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Permanent Collection Highlight: Jerry Vigil’s Day of the Dead Muertos Sculptures

“El Pachuco” and “Frida” detail from the FAC Permanent Collection,
acrylic paint on paper mache over foam/wood and chicken wire/wood armature

Self-taught Chicano artist Jerry Vigil synthesizes contemporary and traditional artistic styles in both his santos (saint) and muertos (skeleton) art. His subject matter ranges from Jerry Garcia to Catrina (the “Lady of the Dead”), commissioned muertos figures to Rasta man. Vigil echoes the festivity of Dia de los Muertos through his own muertos figures which are dressed in contemporary fashion and generally reflect current culture. The humor and strange relatability of a skeleton looking and ‘acting’ like the living draws almost any audience member in, thus opening cultural doors between artist and viewer.

Vigil recently donated the two works pictured above to the FAC’s permanent collection.

Pachuco and Frida are also considered iconic figures of Mexican and Mexican American culture. Pachucos are Mexican-American youth who developed their own subculture in the 1930s and 1940s. They are known to dress in distinctive clothes (such as zoot suits) and are associated with neighborhood gangs. Vigil was particularly inspired by the lead character of the pachuco famously played by Edward James Olmos in the stage and film versions of the landmark Latino musical drama Zoot Suit directed by Luis Valdez. The musical drama is a fictionalized account of the Sleepy Lagoon case, in which a group of young Hispanic men are falsely convicted of murder following what became known as the 1942 Los Angeles zoot suit riots. “Frida” is inspired by the leading Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, best known for her introspective self-portraits and her relationship with muralist Diego Rivera.

For these life-size sculptures, Vigil was working on recreating the paper mache technique used by the famous Linares family of artists, known for their life-size calaveras. Since Vigil was not able to find information on the process he worked on the pieces on his own, experimenting with various materials and techniques.

“Frida” was a work he altered from an original kite flying calavera made from paper mache over chicken wire, newsprint and PVC pipe and wood for the structure. For “El Pachuco”, Vigil found a more effective technique, using insulation foam cut and carved into shapes and then covered with postal brown paper. He painted it blue, his signature calavera color, which he uses to differentiate his artwork from the traditional style.

In 2007, Vigil’s “Death and Dying: Cultural, Spiritual and Professional Perspectives” exhibition won the Diversity/Excellence Grant award for its exploration of death across many different contexts — especially in contrasting traditional Dia de los Muertos against the conventional somberness of Western views. Vigil has shown on local, national and international levels, gaining prestige due to his alternative approach to traditional Mexican art forms.