Kathleen Vanesian's Dia de los Muertos Collection

Clockwise from upper left: papier maché winged skeleton, made in Mexico City, having an afterlife smoke; upper right: small sugar paste coffin with skeleton that pops in and out from Patzuaro, Michoacán; upper center: low-fired clay plate by Javier Ramos Lucano of Tlaquepaque, Jalisco features skeleton mariachi couple doing a spirited jarabe; lower right: a papier mache alebrije or fantasy figure that Vanesian is repairing for a collector; lower left corner: the Vanesian living room crammed with dance masks and Mexican folk art collected over almost 35 years.
Clockwise from upper left: papier maché winged skeleton, made in Mexico City, having an afterlife smoke; upper right: small sugar paste coffin with skeleton that pops in and out from Patzuaro, Michoacán; upper center: low-fired clay plate by Javier Ramos Lucano of Tlaquepaque, Jalisco features skeleton mariachi couple doing a spirited jarabe; lower right: a papier mache alebrije or fantasy figure that Vanesian is repairing for a collector; lower left corner: the Vanesian living room crammed with dance masks and Mexican folk art collected over almost 35 years.
photos by Claire Lawton

"Oh hell, I don't have any idea," Kathleen Vanesian says, of the number of Dia de los Muertos pieces she has throughout her north Phoenix home. She places one of her small sugar skulls back on its shelf and curses the dust under her breath.

Vanesian's an art collector and a frequent arts writer for New Times. She moved to Phoenix in the early '90s and says growing up in San Diego and being exposed to Mexican culture throughout the years has always played a large role in her collections.

Her Dia de los Muertos pieces are part of her larger Mexican folk art collection, which she's been adding to for more than 35 years.

Among a collection of papier maché rattles from Celaya, Guanajuanto lurk several calaveras (skulls), one of which sports a cowboy hat.
Among a collection of papier maché rattles from Celaya, Guanajuanto lurk several calaveras (skulls), one of which sports a cowboy hat.
Photo by Claire Lawton

Vanesian tells stories of going to Mexico with friends (before Mexican art was as popular as it is now) and coming back across the border with boxes and suitcases full of masks, platters, figurines. "But those days [of collecting] are long gone," she says.

Collectors like Vanesian blame Antiques Roadshow  and other antique-happy television shows for hyping the market and ultimately ruining their treasure hunts. Vanesian also cites border security and customs regulations when she laments her days of collecting that have since gone.

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Her living room is a shrine to shrines that are made for Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, which is celebrated every year around late October. But the festivities culminate on November 2, when Chicano communities hold celebrations, processions and exhibitions of the altars and pieces they've made for friends and family members who have died.

Vanesian's more about the art and less about the holiday, though she's been in Mexico for Dia de los Muertos more times than she can count. She loves the masks and figures that have a creative simplicity and admits to not discriminating against "tourist art" (made by locals to be sold only to tourists), which collectors often refuse to collect.


Since the popularity of Mexican folk art has sky rocketed, Vanesian's focus has waned -- while she'll definitely be holding on to her Dia de los Muertos pieces, she's recently had her eye on a few things from Eastern Asia ... Just don't tell Antiques Roadshow.


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