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Dia de los Muertos Exhibit at El Paso Museum of Art

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As the only child of working middle-class parents, Wayne Hilton grew up in Las Cruces with a nanny who seemed like a member of the family.

"During the holidays, we would always take her to Delicias (Chihuahua) to be with her family. And as a really young kid, I started taking trips to Mexico and fell in love with it," he said. "There are many aspects of Mexican culture that I love, and I just became fascinated with the Dia a de los Muertos and the catrina figures."

As a visual artist, he added, "I have always had this fascination of how cultural aspects of all cultures manifest aesthetically."

It is perhaps that connection to the Mexican culture that inspired Hilton to start working on a catrina figure about 2 1/2 years ago. It wasn't until he had completed his third figure that Hilton realized he was creating a collection.

"That was the turning point. It's a catrina holding the bird cage and almost her entire front is beaded. It took me almost three months to do. And it just made me realize that it was becoming something bigger than just making these figures," he said.

Hilton said he started studying Mexican artist and lithographer Jose Guadalupe Posada, who is credited with creating the catrina, an iconic skeletal figure.

"Each of the pieces are inspired by a respective work of Posada's," said Hilton, who ended up with 13 different catrinas, each measuring from 14 to 17 inches tall.

The first public preview of Hilton's "Hermosos Huesos" ("Beautiful Bones") is on display through Wednesday at the El Paso Museum of Art, in time for the Dia de los Muertos observance. The second preview of the collection will be in late November at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center. The official national museum tour is scheduled to begin Nov. 2, 2014, at the Mulvane Art Museum in Topeka, Kansas.

Michael Tomor, director of the El Paso Museum of Art, said the exhibit includes an installation of posters celebrating Posada and an altar commemorating Posada and fellow artist Luis Jimenez. He described it as a wonderful opportunity for the museum to educate others.

"Museums have a unique responsibility to help educate the public about the culture and artistic traditions that surround us. It's really a wonderful opportunity to feature and celebrate (Dia de los Muertos) by providing an exhibit of an altar as well as works by Jose Guadalupe Posada," he said.

Tomor added that Hilton did a nice job of embracing the Hispanic culture through his work.

"Regardless of his background, he's certainly engaged ... it's an opportunity for an artist to tell a story visually and how he feels emotionally, and I think he certainly has done that," Tomor said.

When Hilton sees his collection, he sees the culmination of his life and career path.

"I feel like everything I've done in my life has led me to this point. I've used every skill set I have in this body of work," he said.

"My first 10 years I was a costume designer, and so I come from a hands-on textile, sewing background. I've always been an artist and have dabbled in different types of media."

His experience includes working with his parents at an antiques store and running his own costume business. In the 2000s, he worked primarily in interior design and then in large-event planning.

Each catrina is fascinating, with intricate details and handcrafted materials. Each one was fashioned from recycled materials such as wood, metals, fabric scraps and beads.

"They are sculptures, but there's sewing, and papier mache, wire and fabric manipulation, intricate beading. And there's techniques I don't have a name for -- like melting plastic with a blowtorch and using scraps of metal," he said.

Hilton said his penchant for recycling probably comes from his upbringing.

"In college theater, you are usually limited in budget so you learn to work with what you have. And I grew up around my parents' antiques store, so they were always creative in the way they put things together."

Designing the catrinas was an organic process, he said. Sometimes, a Posada artist illustration inspired the piece. Other times, he was led by the materials in front of him.

And he can't pick a favorite, saying it would be like picking your favorite child.

Working on the pieces also led to some changes in his own perception about death, he said.

"It has changed it to where it really is a celebration of the muertos," he said. "It took the scariness from it."

To support the reach of this project, Hilton has launched a crowdfunding campaign through Nov. 27 online at bit.ly/beautifulbones. Tax-deductible contribution levels range from $10 to $25,000 and will help fund the national museum tour, a book and a documentary.

Those who donate $35 or more will receive a special catrina mask to participate in a social media campaign, "50 States in 50 Days," in which followers are encouraged to post a photo wearing the mask using the #HermososHuesos hashtag for a chance to win official merchandise.

Other donor incentives include signed prints, tote bags, eco-friendly guitar picks, shirts, and VIP tickets to the premier gala and showing of "Hermosos Huesos" in 2014.

Makie plans

Dia de los Muertos is celebrated in many Latino communities to honor deceased family. Here is a roundup of some area events:

La Fe: La Fe Culture and Technology Center, 721 S. Ochoa (rear building), will have its celebration starting at 6 p.m. today. The event will include dance performances by La Fe's Ballet Folklorico Toltec, food, arts and crafts, and altars. Free admission.

Paulina's: Old Souls Records will have its Dia de los Muertos Counter-Culture Festival on Saturday at Paulina's Badlands, 7792 Franklin. Doors open at 3 p.m. The event will include performances by matachines, Alien Time Machine, Thug, Folkorico Quetzalez and others. $5 at the door. Information: Pancho Mendoza, fixedidea@hotmail.com

Downtown: A Dia de los Muertos celebration will start at 6 p.m. Saturday at the San Carlos Building, 501 Texas. The event will include art, music, dance and celebrating community. Doors open at 6 p.m. Cost: $5 at the door; free for kids 5 and younger. Information: chucosoulproject@gmail.com.

Museum: The El Paso Museum of Art in collaboration with the Consulate General of Mexico in El Paso will have its Dia de los Muertos reception from 5 to 7 p.m. Saturday at the museum. Free. It will feature an altar for artists who have died, pan de muerto and chocolate.

Agave Rosa Gallery: The exhibit "Citas Con Don Quijote," a solo exhibit by artist Daniel Padilla, will open with a reception from 3 to 8 p.m. Saturday at the Agave Rosa Gallery, 905 Noble St. There also will be a Dia de los Muertos Bazaar from 3 to 7 p.m. with vendor booths and handmade jewelry, a calavera contest and altar exhibit will take place. Free admission. Information: 533-8011.

Online: The Smithsonian Latino Center, in partnership with the University of Texas at El Paso, is having its fifth annual Latino Virtual Museum "Day of the Dead/Dia de los Muertos Festival" through Nov. 2. The online event features activities celebrating the popular Latin American holiday. For more information, complete listing of events and a map, go to latino.si.edu and click on the sugar skull icon. More information: lvmdayofdead.tumblr.com.

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