previously created altars honoring Frida Kahlo, Marlene Dietrich and Marilyn Monroe. This year, his altar glistens with jewelry for the iconic screen queen Elizabeth Taylor.

Inspired by the passing of his sister and grandmother who raised him, Huerta used his art to cope with loss.

“I was in a really dark place, and I kept hearing my [grandma’s] voice. She said, ’Mijo, you need to stop what you’re doing and do what you’re passionate about,’” Huerta told SN&R.

“A friend of mine told me about el Dia de los Muertos, because I really wasn’t raised with it. I looked into it, researched it and it just clicked. This is what I’m going to do, and I put them in my paintings, like inspiration.”

Altars are crucial to Day of the Dead, with each containing photographs, candles, traditional foods such as pan dulce and personalized objects to make spirits feel welcome. Marigolds, the bright yellow “flower of the dead,” are prominently displayed and used as a beacon for spirits to wander back. A community altar at the center of the museum invites visitors to add their own touch by leaving items for their loved ones.

“Ofrendas,” or offerings, are a key ingredient, which display the natural elements: earth, wind, fire and water. Earth is represented by crops, so fruit or favorite dishes are placed at the altar to nourish departed souls. Wind moves through moving objects such as “papel-picado,” made by cutting out elaborate designs in pieces of paper mache. Fire breathes through wax candles, lit to represent a loving soul, with an extra candle placed for forgotten souls. Water is the last element, poured into elaborate containers to quench the thirst of souls who’ve made their long journey to the altar.

Grapevines climb around a portrait honoring Cesar Chavez by Raul Mejia, and carefully constructed papel-picado display the words “Crenshaw” and “TMC” in Oscar Magallanes’ altar to slain rapper Nipsey Hustle. The altars and artworks are carefully curated and are a labor of love for each artist, showing how grief can be transformed into beauty.

“I’m just thankful I do what I do. It gives me so much joy when people enjoy my work.” Huerta said. “I love seeing when people look at my art, I love seeing their expression when they’re smiling. When they look closer and ask, ’Are those digital?’ And I say, ’No, they’re hand-painted.’ It gets me through everything. There are days when I’m down, and then I paint. It’s like my therapy session.”