Altars colored with love |

Altars colored with love

As members of the community drifted in to view the works on display at the ninth annual Altar Show, organizers shared concerns over the show’s future.

“I don’t know how we’ll continue financially,” said Meg Hughes, who with her mother, Teddy Kell, first brought the show to Nevada County nine years ago. The Altar Show is a free exhibit of community-created altars inspired by the indigenous Mexican celebration of Day of the Dead.

Hours are noon to 8 p.m. daily through Nov. 5.

Rent for the building used for the Altar Show doubled this summer, causing organizers to work in the red this year. The Altar Show has never charged admission and relies solely on donations and entry fees by the altaristas, or altar artists, for survival. Rent, insurance, utilities, reception and promotion of the event costs $5,500, Hughes said. She estimates it will take a couple thousand dollars from a sponsor to keep the program afloat another year.

The idea of charging admission, even a dollar, doesn’t settle well with Hughes, whose mission is to keep the show open to everyone.

“We really want it to be a gift. We’re afraid we’d lose people,” said Hughes.

Reflecting mortality

The Altar Show began when artist Kell and daughter Hughes, tired of making the drive to Sacramento to participate in Altares del Mundo, or Altars of the World, brought the idea home.

This year’s Altar Show features 60 altars honoring lost loved ones or paying tribute to meaningful subjects of life. Themes include endangered species, 20th-century pacifists, the homeless and the organization Grandmothers for Peace. It is not juried, and anyone from the community can contribute or participate.

“It’s always amazing to me. the people who participate in the show. We get all walks of life,” said Hughes.

This year, participants range in age from 7 to 89, including Hughes’ 9-year-old grandson, Sam Hughes, a third-generation altarista.

“For a lot of people it opens a lot of doors,” said Hughes.

Many of the altars are interactive and invite visitors to participate.

Notebooks on tables ask passers-by to stop and write a quick message to a loved one. People can pin wishes onto bean bags and throw them through a basketball net covered with skeletons or scrawl thoughts on paper decorated with glitter to hang on a tree.

Mirrors are a common theme, forcing people to view their mortal reflections. Skulls and skeletons are common themes, often displayed in playful, humorous tones.

Mexican roots

Traditionally, altars in Mexico encompass four elements: earth, wind, fire and water. Fire is represented by a wax candle: Each lit candle represents a soul, and an extra one is placed for the forgotten soul.

Earth is represented by a crop: Mexicans believe the souls are fed by the aroma of food. Wind is represented by a moving object: Tissue paper is commonly used to represent wind.

Water is placed in a container for the soul to quench its thirst after the long journey to the altar.

Each morning, when Hughes lights the candles at each altar, she stops to communicate with the dead. “We try to make this a safe place for people honoring those that have passed,” she said.

For more information on the show or to learn how to become a sponsor, visit or call 432-5746.


To contact Staff Writer Laura Brown, e-mail or call 477-4230.

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