Thursday, January 19, 2012

Is it sacred to you?

All pictures are from Australia-based artist
Jason Hills' Facebook page 
"It’s dangerous to have a point of view, because just by taking a position, you create the opportunity for an opposing position.  It’s scary to be challenged, but it’s part of the deal.  I always see artists say they welcome dialogue and want people to talk about their work, but what they really mean is that they want praise." — April Winchell, founder of Regretsy

Upcycler, you done crossed the line.

You take forlorn figurines and paint gaudy colors and skulls over them. I get that. Homage to Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) Mexican folk art and tattoo art.

It’s just that there are things, religious objects among them, that are sacred to some people. Evidently not to you, judging by your reworking the likenesses of the Holy Family and the Virgin Mary. Something in me strongly wants to call you out. To me, you’ve defaced them. You’ve defiled them. But wait, I want to think about my response to your art some more.

Some definitions, so we get on somewhat the same page:
Upcycling means making something better. The betterment is what distinguishes it from mere recycling. Is what you’re doing to religious statues making them better? Your statues certainly sell well. They’re edgy. They’re eye-catching. They raise eyebrows. Mine, if nobody else’s.

Deface means to mar the surface of, to disfigure.
Defile means to make impure for ceremonial use; to desecrate.
Desecrate means to divert from a sacred to a profane use or purpose.
Profane means characterized by irreverence or contempt for God, sacred principles or things.
Sacred means it’s holy, sanctified, set apart—“Can’t touch this!” as Hammer sang. Yes, I’m from that generation. Which probably explains much of my discomfort with your type of art.


Your artistic statement makes me squirm. What exactly are you saying? Is this an expression of your angst, or an outlet for your ennui? Would you stay with this style if it didn’t already have a niche?

I went to your Facebook page (noting your 1,500+ engaged fans with envy and not a small amount of befuddlement). You wrote:
“My work is influenced by old school tattoos, zombies, day of the dead and lowbrow art…I noticed an abundant supply of boring vintage statues, just like the ones in your Nannas (sic) house.  So I had a go at giving them a new life for a totally different environment to live in…”
True, these pieces were dusty discards you found at the thrift store. Their original owners may have been bored with them themselves. Or maybe they had passed away?


Death can be viewed as sacred. So it’s not your superimposition of death images that disturbs me. It’s the defacing of something that was originally created to represent the divine and holy.

When an object’s original possessor gives it away, does its purpose end? Does it become a free agent, to be snapped up and repurposed as its next owner sees fit? Such could be said of practically everything material, which allowed the rise of the global upcycling movement. Which I espouse with a passion myself.

Does artistic license mean a free pass to mess with things that are sacred to some? Does boredom? Is it a greater cause to keep things from the landfill, or to tend to the realm of the spiritual?

The tension between art and sensibility isn’t new. Look up photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and the homoerotic/sadomasochistic exhibit that sparked “the culture wars.” In his case, the line being crossed was between conventional art—according to middle America, i.e., the Bible belt—and obscenity.

Then there was cross-wearing Madonna in the ‘80s and papal picture-ripping Sinead O’Connor in the ‘90s. Their acts were meant to provoke in a look-at-me-I-stand-against-something way.

I didn’t get the impression from your interview on forbes.com that you set out to create controversy. I don’t know if you’d mind it. What I’d like to know is if you considered the impact. Did you hesitate before your virgin foray into upcycling the Virgin Mary? Do you know anyone personally who has a reverence for what such objects represent? Did you try to find out what these objects mean to people of a certain faith?

Does the furor or lack thereof depend on who is being offended? Over on Regretsy, commenters of various backgrounds excoriated etsy shops selling what could loosely be called an interpretation of native American headdresses. It is politically incorrect to disrespect native Americans. Anti-Semitism is a serious career killer—ask Mel Gibson. Would anyone in the media dare diss a Muslim on his prayer rug? But popular American culture…sigh. Pop culture thumbs its nose at the Christian faith. It teases Tim Tebow for genuflecting.

So, young Jason, I just wanted to make you aware, if you weren’t already, that you’ve ruffled some feathers, crossed a line you may not have cared to acknowledge exists. Now carry on. Who am I to censor you?


"Invisible is an option, of course. You can lay low, not speak up and make no difference to anyone.
That's sort of like dividing by zero, though. You'll get no criticism, but no delight either.
As for finding a homogeneous audience, good luck with that. The one thing that's true of all people is that they are different from one another. What delights one enrages the other.
Part of the deal." ~Seth Godin


If she ain't wrecked don't wreck her.

