Michael DeMeng recalls the first time he stepped into a Mexican cemetery. It was late December, 1993, and the village of Xo Xo on the outskirts of Oaxaca City was celebrating its annual Day of the Dead festival. Though it was dark outside, a sea of candlelight made it easier for DeMeng to make out locals gathered around brightly colored, flower-framed shrines that honored dead loved ones. He had his camera with him, but instead of photographing the scene he decided to wander through it, letting the weathered statues, skeleton drawings, bent photographs and mementos of the shrines pull him into the experience.
"In my mind it's the most beautiful thing I have in memory," he says. "It's one of those places that really changed me as an artist. It made my 2-D world into a 3-D world. I started working with more found objects and shrines. And I fell in love with the place and the culture."
Over the years, since his first trip to Oaxaca, DeMeng has established himself as a local Latin American-inspired assemblage artist with a penchant for found, often rusty, objects. He's created shrines and statues consisting of grinning skeletons, stoic saints and snarling demons. Old pocket watch faces become eyes. Little doors and windows open into nooks and crannies filled with tiny totems.
DeMeng's new book, Dusty Diablos: Folklore, Iconography, Assemblage, Ole! (which follows his previous Secret of Rusty Things) shows a lot about who DeMeng is as an art educator. The book delves into Mexican folklore and pop culture, but it's not just for a passive audience. DeMeng teaches workshops on assemblage, and so the book serves as inspiration for the aspiring rusty-object enthusiast. If you want to learn how to age a bottle cap so you can make it into a folk charm called a milagro, there's a whole step-by-step recipe. It also has tear-out loteria cards for the reader's personal projects, plus a full-on explanation of how to make your own shrine. But when you boil the book down to its core, it's really just part of DeMeng's ongoing tribute to Mexico.
"The stories and the items and ideas of the book are part of the Mexican experience and my interpretation of those things," he says. "It's a love affair with Mexico."
Last year, DeMeng took a gondola trip to the Island of the Dolls near Mexico City where he discovered an intriguing project that's spanned over 50 years. The island—Isla de Las Muñecas—sits in a network of water called the Xochimilico Canals. It's as big as a city block and full of thousands of old dolls—some hanging up in trees and others gathered in spots on the ground. DeMeng learned that a farmer named Julian Santana had lived alone on the island for several decades. After he heard the cries of what he claimed were those of a young girl who had drowned in the water years earlier, the farmer began to build a shrine to the girl, amassing junked dolls he found in Mexico City dumpsters. Soon, people began bringing him dolls to add the collection (often in exchange for the produce he grew on the island). Even after Santana died in 2001, dolls have continued to appear on the island.
"That's what I love about Mexico—every place you turn you find strange little things like that," says DeMeng. "Is it mere superstition or is there something to it? Or does it matter? It was real enough for him. And from that, he created an art piece, an installation that he left behind for us to see."
The dolls affected DeMeng more than he had thought they would. He returned to Missoula to continue to make art, but the images of doll parts started working their way into his pieces.
"After I got back from photographing the island I found myself drawn to little doll hands and broken faces," he says, "things that you find in a doll hospital."
Doll parts, rusty nails, skeletons and broken pieces of wing make for a macabre style, but DeMeng insists a bleak outlook does not fuel his style. Instead, he's inspired by the liveliness he finds in Mexcio, including that first day in the Mexican cemetery. It's why he continues to travel back to Oaxaca every year.
"Being in that space with all these families gathered around graves honoring their deceased loved ones, it became very clear to me that this life and death is different from what we have in the states," he says. "Some people consider it grim, but it's not at all. It was heartwarming. I definitely think they have a better grasp of mortality than we do. Even beyond Day of the Dead, I think they have a better grasp of living. And this art grew from that experience."
Michael DeMeng gives a presentation on Dusty Diablos: Folklore, Iconography, Assemblage, Ole! at Shakespeare & Co. Tuesday, April 27, at 7 PM. Free.