An introduction to the Day of the Dead (2000)series
of Sam Kerson’s pastels

By Jerome Lipani

The human skeleton has insistently and forcibly emerged in Sam’s work in different ways over the last 15 years: appearing in his Mexican pastels; as large-scale puppets used in Dragon Dance Theatre Halloween performances; and poignantly in his artist’s book Life and Death of an American Artist. The specifics of their forms have evolved with their uses, and the evolution of their meaning along with them. The skeleton imagery has advanced this year through his exploration of the Day of the Dead festivals in Oaxaca, Mexico among the Zapotec Indians living in the Isthmus of Thehuantepec and in the Sierra Juarez. Los Dias de los Muertos is perhaps the single most important religious festival period in the Mexican year, taking days of preparation to realize. Pre-Colombian Indian religious tradition has mingled with Spanish Catholic influence to create a cosmology which bridges the two original cultures, and may transcend both.

In this year’s Oaxaca sojourn before and through the festival period, a deeply psychological and strikingly mystical event occurred to him. As he was accompanying a Zapotec Indian friend to the bus which would take him to visit her tribal village, in the Isthmus of Thehuantepec, he suddenly saw himself as a skeleton , a walking skeleton. He noted this in an e-mail to me on October 22, 2000:
Living a funny life here, enjoying the weather and the cultural ambiance and hanging out in my hotel room painting. Skeletons and skeletons and people, mortality?and starting to see like with x-ray vision. Everyone I see looks more skeletal and sometimes I see only their bones. That’s all I am interested in. I’m trying to see their skeletons and they are appearing to me skeletal. It must be the time of the year. Bet it could not happen in the spring.

It’s an expansive idea, first one skeleton than a skeleton and a person, then my skeleton, then my person with a skeleton, then all skeletons. My friends as skeletons. Then professionals as skeletons and then their clients. Us. Then artists, then dogs, there are a lot of possibilities. My new dentist was so great I could hardly draw him as a skeleton, but I did. Then I started to think of him as an old Aztec doctor reincarnated into the new Mexico. He was so competent I don’t doubt it has taken him generations to develop this skill.

Easy to draw me as a skeleton. Makes sense of some things like when Mayra and I were in San Cristobal hurrying to the bus station and I was trailing along behind her carrying her things, and people were staring at us stopping and gawking. I think they were seeing my skeleton, and drawing that scene with my skeleton was just like accepting another person’s reality. Easy for a performer.

I was really turned on by these thoughts. I shot this back to him:

?Yes, skeletons. It has happened to me, too!! Once, a lover transformed before my eyes into a skeleton as I stared at her across a sea of grass one sunny day in Sweden. Later, maybe two or three years later, in India, studying the Dharma with the Tibetans, I felt (this time pleasantly) culture-shocked when I learned of a traditional yogic practice which visualizes the gradual decomposition of the body into a skeleton—one’s own as well as the bodies of people close to one. It is an exercise in detachment. I practiced it everyday for about three months. I loved it in the end! At first, it was really hard to stay with it—I was repulsed by the thought of the flesh going through various levels of putrefaction, and wondered about the scientific validity of the colors they attach to various stages of decomposition from red, to blue, to black, etc?.And the teaching asks one to enjoy meditation upon even the smell of the decomposing corpse. It is a lesson in the impermanence of all phenomena.

So I find it really interesting that this is happening to you in such a grand and continual way, and possibly under the subliminal influence of the Zapotec Indians. They must actually have a very similar spiritual paradigm to the Tibetan Buddhists, then. At least we have two contemporaneous ancient cultures – on opposite sides of the world, and supposedly without any historic contact – that decidedly include death in life. I wonder if the Zapotec are intrinsically teaching themselves – as Tibetan Buddhism makes so clear – that detachment means being able to accept reality in all of its horror and brutality and intransigent impermanence, accepting that we can’t depend upon anything at all in the physical world to see us through , that the only security is that there is none. If these ideas are as true for the Zapotec as they are for Buddhists, we might postulate that this wisdom is intrinsic to the human experience, and doesn’t actually depend upon cultural context.

It was not until Sam returned to Vermont around Thanksgiving that I actually got to see the new work. The pieces had a stunning impact on me. Instead of the skeletons being used – as one might expect in Western art – to depict a spiritualized battle between death and life, with death ultimately victorious, they surprisingly revealed themselves to be – magically and mysteriously – about life! And instead of the pieces being relegated to a Halloweenish limitation, they had gone beyond their seemingly quaint religiosity to fling a challenge at the viewer: the pictures embody a certain political and cultural encounter between the post-modern America to their north and the ancient mystical – and implicitly anti-neurotic – certainties of the traditional culture of Mexico.