47 comments:

  1. Allow me to direct your attention to the recent brouhaha at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, where a group of artists were "crucified" for what Catholic groups called their blasphemous art. http://thepoc.net/breaking-news/local/13075-catholic-groups-officials-hit-ccp-art-exhibit.html
    I can not condone religious disrespect "for the sake of art."

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  2. Locke, I remember the Facebook backlash over this. The portion from the article you cited that jumped out at me was this quote from the legal counsel of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, Jo Imbong:

    "Is it our cultural heritage to mock and insult religious personages and icons? Is it aesthetic to vandalize a venerated representation of objects of worship and reverence? Is vulgarity and blasphemy a Filipino value? What Filipino pride can emerge for such works? Is this our national identity?"

    In a country that is 85 percent Christian, the national identity and values are more easily defined than in a multicultural, determinedly secular society such as the U.S.

    It would be interesting to hear from someone in Australia, where the artist Jason Hills resides.

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    1. I'm from Australia. And honestly, how can you be bothered writing a whiny complaining letter about artwork? There is so much more problematic shit in this world, that having your little rant about an artist being who they are and supplying to a demand that clearly exists, just seems a little pointless and vain.

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    2. Do the lyrics "It's my party, I can cry if I want to" sound familiar? See also my response to talia11. Widen the viewfinder, aymo.

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  3. I have carefully viewed the pieces which offended you and I think you are quite right to oppose them! I myself am very respectful to ALL religious beliefs, just as I try to be considerate of other people's feelings!When people desecrate a religious symbol, they show themselves to be of the lowest human quality!

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  4. I also read his interview on Forbes, and I really don't think he meant anything by it. He saw some old statues at the thrift store that weren't being used or enjoyed by anyone (for whatever reason, death or donation doesn't make a difference when it will eventually end up in a landfill) and he chose to work with them.

    I'm sorry you're offended, but have you thought about how religious items may be more artistic in the future? I'm sure at some point in the past there were folks up in arms because the statues were changing in some way--maybe being made out of some new material--and now it's totally commonplace. Change isn't always a bad thing. Maybe he was a little too extreme, but I kind of like that the statues had some color! If he were just painting a cross, would it be different?

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  5. Do I think these pieces are tacky? Yes. Do I like them? No. I am not, however, offended by them, but I am not a particularly religious person. I do love the beauty of churches and religious artifacts, so I think it takes some chutzpah for the artist to think he is improving the originals.

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  6. Hi, Riorita. Thank you for giving us your point of view. While I agree that it speaks of good manners to show consideration for others' beliefs, I wouldn't go so far as to categorize those who don't as people of the lowest quality. I am going to give the artist the benefit of the doubt. I really hope he responds to my emailed invitation to him to let us know what was on his mind when he began working with religious objects.

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  7. Hi, Paige, nice to see you here again. I've considered your questions thoughtfully and they've helped me clarify a couple of things in my head. (Thanks!)

    My objection stems not from an artistic perspective but from a religious one. So materials and other physical aspects of creating objects are on one level, and on the other level, there is the meaning we attach to these physical objects. It's the dismissing of the meaning that happens when their appearance is tampered with that I prickled at.

    I guess for those who are not religious, the closest comparison I can make is this: Say you inherited a locket from your grandma whom you loved very much. Inside is a picture of her in the bloom of her youth. Now say someone somehow got a hold of that locket, someone who doesn't know you and doesn't care what it meant to you. And they upcycled it with their own aesthetic style, but in the process they put a mustache on your grandma's picture because hey, mustaches are in these days among the hipsters. And suddenly the locket is a hit with a generation of people who like it not for the memory of your grandma but for the coolness factor, plain and simple.

    At that point, the question in your heart wouldn't be, "Should I mind the change? Change can be good, can it?"

    It's a paltry way to explain it, I know, but it's the best I could do at this point.

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  8. Sweet Posy, I had to smile at your last sentence—"It takes some chutzpah for the artist to think he is improving the originals."

    Actually some of his work is kinda cute. The ones that aren't on religious figurines. : )

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  9. I would consider myself a religious person, but these do not offend me. Perhaps because I'm an artist myself and pretty open-minded.

    I would suggest enrolling yourself in a Contemporary Art History Course to expand your knowledge of art practices, theory, and context in the last couple decades.

    I think it's also ironic that people who seek to call out art that offends them only draw more attention to the thing they're trying to suppress as "bad art", "evil art", or "offensive". Much controversial art is made specifically to be sensationalist, and by doing this, you're unwittingly supporting the artist and their intentions. Which is pretty funny. You're doing exactly what the artwork wants you to do; you're supporting the principles on which it was made.

