Where Poe and Día de los Muertos Meet

  • 11/02/2018
  • Terelle Jerricks

By Terelle Jerricks, Managing Editor

It is generally his place of birth or the place where he met his demise that the major Edgar Allan Poe festivals live. For decades at Westminster Hall and Burying Ground in Baltimore, Maryland — the site of Poe’s original grave — an unidentified Poe devotee swathed in dark clothing, carrying a silver-tipped cane, would pour a glass of cognac and raise a toast to the revered but long-dead author on the date of his birth.

On the date of Poe’s death, funeral reenactments and candle-light vigils are staged at Carroll Mansion. All rituals are surrounded by festivals. But Poe fandom is a global phenomenon. Not even this port town at the southern edge of a metropolis called Los Angeles is immune.

This past month, beginning Oct. 6, Gallery Azul exhibited their second annual Poe show, curated by 16-year-old Harmony Vasquez . The show drew paintings from 20 different artists, including Harmony and her parents, Ray and Cora Ramirez-Vasquez. The show ended Oct. 20 with an artist reception and a Poe-inspired poetry reading.

Harmony is a student at Harbor Teacher Preparation Academy, a high school at Los Angeles Harbor College. It’s a campus where students, after completing so many units, can then become elective dual enrollees, simultaneously taking high school and college courses. Though Harmony hasn’t begun taking art classes at Harbor Teacher Prep yet, she has been studying art under the tutelage of her parents and founders of San Pedro’s Gallery Azul, Cora and Ray Vasquez, her entire life.

The impetus for the Poe exhibit at Gallery Azul was a class assignment in which the father of the modern detective novel was the subject matter. After reading some of his work and digging deep into his biography, Harmony was inspired to curate a show on Poe.

“The reason why I curated the Edgar Allan Poe show last year was because we were studying him in school,” Harmony explained. “I found his life interesting, especially the tragedies he’s faced in his life,” she said.

“The focus of a lot of his work were women or women in his life dying,” she said. “I thought it was interesting how he turned that pain into writing rather than just killing himself.”

The first call-out inspired by the Gothic writer was that the work be based on any one of his short stories or poems. The Raven was by far the most popular material from which artists chose to derive their work.

“It was really fun for me to do it again this year,” Harmony said. “We have to be a little higher than another coffee shop using lower quality ingredients,” she said.  “I didn’t expect last year’s show to be as popular as it was.”

Ray and Cora use their deep ties to artists to send out the call-out. Art submissions came from San Diego, Long Beach and West Los Angeles. They also utilize the L.A. Culture Net, a listserv moderated by the Los Angeles County Arts Commission.

Ray noted that last year’s show elicited excitement, causing artists to ask whether Gallery Azul would host another Poe exhibit. Ray said he was shocked by the response.

“Just for Gallery Azul, the response was overwhelming. So many people kept on asking, ‘Are you going to do it again? Are going to do it again?’ So many people wanted to join us.” Ray said. “Last year we had a full set of different artists that showed.”

Ray said he hoped that some of the artists that displayed work last year would be a part of this year’s show. While some did, this year’s show attracted a whole new fresh crop of artists that weren’t a part of the exhibit last year.

Cora said the artists who participated often remarked on how few actual local shows there are on Poe. The only one that’s currently happening is the Long Beach Opera’s The Black Cat, an Edgar Allan Poe short story that will be staged at the  Terrace Theatre on Jan. 19 and 20, 2019. But the local interest is strong and has allowed Gallery Azul’s Poe show to build in momentum from one year to the next.

The  producer of The Black Cat opera reached out to Gallery Azul to create a cross-collaboration. Gallery Azul will be displaying some of the work from their Edgar Allan Poe show in the lobby of the Terrace Theatre.

The timing of the Poe show and Gallery Azul’s annual Día de los Muertos exhibit, which is Nov. 1, couldn’t be more apropos. When Cora and Ray began the annual gallery event, it was as much about educating the community about the holiday and the culture behind it as it was an opportunity to showcase serious artists focusing on Día de los Muertos themes.

Another part of their aim is to educate participants about the roots of Día de los Muertos. Some of the rituals associated with the holiday go back to the time of the Aztecs, such as the retention of the skulls of loved ones as a way of keeping their essence alive, or the building of altars. Thirteen years in, Gallery Azul’s annual Día de los Muertos exhibit is more than just a teaching tool — it’s a cultural touchstone for San Pedro.

This year, Gallery Azul is featuring the work by David Flores, Mark Metzner, and Carla Ortega alongside the original work from Ray and Cora.

The show opens Nov. 1, from 6 to 9 p.m. during the First Thursday Art Walk in San Pedro. The show ends on Nov. 17 with an artists reception from 5 to 9 p.m.

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