In the traditions of Day of the Dead, art making intersects with community. People come together to celebrate their deceased loved ones and create art that beautifully represents their lives. This year, I have been asked to volunteer at University of New Mexico’s Young Children’s Health Center, where I will be teaching children about self expression through creating Day of the Dead art work. I thought it might be interesting for you to hear some of the thoughts I have on Day of the Dead and Art Therapy as well.
In the Art Therapy theory,”art as therapy,” the process of making art is itself the therapy, and the art is not combined with traditional “talk” therapy. “Art in therapy combines creating art with talk therapy. Healing occurs through the internal expression and physical movements that happen while someone is making art. Educators and Art Therapists such as Dr. Noah Hass-Cohen draw from clinical neuroscience to show how art therapy affects the mind-body connection and in doing so lifts illnesses like depression and anxiety.
“Art as therapy,” is deeply ingrained into Day of the Dead holiday, a long standing Mexican tradition that is celebrated from October thirty-first through November second. It’s a day when people remember the lives of those who have passed, and honor them with art, flowers, music, and food.
While art therapy is a fairly recent addition to the therapeutic world, people who celebrate Day of the Dead have been practicing a form of “art as therapy” for decades. They create alters for their loved ones, that in themselves are pieces of art. Within these alters are smaller pieces: statues,boxes, ceramic/wooden food, and pictures.
When creating these art pieces, the mind-brain connection is activated in a way that is not normal during daily activities. For some people,the materials and method they choose slows down the brain, so the art making becomes similar to meditation, aiding relaxation and a sense of balance and stability. Others choose materials, colors, and aprocess that is stimulating and may help give them the passion they might not normally feel, passion that is necessary in combating sadness.
Constructing these alters also allows for the creator to think about their loved ones, life, and death. Within most cultures, the habit is to push these thoughts away, which ultimately causes anxiety and fear. But by having a time each year specificaly to celebrate the dead, people who celebrate Day of the Dead give themselves a major gift…the gift of contemplating the existential crisis of death head on. You can learn more about art making and it’s connection to Day of the Dead by visiting Hollywood Forever Memorial Park or Self Help Graphics in Los Angeles.