October 12, 2016 Arts » Cover story

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Day of the Almost Dead 

Local artist puts a twist on the traditional Mexican holiday

Dia de Los Casi Muertos exhibit opens on Oct. 15 at C3 Lab.

Julio Gonzalez

Dia de Los Casi Muertos exhibit opens on Oct. 15 at C3 Lab.

Many Americans would rather not think or talk about death, even though it's the only certainty in life. (I used to think taxes were the other — that is, until Donald Trump proved that theory wrong.)

Charlotte artist Julio Gonzalez, 38, wants us to "look at life through the lens of death." Carpe diem, everybody.

So, the Atlanta native asked eight volunteers to think about what brings value to their lives now. He videotaped them sharing their answers, and he hopes visitors to the Día de los Casi Muertos (Day of the Almost Dead) exhibition will ask themselves the same questions.

Finding volunteers wasn't easy. "I was having to ask friends, family and strangers if they or their grandparents would pose naked for this project dealing with death," Gonzalez said. About the nudity bit, we'll get to that.

During this time, Gonzalez must have been cocktail party poison. "Have you met the creep who keeps asking people to pose nude and talk about death? Steer clear."

Now that he's finally finished, Gonzalez (who's not creepy in the least) will transform the C3Lab space into an homage to the Mexican tradition that celebrates the dearly departed. But in contrast to the traditional Día de los Muertos, his show honors the living, a.k.a. the "Almost Dead."

Hey, none of us knows how much time we have left.

To many Americans, talk of death is unsettling. But in Mexico, as in many Latin-American countries, death is just the next phase of life. Loved ones who die are mourned, but then their lives are celebrated each year on a day set aside to honor them.

Gonzalez calls Día de Los Casi Muertos (running from Oct. 15 through Oct. 22) a "cross-cultural celebration of life." Like the occasion it's patterned after — and life itself — it's both somber and joyful.

Of the eight volunteer subjects, only six — mostly in their 50s and 60s — chose to participate in the second part of the project. This was the part that involved posing for photographs wearing nothing but body paint. Getting painted involved two potentially uncomfortable things: being naked and standing for five hours.

click to enlarge The body painting process.
  • The body painting process.

Some traditional icons — Aztec eagles, owls — were worked into the, um, bodies of work. But Gonzales mostly left the designs up to Cheryl Ann Lipstreu, a champion body painter (there really are competitions for fine art body painting), and her assistant, Amber Michael.

alive and well: Heaven can wait

Subjects in the exhibition were asked 10 questions about death — questions like, "What do you want to happen to your body after you die?" — developed by UNC Charlotte professor Jillian Tullis. Visitors can answer the same questions and contribute their thoughts to the project.

It may not be easy for people accustomed to skirting the issue. In America, we tend to use euphemisms for death:

She passed on.

He went to the great beyond.

She's gone to her reward.

He started his heavenly life.

If America had a "Day of the Dead," we'd probably hesitate to turn it into a party. We should take a lesson from our neighbors to the South ... before Trump has a chance to build his wall.

  • Julio Gonzalez

"The celebrations are a mixture of joy and sorrow," Gonzalez explained. "Inside the cemeteries, you find people cleaning grave stones and paying their respects, while outside in the city there are festivals that honor the dead. Musicians roam the cemetery playing traditional songs for coins. As night falls, the adults drink and tell stories while playing cards. It's not uncommon to see children playing hide and go seek among the headstones."

Gonzalez said families will often set out a deceased loved one's favorite food — as fuel for their continued journey. He asked what my favorite food was. "French fries," I said.

click to enlarge JULIO GONZALEZ
  • Julio Gonzalez

"OK, your family would leave out French fries for you."

I'd like to make an official request now for a side of East Blvd. Bar & Grill's honey mustard.

Families often tell stories about their dead loved ones — and not necessarily of their kind or heroic deeds. Bawdy stories and tales of misdeeds are fair game on the Day of the Dead, a time for revelers to keep it real.

It takes a village

Thanks to an Arts & Science Council (ASC) regional artist grant, Gonzalez was able to bring his idea about death to life. Since C3Lab is more than a gallery space — but a "creative hub" — it was the perfect fit for his vision.

"This project has been made possible by the village that is Charlotte," Gonzalez said. Union Shop Studio and The Light Factory provided space and support for the photo shoot and video interviews.

A "Chair Fair" is also part of the exhibition. Chairs painted and decorated in memory of deceased loved ones will be on display at the exhibition. And The Spoke Easy, a bike shop/bar in Elizabeth, will host a bicycle procession for the closing celebration Oct 22. It will begin at The Spoke Easy and end at C3Lab. Riders are encouraged to decorate their bikes and wear costumes.

Gonzalez thinks grief is exacerbated when we haven't discussed life and death with our families and friends. Knowing how someone feels about facing the end helps lessen the pain of their passing.

"I hope the show will create conversations about how we chose to live our lives," Gonzales said. "From this project, I have learned that by sharing our thoughts and feelings on death we can better appreciate life."

More information on the Dia de Los Casi Muertos exhibit:

Admission is free, but a $5 donation is suggested. Oct. 15, 6 p.m. C3 Lab, 2525 Distribution St. Closing ceremony, including live musical performances, on Oct. 22 at 7:30 p.m. Admission is $5, and costumes are encouraged. www.wonderwhatif.com.


Cultural Connections: Exploring Dia de Muertos Preview, Make arts and crafts in honor of the holiday. Free with paid admission. Oct. 22, 1:30 p.m. to 2 p.m.

Day of the Dead/Día de Muertos Festival, Features arts and crafts, altars, music and authentic food. Free. Oct. 30, 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. Both events are held at Levine Museum of the New South, 200 East 7th St. www.museumofthenewsouth.org.

Day of the Dead/Día de Muertos, Free. Ongoing altar. Pura Vida, 3202 N. Davidson St. www.puravidaart.com.

Day of The Dead /Dia de los Muertos, Featuring dance performances by Alma De La Luna and a “La Catrin a” contest led by artist/costume designer Emily Andress. Free. Oct. 29, 6 p.m.-10 p.m. LaCa Projects, 1429 Bryant St. www.lacaprojects.com.


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