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Check Into the Motel for the Dead at the Icehouse on Dia de los Muertos

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In the past 20 years or so, Americans of all ethnicities throughout the country -- especially here in the Southwest -- have been making a big deal of Dia de los Muertos, the Mexican Day of the Dead celebration that spans several days and just happens to coincide with All Souls and All Saints Days (November 1 and 2) in the Catholic liturgical calendar. Leave it to those eminently creative Mexicans to concoct fabulous, regionally unique traditions that meld pre-Columbian rituals honoring the dearly departed with gory 16th century Spanish Roman Catholic beliefs -- traditions and ceremonies that simultaneously honor the memory of deceased family and friends while thumbing a nose at death, The Great Leveler of Us All.

Phoenix's venerable Icehouse, located at 429 W Jackson Street, (602) 257-8929, is mounting its own unique version of Dia de los Muertos on Sunday, November 1, beginning at 7 p.m. at its downtown Phoenix digs. Admission is a mere dollar plus a flower, cactus plant or small offering that will be buried in the Icehouse's Garden of Thorns that evening. All admission funds will go to planting and maintaining the garden. According to Helen Hestenes, artist/owner of the Icehouse, The Garden of Thorns is a memorial desert garden on the Icehouse grounds -- years in the making -- marking the gallery's upcoming 20th anniversary. It's dedicated not only to specific Phoenix creatives who have passed on, but to particular personal causes such as cancer, suicide, HIV/Aids, domestic violence and other ponderous issues. Hestenes says it will evolve cause by cause, plant by plant, artist by artist and transform from barren earth to lush oasis in time.

A central part of the upcoming Icehouse celebration is Dia de los Muertos Motel II by local artist Janet de Berge Lange; it's the fifth in a series of participatory memorial installations for de Berge Lange's "Recuerdo Project." Historically, recuerdos (literally, "memory," "momento" or "souvenir" in Spanish) were small votive images painted by unskilled family members, not by artists, and hung in remembrance of a loved one who died. The paintings were offered as a healing to those left behind, as well as a validation of life well lived, notes the artist.

De Berge Lange will set up recuerdos she has painted in the past as an ofrenda or offering to the memory of Phoenix artist and long-time best friend, Sean O'Donnell, who committed suicide by self-inflicted gunshot in 2006, an event originally reported by New Times' Robrt Pela.

The commemorative paintings will be displayed in a room at the Icehouse that was used, according to Hestenes, by Phoenix police to store evidence in the Don Bolles murder case in the late 1970s. Bolles was an Arizona Republic journalist who was the victim of a car bombing in 1976 after he began reporting on organized crime and a high-profile Valley businessman.

In addition, a desert willow will be planted in the Garden of Thorns in O'Donnell's name. De Berge Lange says that everyone is invited to paint a recuerdo in honor of a loved one who has passed away and needs to be remembered. "...[T]hen check them into the motel," says the artist.

Her prior "Recuerdo Project" installations include Dia de los Muertos Motel I (October 1992); 13 Women in the Ice Chambers (May 1993); World Aids Day (December 1995); and Rose Johnson Memorial (June 2009). Recuerdos created for artist Rose Johnson will also be on display for the last time in a small room adjacent to the Day of the Dead "motel."

Another memorial piece slated for display in the Icehouse's White Column Room is Helen Hestenes' latest freezer installation work, A Purple Heart, which, she says, is dedicated to twenty deceased local artists, writers, journalists, poets and musicians who have impacted Phoenix in a profound way. Besides journalist Don Bolles, they include, among others, musician, artist and song writer Michael Swanson (suicide 2008), New Times journalist Deborah Laake (suicide 1994), artist Rose Johnson (accidental methanol poisoning 2009), artist Tony Gowen (heroin overdose 1992), poet George Dillon (accidental fall from truck 1991), artist Fritz Scholder (diabetic complications 2005), sculptor and ASU professor Lew Alquist (liver cancer 2005), and psychologist/artist Mel Roman (colon cancer 2002).

To cap the evenings festivities, Terra Dance Company will perform in the courtyard area on top of a 50-foot by 25-foot mural painted on asphalt by Lucas Bostrom, a 19-year-old Phoenix artist who single-handedly raised $3,000 to buy paint used for the mural project.

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