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Day of the Dead or Dia de Los Muertos for Dummies November 3, 2011

Posted by alwaysjan in Art, Art Education, Holidays, Personal.
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I’d planned to write the definitive post on Day of the Dead aka Dia de Los Muertos, a holiday that is near and dear to my heart. But the reality (surreality?) of having 31 students killed that. If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, then I have a table reserved front row center.

I’d never heard of the Day of the Dead until I moved to SoCal. I grew up in the Midwest. There was no talk of death when I was a child. Death was just so downright-morbid.

So when I moved to Los Angeles, I couldn’t help but wonder, “What’s with all of these figures of skeletons partying and drinking cerveza and tequila?”

Then a friend and I happened to visit Olvera Street in downtown Los Angeles where Dia de Los Muertos merchandise was everywhere. We came upon an empty storefront that featured a community exhibit of ofrendas (altars).

There were the usual ofrendas for beloved relatives, but also one for battered women, a young child who died at the hands of his mother, and even one for a beloved dog that featured the dog’s collar and treats. The ofrendas were beautiful in their simplicity and originality. I found myself weeping tears of…joy?

There was also a huge wooden box filed with sand. People were urged to write a message to a loved one who had passed. The message was wrapped around a stick, tied with a piece of embroidery thread, and then planted in the sand.  I can’t remember now who I wrote a note to. But when I planted my stick with a hundred or so others, I felt a connection to all of the people who’d taken the time to write a message to someone they missed. How often do we get to do that in real life?

Unlike Halloween, Dia de los Muertos celebrates the temporal nature of life. Each ofrenda is created from scratch each year. They’re not dragged off to be stored with the artificial Christmas tree and trotted out the next year. That’s one of the things that I love about this holiday.

Several years ago, I decided to host a Dia de los Muertos celebration. Several friends who came were Mexican Americans, but they’d grown up in regions of Mexico where the holiday was not celebrated. This was a first for them, so I wanted to get it right.

My friend, Martha, who is from a close knit Mexican family, talked to her parents, and they came up with some “musts” for a traditional altar. (But, keep in mind, that each altar is open to individual interpretation.)

Basic Structure of an altar:

Four Levels to represent:
earth,wind, water, fire
north, south, east,west
summer, fall, winter, spring
birth, childhood, adult life, death

A picture of the loved one is placed at the highest point

Symbols of the 4 elements
a jar/dish of water for the thirsty soul
a shell – symbolizes water
a flute –  symbolizes wind
Corn, shiles, tomatillos, and cacao –  symbolize earth
candles – to light the way, to symbolize fire
marigolds for their scent & brevity of life
copal (incense) – a dish of worship, its scent
calaveras (sugar skulls with names) to mock death
dog – to guard the soul, to accompany the soul to its afterlife
dish of salt – for purification of the soul

Food

Pan de muerto – to nourish the soul (Sweet with anise seeds)
Any favorite food of the deceased
Money – to pay the dog for guarding the soul and the fare to be paid for crossing to the other world
Petate (Mat) on the floor – a place for the soul to rest after the long journey.
Mirror – to scare evil spirits & so they won’t eat the food
A frog – signifies twilight of another day.

Optional: Papel picado (cut paper banners), masks, an arch, calaveras, mementos.

The biggest problem was that year the marigolds bloomed early. There was not a marigold to be found. But then I spotted a huge clump of them at an apartment complex and went out late one night to do a little hunting and gathering. Problem solved.

Martha, a dog lover like myself, brought over the collars of some of her beloved dogs. She said with utmost sincerity, “We’ll need a bowl of water because they’ll be thirsty after their long journey.” I fetched it, while she lit what seemed like a zillion candles.

That year I’d googled the name of my first true love only to learn he’d died four years earlier. He’d never married. So it was his picture that I put on the ofrenda along with a shot a whiskey, something that would sooth his soul after a long journey. One of my friends made killer tacos and another brought pan de muerto from a neighborhood bakery that was way better than mine.

