KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — When the COVID-19 pandemic canceled a traveling show featuring Mexican artists and temporarily closed the doors, employees at the McClung Museum at the University of Tennessee put their heads together to replace it.
Adriane Tafoya, the museum's former senior collections manager, suggested doing a community-sourced exhibition. The subject would be Día de los Muertos (or Day of the Dead), a Mexican holiday dedicated to honoring and celebrating dead loved ones.
"I think it was this connection with this particular Mexican festivity and what it means to everyone else around the world, especially with, you know, pop culture like movies, being 'Coco' one of them, and also to connect with the idea of loss and death during the pandemic," said Claudio Gomez, the museum's executive director.
Gomez said this was the museum's first community-sourced project, meaning people outside the museum would bring in and create elements to display.
"It was a big challenge because doing a community-based project, it's always more, you know, messy, takes more time. You need to sit many people at the table," he said.
To guide the project, the museum pulled together an advisory board of UT faculty, museum staff and community representatives from HoLa Hora Latina, Latino Task Force and Centro Hispano de East Tennessee.
"We said, 'Absolutely! Count us in. Let us be involved,'" said Megan Barolet-Fogarty, the director of youth and family engagement at Centro Hispano.
Centro Hispano was collaborating with Cattywampus Puppet Council at the same time to make paper mache puppets for the 2022 Big Ears Festival Parade. The groups decided to combine their efforts and invited kids in Centro Hispano's after-school programs to make alebrijes, a Mexican folk art depicting fantastical beasts with features of different animals.
"They said, 'Not only do we want to work with you, but we actually have five after-school program youth sites now and we would love to have artmaking happen at all five of them,'" said Rachel Milford, Cattywampus's executive and artistic director.
Kids ranging in age from 3 to 13 designed and built the alebrijes from the first sketch on paper to the final coat of paint.
"What ended up being the puppets was just, sort of, like a creative process of them learning about, you know, the tradition and the history of alebrijes and then deciding, 'Well, what's the version I want to make?'" Milford said.
A peacock with a flowing fabric tail. An elephant with butterfly wings. A Chihuahua with a dragon's tail.
"This is very much children's art. This is hands-on art, you know. We tried to guide them a little bit, but it was a mess, you know. It was kids getting hands-on, mixing colors all together so you're not quite sure how that will look in a museum sort of setting," Barolet-Fogarty said.
Gomez said the exhibition was a balance of being "the hosts of [the community's] proposals" while maintaining museum standards.
"We went to our community advisory board for the exhibition and talked about what they would want to see and what would make them feel celebrated and what would highlight their work the best," said Katy Malone, the museum's curator of academic programs.
Then, on Aug. 26, the Spirit of Día de los Muertos opened after two years of work. Community members, contributors and some of the kids from Centro Hispano were invited for the first look.
"Seeing their faces when they came to the opening night, and they're like, 'Woah, that's our stuff. That's what we worked on,'" Barolet-Fogarty said. "I think it's just a really amazing experience that helps create a sense of belonging."
Gomez said that sense of belonging is at the heart of the museum.
"Museums are spaces for connection. So this is another way of connecting with your own life, in the sense of who has been important for you and who's not here anymore, physically, but really, within you," he said. "It's meaningful to them and because it's meaningful to them it's meaningful to us, and I think everyone coming here will find their own meaning by standing in front of the ofrendas."
Editor's note: This story was updated to correct the spelling of a name from Milton to Milford.