Sunday ( October 21) was a brilliant Autumn day in the Northwest. I drove in sunlight, watching blue iron storm clouds to the North, a brilliant rainbow at its edge, diving into Commencement Bay; the Foss Bridge for separation, then a phantom rainbow on the East side of those slanted, definitive lines. These are the kind of days to celebrate skirting the edge of storms, days where the veil is thin, when trees are losing their red and gold leaves to the wind. On these winds of change, we can feel the caress of our ancestors, feel time passing our mileposts.
My destination, this day, was the Tacoma Art Museum, to see altars made for the Day of the Dead celebration. If you are not familiar, this is a yearly custom in Mexico, to honour ancestors on November 1 and 2, All Saints Day and All Souls Day, respectively. Graves are cleaned up, dressed up, and sustenance shared and left, for their loved ones. It seems a wonderful and loving way to honour lives, and to continue living. Awonderful collection of altars lined the museum's hallways upstairs, made by those who were invited for the event, including my dear friend and colleague here in the Neighbourhood, Mizu Sugimura.
Mizu is not only a local gem of an artist, but also a champion of truth, with hope for America in her art, and in her essays. She has taught me so much about the injustice done to Japanese-Americans during WWII, while working through the silent shock waves of her family’s trauma, and her need to speak of them, to honour her loved ones. This event was perfect for her, picked from the melting pot that makes this country.
A majority of the altars followed the colourful, painted skulls and Madonnas, marigolds and mementos, traditional Dia de los Muertos form, but some put the same love, and honouring, in slightly different presentation. The simplicity of one dedicated to women, missing in Mexico, photographs speaking volumes, was sad and sacred. A gilded Weeping Fig stood for one family, coloured-glass ‘jewels’ on some of its leaves, and a canvas below that invited you to write the name of an ancestor you would like to honour. My hand felt a little shaky, as I wrote my mother’s name there.
I knew Mizu’s altar as soon as I saw it, the colours muted—black, white, grey, with pale, watery blue-greens, except for bright red lips, buttoned, red suns on toy airplane wings, red koi and red stripes on tiny flags. Silent ghost figures, and that one small suitcase, orders, identifying papers, a miniature sign of Tulle Lake and picture of the camp, all tell the story of Mizu’s family members, chosen for her altar. Omiyage, is title of this piece. I asked what it meant.
Mizu: “I'll explain in shorthand [it] is a specialized obligatory gift that oils and cements relationships outside and even inside family. In this case however, idea of the gift wasn't quite about obligation and in my experience when it returned it isn't either!”
Lorraine: “ How did it feel for you to step back and look at the work as a whole? Did it bring your ancestors close to you, in sustenance, and do you feel the satisfaction of honouring them, by speaking through your art...loudly, proudly, Amercan-ly?”
Mizu: “Oh YES! In fact I got the impression while I was making pieces for the altar - particularly the little people cutouts, that whatever I was looking for when I originally decided on impulse to take advantage of the opportunity to build one this year at the museum, that I was being answered. While that would sound ordinarily presumptuous, and maybe it still does in some circles, that's how I feel and that is why, when we were asked to give our pieces a title by museum staff, I decided upon the name "OMIYAGE." It may well be the piece I make that has the shortest life (many of my previous two-dimensional collages are still following me around to this day) right now, it certainly appears to be my favorite and perhaps the most satisfying one I have ever done. The original questions asked about what family, relationships (w/relatives) and whether I wanted to be a member of this particular ethnic-American community if it were, had I a choice have all been addressed. Ditto the question out there over the years, did I belong and did they all accept me, and if they did, why didn't it feel like it was enough? I don't think I'm the only one in the history of the world who’s asked these questions. But I know that we don't always get the answers in one lifetime. In this respect, I feel like I've hit the jackpot.”
On one side of her altar, next to the raven, Mizu put up a copy of a quote she found from a well-known young woman, Taylor Swift:
"I think you deserved to look back on your life without this chorus of resounding voices saying, I could of but it's too late now. So there's a time for silent, and there's a time for waiting your turn. But if you know how you feel, and you so clearly know what you need to say, you'll know it. I don't think you should wait. I think you should speak now."
Mizu: “… [This Taylor Swift quote] seemed to apply quite well to the words a younger version of myself might have said, back in the day. And that part of me is the one who was most anxious to have some resolution in regards to the family questions and that is the part of me who was also most anxious to put the whole interchange out there in the public eye at my present age.”
A thin aqua scarf seems both sad and soothing. It drapes over one corner of the suitcase, as if to bring cooling water to the desert camps, ghosts now, themselves. Within, at the heart of her altar, lie the personal, family things, a tiny doll’s crib, Bible, an abacus, photos, a candle, and slippers, to name a few. Her uncle occupies the top, beside the head of Lady Liberty. Yes, freedom is tenuous—and precious. We are obliged to bring our best intents—honour, respect, humility and love. These are palpable in Mizu’s Dia de los Muertos altar.
Why do we have the need to create, as artists in whatever form? Because we seek to solve the puzzle of self, the lines we come from, the ancestors we will be. As we age, we get a little better handle on weaving our ideals with obligations and love. With this piece, Mizu and her ancestors really do seem to have reached through the veil, to meet and give one another sustenance.
As I left the museum, the sky continued to make an incredible backdrop to this day. A rolling giant of a cumulus cloud began to eat the afternoon sun, giving me my last pic—this shadow of a wing. It was, indeed, an auspicious day. May you flow and fly with your ancestors, and give thanks to your Elders, as my friend, the Liquid Muse, has done.
All photographs copyright 2012 Lorraine Hart