    I personally would not have written to the artist. I think it's pretty pretentious to push your own beliefs on someone else, expecting them to respect your opinion, when you haven't respected theirs in the first place.

    Some food for thought.

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  10. Anonymous, come back here and give us a name, made up or not. You pretentious coward.

    I was a journalist for seven years; we give both sides the opportunity to be heard. That's why I wrote the artist. Expressing my point of view on my blog does not disrespect his. Why else would I have invited him to express them?

    I am an artist. Humanities was one of my favorite fields in college. I do not automatically equate religious beliefs with being closed-minded.

    I don't care if the artist gains more publicity from my blogging about him. That comes with the territory. I don't ascribe evil intent to him. I do not wish him harm.

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  11. So, dear readers, we think that "Anonymous" is NOT the artist featured, because the ISP is from Bayside, New York, not Australia.

    And by all means, come to your own conclusions. Read the forbes.com interview, which I link to in the article. The article gives the artist's Facebook page as well.

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  12. We should respect every one's beliefs and sacred images. Changing them is wrong and it's not one bit creative. In other words, someone can't make their own images, so they copy others, insulting their beliefs. As I said, we never seem to graduate from Kindergarten. Loved the post. Ty for this.

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  13. I am torn on this. I am Catholic but as I don't know that much of Day of the Dead imagery, I don't know how to feel about this. Would I do it? No. Do I find it profane..not really but I do think it is tacky at best to create "art" that bases itself on altering the images of others religious articles.I cringe to see people wearing rosaries as necklaces.My daughters even tell classmates.."You know that is not a necklace don't you?" No they probably don't. Do I think Christians/Catholics are considered fair game to poke fun of when other religious groups are not? Yes. That said a year or 2 ago there was a seller in the Etsy forums that was showing her "art piece" of a painting of the Lady of Guadalupe where she had turned her body into an image of female genitalia. THAT made me upset! I think trying to further yourself by squashing others is bad in any form.

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  14. Hi, Donna. Yes, some days I feel we've reverted back to kindergarten because we haven't learned the basics of human interaction. I'm talking about myself here; I know better than to stoop to the level of a blog troll, but that's exactly what I did. And boy, did it unkink my shoulders afterward, ha! 'cause sometimes politeness/turning the other cheek only brings on more cheap hit-and-run comment abuse. So I nipped it in the bud by disallowing anonymous commenting. If they're gonna put words in my mouth, why don't they just write soap opera scripts.

    I have nothing against artists who adapt, as long as it isn't plagiarism and it isn't knowingly disrespectful.

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  15. Hopeandjoyhome, thank you for such a thoughtful comment. Bravo on your daughters for speaking up about the irreverent use of rosaries as adornment rather than a prayer tool. That case you cited with the Lady of Guadalupe is appalling. Georgia O'Keefe painted flowers in a manner resembling female genitalia and that's art that doesn't desecrate the sacred.

    I'm glad I went ahead and posted on this topic because it really deserves to be discussed. There is such a lack of willingness in some to respect the concept of sacredness just because they can't grasp it. Instead we see that knee-jerk reaction of accusing people of being closed-minded and ignorant, of confusing imposing our beliefs with expressing them, when by that very accusation they are imposing their belief that nothing is sacred to them and therefore sacredness must not exist.

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  16. In this day and age this sounds all too nutty to me, everyone to their own, not all people believe in religion, and rightly so if it makes people as nutty as you.
    What she is doing is art, if you don't like it, don't look at it.
    Thank god i never inflicted a religion on my two children, i'll let them choose, and no doubt they will pick wisely.

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    1. Did I miss something? Is Jason actually a girl?

      Nutty, hmm. I'm not the one screaming when Justin Bieber shows up.

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  17. I have one of the pieces from this artist and it is nothing short of amazing. You seriously need to relax a little my friend, in this day and age there are far worse things for you to be focusing your angst on than someone who is working hard and providing for a market that is obviously there, which is evident by how quickly these peices are sold. There is already too much hate in the world - if it makes people happy so be it :)

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    1. Hi, Talia, I agree, there are far worse things in the world, and yet this blog is where I can choose what to think and write about, and I plan to continue doing exactly that. The world is not going to fall apart for it. I write not to spread hate, but to open things up to discussion. If you look at the other topics of my blog nothing even comes close to provocative, so I am not writing to be sensational but to think out loud and invite other perspectives to weigh in. Big picture: my focus isn't only on Jason Hills per se, which you might've realized if you'd read rather than skimmed. The post also raises questions about the whether religions are treated unequally. Also if you'd read it carefully you'd have picked up on the fact that I acknowledge the popularity of Jason's work, even confess to being envious of his numerous Facebook fans, and in no way see to censor him. Nor do I put down anyone who likes his work, as I commented earlier that I like some of his work.

