by Ellen C. Warren
photos by Alice Waraxa
Imagine a cheerful, bubbling, joyful person. We will call her Celeste Contreras. Then think about death.
Because, as incongruous as it sounds, she does, much of the time. Because it is a subject that has drawn and intrigued her for a long time. Because it led her to creating and organizing Milwaukee’s Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, parade project. Because her home is filled with ofrendas, offerings to passed souls. “I have at least one shrine in every room,” she says.
A cultural journey
It began in Thailand, “where my whole Day of the Dead journey started,” explains Celeste. In 2001 she went to Thailand for a year as an A.F.S. exchange student. Before departing she shaved her head. “I wanted to be a Buddhist nun,” she relates casually. Her studies included art, dance, language, cooking, Buddhism, meditation. “That’s where I learned that you can meditate all the time,” she shares. “You don’t have to just sit there. You can do it all the time.” It’s called Mindfulness Meditation.
“While I was living there, February 15, 2002, my oldest (of four) host sister had heart complications, out of nowhere, and passed away. She was 24 years old,” recalls Celeste. “Well, it’s really popular to take photos at funerals there. So, my teacher, who was like my mom, took photos of the whole funeral.”
The Buddhist funeral ceremony lasts for eight days.
Even with all of that Celeste still hadn’t really grieved. But the death, and other deaths around her there, led her to wonder about her reasons for being there. “I’m not Thai. I’m Mexican and Polish. What am I doing here? How can I learn about who I am?” That is when she decided she needed to seek out her own roots in search of her identity.
Celeste returned to Milwaukee. Her first day of work at Beans and Barley, a job she kept for most of fifteen years, was on October 1, 2002. “I remember the exact date because I just got arrested in D.C. the weekend before,” she says while laughing. “It was at the I.M.F. World Bank meeting. We were in jail for a weekend and then came back.”
“And even that was related to death,” she adds. Her companion to Washington learned of the suicide of her aunt. “And we had to come back. And there were all these things sort of building … my sister’s death, this death, the others in Thailand … it was like this eye opened up … it was like … this is the world, this is life, this is death.”
She worked for ten months, took her 5000 dollars and traveled to San Francisco to visit a friend for a couple weeks. Then she got on a bus headed to Guadalajara, Jalisco. “Little did I know it was a three-day bus trip,” says a still-amazed Celeste. “I didn’t know! I didn’t have a translator book. I didn’t know Spanish. I didn’t have a map. I didn’t have anything but my bus ticket, my sketchbook, and my backpack.”
When she arrived in Guadalajara at 3 in the morning she cried her eyes out and found a “1965 hotel.” After some sleep and a little food her mood improved, especially when she found “my people … street kids making art.” She also found a cool hostel and spent a few days of the rainy season reading an awesome book, eating guavas and drinking a Corona a night. When some Lonely Planet-reading gringos caught her eye, she spoke with them and they recommended she go to Guanajuato.
The next seven or eight months found her in Guanajuato. A street dog led her to a “really hot Czech guy who taught me how to hitchhike.” He was a student in this city of universities, arts and culture, and introduced her to other international students. She attended the Cervantino Festival, a two week arts festival. “It covers the spectrum of incredible art, all art forms,” drawing artists and audience from all over the world.
“And so after that, the day it ends, the next day you wake up and the entire city is, literally, plastered with Day of the Dead art,” she exclaims. “People must have been drawing and painting for months, then they all go out on the night before the Day of the Dead on October 31st and plaster the whole city!”
The celebration lasts about three days. “There are ofrendas everywhere. There are altars, shrines, traditional or very modern. Oh my God it was so cool!”
Ofrendas offer an answer
“I built my first ofrenda, ever, for Day of the Dead in Mexico. Then I went to the cemetery by myself … I did the procession to the cemetery … everyone is constantly processing to the beautiful cemetery on the hillside and I found the Contreras name (not her family, hers comes from Monterrey, Nuevo Leon) and I stayed there all night. I stayed out of the way, and there was no other family there.”
When the sun rose she returned home.
“Mexico taught me how to deal with death. I finally had a tool … my gosh! Ofrendas. Remembering. It doesn’t have to be a grieving time.”
Celeste returned to Wisconsin and spent the next several years working in a variety of positions that included traveling the state teaching about water conservation with the Wacky Water Wheelin’ Walleye Cycle Circus and teaching at Fernwood Montessori school. She studied Cultural Anthropology at M.A.T.C. and when she dropped out before completing her degree she knew she needed a project.
“I wasn’t in school, I didn’t have a degree, I didn’t have a kid, I didn’t have anything. And so I said ‘I gotta do something.’ And this was the something,” she says of the Dia de los Muertos Parade. “I thought it would be a one-time thing. But it didn’t turn out to be a one-time thing.”
