This year, the Zootown Arts Community Center is taking on the Festival of the Dead as a program.
"I think it's really special. I think it both pulls from tradition, but it's also very uniquely Missoula," said Kia Liszak, ZACC executive director. "It's very unique to our community and our community's own personal expression and our needs, our creative force."
A few years ago, Liszak and a friend, Tarn Ream, were talking about how to add more to the Day of the Dead parade and give the community a better outlet for processing grief. The parade is the culmination of the Festival, and the celebration is in its 23rd year in Missoula.
"And we began to plan this series of workshops prior to the parade," Liszak said.
Going on four years, the festival has included a group art show, a series of art classes in the weeks before the parade, and face painting on the day of the procession. Hospice of Missoula sponsors the classes so they're free of charge. (See box for additional supporters.)
Eventually, Liszak would like to see an entire month of activities leading up to the pinnacle of the festival.
"Since we started doing these workshops and free face painting, and bringing it more to the community, we've noticed a huge surge in participation in the parade," Liszak said.
She estimates some 600 people in all participate in the festival.
One evening at the ZACC, Lavender Lambert, 11, was carving up a wooden board next to her mom, Joie Rainbeau, also working on an art project for the Day of the Dead parade.
"I'm working on a picture of my kitty," Lavender said.
She figured her kitty had been dead for some time, but the beautiful cat had disappeared a few years earlier.
"She either died or got stolen because she's a Persian, pure white, fluffy, and she had blue eyes," Lavender said.
The kitty cat had many names, starting with Isabella, and possibly running onto Esmerelda, Ophelia, Razzer, Neptune, Snowflake, and Flocon.
As Lavender carved, artist Patricia Thornton advised her on the best way to use the carving tool. The kitty faced Lavender on the board, but Thornton told her it didn't need to, and she could turn the board as she carved.
"You always want that tool to go away from your body," Thornton said.
Lavender and her mom were only a couple of the people who dropped into the ZACC to participate in Festival of the Dead activities, inspired by El Dia de los Muertos in Mexico.
In just one day, some 160 people came to the Northside art center to decorate sugar skulls, as many as 12 people at a time worked on shrines, and at least 300 people will get their faces painted Monday, Liszak said.
Before the parade this year, the ZACC is inviting participants to a party in Caras Park at 2 p.m. Monday, Nov. 2, with lantern making, food, music, and Festival of the Dead Very Pale Ale by the Kettlehouse Brewing Co. The party is a new addition to the festival.
The parade is the capstone of the festival, and Liszak said the processional down Higgins will retain its unique flavor. It's not a commercial parade, and it has no vehicles.
"It's about individuals finding their own expression to be able to look at the loss personally of a loved one or of just the larger theme of what it means to be human and to be mortal, essentially," Liszak said.