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Denver artist shares a dozen Día de los Muertos altars across Colorado

“An ofrenda is basically a celebration of life,” said artist Cal Duran.
Cal Duran artist Day of the Dead
Posted at 4:33 PM, Oct 30, 2023
and last updated 2023-11-21 16:51:09-05

DENVER — A Denver artist is inviting the community to visit and interact with Día de los Muertos altars he crafted across Colorado.

“Día de los Muertos isn't Halloween,” said Cal Duran. “It's a celebration, and it's full of color and vibrancy.”

Duran, born and raised in Denver, brings that color and vibrancy to art installations known as ofrendas, or altars. Ahead of celebrations on November 1 and 2, Duran built a dozen ofrendas across Colorado.

“These ofrendas that I've been doing in the community are about community,” he said.

Ofrendas are traditionally built to honor loved ones who have passed away. Unlike most art exhibits where you're allowed to see but not touch, Duran invites Coloradans to interact with his altars.

“Anybody could add messages to the ofrendas for their loved one,” he said.

Day of the Dead community altar
At this community altar at the History Colorado Center in Denver, visitors are invited to write memories for display.

Duran first learned about Día de los Muertos celebrations as a teenager working with the Pirate: Contemporary Art and Chicano Humanities and Arts Council galleries.

"I didn't really grow up with a specific culture. My mom was adopted, and my father was in and out of my life. So we didn't really have a concrete idea of what we celebrate,” he said. “I just was really mesmerized by the ofrendas and how we get to honor our ancestors and our loved ones.”

Since then, Duran’s ofrenda installations have grown in number and scale.

“They get bigger and bigger. And they keep calling me back to do them,” he said.

At the History Colorado Center in Denver, Duran’s altar honors the contributions of women known as “Corn Mothers,” including artist Rita Wallace de Flores, whose textile art is on display.

Screenshot 2023-10-30 at 3.59.14 PM.png
Cal Duran's sculpture of Mother Earth sits in a suitcase surrounded by photographs and offerings to women who have passed.

“Rita Wallace de Flores really paved the way for Día de los Muertos here in Colorado,” Duran said.

Duran collaborated with the 90-year-old artist and former teacher to build the altar. At the center of the display is an enormous paper mâché sculpture of a storytelling woman with children and skeletons gathering to hear the tales.

“Rita was an educator, and I’m an educator myself, so it’s really important to include the stories to our next generation so they can hold onto our legacies and our traditions,” Duran said.

The skeletons symbolize the duality of life and death, and that we are all the same down to our bones.

Denver artist shares a dozen Día de los Muertos altars across Colorado

Alongside the storyteller sculpture, Duran arranged suitcases carrying memories and photographs, marigold flowers, candles, woven designs known as Ojo de Dios and other offerings like corn grown in his garden.

When building an ofrenda, “we're adding things that [the person who passed] loved,” he said. “We add all the elements of this earth. So, the air, the fire, the water.”

That combination of the elements is why Duran specializes in clay sculptures.

"Clay is really important to me. It's one of the oldest mediums on this planet. It is earth. And it really just connects us deeper to our ancestors,” he said.

Cal Duran clay art in studio
Cal Duran makes a skull from clay in his studio in the Santa Fe Arts District.

This year, Duran made 300 clay skulls to adorn his twelve altars located in cities including Denver, Colorado Springs, Lakewood, Lafayette and Greeley.

Duran invites community members to interact with those altars and consider building their own.

"I think if you really want to celebrate your loved ones, and you're coming from a place of love and heart, that anybody could really celebrate this beautiful celebration,” he said.

Day of the Dead altar water
Cal Duran pours water as an offering at his altar in the History Colorado Center lobby.

Here’s where you can visit Cal Duran’s Day of the Dead altars:

Denver Botanic Gardens
Until November 5
1007 York St, Denver, CO 80206

History Colorado Center
Until November 5
1200 N Broadway, Denver, CO 80203

Denver Zoo
Until November 1
2300 Steele St, Denver, CO 80205

The Collective in Old Town Lafayette
Until November 5
201 N Public Rd, Lafayette, CO 80026

Spectra Art Space
Until December
1836 S Broadway, Denver, CO 80210

Pirate Contemporary Art
Until November 12
7130 W 16th Ave, Lakewood, CO 80214

Fine Arts Center
Until November 2
30 W Dale St, Colorado Springs, CO 80903

University of Northern Colorado Campus Commons Gallery
Until November 23
1051 22nd St, Greeley, CO 80639

Denver Public Library Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales Branch
1498 Irving St, Denver, CO 80204

Museo de las Americas
November 3 from 5pm to 9:30pm
861 Santa Fe Drive, Denver, CO 80204

Chicano Humanities and Arts Council (CHAC) Gallery
November 3 from 5pm to 9:30pm
834 Santa Fe Dr, Denver, CO 80204

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