Day of the Dead Workshops Come to Miami: "We Want To Help Families Say Goodbye"

Don't panic, but you're going to die.

"It's inevitable. You're gonna die, I'm gonna die, every person reading this article is gonna die," says Jim Hammond, founder and executive producer of Florida's Day of the Dead celebrations.

Phew. Now that we've got that awkward part of the conversation out of the way, we can skip to the good news: Florida's Day of the Dead Festival, symbolically reflective of the ancient Aztec celebration, has made its way to Miami-Dade County for the first time. And, unlike Halloween's "zombie culture," its mission statement is to remember the dead in ways that instill peace of mind, not fear.

"It's to feast together on their favorite foods, on their favorite drinks, to listen to their favorite music, and to metaphorically have an opportunity to dance with them," Hammond says.

See also: "Savage", An Exhibit of Art Made by Animals at Bakehouse

Until this year, the festival was limited to Fort Lauderdale. Now, an entire month of programming covers Broward and Miami-Dade County, including art workshops,

"What we're really excited about is bringing our puppets, our creatives, our skeleton motifs, and our community to Wynwood," Hammond says.

Having secured art space at the Bakehouse Art Complex the Ofrenda Workshop Series runs until October 26 and gets participants a free sugar skull, mask, and print making activities provided by Iron Forge Press, Tortuga Tile Works, and the Puppet Guild of South Florida.

The first large-scale event to happen in Wynwood will be El Jardin de los Muertos Contentitos, on Wednesday, October 22, from 6 to 9 p.m. The exhibition includes interactive art activities, Latin food trucks, face painting, costumed performers, and Mariachi music at the Bakehouse. The family-friendly exhibit will then run from October 23 to November 2 from noon to 5 p.m.

Artists participating include event founders Jim Hammond (Puppet Arts), Chuck Loose (Printmaking), Janet Luru Rudawsky (Ceramics), and Ian Rowan (Installation Art). Additional work will be contributed by Adriana Sandoval (Ofrendas), Ronni Gerstel (Puppet Arts), Sonia Neira Matthews (Puppet Arts), Omar Angulo (Ink), Jorge de Rojas (Papier Mache) as well as other official DOTD artists.

"Art isn't something you have to walk into, it's something you can be part of... This isn't something [the public] have to have happen at them, they can taken an active role," says Brooke Whitley, Associate Director of Marketing and Development at the Bakehouse.

The Bakehouse will also host playful puppet slam performances for the Roast of the Calacas on Monday, October 27 at 8 p.m. Heather Henson and the Puppet Network of South Florida have partnered up to bring this lighthearted event full of adult humor.

"It's kind of like a roast, like how you'd roast your boss, or you'd roast the groom at a wedding. It's the puppets making fun of whatever, and it's gonna be really fun," Whitley says.

Tradition officially labels Day of the Dead as November 2. On this day, downtown Fort Lauderdale will adhere to folklore and transform into a hub of puppets, Aztec costume, music, and dance. From 3:15 to 4 p.m., the Skeleton Processional will begin at Huizinga Plaza (32 East Las Olas Boulevard, Fort Lauderdale), travel through Riverwalk and the Historical District, and end at the "Folklorico Stage."

Hammond discovered life's impermanence at an early age, when he lost his father at 13.

"I'm hyper-aware of our mortality, and I want to, as an artist, find a creative outlet that could still affect my community in a positive way and help the other 13-year-old kids out there who need a different ritual to say goodbye to their father or their mother, or their brother, or whoever they end up losing," says Hammond.

Dear mom, I miss you so much. I will always love you.

Those were the words used by a young girl at last year's workshop to decorate the edges of a mask she'd worked on until she was the very last person in the room.

"This is part of her ritual now, saying goodbye to her deceased mother, and it was at that moment in time that I knew we really had to keep moving forward," Hammond says. "And, you know, sometimes you deal with logistics and sometimes you deal with stuff you don't want to have to deal with, but it's worth it for that moment in time to know that we're doing what we want to do. We want to help kids. We want to help families say goodbye."

Most notable about the festival is its playfulness and creativity, even amidst heartache.

"It's also a party for the living, too! To honor the dead in a fun way that's not necessarily somber," says Marte Siebenhar, Executive Director of the Bakehouse.

A grant from the Knight Foundation in 2013 allowed the Florida Day of the Dead celebrations to travel to Miami, and gave the Bakehouse a chance to fund new facilities and open up to new artists, as well as offer new classes to the public. Miami's only art deco bakery building, the Bakehouse provides public access to artwork as it's being created.

"You can talk with them about their art and ask them questions," Whitley explains. "There's a process happening, as opposed to a gallery or museum where you see things that are already complete on the walls, and you have almost no connection to the artist him or herself."

Every life will end. Is that any reason not to look back?

"Who is important to you who died? It could be an important rockstar, it could be a movie director, it could be a president, or remembering losing their grandmother, or a twin, or a child," Hammond says. "Those moments are so powerful, and some people don't ever want to talk about it again and we respect that, but we've found a strong community of people who universally want to celebrate those lives in an incredibly playful way."

Follow Cultist on Facebook and Twitter @CultistMiami.

KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Raychel Lean