Madison County students create Day of the Dead altar for Smithsonian

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This story was printed with the approval of The Richmond Register.

By Ricki Barker
rbarker@richmondregister.com

While many Madison County students were focusing on carving jack o’ lanterns, creating clever costumes, watching scary movies or attending fall festivals in the days leading up to Halloween, students at Model Laboratory High School were busy planning for the days that followed.

The school’s Spanish Honors Society was tasked this year to create an original altar for the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) as part of the museum’s Dia de los Muertos activities.

Model Laboratory High School's Spanish Honors Society was asked this year to create an original altar for the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian as part of the museum’s Dia de los Muertos activities. The centerpiece of the display was this Aztec solar calendar. Submitted photo by Ernest McClees
Model Laboratory High School’s Spanish Honors Society was asked this year to create an original altar for the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian as part of the museum’s Dia de los Muertos activities. The centerpiece of the display was this Aztec solar calendar.
Submitted photo by Ernest McClees

The altar, or ofrenda, took the students three weeks to complete and was displayed in the Washington, D.C., museum’s education wing on Nov. 1-2 – a first for any high school.

“We are the first high school that has ever done something like this for the Smithsonian,” Model Laboratory High School Spanish instructor Ernest McClees said. “This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our students. It is a huge honor to be a part of an organization that has some pretty rigorous standards, and I’m so proud of the work the students have done.”

While the altar is something the Spanish Honors Society constructs every fall, creating something for an esteemed institution took some additional planning and research.

“We were excited about the opportunity and honored to be asked to do it,” said Sahana Holla, president of Model’s Spanish Honors Society. “At first, people thought we were going to be scared about creating it for the museum. But we put a lot of thought and hard work into it. The officers, along with the whole honor society, came together and created something great.”

The club usually creates an altar every year for the Dia de los Muertos – or Day of the Dead – celebrations at the Lexington Living Arts and Science Center. At first, Holla said the honors society planned to construct two altars in order to participate in both the museum and art center celebrations, but soon vetoed the idea, acknowledging the time constraints.

“We tried to make it work, but decided eventually to focus our time and effort into one big piece for the Smithsonian,” Holla explained.

McClees said the school club was approached by the NMAI through Chris Robinson, a Model Lab teacher who was recently appointed as the museum’s first full-year teacher-in-residence.

“They knew we had a lot of experience doing this, and when I got the email I immediately shared it with my students, who were very excited. We had a tight deadline and went from spit-balling ideas to getting into production in just a few days,” the Spanish language instructor said.

Dia de los Muertos is a well-known festival that celebrates life and honors loved ones who have died. It is celebrated throughout Mexico, parts of Central and South America and increasingly in the United States. People usually mark the occasion by creating altars that display portraits, favorite books and special possessions of their loved ones. Common themes of altars include marigolds, monarch butterflies and sugar skulls.

Because Model Lab’s altar would be on display at the NMAI, the students chose to create a contemporary altar that incorporated the history of the Day of the Dead ritual and pay homage to its Mesoamerican and Aztec origins.

The celebration was created by the Aztecs more than 3,000 years ago.

Holla said the honors society researched the ancient Aztec traditions and incorporated a hand-painted 8-foot by 8-foot Aztec calendar in addition to an 8-foot long and 3-feet deep altar.

“After we decided what cultures we wanted to incorporate, we started researching, painting and building the altar,” Holla explained. “In the photo frames we put pictures of prominent figures from the Latin community, such as Frieda Kahlo. Above the pictures, we incorporated the Aztec god and goddess of the underworld.”

The altar also features several skulls that were hand-painted by students and a timeline that is not chronological.

“The timeline is not placed in a specific order because we wanted to reflect how the Aztec calendar would view these events,” Holla said. “We ignored the post-Columbus time sequencing and stayed true to the calendar of the god and goddess. We wanted to depict the complete picture of Latin America and show the ties of ancient cultures in the present.”

McClees said he was heartened by the students’ decision to honor the origin of the celebration.

“There is some heavy anchoring in Aztec imagery,” he said. “They went back to the origins and paid attention to the details and meaning behind the ritual, which honestly, doesn’t get enough attention in the present.”

The impressive Aztec calendar was created by Model Lab student Mary Clay Hamrick, who hand-painted the design to match historical photos of the artifact.

McClees said he was impressed by how the students balanced time constraints against the project’s enormous workload.

“This was an opportunity that presented itself, and they went at it with determination. It’s amazing to me the thought and careful details that went in to this project. The students work hard every year, but this year the momentum of being in the Smithsonian really pushed them to new heights. Not all of these students are in my class and they all have extracurricular activities they were trying to balance in addition to this project. It is amazing the amount of work they did. They gave up two weeks of their lives to get this done,” McClees said.

Holla said she and others in the honors society are grateful for the support they received from the school and other teachers.

“It was definitely a group effort,” Holla said. “We all had to find time to work on it when we could. I’m so grateful to the teachers that allowed us to use time in class to work on this. They understood how important this project was to us and were very understanding.”

McClees said curators were impressed by the altar and have asked permission for it to be archived.

“I am so proud that our students got to be a part of something like this,” McClees said. “It shows them that if they push to the limit, they can accomplish big things and that what we learn is much bigger than the four walls of the classroom.”

 

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