Lurking in the corner of the Missoula International School gymnasium stands a creature with the body of a bear, neck and legs of a giraffe and the head of a hummingbird with an orange mohawk and a unicorn horn.
This papier-mâché sculpture, known as an alebrije, is the imaginative work of Loryn Zerr's art class and will be accompanied during Missoula's Festival of the Dead parade by the students who created it.
Alebrijes originated in Mexico during the 1930s after artist Pedro Linares fell ill and had vivid dreams of flamboyantly colored animals. The story goes, according to Wikipedia, he saw a lion with an eagle head and a donkey with butterfly wings and all the animals were shouting the word, "Alebrije." Upon his return to health, Linares recreated the mystical creatures using papier-mâché.
Zerr's class used their alebrije (ah-lay-BREE-hay) to honor endangered, extinct, or in one case imaginary, species, with the combination of animals being a California brown bear, blue-bearded hummingbird, narwhal, giant dragonfly, giraffe and a unicorn.
"We started off just drawing our own alebrijes, with our own creatures mixed together," eighth-grader Ruby Jenni said of the creation process. "Then we went around and picked traits we liked of each one and picked something we could start the basic form on."
Zerr said it took the class between 18 and 20 hours to construct the vibrantly colored alebrije, the third her classes have built in the past six years.
"They love it! When it's in the parade, everybody wants to be around it," Zerr said as she watched the kids adjust the wings. "They love this thing."
Even though the sculptures aren't traditionally used for the Day of the Dead in Mexico, Zerr says the alebrijes are a fun way for her students to collaborate together on a bigger project as well as using their imaginations.
Yet, even at a young age, Jenni is aware of the controversy surrounding the event.
"I think it's a cool idea," Jenni said of the Festival of the Dead, "I know there's the whole cultural appropriation going on right now, there's that controversy. I don't know what my opinion on that matter is, but it's cool to see everything that gets produced."
While Jenni has seen photos of the parade before, she says she is excited to participate this year along with her classmates.
The parade for Missoula's 25th Festival of the Dead is set to take place down Higgins Avenue at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 2.