With Halloween nearing, some cultures see the time as when the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead become blurred. On Samhain, the Celtic festival where Halloween had its origins, the ancient people of Ireland, Scotland, northern France and other parts of Europe believed ghosts of the dead would visit. In the Mexican tradition of Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, people also believe the dead return to earth. To keep their memories alive, loved ones are honored with altars on which the living leave food, drinks and images of the lost.
In that tradition, Homer artist Carly Garay has transformed the gallery of the Homer Council on the Arts into an installation, “The Art of Ancestor Veneration.” Four large photographs, “Earth,” “Air,” “Water” and “Fire” anchor the corners of the room. Garay has a desk with an old typewriter, a mirror above it, and an encaustic painting with an image transfer of immigrant Hungarian ancestors, George and Anna Emory, hanging on the wall. An old rocking chair, a scythe, the mirror and other objects came from a great aunt’s home.
Bones, skulls, little nests made by Garay and artist friends, and altars fill the corners of the room. The large, 4-foot by 5-foot photographs face a central piece, “Spirit,” where on rope hanging down from the ceiling people are invited to attach with clothespins poems, writings and images honoring their ancestors. Garay said the four elements came from her interest in how people made ancestor altars. She noticed that often the altars used the elements.
“I started incorporating all those elements so the whole show became an altar,” Garay said.
HCOA Executive Director Scott Bartlett invited Garay to do a show for October. In past years, the gallery has done a Dia de los Muertos themed show and Bartlett asked her if she wanted to do something similar.
“I said I was interested, but I am not of Mexican heritage,” Garay said. “I didn’t want to go down that route. I had been into ancestry veneration and did my own take on that.”
While working on her masters in teaching, for one class she visited Portland schools. Garay said she remembered in one Hispanic community school an altar had been set up for people to bring images.
“I was inspired and intrigued by the way they do that,” she said. “… The more I read about it, the more I read about how different cultures practice that. … Across the globe, cultures venerate their ancestry in so many different ways.”
Recently returned to Homer, Garay grew up here from kindergarten to graduating from Homer High School in 2003. After high school, she spent 15 years away attending college in Colorado and Washington before getting a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Alaska Anchorage, where she studied fine art photography. Now 36, she also has a master of arts in art education from Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon. This fall she has been doing a long-term substitute teaching position at Big Fireweed Academy.
For this semester’s theme, Fireweed students have been studying their roots and talking about their cultural heritage. Recently the students dressed up as immigrants coming through Ellis Island, New York. This Friday her class will visit the exhibit as part of that theme.
“It’s been kind of fun discovering what cultures their ancestors came from and the cultures their families left behind generations ago,” she said.
Garay’s interest in photography got started at Homer High, where she took classes from Diane Spence and Carl Bice, including darkroom techniques. She also studied film photography at UAA. For the four large photographs in “The Art of Ancestor Veneration,” she used a medium-format Kiev camera from Ukraine she found on eBay. Medium format cameras use 120 film that is about 2.4 inches wide. Garay shoots Kodak Portra 120 film.
“I feel like there’s a special alchemy with the light on the film,” she said. “…You can see in those pictures that it blew up beautifully.”
Garay’s interest in medium-format cameras started with Holga cameras, inexpensive plastic cameras.
“When I was shooting with the Holga, there are some beautiful things that happen with the light leaking in on the corner,” she said. “I was surprised with that camera (the Kiev) they were almost perfect. … I feel like it’s magical, the bigger you get.”
Shooting with film forced Garay to be more deliberate and focused. Each of her four photographs use artist friends as models. Some models, like Leah Moraes of Homer or Melea Roed of Chickaloon, also wear headpieces or other wearable art they made. One model, Nessa Nouveau of Anchorage, wears a costume she designed. Faye Mickleson of Anchorage wears a headdress Garay made. The models posed in natural settings, like Moraes, who posed at the Bridge Creek Reservoir sitting on a stand-up paddleboad while Garay stood in water.
“Shooting film I would have to be focused,” Garay said. “I did one photo shoot with each model. … It’s fun, the delayed gratification to get your images back.”
Garay also didn’t do any digital editing. The images are razor sharp and the colors just pop.
“That was straight out of the camera, that color saturation,” she said. “I was really surprised to see how much color came through.”
In conjunction with her exhibit, Garay has been teaching a two-weekend workshop in making ancestor altars. The class filled up quickly. This weekend they will do an open studio. As part of that, the students will type on Garay’s manual Smith-Corona typewriter a letter introducing themselves to their ancestors.
Part of the fun of her exhibit has been meeting people and seeing their reactions to some of the objects. One man said the scythe reminded him of their own ancestors’ farming roots. A woman commented on how crocheted cloth triggered a memory with her.
“I think a lot of these things do make connections to the past,” Garay said. “It’s a lot of threads backward in time.”