Solana Beach artist creates altar of love and spirit

By Claire Harlin

Between now and Nov. 7, guests of Leaping Lotus in Solana Beach can enjoy more than the thousands of trinkets and pieces of art for sale in the shop, but they can relish a culturally educational exhibit that’s not only extravagant, but particularly special to the man who made it.

Artist Todd Swenke, who specializes in painting the colorfully-adorned skeletons that characterize Dia de los Muertos, has erected three large and elaborate altars at the entrance of the shop, which not only bring attention to the Latino holiday, but also pay homage to his own family members who have passed on.

As tradition has it, Dia De Los Muertos is a time when the dead return home to visit loved ones, feast on their favorite foods and listen to their favorite music. Swenke has traditionally honored deceased family members in his own home, and for the past to years, he has brought his altars, which tower at least six feet in height and have multiple tiers filled with offerings, two Leaping Lotus.

Swenke isn’t Hispanic, but he said “the altars can transcend any culture.

“It’s about paying homage to those you respect,” he said. “It’s a beautiful way to honor family members who are deceased.”

Dia de los Muertos starts on Nov. 1, a day that is dedicated to the children and infants, and ends on Nov. 2, the day that is dedicated to deceased adults.

A Montana native, Swenke’s altars contain black-and-white photos of his Western great grandparents, and items from his wife’s family are also featured on the colorful, hand-painted altar shelves. He included a bottle of Kahlua — his grandmother’s favorite spirit — many flowers and jewels, artificial foods and a number of hand-painted Dia de los Muertos skeletal figures and skulls. Also included are colorful soaps, water and a towel — so the dead can be cleansed after their journey.

Similarly themed paintings hang throughout the shop and altar display, one of which was the collaborative effort of Swenke and his 18-year-old daughter, Tiffany, who is pursuing a fine arts degree. The painting, titled “Transision,” illustrates the transition from past life to post-mortem, and shows a woman (painted by Tiffany), who is half skeleton (painted by Swenke).

“It gives you so much fulfillment as a parent to create something with your child,” Swenke said.

The exhibition also features an altar created by Maya Ramirez, from Aguascaliente, Mexico, which shares relics from her family in Mexico. Three-dimensional art by Cesar Castaneda is also on display —including two tree stumps that have been transformed into ornate and organic feathered animal heads, one of which is suspended high above the ground. Also on view (and on sale from almost $900) is a boxed spring bed that was used as the palette for a large, detailed Dia de los Muertos-themed painting.

Leaping Lotus is located at 240 S. Cedros Ave. For more information call (858) 720-8283.