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  18. You have to be kidding right? Another one of those people that has to have their 2 cents and go on their little rant's....

    No one actually care's what you think, not every artist is out their to impress everyone, having people like you pick on their work will only make the shock factor seem more enjoyable to them.....

    Why don't you attack christianity for having a graven image (the cross) as their symbol of worship... To me that is morbid worshiping the very thing that their "son of god" was murdered on.....

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    1. Nah, Jason isn't going for the shock factor. He was quite courteous in his emailed response, and I appreciated it very much. I can understand that he doesn't wish to engage in the vitriolic exchange here.

      Judging by the flood of views and all-time high number of comments since this small blog began, I'd say some people actually care what I think. But you don't have to. And that's all right by me. By the way, rants does not have an apostrophe. Just sayin'.

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  19. I can see where this argument of defiling sacred images and religious objects come from, however as a 20 year old (in Australia)and in a new world where original ideas and respect for what once was is definitely not too plentiful in my age group these days, I don't see a problem with it, religion is a viewpoint, a way of life, you don't need objects to validate it, so why is the altering of them so alarming? I have not read the bible personally as I come to my own conclusions and beliefs based on experience, which i thank my parents for giving me that freedom and not raising me into a religion without giving me that choice. However from what I've heard and read I do believe that Christianity is about forgiving and forgetting, and overall to love thy neighbor, to overcome differences and to not engross oneself in material possessions, and yet to me, what you're posting about is completely contradictory to that?

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    1. I'm running out of synonyms for "thoughtful," so forgive me for repeating myself—your response was very thoughtful, and I am especially grateful for the gentle tone. I am listening.

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  20. personally i like her art, and will also say that i was raised with christian beliefs. I havent read all the comments however scanning over what i feel to be mostly against the art i feel compelled to go back to my roots, the bible, recalling well known passages.I feel that if we are followers of jesus and the bible with its teachings, these statues should not be a bother to us at all. As if we follow the passage of the bible, we are the ones doing the wrong, not the artists.
    If you read leviticus 26:1 that states "'Do not make idols or set up an image or a sacred stone for yourselves, and do not place a carved stone in your land to bow down before it. I am the LORD your God.
    Also
    Exodus 20:4 "You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.

    so who are we to judge when we have not followed the teachings of our lord and bible, we have made an idol depicting something from heaven above (god, jesus, mary)and idolising these figures and statues. If we didnt idolise these, and feel they were sacred then there wouldnt be a problem now would there.

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    1. I think it would be too large a scope for me to try to comment on whether it's valid or not to be Catholic and venerate images. That is not the point I was making with this post.

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  21. This is an interesting debate, Scrollwork. I think that it is important to respect beliefs and, as much as I respect the right for other opinions, I don't really like such art. Maybe I am old-fashioned, after all.

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    1. Hi, Muriel. Thank you for weighing in.

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  22. I am from New Mexico, a very Hispanic and Catholic state in the US. Dia de los Muertos is one of the largest parades and celebrations here, and religious iconography permeates everything in this state. I was recently at a gallery in Old Town Albuquerque and saw a painting done in the form of a Santos of Sid Vicious, Patron Saint of Punk Rockers. This gallery specializes in religious art.
    I will admit that I like the zombie Marys and all his other art, and am a fan of his on FB, so I do have a bias. But, I think that something that needs to be considered is that some young people (and I am including my friends who are in our early 30s) still value these as religious pieces, but also as art that reflects who they are. They are Catholic, but also young, many have tattoos and listen to rock or punk, love zombie flicks and all things Dia de los Muertos. Not all Catholics are the same, so not all religious art should be the same either.

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    1. By far the most thought-provoking comment thus far, in my humble opinion. Most appreciated!

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  23. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    1. Mister Nice Guy Cupcakes, why'd you remove your comment? I read it on my email, and I was going to say, Iove your name, and thank you so much for expressing your opinion nicely. And I agree with you, I just don't get it. But I am understanding much more about the attraction to it from all the comments, so this has been so worth it. Thanks for visiting.

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  24. Does it really matter HOW the religious images are presented? They are STILL religious images, whether yet be

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  25. Weather they be original or given new life for this new generation. Instead of being shoved in a cupboard images of your gods are being displayed in new ways.

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    1. Are they still religious images? Good point to think about. Ties in with the comment from the reader from New Mexico. Thank you for commenting.

