Most of Hector Castellanos Lara’s artwork is short-lived.
His surrealist scenes enlivened by colorful sidewalk chalk wash away after a light rain. Vinyl-tablecloths-turned-feathers transform children into long-tailed birds before being carelessly removed and trampled after a dramatic procession. But that doesn’t keep the mixed-media artist — who has participated in Cleveland Museum of Art’s Parade the Circle and Chalk Festival for about a decade — from coming back for more.
“You enjoy the moment of creation,” he says. “I guess it’s like the cycle of life. We do art, and it disappears. We are always creating things, we don’t stop.”
A native of Guatemala, Castellanos Lara moved to the United States when he was 22. Raised by artist parents, the 62-year-old draws inspiration from their work and the traditions of his homeland, such as the colorful sawdust carpets, known as alfombras, which close off streets during Holy Week. Created from shredded plywood and cardboard dyed with house paints, the 40-foot carpets are emblazoned with religious symbols and cultural icons then trampled underfoot by a holy procession.
Since 1998, his small-scale renditions — no-less colorful and intricate — have graced high school Spanish classes and the atrium of MetroHealth Medical Center.
“The purpose is that this is an offering to God,” says Castellanos Lara of the Guatemalan alfombras. “These carpets unify the whole street.”
In 2005, Castellanos Lara founded the annual Dia de Muertos, or “Day of the Dead,” celebration with a similar mission — to bring together Cleveland’s diverse community. The Oct. 28 festival attracts about 600 people to Cleveland Public Theatre’s West Side complex each year for an artistic expression of the Mexican holiday that honors deceased loved ones.
“It’s a blending of cultures that’s happening,” he says. “You can see the traditions as well as contemporary installations. They still have the same meaning, the same power.”
A graveyard marked by paper-mache and wooden tombs occupies the backyard. Contemporary art installations and traditional candle-centric altars line a church sanctuary, and stages showcase mariachi bands and Latino jazz. The party revs up to a 40-minute processional of giant skeleton puppets, including imitations of Mexican painters Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera snagged from Parade the Circle, that are transported by elaborate floats and painted patrons.
“You don’t have to be a Latino to celebrate the Day of the Dead,” says Castellanos Lara. “It’s the human experience [that] brings us all together.”
Behind the scenes, Castellanos Lara secures funding and permits. He coordinates with about 20 artists to ensure a cohesive installation. But even now, as he paints new acrylic skeleton scenes to sell as souvenirs in the parish hall, he carves out time for new collaborations.
He recently organized an exhibit at the Firefish Festival in Lorain called Nuestro Mundo Diverso, or “Our Diverse World,” that runs through Oct. 15. He and four Latino artists, including sculptors, painters and fellow alfombra designer Magdalena Cruz, share the space to celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month.
“You bring the arts and miracles happen,” he says. “When we are part of a project together, we all learn from each other, it makes us stronger and has a bigger impact on the community.”