I found that several of the pictures served as ciphers to my understanding the whole body of work. One of them depicts a number of skeletal Indians at work in an outdoor kitchen where they are beginning the preparations for the feast of the Dia de los Muertos. One figure is sitting on a low stool crouched over a large metal container, preparing masa, the sacred corn mush later to be made into tamales and atole, a chili sauce. A second is about to begin the butchering of a large fleshy pig. A third is engaged in another culinary preparation, with the mud floor of the kitchen replacing the counter-space, which we are conditioned to think of as essential to ensuring a germ-free environment for food preparation. The shocking vitality of the skeletal figures give us the sense that they are part of a timeless way of life that is not at all under threat of annihilation by the corporate takeover of the world. This was not some romantic stranger’s sentimental depiction of the graceful ways of a culture that was about to disappear, but rather a statement to the effect that this is an ancient way of life which could survive the fall of late capitalism. This is the culture that could teach people who had come to live on the superficial crust of so-called civilization ---in constant fear of contact with germs, with the stuff that comprises all living matter, finally, and who had thrust themselves into the never-never land of an unconscious, but pervasive neurosis in relation to this fear of germs—how to survive on the earth and with the earth.

Sam’s picture of an outdoor kitchen with a hog being slaughtered on a garrot, in close proximity to skeletal people making masa, is left-handedly ecological. It reminds us that a true ecological awareness needs to be lived in our kitchens beyond our meager attempts to recycle paper and plastic! To be vital we need to make our kitchens awaredly part of wildness, itself. It became clear to me that in our vain attempts to filter out the underbody of life, that we are filtering out a vital appreciation of ourselves. The Indians – in fact, the geographically isolated ?primitives? all over the Third World who have remained relatively untouched by the wholesale industrial take-over of their ancient way of life — embody primordial understandings of connectedness to the earth, itself, which once belonged to all the races.

Their wild celebration of the molecular interdependence between all forms of life and their temporary invisibility through death, their ability to abandon themselves in communion with the spirits of all living things during Los Muertos – in a seamless integration of the invisible, of the spiritual into their fleshly lives – jumps out at us from Sam’s pictures. Many of them show gracefully-clad, robust Indians in close relationship to skeletal members of their own tribe. Whether these skeletal creatures are an x-ray version of a living person, or whether they represent mystical vitalization of ancestral presences in co-existence with the living hardly seems to matter to los indios. This picture makes me see that the cultural awareness of the Indians is possessed of a vitality that has the power to reach beyond the immediate deaths of the present tribal members into a past and into a future without limitation of mundane time. The skeletonized visions which structure their ancient ritual are more alive to them than the empire to their north which threatens to destroy them economically and technologically.

A second cipher is presented in Sam’s picture of the mystical birth of the original Brother and Sister from the corpse of a dog, which is part of the Sol Y Luna mythological stories of the Chichimec. They were a fourth or fifth century tribe, maurauders who drifted south across the Sonora desert into Mexico. Their brother and sister tale is not to be understood as a celebration of incest, but rather as a version of the brotherhood and sisterhood of all the elements of the Creation. The thought of humanity itself emerging from the corpse of a street dog which has feasted all of its life on the ordures of the village is a welcome tonic to our western homocentrism. In self-centered and fearsome ignorance, we delude ourselves into a sense of unassailable superiority over the life force. When we indulge ourselves in this form of cultural egotism, we alienate ourselves from the very elements of life. The Zapotec version of creation begins and ends with the humility-inspiring image of our own emergence from, and irresistible communion with Death. From the abysmal comes the glowing creative life force—a light that is glowing with the eternal power of death. Sam actually succeeds in capturing that in this picture!

A third picture really cinched this new vision for me. It proclaims the enormous historical vitality of the Zapotec world in its ultimate spiritual superiority to our western creeping denial of connection to our own ancestors. It is a simple depiction of a woman with a basket of yellow orange cempasucyhil, ceremonial marigolds, on her head. The color of the cempasucyhil becomes dominant in this picture because she is surrounded by the greys and blacks of disembodied skulls. This woman is in effulgent awareness of the impermanence of her own life in direct relationship to the impermanence of the flowers she raises. She is as alive as their color is ephemeral, her figure emblematic of a robust joy in living. She is able to fully embrace death as intrinsic to life.
When the Mexicans have prepared their feasts for los Muertos, they offer the steaming food first to the ancestors, whose pictures adorn an altar temporarily – and elaborately -- made for them. It is thought that the ancestors in their spirit bodies require only the finest essence of the foods for their nourishment. The gradual disappearance of the steam is taken as proof that they have received the offering. Their spiritualized hunger sated, the ancestors then proffer the food to the living. In this feast, as in Sam’s recent series of pastels, the evanescent is conjoined with the firmness, the soundness of a celebratory humanity.
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