Raising the Dead

Luis Villanueva holds out two crumpled objects made of burlap, cotton and cigarette foil that bear a slight resemblance to human figures. “This is Mary and Joseph,” he says. “When I was five years old, I wanted a créche, but my mother said we were too poor. So I made one.”

Villanueva, then living in a small Mexican town, gained an invaluable lesson: Beautiful art can come from the things that others discard.

For the past 50 years, he’s continued to make intricate pieces out of recycled materials. Along with the Spanish and Indian traditions of his childhood, Villanueva takes inspiration from the Technicolor culture of Los Angeles, where he now serves as artistic director at the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) Festival at Hollywood Forever Memorial Park.

Although his themes morph from mythical to folk to pop, one constant is the use of found materials: oatmeal containers, Styrofoam plates, lamp shades, tennis balls, costume jewelry. The final object is always covered with a veneer of papier-mã{99}
é, making it difficult to appreciate the full range of imagination at work.

“His genius is to watch him at work,” says Yadhira De Leon, promotional director at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles, where Villanueva leads children’s workshops.

“I think Luis uses his art to show there’s something divine or godly about using recycled materials,” De Leon says. His riotously costumed skeletons (known as “La Calavera Catrina”) have been on display at the Day of the Dead festivities. The Catrinas recall a full range of Mexico’s traditions from its ancient, colonial and revolutionary past that alternately revere and mock death.

“The traditional art world can be very proscribed about the range of acceptable art materials. Villanueva throws that all out the window,” says Eduardo Diaz, director of the Latino Center at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. “For me, it’s all about quality, relevance, diversity and accessibility. Luis’ art is all of that.”