I’m afraid that this year, Day of the Dead drew the short stick, what with Halloween on a Monday. I had warned parents that I thought Dia de los Muertos was of cultural relevance ahead of time and we’d be doing an activity. (I’ve got a group of parents at a local seminary, so I tread lightly.)

I brought in my box of sand on Tuesday. Most of my students were zombified from trick-or-treating except for the ones who believe it’s the Devil’s birthday. I suppose I should have given THOSE students homework. I was not too together. I asked my students to collect twigs off the playground and we made an arch that was held together with paper marigolds.

Students had the option of writing a message to a loved one who’d died. One girl wrote three for various goldfish who were last seen swimming in the toilet bowl. I was most touched when one of my students asked if she could write a note to her mother. Everyone knows her mother died when she was in kindergarten. She was worried because her mother only spoke Spanish, and she’d forgotten most of her Spanish. I was fortunate to have an aide in the room who translated her message into Spanish. I helped her wrap it around the stick, noticing that she’d drawn a lot of hearts on it. “I see a lot of love in this message,” I said. The girl smiled.

The students loved how the box turned out. “It looks like a little graveyard!” someone said. Tomorrow, I’ll bring home the messages. They’re ritually burned. I’ll never know the words of love that they contain, but my students do. And that’s what’s most important.

As I originally said, I’d hoped to write the definitive post on Day of the Dead, but that didn’t happen. A fellow teacher told me a hilarious story in The New Yorker about a preschool teacher who decided to celebrate Day of the Dead with disastrous results. The entire incident is told in a series of painful, yet hilarious emails that should give any teacher the will to get up and go to work tomorrow. If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, I know the writer of the article will be sitting at my table. Mas cerveza por favor!

May Means Mother’s Day Cards May 1, 2010

Posted by alwaysjan in Art, Teaching.
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April showers bring May flowers, STAR testing, and, what’s that other one? Oh yeah, Mother’s Day. This year Mother’s Day falls on May 9th, the day before STAR testing begins. So this week my third graders will be cranking out Mother’s Day cards. Actually it’s a great way to remind them that both “Mother’s” and “Day” need to be capitalized, as there’s always a question like that on the test.

Last year I finally got around to making five templates, so students can take turns tracing MOM. (Taking turns – a valuable skill NOT on the test.) When folded, the card is around 5×6.  I actually have them use card stock, so they can color it in with markers. (I’m notoriously stingy when it comes to letting students use markers.)  They color in the positive space and then the negative using a variety of lines, and geometric and organic shapes.

When they’re done, I have them flip over the card, so they can see it says, “WOW.”  They think this is way cool. I explain that both MOM and WOW are palindromes and give them several other examples. (One year I conveniently had a Hannah in my class!)  So this week my students will walk out of class with a cool card for “dear ole” and some more esoteric information that will NEVER appear on the STAR test.  LOL.

Dead Fly on the Wall January 26, 2010

Posted by alwaysjan in Art.
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I was scrambling to finish my final five report cards when my friend Nancy emailed me pictures of  “dead fly art.”  According to the email all you need to do is get a dead fly (or moth), let it sit for an hour, and then let your imagination run wild.  Hey, I’m good at that.

Those who know me know I’ve got a thing for bugs, even dead ones, so of course I put the report cards on hold and googled “dead fly art.”  I found lots of links, most which featured really annoying ads.  (And you thought I was going to say ads that “bug me,” but I’m not THAT obvious!) The “dead fly art” has been featured on several sites in the UK. Some of the original photos have what looks like German Swedish writing on them.  Who is the genius behind these?  (I’ve since learned it’s Swedish photographer Magnus Mohr.)  I’m now thinking of a really cool art project for Open House.  After all, our current unit is Imagination, and Picasso is so old school.  I hope the parents have a sense of humor.  Now, back to those report cards.

To see more “Dead Fly Art,”  go to The Chive Photo Blog.

