According to legend, when the seasons change and dark sets in early, the Norse god Odin arrives for a wild hunt to gather up souls of the people who have died in the past year and take them to the other world.
It’s an old myth that echoes in various forms among other cultures around the world, and one that Jilaine Callison ponders ever year at this time.
Remembering and celebrating the people whom we love who have died is an important part of living, Callison said on Sunday, as she created a scene from Odin’s hunt at Zootown Arts Community Center during a print-making workshop.
“I love this time of year, I pull out pictures of all my ancestors and friends who have died and talk to them,” she said. “I tell their stories.”
Callison was among a group of 30-some creative souls who spent the afternoon carving life and death-inspired art into wood as part of a month-long slate of activities to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Missoula’s Festival of the Dead on Nov. 2., which was inspired by the Latin American holiday, El Dia de los Muertos.
In partnership with ZACC and sponsored by Hospice of Missoula and VSA, the state organization on arts and disability, the day’s event is just one of many public events meant to inspire personal reflection and art, said Kia Liszak, ZACC executive director.
“We are really excited to be part of the Festival of the Dead and to help get more people involved in the parade,” Liszak said. “I feel like this parade really brings our community together and uses art in a really transformative way.”
The making of art is a particularly therapeutic medium for people dealing with the big questions in life, so it makes great sense that ZACC has become more involved with the Festival of the Dead this year, Liszak said.
“The festival – and the art –really helps people to connect to death in a powerful way and to use art to move through your emotions,”she said.
Although the contemplation on such a topic can be a heavy burden, the print-making workshop was filled with joyful expression for its cross-generational participants.
“It’s cool,” said 12-year-old Michael McKay, who was busy carving a raven.
“It’s fun,” said 11-year-old Emma Webster, who plans to march in the Festival of the Dead parade with a skull print she was making with her friend Zara Noonan.
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“I think the Day of the Dead is a cool festival and it will be fun to be a part of the parade,” Webster said. “I’ve only watched it – I’ve never been in it.”
The girls’ enthusiasm for the day’s project was the entire point of the workshop, said Lindsey Weber, education resident at ZACC.
“This is a do-it-yourself steamroller print workshop that was designed for community participation,” she said. “This is something that takes university art students more than a month to do, and we are doing it in two hours.”
Block prints are an old art form and one that is perfect for making dramatic, over-sized statements without a lot of time investment, said Michael Workman, ZACC printshop instructor.
“The process is pretty quick and simple, and block printing lends itself to big graphic designs,” he said. “It’s bold and fun.”
Once the ZACC artists carved out their images on 24-by-24-inch dense board and then rolled paint onto the surface, an old white bed sheet was placed over the carvings and “steamrolled” by a pickup truck that drove back and forth over the artwork.
Such prints typically involve an actual steamroller, but in this case a truck was the perfect low-tech tool to use for the free community print-making event, Liszak said.
“The steamroller prints at the university are fantastic, but if you aren’t a UM student, you can’t participate in making steamroller prints,” she said. “This is our way of offering the experience to the greater community.”
As she put the final touches on her beer-drinking skeleton, Margaret McCourt offered some thoughts about spending a day creating art and contemplating the forces of life and death.
“I’ve always enjoyed the Day of the Dead parades and I am aware of Hospice and the good experiences I have had with them in my life,” McCourt said. “This year seemed like the perfect time join those things together.
“I think this kind of event is a really neat way for people to share what we all go through. We all have loss, but we all need to celebrate our own lives.”