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The Pirate spirit lives on during Dia de los Muertos

This is one in a series of posts in honor of Denver Arts Week that salute some of our favorite people and places on the arts scene.

When Pirate: A Contemporary Art Oasis opened on January 1, 1980, it was a true oasis -- both in an arts scene lacking in psychic alternative energy, and at its original physical location at 16th and Market streets, then a down-and-out warehouse district. By February 1982, it had moved on to its current home at the then-down-and-out 3655 Navajo Street -- and not long after, Pirate introduced its most popular annual event: Dia de los Muertos.

From the start, the celebration was a magical amalgamation of the free-wheeling spirits who occupied the cooperative gallery, and the spiritual tradition of the Mexican transplants who were only the latest immigrants to live in this part of northwest Denver.

I'd visited Pirate in its earlier incarnations, both to see the shows and survive the opening-night parties, but I was still stunned the first time I saw the candle-lit Day of the Dead procession -- filled with kids, artists and elderly residents of the area -- winding through the dark streets, then ending at the art space filled with light and beer and music and memories and shrines dedicated to the souls that had passed on.

Today, Pirate is in one of the most rapidly gentrifying parts of town, no longer an oasis in either its physical location or on the arts scene, "which has lots of good galleries," founder Phil Bender says. In fact, it officially changed its name to Pirate: Contemporary Art about five years ago. But the Dia de los Muertos tradition lives on.

And on Tuesday night, Bender -- who decades ago billed himself as "famous artist," and today is gentrified enough himself to be winning a Mayor's Award for the Arts -- was at Pirate to supervise the placement of the altars and other art for the show that opens tomorrow night.

The Dia de los Muertos show isn't as big as it once was -- but then, Pirate isn't as big, either; it gave up some of its space a few years ago, and another gallery is there now. While a dozen schools used to have classes create Day of the Dead art for display (and often sale), this year there are only six. There aren't as many shrines, either -- but the ones that have been installed are choice. "The altars are very heartfelt," Bender says.

And while the party may not spill into the street as it once did, there should be plenty of action -- and more than enough art to fill the heart. "Day of the Dead has always been our busiest night of the year," says Bender. "But there's a lot more competition on Day of the Dead activities. Plus, it's our own fault for not publicizing it better. We need to work on that a little better."

Still, Bender's a busy is a busy guy these days -- he picks up his Mayor's Award tonight, and "about time," he says, "before I got too old" -- so let me do some of that work for him.

Pirate's Dia de los Muertos celebration starts Friday, November 4, at 6 p.m. at Pirate, where the show will be augmented by Aztec dancers and a kids' pinata. The procession up to Our Lady of Guadalupe Church will start at 8 p.m.; the action moves back to Pirate after that, and will continue until about 10 p.m.

Pirate will be open again from noon to 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, and every weekend after that. The Pirate spirit lives on.

Here are some of the altars/art/shrines you'll see:

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