Turkeys in Disguise November 29, 2009

Posted by alwaysjan in Art.
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Did someone say, “Insufferably Cute?” After my last conference (yes, I went to school in my zombified state), I was on my way out the door and saw these. Those First Grade teachers are ruthlessly cutesy.

Students had to “disguise” their turkey, so it could escape the carving knife. There were lots of ballerinas and princesses. That one on the end said, “I’m a black hairy monster. My father is Big Foot. If you try to eat me, I’ll eat you first!” Be on the lookout for these turkeys in disguise!

Here is the Turkey Template:

Continental Thrift April 25, 2009

Posted by alwaysjan in Art, Teaching.
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 I’m still working on my epic post about teaching Sex Ed, but wanted to put up a new post just to show off  share the cool map my students made.  They cranked it out in a day for our school’s  upcoming International Day, and in case you’re geographically challenged, it’s South America.

 I gave my students a pile of what I thought were G-rated magazines (Really, how racy could Family Circle be?)  While I individually tested students’ reading fluency, the rest of the class sat out in the hallway tearing out pictures to match the colors on a physical map of South America in the atlas.  (The finished map is 3′ x 6′.)  

One boy took me aside to let me know he saw something “nasty” in one of the magazines.  I asked him if he could be a little more specific.  (I’m big on asking kids to be specific – That’s probably why one kid thought it was called the “Specific Ocean.”)  The boy mumbled something about a naked woman.  I told him it was probably health related and hoped I was right. But, in third grade, kids are easily grossed out.  I was more grossed out by all the pharmaceutical ads.  

That red strip is the Andes.  I thought about sharing the story of Survived! with my students (a want vs. a need), but didn’t want to broach the subject of plane crashes and cannibalism – at least not before lunch.

Speaking of continents, (How’s that for a whiplash-inducing segue?) I found a rhyme that helps students remember the names of the continents.

                      The 7 Continents

North America, South America, joined in the West  
Europe meets with Asia, and on Africa they rest.
Australia stands alone, floating down below
And Antarctica is the loneliest, where no one want to go.

The best part is acting it out.  Ask for seven volunteers and assign each one a continent.  Have the “continents” line up (left to right): North America, South America, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia. Antarctica sits in front of the group.

When we say “North America,” the child who is South America drops to one knee and the continents join by locking arms.  When we say “Europe,” the child who is Africa drops to a cross-legged position. “Europe” and “Asia” shake hands above Africa, then lean over and  place an elbow (gently!) on each of “Africa’s” shoulders.

“Australia” drifts off to the right and pretends they’re floating.  (All teachers have a kid who’s a natural Australia.)  Antarctica crosses their arms and shivers.  The audience loves to get in on the shivering action too.  

At the end of the year, I give students the rhyme, and they can fill in the names of the continents.  Of course, then there’s the issue of spelling. Cue shivering.

Obama Poster – Barack Obama as American Mythology February 25, 2009

Posted by alwaysjan in Art, Politics.
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On Election Day 2008, planetjan was featured as one of WordPress’ 100 “Growing Blogs.” This was in large part because of my “Obama Cholo” post featuring the artwork of artist David Cordova.  It was the first time I’d dipped my toe in the political waters. Numerous sites linked to my post and my stats went through the roof.  So both Obama and I had a good day.

Since then, my friend Nora Dunn (who makes cameos in some of my blog posts, as she’s a frequent visitor to our outpost of insanity) has introduced us to Scott Siedman’s art.  Nora owns several of Scott’s paintings and when I first saw them, I was bowled over by Scott’s bold style.

When we finally met Scott, he brought and we bought a copy of “The Man from Illinois” poster, which is a reproduction of his original painting.  There’s a strong stylistic nod to quintessential American artists Norman Rockwell and Thomas Hart Benton. When I asked Scott what book Obama is reading, he said he left that open to interpretation.  Scott noted though that Abraham Lincoln, also an attorney (and the original Man from Illinois), was often seen reading the English Book of Common Law. 

