Alibi V.12 No.46 • Nov 13-19, 2003 

Art Article

Rivers of Blood

Raising Casualties: Ofrendas a las Victimas de las Guerras at Visiones Gallery

Unless we're talking about our own sons, daughters, husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, sisters or brothers, war casualties are mostly just numbers. The dead come back in body bags, wrapped in American flags, bones in boxes. Or worse, if their skin happens to be the wrong color, if they speak the wrong language, if they live in the wrong country, then they're annihilated anonymously. In that case, we rarely hear or think about them at all.

Our nation is at war, and the heap of dead is getting higher every day. The war in Iraq is half a world away, though, and many of us find it difficult to comprehend the growing carnage.

Working Classroom, an Albuquerque-based arts and education program, has made a small but creative attempt to open our minds to the effects of violence in war. Every year, the program brings in a professional artist to mentor talented teenage artists from Albuquerque's "historically ignored communities" to create Día de Los Muertos altars based on a specific theme. This time out the theme, appropriately, is victims of war.

This year's mentor was New York artist Gregory Coates. Coates and his young accomplices set up their altars at Working Classroom's Visiones Gallery, arranging the show like a variation on a haunted house so it twists through the gallery like a snake, offering surprises, and horrors, around every turn.

Although the altars were created by individual students or small groups, Coates integrated each of them into a unified whole. A skeleton plays guitar near the entrance surrounded by discarded clothes, a few burning candles and a crucifix. Across the way, bloodstained posts and cardboard are riddled with bullet holes and missiles jut out from mangled clumps of chicken wire.

Further along, Working Classroom veteran Michael Martinez has created a small warfield on a camouflaged army cot. Tiny bloodstained plastic animals and plastic army soldiers are strewn across the battlefield. "Ashes to Ashes" and "Dust to Dust" is scrawled on the arms of a cardboard body. The hands and feet are punctured with stigmata, and where the head should be is a gold halo inset with doves of peace.

Deeper into the labyrinth, dismembered baby dolls point handguns at the viewer, a busted TV is fill with a skeleton and candles, and balloons, confetti and a blood-spattered skull fill an isolated alcove.

More sugar skulls. An upside down ladder. A Zen sand garden filled with more plastic army soldiers inside a ghostly bower.

When the exhibit spits you out the other side, you feel like you've endured something, like these kids have truly attempted to grapple with the realities of military destruction and translated that horror with enormous lucidity to the viewer.

The Raising Casualties exhibit, though, is just one example of the many fine projects Working Classroom has accomplished over its 15-year history. The organization has done much to inspire talented teens from neglected neighborhoods to go to college, live their creative dreams and engage with their communities in socially beneficial ways.

For this reason, I was saddened to learn that Working Classroom is currently experiencing financial difficulties. Because the non-profit organization recently lost some of its long-time donors, Nan Elessar, the executive director, says if it doesn't generate $25,000 by the end of the year, it will have to close its doors for good.

Working Classroom has an established record of encouraging talented teens and keeping them on track so they can achieve their academic and personal goals. It would be a real loss to Albuquerque if it had to close its doors. Whip out your wallets and give what you can spare. Albuquerque needs this organization.

Raising Casualties: Ofrendas a las Victimas de las Guerras, a Day of the Dead exhibit created by Working Classroom teens and mentoring artists Gregory Coates, runs through Dec. 5 at Visiones Gallery. 242-9267.