The Tucson Botanical Gardens has opened a Dia de los Muertos-themed exhibit after COVID-19 forced them to close their doors in March. “La Calavera Catrina” decorates midtown with nine-foot-tall depictions of Mexican cultural figures as joyful skeletal sculptures. The works are created by Los Angeles-based artist Ricardo Soltero, but the La Catrina figure is rooted in the satirical eye of illustrator Jose Guadalupe Posada towards his early 20th century Mexican society.
Posada found himself growing angry at seeing his fellow Mexicans go beyond merely adopting French fashion to literally making their skin appear whiter than their natural tone by using powders.
“Jose Guadalupe Posada got tired of it,” Soltero said. “At the end of the day, we are all of real hard bones, no matter the color of our skin.”
This is the first time the exhibit, organized by the Denver Botanic Gardens, is on display outside of Denver.
This idea of a common humanity across cultures is a major reason Soltero thinks the influence of the Day of The Dead has grown in recent decades, and is a source of great pride that people globally have embraced the holiday. Additionally “La Calavera Catrina” offers visitors an opportunity to see the gardens showcased in a way never before seen, according to botanical gardens spokesperson Rob Elias.
“We’ve added just a tremendous amount of lighting,” he said. “They’re going to be in a range of colors that fit thematically … We’re going with a lot of oranges and purples and reds and yellows and blues. It’s gonna be quite stunning.”
The Tucson Botanical Gardens closed on March 17 because of pandemic restrictions, drying up 70 percent of the gardens’ income from lost ticket sales, gift shop sales and special events, according to executive director Michelle Conklin. However, the gardens were kept fiscally solvent during the closure from several sources.
“We had we had to make up a significant portion of our budget,” Conklin said. “Between donations from individuals, the Family Foundation and we were fortunate to receive a PPP loan and EIDL as well.”
Changes instituted by the gardens to slow the spread of COVID-19 include rerouting how guests walk through the gardens to accommodate social distancing, turning some walkways into one-way travel.
“Now the gift shop is an exit-only, and the entrance is around the corner where we’ve built a brand new admissions building on the northern part of our property,” Elias said.
With the COVID-19 closure and visitors cut off from the gardens, Elias said that Tucson Botanical Gardens like many other organizations has placed a greater emphasis on digital outreach by adding the largest number of online classes the gardens has ever had. Regular garden programing such as docent tours and children’s storying telling can now be found online while art and wellness classes for adults.
“We’ve had a phenomenal chef that we’ve been working with and she’s been making all kinds of delicious food and we’re actually going to be rolling out this week our class schedule for the fall,” Elias said.
Visitors need to plan ahead to experience the exhibit because the gardens have moved to a reservation system as a COVID-19 precaution. Guests select the number of tickets and a two hour block of visiting time during the day from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The gardens will also be opening during evening hours Thursday through Sunday in hour and a half time slots from 6:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.
Additionally the gardens will have another exhibit “Bird Houses & Nests” opening on Sept. 26 through Jan. 3. The organization SculptureTucson will feature 13 original art pieces from 13 local artists. The exhibit is centered around the theme of birds and nesting conveyed with large-scale sculptures in the gardens, the pieces themselves were built with the Tucson Botanical Gardens in mind.
For more information, visit tucsonbotanical.org