Days of remembrance: The Altar Show at the Nevada County Fairgrounds in Grass Valley |

Days of remembrance: The Altar Show at the Nevada County Fairgrounds in Grass Valley

A celebration of remembrance and inspired by members of the community comes The Altar Show: Renewal & Remembrance in its nineteenth year.
Submitted photo to Prospector |


WHAT: The Altar Show: Renewal & Remembrance

WHEN: Oct. 28 – Nov. 5, daily from noon to 7 p.m.

WHERE: Nevada County Fairgrounds — Northern Mines Building — Grass Valley

TICKETS: Free Admission

INFO: or call 530-274-8283

In 1997, inspired by the timeless Indo-Hispanic tradition of Dia de los Muertos, a group of Nevada County artists created altars to honor the memories of their beloved.

Unbeknownst to them, another custom would be generated from their project — The Altar Show: Renewal & Remembrance is now in its nineteenth year at the Nevada County Fairgrounds.

Honoring those who past

Since its beginning, the altars have evolved to include contemporary three-dimensional art with diverse topics, techniques and media as well as the traditional memorials.

Few traditions are as celebrated in Latin and Mexican cultures as that of Dia de los Muertos. A time to celebrate, the holiday takes place Oct. 31 to Nov. 2, as these are believed to be the days when the spirits of the dead return to visit their families.

A centerpiece of the celebration is the creation of the altars which honor loved ones who have passed on. They’re vibrant memorials that are often built using flowers, favorite possessions, food, and photographs that belonged to the dearly departed.

Like the artists (called “altaristas”) who create them, the altars come in all different shapes and sizes, and with wholly unique motivation behind each.

Some are colorful and grand, while some are more subdued. There are those to celebrate the life of a family member and some to commemorate the passing of a phase within the altaristas life.

Free of charge for public viewing, The Altar Show begins with an Opening Ritual on Friday.

Catherine Hoff, Altar Show co-coordinator, said, “The Opening Ritual initiates the grounds of the Northern Mines Building as sacred space, which creates an atmosphere of honor and intention for the altaristas and their installations.”

A sight to be seen

Visually stunning, the Altar Show bears great significance not only to those who prepare the altars, but to those beholding the passion and dedication of each piece.

Hoff explains the emotion that the altars can sometimes evoke: “For the 2013 Show, I created an altar to my matrilineal heritage. When my mother came to view my work, I felt she truly understood my art-piece as a vehicle for honoring my maternal ancestors and offering gratitude for the women in our family. We shared a moment of deep, profound healing.”

Longtime Altar Show participant and co-coordinator Lin Schiffner said, “Watching families create beautiful altars together to honor a loved one is particularly poignant. The experience allows people to express their love and memories in a public and demonstrable way. It becomes an important part of their grieving process.”

With upwards of 60 altars on display, Schiffner said that no two altars are ever alike, and the end product of the altaristas’ inspiration can be amazing to witness.

“I have participated in the Altar Show for 16 years,” she said. “Each year has been an incredible experience from creating altars, working behind the scenes to help insure the show happens, and then finally being utterly blown away by what is created each year.”

An unfinished community altar will be erected, and those from the general public are invited to contribute photographs, mementos or notes to remember or honor a loved one.

Each year, participation in the Altar Show is open to individuals of all ages as well as groups and organizations. Participants pay an entry fee and volunteer time performing necessary activities which Hoff said enhances the viability of the event.

Hoff contends that there is much to see and absorb during the Altar Show.

“Guests to the Altar Show will experience a bit of art, a bit of spirituality, and a whole lot of creative passion,” she said. “The altar displays offer a mixture of cultural tradition and individual expression of renewal and remembrance.”

Heart and soul

Just as the Opening Ritual sets intention for the whole of the event, the Closing Ceremony holds its own purpose.

“Performed on the last evening of the show,” said Hoff, “[it] releases the passion and celebration of the energy accumulated during the event out into the world at large.”

A non-profit organization, the group is looking forward to a thriving future, and next year will mark the 20th anniversary of the event.

Lin Schiffner shares why the Altar Show is important not just to her but to the community as a whole: “I am overwhelmed each year by the amazing display of ‘heart and soul’ that the altar-makers put into their altars.

“The emotional catharsis the show evokes for both the altaristas and the viewers is really a unique and deeply human experience. The show provides a safe and sacred space where people can share those matters that are most important from the depth of their hearts.”

Jennifer Nobles is a freelance writer for The Union and can be contacted at

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