The 2016 Day of the Dead Parade (Saturday, Oct. 29) is the city’s seventh. With the backing of the Walker’s Point community and a committee that meets throughout the year, the parade has evolved into a Dia de los Muertos Festival that includes a Run, an Art Market, and free workshops before and during the Festival, all created by volunteers.
Celeste says of the Ofrenda workshops, “The families come, and at first they’re really quiet. And then they really get into it. And now everyone is sharing memories about their loved ones … just over cardboard and paint. We all talk about our memories … and that’s when I know that this is what I should be doing, this is what we all need, I need this …”
Since the beginning, the Festival has been keeping a list to honor the young people who lose their lives in this city through murder. Celeste sees the list growing more quickly in recent years, and she’s contemplating how to deal with death through murder. “So right now I’m trying to figure out how do I honor that? How do I move forward with Black Lives Matters? This isn’t just death, this is something beyond that. How do I deal with that for the future?” she wonders.
Perhaps part of that answer is held within her own reflections. “I know how much art helps people.” That’s why Celeste is using the methods that she is, and why she is presently a student of Art Education at Alverno.
There’s so much more to be said of this extraordinary tour de force who returned to our neighborhood with her husband Aaron a year ago. She’s nostalgic for the Riverwest of the late ‘90’s, her first time living here. But still, her “I feel comfortable in Riverwest,” says it all.
RAA Artitst Profile – Kevin Lynch – Jazz Medicine
by Elizabeth Vogt
photo by John Ruebartsch
“What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! … The paragon of animals! And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?”
—William Shakespeare, Hamlet
Let’s agree with Prince Hamlet: we humans are amazing, yet fundamentally and existentially flawed. Our challenges are mostly self-made, our tireless striving for new discoveries often adds to our troubles. Occasionally someone sheds new, insightful light on the human condition. We need this, especially now. Riverwest writer, jazz historian, and artist Kevin Lynch is one of these beacons. His views are compelling and intellectually lively. Had Hamlet only known the powers of jazz music!
We visited Kevin in his Riverwest flat, surrounded by dense collections of books, music, and art. He began, in this realm of self-curated treasures, with his history.
Music became Lynch’s “golden thread through life” early on. He gravitated to his parents’ jazz music at home in Shorewood, improvised on the piano, collected albums, and listened. While earning a BFA in sculpture at UWM, a talent with verbal critiques emerged. This led to serious writing and freelance work.
Kevin became the jazz album buyer at Radio Doctors in the mid-1970s, “a quintessential Milwaukee experience.” His reputation led to writing jazz reviews and commentary for Coda, a Canadian jazz magazine, the Milwaukee Journal, Down Beat, and more. He was swept into a cultural phenomenon, often at Chuck LaPaglia’s Riverwest Milwaukee Jazz Gallery, one of the premier clubs in the country (now: Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts).
Milwaukee jazz reporter Kevin Lynch dove deep into the scene. His reviews reflect the performers’ brilliance and prevailing excitement. Musicians featured included Dizzy Gillespie (“a life force!”), the Marsalis brothers, Sun Ra, and singer Betty Carter (a “phenomenal presence, like a dancer on the stage”). During those years he also studied jazz piano at the Wisconsin Conservatory and earned a Master’s in English at UWM.
The philosophy that Kevin mined from this culture recognizes jazz as more than improv; it embraces the core nature of our nation. He affirms: “Jazz is innately American; true to the way we do things —a template for the democratic process.” The model: a group accepts a fundamental structure; members improvise upon it. Under the surface of innovation and discovery, agreed-upon principles and goals guide the process. Revolution and evolution, working together.
Extraordinary, the dynamism of this music. “It turns, ‘What’s going to happen now?’ into an art form,” Lynch describes. One critic called jazz the “sound of surprise.” Lynch connects this with our American experience: “as crazy as it gets, it can grow into something beautiful.”
The jazz storm quieted, and Lynch went to Madison to write for The Capital Times. Back in Riverwest since 2009, Kevin freelances while working on his own books and blog. He ponders the likes of Melville’s symbolic whale-hunting Captain Ahab, his cosmopolitan crew, their maniacal hunt. Where are we going, what are we pursuing? The only thing certain is that we are on this ship together—improvising.
Visit Kevin’s blog: Cultural Currents (Vernaculars Speak) at kevernacular.com.
Watch for Kevin Lynch’s books: Voices in the River: the Jazz Message to Democracy and Melville’s Trace, or The Jackal. Milwaukee Jazz Gallery 1978-1984, an anthology of reviews and photos, is available at the Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts, 926 E. Center Street (Riverwest Artists Association, riverwestart.org).