NW Connections: Second-annual Day of the Dead festival draws crowd for art

By James Kennedy, The Pioneer

Last weekend, Walla Walla’s Day of the Dead printmaking event showed the community both the iconography and culture surrounding the tradition as well as the talent of Whitman’s printmaking students. Attendees of the second annual event could see finished students’ woodblocks inked up and pressed onto cloth via steamroller, buy authentic Mexican food and hand-crafted merchandise, or even get in on the printmaking fun themselves by carving their own mini woodblock to press onto a paper or t-shirt.

An artist makes some last minute touches to her block. Photo by Marra Clay.
An artist makes some last minute touches to her block. Photo by Marra Clay.

Originally inspired by the Día de los Muertos festival in Missoula, Mont., Assistant Professor of Art Nicole Pietrantoni has translated the steamrolling technique and community celebration in Walla Walla with the help of local non-profit organizations and individuals such as Ron Williams, executive director of Shakespeare Walla Walla and owner of the Powerhouse Theatre.

“It seemed like a really natural fit given that we have a really large Latino population and that Día de los Muertos celebrates Latino [history],” said Pietrantoni.

Preparation for the event was incorporated into both her beginning and advanced printmaking classes for over a month. This year, Pietrantoni has worked more closely to teach the history of the holiday and expand the art beyond the traditional skeletons and marigolds. Students’ art incorporated images such as hearts, chain-link fences and more.

“I think the students’ work reflects more contemplation on their part … and my part,” said Pietrantoni.

While the steamroller prints were an ungraded assignment for the printmaking classes, student participants spent around 30-40 hours working on their prints. The results were worthy of showing to family and friends and for displaying and selling to the community.

“The most rewarding part is definitely seeing the finished product and seeing how much people really appreciate all the hard work and effort we put in,” said sophomore Emma Rust, “I feel like I can finally say, ‘I did it. I completed one of the hardest projects of my college career, and I’m not only proud but happy with the result.’”

Even though the assignment is not collaborative in nature, students still end up connecting over the experience and finally working together at the event itself, lifting heavy woodblocks and getting them ready to be made into prints.

“I think my favorite part has been bonding with everyone in the class while [we] work,” said senior Corinne Vandagriff. “It’s fun to talk about everyone from my peer’s art to just learning about them as people.”

For future years, Pietrantoni wants to expand the community outreach aspect of the event by focusing on educating students and visitors about Latino culture while avoiding cultural appropriation, and providing more opportunities for spectators to get involved. She also wants to take the art to local farm labor camps to interact with the workers there.

With the event growing by the thousands each year, the Walla Walla Day of the Dead celebration is looking to be one of the most influential art events in the area. This year, an estimated 3,000 people attended. The festival drew from the Whitman and greater Walla Walla communities, providing an atmosphere unlike any other event in Walla Walla.

“That’s why I keep reminding [my students] of, is that this is something unlike anything else many people have probably ever seen in our community,” said Pietrantoni, “It really contributes to the art scene here.” 🅼

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