Irma Vega Bijou

Ceramic Artist

Honoring the spirits and memories of our loved ones is the main essence behind the tradition of making altars and holding celebrations such as the Day of the Dead. The first time I made an altar was in 1985 right after the September earthquake in Mexico City. I wanted to find a way to honor those who lost their lives, and I have put up an altar every year since, both in my home and in exhibits as a means to share this beautiful tradition.

The Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos in Spanish) is a holiday on which people gather to pray for and remember loved ones who have passed away. Celebrations take place on November 1st and 2nd in connection with the Catholic holy days of All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day. Traditions include building private altars honoring the deceased that include colorful sugar skulls, marigolds, and the favorite foods and beverages of the departed, and visiting graves with these as gifts. Scholars trace the origins of the modern holiday to indigenous observances dating back thousands of years, and to an Aztec festival dedicated to a goddess called Mictecacihuatl (known in English as "The Lady of the Dead").

Building and arranging an altar is a project that takes at least one month, sometimes longer. By the end of September or early October, I am busy making paper cutouts, clay ornaments, paper calacas and colorful sugar skulls. In 2007 I made a set of skulls from melted chocolate, a job that required a good deal of restraint since I love chocolate. In the last days of October, the altar is usually ready, complete with traditional fresh Cempasuchitl flowers (marigold flowers), homemade breads, food, wine and candles. I invite friends and families to place photographs or mementos from their loved ones who have passed away so that they can participate in the festivities. In addition, I make small, or mini altars in cardboard boxes to take to schools where I often teach children about this Mexican tradition.

Dia de los Muertos is not exclusively a Mexican tradition. It is celebrated throughout Latin America and American Contintent, and each region or culture has different ways of incorporating parts of their culture into their altar presentations, yet I have to say that in Mexico the celebration is especially important, and it’s always a very festive and colorful event.

It is celebrated throughout Latin America, and each country has different ways of incorporating parts of their culture into their altar presentations. In my efforts to keep this ancient tradition alive and to share it with others, I have displayed altars publicly on numerous occasions, at museums such as the Mexican Museum in San Francisco and the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, as well as the Azafran Cafe, which is part of the Space Telescope Science Institute at John Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. I have also taught traditional Mexican paper cutting and working with clay at Texas A&M University in Kingsville, Texas as part of the events following the altar exhibit in 1998.

Below are three collections of photos of altars that I have put together in the past, which I hope will give you a glimpse into this wonderful celebration.  For information on where I have displayed my altars, please click here.

To view a collection, please click on one of the images below. I recommend viewing photos in slideshow format.