The monarch butterflies that flit through light-filled oil paintings by artist Jaime Vanegas Castro, on view in Casa de Rosado Galeria & Cultural Center’s main gallery, will soon begin their annual journey back to Mexico. In an adjoining room, a juried exhibition of thirteen calaveras submitted by Michigan-based Latinx and Hispanic artists invites the playful imagery of the upcoming holiday of Dia de los Muertos.
In Michigan, the holiday coincides with the monarchs’ departure. In Mexico, it coincides with their joyous return. The monarch butterfly “is a powerful symbol of migration,” said gallery founder and director Theresa Rosado. “But not only that — there are traditional beliefs that the monarch is actually a soul that’s departed.”
Both exhibitions will be on view 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Oct. 29.
Castro hails from the town of Senguio, in the mountainous region of the Mexican state of Michoacán. He’s part of a crew of workers from Michoacán who specialize in pouring concrete for Michigan’s highways. He gets most of his painting done on days when the road crew is rained out.
Castro paints the quiet streets and mountain vistas of Senguio he knows so well. The works in the show also tell a story of the environment: Scenes of jimadors harvesting agave for tequila and pulque, or agave wine, monumentalize methods and tools of traditional agriculture. But a painting of two children surveying a landscape depleted by logging warns of the threats of industrialized production.
Castro works abstractly, too — he said he prefers to, but he encounters more demand for realism. A stunning silhouette of a black cat in profile, with exaggerated curves, one large green eye and claws poised to fish, calls on Mexican folk-art traditions.
Because highway work is seasonal, Castro returns to Senguio for winter, when the butterflies flock to their preserves. Rosado said it was Castro’s ability to capture the motion of the monarch that caught her eye.
“I was really impressed by his brushwork. He paints in an impressionistic style to pull upon his memories of Michoacán,” she said.
To be in the midst of the monarchs’ return, Rosado said, is “incredible. They’re not stationary.” Castro’s paintings capture the “extraordinary adventure” of such fleeting moments in nature.
The exhibitions kick off a season in which Rosado is rarely stationary herself. The time between Hispanic Heritage Month, which began Sept. 15, and Lansing’s Dia de los Muertos celebrations is the gallery’s busiest season.
“It gets a little crazy,” Rosado said. “We go from working a normal work week to being all hands on deck. By the middle of November, we’re just whipped. But it’s worth it. It’s one of my favorite adopted celebrations.”
Rosado’s own heritage is Puerto Rican and Macedonian. But she has been instrumental in reinvigorating Dia de los Muertos celebrations in Lansing since Patricia Briones and the late Lansing artist Rosa Lopez Killips invited her to collaborate in 1996. The annual celebrations have outgrown the gallery and will be held at a to-be-announced location Nov. 3 through 5.
“Calavera” means skull or skeleton, but the term connotes the anticolonial, satirical imagery of the late Mexican political lithographer Jose Guadalupe Posada Aguilar. His broadsheets, depicting skulls and skeletons sporting flouncy European fashions impractical for the Mexican heat, poke fun at colonizers and their emulators. His famous figure “Catrina La Calavera Garbancera” reminds the viewer of the impermanence of life and colonial wealth.
The contemporary interpretations of Posada’s prints on view are painted in vibrant colors. A painting by Reyna Garcia features a “Catrina” whose adornments take the shape of Michigan’s two peninsulas. She said she was inspired by watching “this amazing thing” of Michigan Latinx communities reconnecting with the holiday.
“This is a cultural heritage of Mexico. People are understanding more why it’s important, and I like to see that,” she said.
Spinoffs of Posada’s imagery have become emblematic of the holiday in popular culture. Reproduced calaveras can be found on papel picado, traditional Mexican cut-paper folk art; handbags; candles; and even paper napkins from Target. Increased commercialization of the holiday is a mixed bag, Rosado said. It increases general awareness but also threatens connection with creative traditions.
As a counterbalance, the gallery holds drop-in sugar-skull-decorating workshops. Participants can practice adorning the traditional Mexican designs using puffy paint. Thanks to a City of Lansing grant, Rosado offers these workshops free of charge to hundreds of students in the Lansing School District. To prepare, she hosts volunteer sugar-skull-molding parties, which some workplaces attend as diversity, equity and inclusion team-building events.
At the exhibitions’ opening reception Sunday (Sept. 17), Rosado announced “Join Me In This Dance,” an acrylic painting by Grand Rapids artist Mirabel Sanchez, as Best of Show. Sanchez will receive $500, and her piece will be featured on all promotional materials for Lansing’s 27th Dia de los Muertos celebration.
Running the gallery since 2017 has been part of Rosado’s own grieving process. Her late husband Bruce died of a glioblastoma.
“The galeria gave me a chance to connect with people and to move forward as a widow,” she said.
It has also helped her to stay busy. In the early years, “After everyone left, I would just collapse and cry,” she said. But it has gotten easier. The holiday allows room for her grief to be ongoing and cyclical.
“In European culture, the funeral tends to be the only ritual associated with death and grieving, but in Mexican culture, it’s an annual thing,” she said.
Some years, she makes an ofrenda for Bruce. She includes a pair of his hiking boots, still caked with dry mud, and his signature corduroy pants. An ofrenda includes specific objects associated with the departed, allowing for joy in remembrance.
“You’re celebrating the joy and fun things of a person,” she said.
Rosado also makes space for the community to grieve recent losses and preserve local histories. In a community ofrenda honoring deceased Lansing-area activists and artists, a photo and write-up about the late artist and activist Jeremy Hockett, who died in 2022, will join images of the late activist Mark Brown and the late Turner Street artists Robert Busby, Barbara Morris and Killips.
Casa de Rosado is a nonprofit gallery providing opportunities and material support to Michigan’s underserved Latinx, Chicanx, Afro-Caribbean and Indigenous communities. Pieces in both shows are available for purchase, with all proceeds going directly to the artists. Board members are all Michigan-based Hispanic artists, putting selection “back in the hands of the artists.”
Rosado sees the visual arts as an especially important means of expression for multi-lingual artists. In art, “You can convey a lot of emotions and feelings often not expressible by words,” she said.
“We take pride in ensuring a better path” for these artists, she said, who face barriers to exhibiting in the mainstream art world.
This work, too, is year-round. It is crucial, she said, to “elevate our artists and our heritage — not only during Hispanic Heritage Month but all year long.”
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