When you step out of the elevator on Level Four of the Denver Art Museum’s North Building over the next few weeks, you’ll see a colorful Quetzalcoatl flying above the lobby, letting loose two trails of Monarch butterflies into the pre-Columbian and Spanish Colonial galleries.
They're part of Las Almas de Muertos, phase two of the museum’s CUATRO series of artist interactions with those collections, created by Denver artist and self-professed “ultra-maker” (and 2013 Westword MasterMind) Danette Montoya. With help from her immediate community and fellow artist Cal Duran, Montoya is brightening up the floor for the Dia de los Muertos season with a pair of altars encapsulating the lore and spiritualism of her own southern Colorado, Indio and New Mexican roots. The butterflies represent the souls of dead ancestors and lead toward portals to and from the underworld.
Follow the butterflies to the left and you’ll land in front of Montoya’s altar to Tonantzin, the Aztec mother goddess and a precursor to the Spanish-Colonial era’s Virgen de Guadalupe. Tonantzin floats atop a nest of skulls. Above Tonantzin, the butterflies disappear into a woven God’s-eyes portal within a suspended papier-mâché heart. “They are the souls of the dead coming back to feast with us in abundance,” Montoya explains.
Pregnant with symbolism, the installation is universal, with its cross-cultural references to mandalas, serpents, dragons and rainbow motifs and the goddess’s representation of “life, death, transformation and fecundity,” says Montoya. But it’s also immediately personal. “A lot of the skulls were done by friends,” she adds. “I had a few friends who’d recently had family members pass away and were feeling that grief of love and loss. This was a way for them to to honor loved ones.” And she wove the God’s eyes with her mother, who once created and sold them for pocket money.
Follow the butterflies to the right, and they alight on a Tree of Life altar with deep roots in the earth and a symbolic scattering of references to corn and sage. Skulls again line the ground beneath it, and a giant skull is embedded in the tree trunk. During a series of public workshops scheduled throughout the installation’s run, Montoya will lead hands-on activities. “This will turn into a mandala of leaves and flowers,” she says, pointing out the beginnings of a paper-flower ring around the altar. “We’ll create a community mandala, where people can leave messages — or whatever they want — to comment on the circle of life and death.” Las Almas de Muertos is on display now through November 13 at the Denver Art Museum. Join Montoya in celebrating and honoring the dead at workshops from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on October 22 and 29 and November 5; she’ll also be leading activities for the DAM’s October Untitled Final Friday event and will speak at an Insider Moment at 6 p.m. November 11. All events are included in the museum admission. Learn more about Montoya and Las Almas de Muertos online.
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Susan Froyd started writing for Westword as the "Thrills" editor in 1992 and never quite left the fold. These days she still freelances for the paper in addition to walking her dogs, enjoying cheap ethnic food and reading voraciously. Sometimes she writes poetry.