Not to sound like a late-night infommercial, (but wait, there’s more!), but at $32 to $34 a pop, the poster is a bargain (though I’m hoping to soon snatch up Citicorp at the 99 cent store nearest me).   For details and to view a larger image of the print, click on manfromillinois.com.  Thanks Nora and Sheila!

Yes You Can – Obamicon Me January 22, 2009

Posted by alwaysjan in Art, Monthly Mao, Politics.
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Hey, it works!  My friend Elisse sent me a link to obamiconme.pastemagazine.com.  You can upload a photo and choose the perfect word to go with then have it rendered in the style of Shepard Fairey’s iconic poster.  

There’s an on-line gallery of all the images people have created.  The only caveat is that you can’t upload graphic sexual images (Like who in the world?)  You have to create an account using your email address, but it’s totally free and after you’ve created your “Obamicon” you can download it or post it on Facebook.  My pets are submitting their headshots, but they’ll have to wait.  First I have to “Obamicom” all my Republican friends.

January Mao January 1, 2009

Posted by alwaysjan in Art, Monthly Mao.
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Hope & Hip Hop October 29, 2008

Posted by alwaysjan in Art, Artists, Music, Politics.
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Our friend, Dina (The Salsa Queen!) forwarded this link on Youtube.  I must confess that my father warned me I should NEVER blog about politics or religion – but this is ART!  MC Yogi grew up in a group home for “at risk youth” and then discovered the transformative power of yoga.  Who would have thunk it?  His music appears on the White Swan label, home to another of my faves, Deva Premal.  Got art?  If you want to see an AWESOME video, click here:  MC Yogi: Obama ’08 Vote for Hope.

Obama Cholo October 26, 2008

Posted by alwaysjan in Art, Politics.
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My friend Angela had this poster on her front door, and it was love at first sight (a primera vista). She told me her hairstylist, David Cordova, had made it which led to an after school jaunt through the winding hills above Eagle Rock to meet him. He had an Obama event that night, and his supply was running dangerously low, but I bought four posters at $5 a pop ($10 at the event!) and was ecstatic.

David said he came up with the idea for the poster because many Latinos are still hesitant to vote for an African American (the brown vs. black issue that I’ve encountered in my own classroom over the years – though less so lately). But according to a front page story in the Los Angeles Times today, a growing number of Latino voters argue that anyone who has faced discrimination would be good for all minorities. Besides, for most voters, it’s no longer a white, black, or brown issue, or even a red or blue one. It all comes down to green – it’s the economy.

David said he took some of the color out of Obama’s skin, added the Mexican day laborer bandana, and the classic cholo shirt. Que milagro! Barack gone barrio. This way Latinos can see that Obama is not so very different from themselves.

I have to admit that in the poster, Obama looks surprisingly like the Mexican cook who works back in the kitchen at the local sushi bar. So in that sense, Obama Cholo (as David refers to him) IS every man – at least in Los Angeles.

Going Green July 5, 2008

Posted by alwaysjan in Art, Going Green.
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Our artist friend Bobby, who lives in Las Vegas, has upped the ante in the “Lawn Be Gone” challenge.  Tired of shelling out $225 to water his lawn, Bobby pulled the plug in March.  His water bill for June was a whopping $9. Since spray painting his lawn, a growing number of people are pulling over to snap photos. And no, he doesn’t just stand out front waiting for these photo ops.  Bobby’s story was featured this week in the Las Vegas Sun.

Bobby has spent the last decade in Vegas painting custom interiors and murals at the major casinos.  Years back, Bobby lured Richard up to Vegas to help design the interior of the Voodoo Lounge at the Rio and Richard still has the T-shirt to prove it.  Nothing like starting to paint at 10 p.m. and knocking off for breakfast. Construction was 24/7 so the artists were relegated to the night shift.  Richard remembers that the only place he could go in Las Vegas to escape the sound of the slots beside Trader Joes, was the Las Vegas Public Library.  

To see more of Bobby’s work (on canvas):

http://www.robertcurrystudio.com/show/index.html

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