Death doesn’t necessarily have to be a taboo subject — sometimes it can be rejoiced.
When I first saw the work of artist Sherri Nelson, I found out that she drew most of her inspiration from the “Day of the Dead”, an annual Mexican holiday celebrated around the world that honours the dead.
“I like the idea of portraying death in a positive light,” she told me. “Death is so negative in North America, but it’s an inevitability, so why not celebrate it?”
Sherri showed her work at the annual Skeleton Park Art Show, which took place on Saturday alongside its bigger artistic sister — The Skeleton Park Music Festival.
The music started late, and I was left listening to the voices of artists and onlookers as they discussed, admired and bargained for different pieces of art.
I walked up to Sherri as she chatted with the neighbouring vendor — a thin, elderly woman who sells used Roxy and Joe Fresh t-shirts for twice the price. Their conversation ended, and I moved in.
“I’ve always been rather twisted,” she commented. “I’ve always liked to paint stuff that was a little out of the ordinary, stuff that puts people on their edge.”
Sherri, who graduated from Queen’s in 2003, said her degree in Women’s Studies got her interested in alternative history.
“From that I became interested in other cultures and their traditions which lead me to become interested in the “Day of the Dead” style art,” she said.
“It’s the story of poor and disenfranchised people and the fact they view something we’re so terrified of as being happy and celebratory, it’s inspiring.”
Bright colours set the background for eerie skeletal figures dressed in party attire — portraits which blended life and death. The skeletons, figures of death, were celebrating, relishing in the merriment of life.
In the midst of the looming oak trees of Skeleton Park stood rows of white pitched tents where artists were putting their work on exhibition. People were scattered across the spotted, dewy grass and their voices echoed and reverberated off the trees.
It seemed fitting that Sherri’s work was displayed at Skeleton Park, a park known to be the resting place of hundreds of bodies below its serene setting of lush grass.
All fifteen of her portraits hung consecutively in a line from the back wall of the tent. Much like the grass beneath her, the vivid depiction of life stood in complete contrast to the haunting skeletal figures, complemented by the barren, lifeless dirt.
Not all of Sherri’s portraits derive their inspiration from the “Day of the Dead”.
One work in particular portrays three skeletons dressed in hospital gowns peering over a cloaked body on an examining table. It is meant to protest against the Canadian medical system. The piece is entitled Modern Medicine.
“I painted it after I found out someone I was close to passed away as a result of a medical procedure,” she said. “It wasn’t done in a proper way, and this painting depicts our medical system and our doctors as soulless figures of death who treat us like we’re not people.”
The Saturday art show was juried with a panel of judges consisting of two artists, one art professional and one community member.
Festival organizer Greg Tilson said the Skeleton Park Art Show usually sees between 30 to 40 artists and artisans come to exhibit their art during the free show.
“It’s a really affordable way for artisans to present to the neighbourhood and the community,” he said.
Tilson added that submissions to the art show can range from all different kinds of artwork like paintings, jewellery and ceramics.
Tilson added that keeping the festival local is a priority for the organization team.
“We try to select a group of artists that reflect the community and reflect the different kinds of art being made there,” he said. “Every year we feature local artisans and local musicians. It’s always been a collaboration.”
— With files from Savoula Stylianou
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