In Their Words

In Their Words - Dia de Los Muertos printmaking
Assistant Professor of Art Nicole Pietrantoni helps to carry an inked woodcut to the printing area, where a steamroller awaited.

A unique art project bridges cultures and communities

By Nicole Pietrantoni
Assistant Professor of Art

Inky hands, giant woodcuts, prints everywhere – and a steamroller. This fall, art and art making took over the street in front of the Gesa Power House Theatre for the First Annual Dia de los Muertos Art Festival. Colorful altars created by community organizations and local artists lined the theater, sugar skulls made by the Wa-Hi Latino Club graced the tables and local high school students performed death scenes from Shakespeare’s tragedies in both English and Spanish for the “Pageant of the Dead.” Dancing, music, food and art filled the theater and street outside.

More than 1,000 people came to this free event, which brought together an incredibly diverse group of people. This festival was a product of a collaboration between organizations across the city, including Shakespeare Walla Walla, Art Walla, Carnegie Picture Lab and the Whitman College Art Department.

As part of the festival, 40 of my Whitman art students collaboratively printed giant woodcuts using a steamroller. For over a month before the festival, Beginning Printmaking students hand-carved their designs on 4-by-4-foot and 4-by-8-foot sheets of medium density fiberboard. The students were not only given this technical challenge, but were prompted to create images that thoughtfully engage the themes of Dia de los Muertos. Their work in the studio, however, was only one aspect of this project. To print such large woodcuts, we needed a giant printing press – thus the need for a steamroller and lots of help from individuals and organizations in our community.

In their Words - student with ink on her handsMeghan Browne ’14, one of Nicole Pietrantoni’s art students, shows off her inky hands at the festival. In the background is an ofrenda, an altar that commemorates friends and family who have died, that was built by the Walla Walla Foundry, which is headed by Mark Anderson ’78.

In taking their artwork off campus, the students said the stakes were suddenly much higher than if they only made work behind closed studio doors with other students. The project not only challenged their skill levels, but challenged their beliefs about their agency as creators, who the title “artist” is for and why art in our community matters.

While the designing and carving happened on the Whitman campus, the logistics of printing such large woodcuts required an incredible amount of collaboration with the public at the festival. The students worked in small teams to print their woodcuts and frequently asked community members with clean hands to help prepare their fabric for printing. Conversations about the artwork ensued, and students found themselves teaching people about printmaking and the themes of Dia de los Muertos. The production of these prints required the resources and efforts of many, but, more significantly, the event became a site for dialogue and exchange. The students soon realized that art served as a bridge to connect people.

At the festival Whitman art students also worked with Art Walla volunteers to teach community members how to make their own woodcuts. More than 80 people carved 6-by-6-inch blocks, which they inked and hand-printed. Approximately 40 people printed their designs on T-shirts using the steamroller. Most of the individuals had never made a print before, but quickly learned from the volunteers, students and other community members working alongside them at the table. As one of my students noted, the art that everyone made that day was simultaneously an individual and a collective effort. This was emblematic of the entire event – individuals coming together to share resources and knowledge to help each other create.

Creativity thrives in an environment where collaboration, dialogue and play are valued and where vulnerability, risk-taking and process-based inquiry are championed. We need this kind of culture in our organizations, schools and homes. Funding for the arts and arts education in our K-12 schools is perpetually at risk, making it ever more important that our community create events and environments where people have access to the arts and art making.

The resounding success of the inaugural Dia de los Muertos was due to the enthusiasm and support of local organizations, schools and the community. People of all ages and skill levels engaged in the arts that day – whether it was carving a woodblock, decorating a sugar skull, performing on stage or building an altar, individuals were making art together. We all have a stake in the cultural life and vibrancy of our community. We each have a right to an expressive life, however we may define it.