Harley Torres doesn’t typically linger on death.
However, when his dog Spunky died in September, he immediately started drawing a charcoal portrait of the 6-year-old chihuahua, lying belly-up on his mother’s floor.
“He’s been passed to everyone as the family dog, so he’s always been a member of the family,” Torres said.
Torres submitted four pieces of art memorializing Spunky to the Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, festival and exhibit at Garden City Arts, 318 N. Main St.
The festival, which is free and open to the public, will be from 2 to 5 p.m. Sunday featuring art and music from more than 30 people. There will be a community altar where people can bring ofrendas — offerings — to remember their loved ones who have passed.
There will be face painting and arts and crafts for kids at the festival. The exhibit will run through Nov. 14.
The Day of the Dead is a public holiday in Mexico, coinciding with All Saints’ Day.
The charcoal portrait of Spunky is based on a description that Torres’ mother gave him over the phone. Another piece in the collection is a ceramic sculpture of Spunky, made to look like a stylized skeleton.
Spunky’s death didn’t come as a surprise, Torres said.
“He was a runt, so he was already a very underdeveloped dog when we first got him,” Torres said. “He also had a medical condition with his spine, which caused his spine to twist in an unnatural position. He would run on three legs.”
One of the pieces, a ceramic vase, reads “Acta Sanctorum,” which translates into act of saint or act of sainthood.
“It’s more of a way of not looking at his death as incidental, but trying to put meaning behind it,” Torres said.
Torres had long drawn some artistic inspiration from Spunky as a way to incorporate more Mexican iconography and cultural symbols into his work.
Growing up in Ulysses, he said, he was raised without an understanding of Mexican culture and what it means to be Hispanic-American, which led him to “bury” expressions of his identity.
“Everything was very conservative, especially on the points of culture, so social norms were really (defined by) white American culture,” Torres said. “My family was already established in the area, so they knew what the social norms were, what could be said, what couldn’t be said.”
He graduated from high school and in fall 2011 came to Garden City Community College, where he found himself again in the role of an outsider because he wasn’t as versed in Hispanic culture as most other students there.
Making Spunky-inspired art would become the culmination of Torres’ growing interest in his own Mexican culture and food and Spanish language over the past few years.
“Whenever you get thrown into a situation like college, where everyone’s life experiences, culture and lifestyles are everywhere in your face all the time, you don’t know exactly how to to adapt to it,” Torres said. “But after a couple semesters, very good instructors and a lot of good advising, I was able to come out of my shell a bit more and embrace more of this cultural identity that I never had before.”
While Halloween is generally seen as a holiday highlighting evil and scary monsters, Día de los Muertos is more of a celebration of death and life, according to Lydia Gonzalez, a major figure in the history of the Hispanic community in Garden City.
“When the day comes, we generally have a Mass and people will go to the cemetery to take pictures of the graves and the person’s favorite food, or a pack of cigarettes if they smoked,” Gonzalez said. “We celebrate their life and look at it in a good way.”
This year, Gonzalez brought a family photo album to the arts center for the community altar. When asked who comes to mind this year, Gonzalez brings up her daughter, Angie Gonzalez-Posey.
Angie died in 1986 of a rare bone disease.
“She was 30 years old,” Gonzalez said. “She was a real friendly person, and helped a lot of people.”
Gonzalez’s mother raised her to celebrate life on Día de los Muertos, and to use those who have passed as an example for others.
Torres’ parents taught him to think of the holiday as an opportunity to remember those who had gone before and to regain a sense of respect for elders.
At Torres’ mother’s house, Spunky is survived by two chihuahua puppies, their mother and their aunt.
“Moving forward would just be simply embracing the pets that we do have, remembering him in any way that we can,” Torres said. “For me, especially when it comes to grieving or passing, it’s been straightforward. I usually don’t linger on death too much, so it’s interesting that this one has affected me so much to move to make art.”