Whitman art students participate in Walla Walla’s first Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) Festival by making prints with a steamroller
By Edward Weinman
Photos by Matt Banderas
Jason Mings has operated an asphalt roller to smooth the streets of Walla Walla for the past 15 years.
At Walla Walla’s first annual Dia de los Muertos Festival, Mings turned his four-ton asphalt vibratory roller into a giant printing press. Whitman students carved designs into medium-density fiberboard, and Mings drove over them to create giant relief prints.
“When they asked me to do this, I was a little worried the roller might be too heavy and would break the prints. But it’s been working great,” said Mings, idling his roller, waiting to make another pass over a large piece of MDF board.
The public art project was the brainchild of Nicole Pietrantoni, assistant professor of art at Whitman. Pietrantoni felt it would be the perfect way to participate in Walla Walla’s Day of the Dead Festival, which was a collaboration of Shakespeare Walla Walla, Art Walla, Carnegie Picture Lab and the Whitman College Art Department.
“It brings art to the public,” Pietrantoni said. “People think art is mysterious, that the artist is alone in a studio, and that it’s magic. This is busting the romantic myth about art. It’s a lot of hard work full of trial and error.”
The trial and error took place in Whitman’s Fouts Center for the Visual Arts. It was there that students in Pietrantoni’s Beginning Printmaking class carved iconic Day of the Dead images of skeletons into MDF boards, which were then covered in paint and transferred to white cotton bed sheets once the roller compressed the prints. For some of Pietrantoni’s students, getting their carvings just the way they wanted was a long, often tedious process.
“I thought I’d try out this art class for fun, but it’s given me great respect for artists and taught me about patience,” Sarah Anderegg ’14 said.
Anderegg is a standout hoopster for the women’s basketball team, which last season reached The Elite 8 of the NCAA Division III Tournament. When it comes to basketball, she’s accustomed to working hard, but she’s learning that art isn’t as easy at it looks.
“Basketball has instant gratification. In my art class, I’m working really hard, and it’s not necessarily turning out how I want.”
The Beginning Printmaking class is made up of 13 students, most of who are not art majors. So for them, preparing for the Day of the Dead Festival was like a basketball player preparing for a big game.
“I’m not a perfectionist, but I kept going over my project again and again to try to make it perfect, because this is a public project,” Catherine Hannan ’14, a sociology major, said.
“People are seeing our work, so the stakes are high.”
All of Anderegg and Hannan’s hard work in the studio paid off, because the public art project was one of the highlights of the Day of the Dead Festival.
“When I first heard about the steamroller print project, I wasn’t quite sure what we were getting ourselves into,” Erica Walter, director of marketing and sales for Shakespeare Walla Walla, said.
“Working with the students from Nicole [Pietrantoni’s] class has been fantastic. Their creativity, energy and enthusiasm for the steamroller print project is what got us excited about doing a Dia de los Muertos event here at the Power House Theater in the first place.”
The community rallied around the event, which brought in other traditional elements of the Day of the Dead – altars, face painting, sugar skull decorating and mask creation, dance, music and of course food.”
“One of the most powerful aspects of this event is that it literally brought art and art-making into the streets of Walla Walla,” Pietrantoni said. “The first Dia de los Muertos was a huge success, because it created many points of access for people to engage with the arts. Whether it was watching the steamroller prints, carving their own block and printing a T-shirt, or listening to the music and theatre performances, I think it was a great example of the power of the arts to educate, inspire and bring people together.”
Charlie Miller brought his four year old daughter out to the festival for the face painting and mask making. However, it was the roller that really captured his attention.
“It’s a clever concept,” Miller said. “It’s not every day you get to see a steamroller used as a printing press. My daughter loves to paint. That’s why I brought her down here. There’s nothing like giant paintings.”