Artisana Gallery in Pacific Grove is filled with pottery, jewelry, candles and crafts – and also, during the month of October, a colorful Day of the Dead altar. The altar is decorated with calaveras (skulls), flowers and pictures of beloved family members, both people and pets, who have died.
The gallery has celebrated Día de Los Muertos since opening in 2008. “It comes from my family heritage,” gallery co-owner Adrianne Jonson says. This holiday is big in her family – “more important than Christmas or anything else.” Jonson describes the tradition as “one the most beautiful parts of my childhood. Growing up, I was learning that death wasn’t the end; death was just a doorway to another place.”
It starts with an empty altar on the first Friday of October. Slowly, people fill it up with photos and decorations. Some bring little objects that remind them of their loved ones such as matchbooks or toy soldiers. Jonson says she adds a tiny magnifying glass for her grandmother – an antique dealer who taught her how to look for signatures and stamps on antique silver.
Julie Figueroa has been coming to the community altar for the past seven years. She was surprised, at first, to find an altar in P.G. After talking to Jonson, Figueroa says she knew Jonson understood how sacred this celebration is. “She understood the cultural connection to this,” Figueroa says. “It wasn’t just a commercial thing.” Figueroa placed a picture of one of her mentors, Linda Sacio, on the altar. Sacio was a professor at UC Davis who died of cancer. “She told me that I could become a professor one day, and I did,” Figueroa says.
People also write messages for their departed family members, friends and pets on popsicle sticks. “There’s something powerful about writing it down, acknowledging the presence of this person in your life, why they matter to you, and giving this message and being able to read it,” Figueroa says.
Jonson says this emotional celebration is even more so this year given all the Covid-19 loss. “Hopefully people could really have a beautiful healing experience through the process of leaving a message for their departed loved ones,” she says.
Over the years, hundreds of people have participated in the Artisana altar. “It’s become so meaningful for people that they are ready and able to travel to be part of it,” Jonson says.
On Nov. 2 the gallery dismantles the altar, gathers all the messages and goes to Asilomar State Beach for a closing ceremony. There, they set a small fire and read all the messages people left at the altar. “We don’t want the messages to stay in the gallery,” Jonson says. “We want the messages to get out in the universe and to the ears that can hear them.”