Artist Elizabeth Montealegre began crafting her seemingly macabre Happy Ever After coffin project after a trip to her homeland, Mexico. But, she explains, it wasn't inspired only by the Día de los Muertos imagery she saw there; it was also prompted by tales of 16th-century Hungarian serial killer Countess Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed.
“She was considered the Dracula of women,” Montealegre explains. “She used to bathe in young women’s blood.” So there was certainly a lot to work from. Their common moniker drew her to the historical horror figure, as did a streak of naturally white hair growing on Montealegre’s head.
The artist considers her coffins modern furniture, to be used as bars or bookshelves. They are worn-looking, painted in colorful Mexican designs, and have a diamond shape at the head, in honor of the abode of the main blood-sucker from Transylvania.
Born in California, the self-taught artist grew up in Cancún with her five brothers and sisters. A corrupt government and kidnapped neighbors encouraged her father in 1995 to move the family to Miami, a place they’d often visited, mostly to shop. It was in Miami where Montealegre confronted stereotypes and misconceptions of Mexican culture.
An accountant during the day, she spent a solo summer recently South of the Border, reconnecting with her roots. The skulls in the Jalisco flea markets spoke (not literally) to her Gothic nature, even without her fully understanding that they were made to honor and connect with ancestors.
“I always thought they were fascinating and beautiful,” she says.
After this five-week journey, she began working on Happy Ever After, celebrating death and “exalting” the deceased in their own journeys to the afterlife.
She created her first coffin by lying on the ground at her midtown Miami apartment and outlining her body with a Sharpie on the tile floor. “The first piece I did was a self-portrait,” she reflects. Montealegre took the dimensions to a coffin-maker in Doral and asked him to help her actualize her designs. It’s a long process of assembly — he cuts the wood, she brings it to her third-story home to paint, and then returns it to him in her SUV to assemble.
“It’s kind of therapy for me,” she says, “I love it... Death is a sad part of life, but I’m using colors to make it happy,” she notes of her decision to have the coffins reflect Mexican folk art designs and shades. Each is about six feet tall and two-and-a-half feet wide. “Some people ask me to do a portrait. I ask them: ‘How do you want to die?’ And other people ask me to put Fidel Castro in there,” she chuckles. Each has its own story and includes a skull design.
Montealegre gets customers through word of mouth and works only by commission. People are taken aback at first, she says, but once she explains the concept, they seem more turned on. The buyers are all sorts of people. She’s working on one for New Studio hair salon. The owner had her paint the way he wanted to die, and let’s just say it involves his face and floral representations of the female anatomy.
She recently showcased some of her other creations — headdresses — at the Broken Shaker as part of a warmup to Fashion Week in Miami, pairing them with Diosa Mar's new swimwear collection. The designer is also a Mexican living in Miami. She asked Montealegre to style the headgear for the show.
Montealegre often makes her own colorful headdresses to wear when going out. For this show, she honored goddesses of different cultures by using Mexican flowers and feathers. There has been a lot of controversy surrounding cultural appropriation in regard to Native American headdresses worn by non-Natives at raves and music festivals. Montealegre is Mexican, and though she may or may not have indigenous blood, as a person of color says, “I don’t see it as offensive; I see it as art and embracing. I do the flowers Frida Khalo-style... For me, being Mexican, I choose to embrace it and remind people of the Mexican culture. It’s a tradition and history.”
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Her website is titled Bitches Be Witches, where you can further explore her work.