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  26. Good discussion and thanks for exposing me, and your readers, to this artist.

    One side of me: I like them. Colorful. Expressive. Eye catching.
    Other side of me: wants to censor and say a big '#$%! are you kidding me?"

    It is ala Mapplethorpe... and all the others you mentioned.

    Since we don't REALLY know what Mary looked like, we can only assume she didn't have the zombie eyes . . . but heck, maybe she did get some color on... blue veil of virginity.

    I can appreciate the pieces, but don't love 'em.

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    1. Hi, Andrew. Yes, it's polarizing, isn't it, both within our own heads and in the community. I rarely ever open my mouth about religion, politics and sports precisely because discussions get dragged into arguments and name-calling rather than thoughtful consideration. Thankfully the bulk of these commenters are not my target readership and will not find anything else here to inflame their mouth diarrhea.

      Thanks for setting the standard for candid, rational commenting. What a refreshing thing to read. Funny, too.

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  27. Hi! I stopped by your blog with thanks for leaving a comment on mine and found this very, very interesting post. It's quite thought provoking.
    Susan

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    1. Hi, Susan! I so admired your spool installation that I sent my sister a link and urged her suggest a title for it, too. Can't wait to hear what you ultimately chose.

      Glad you stopped by, thank you!

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  28. Found you from Jeff Goins site - and I LOVE you already. Such a great post.

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    1. Thank you so much, Uppside! I hope you visit often.

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  29. Greetings,

    I saw some similar art recently and had an instinctual response as you have to it. To say I hold both art and respect for peoples religions in high regard even if their 'medium' differs from my own. Simply personal belief that people should respect other people (that is to define here as the act of not DELIBERATELY doing something with the goal of antagonizing another human being). That being said Day of the Dead is kept by me and many as a deeply cultural and spiritual sacred event.

    That being stated it's really going down to, I believe, the intent of the artist. Was their intent to just treat something of cultural or spiritual significance as just something to deface for profit OR was the artist looking to combine two sacred symbols to create a personal union of the two celebrating a respect for the two?

    Whether one thinks it is ascetically/artistically pleasing is really subjective. Then again what is sometime sacred tends to be as well. I settled on what is the intent of the artist's meaning in the piece. I found I really had to take each one on a case by case basis and delve into how the delivery was handled.

    My two bits. I thank you and appreciate you taking the time to blog about your insight on the matter. It's not going to be something people will ever unanimously agree on but it does raise a valid cultural point in a time of mixed cultures and groups. As an artist what should we take into account if we are going to use an established icon as a medium and what care should go into it to treat it with the respect the people whom revere it deserve as a peoples? Good stuff.

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    1. Hi, EyeKahn, and thank you very much for your thoughtful comment. I continue to learn from all the perspectives presented in the comments, and yours is among those that reflect a rational, grown-up approach.

      We won't know directly what the artist in this case intended, as he/she has declined to "engage in the hating" as the email to me stated. A pity. We could have learned so much.

      Where I grew up, we celebrate All Souls' Day, which corresponds to the Day of the Dead. The entire day is spent at the gravesite of our beloved departed, with food and family time. We don't have the skull imagery that is associated with Day of the Dead, however. The other difference is that Mary and Joseph are held in reverence as saints, an entire notch higher than "ordinary" departed, so their figures would not be painted over with skull images. They have their own holy day, All Saints' Day, which falls on the day after All Souls' Day.

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    2. One of the things I find helpful as an artist is to weigh intent vs. target audience. While the piece I saw of the Virgin Mary with hands out was painted beautifully and intricately in skeletal apparel I was uncomfortable with her being used in contrast to her core symbolism and found it a bit disrespectful. I finally settled on the adaptation of generic cherubs dressed in celebration for the artistic expression because it wasn't altering a specific icon. Just as I wouldn't find a skeletal Buddha, Kali, Ibis, or Quetzalcoatl appropriate either. Artistic expression and freedom of speech, while you CAN do anything and get away with it, does in fact have consequences that can be positive, but also negative.

      Things for the world to think about. Being mindful. Good post! Glad we got an opportunity to talk!

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    3. Also as one last note to many Day of the dead is Nov 1st and Second. So it actually corresponds nicely. Really the same approach, just a latin approach vs. European touch to it. All good. Biggest lesson: remember those that came before you. They still have wisdom to teach us :)

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  30. I think it's good. These sculptures may dwell in homes that may otherwise never see a religious... anything. It may do well to bring to mind the Holy Family or Holy Mother to people that would otherwise go without.

    My stance... ya never know.

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