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Ars longa? Traditional Latin American carpet art is designed for a short display

Right now, a work of art painstakingly created by renowned painter Hector Castellanos Lara over a span of two days lies in repose on the floor of the Studio Theatre in Creighton University’s Lied Education Center for the Arts.

In another day, it will be no more.

Four or five times a year for the last 18 years, Castellanos Lara works in the Latin American tradition of alfombra art, creating beautiful, color-splashed carpets using paint-drenched sawdust, sand and other natural elements. The medium is deliberately ephemeral as, upon their completion, crowds of people are invited to walk over them, just as if they were carpets, and the materials are trod to the four winds.

“You have to live in the moment,” said Castellanos Lara, a native of Guatemala who has created the present piece at Creighton in conjunction with the Theatre Department’s production of a new play, The Dairy Maid-Rite. “The moment we are living right now will not last forever. Nothing does. We are always evolving, always changing. A piece like this reminds you of that, reminds you that you must accept that change, that transition, even between life and death.”

With help from students and faculty, Castellanos Lara has created two alfombra (which translates as “carpet” from Spanish) at Creighton, including the one on the floor of the Studio Theatre — measuring four feet by 20 feet — which will be walked through following the final performance of The Dairy Maid-Right on April 22 at 2 p.m.

This long carpet painting is resplendent with brilliant butterflies, flowers, doves and a bird of paradise, all in the light of a rising sun. But a series of stacked gray blocks encroaches to break up that color — a wall. And at the wall’s terminus, a girl crying a single tear. The painting speaks to the play’s content: two Nebraska teenagers confronting the arrival in their small town of a young Guatemalan immigrant.

The second artwork is on a table and depicts a cross surrounded by flowers and fish, a bit more in the style of traditional alfombra, which are typically created by families in cities and towns in Latin America in advance of the Good Friday processions which then erase the sawdust art. The smaller piece will be mobile, as The Dairy Maid-Rite took its show on the road this week at Gallery 1516 in Omaha Thursday night. It may turn out to be a bit more permanent than the larger work.

“These are devotionals,” Castellanos Lara said. “Families create them, work hard on them all night by candlelight and lanterns. People pray over them. Then, by 3 p.m. on Good Friday, to commemorate the Crucifixion, they will be walked over. That sometimes shocks people who have not seen a procession which wipes the painting out. They say, ‘What’s going to happen?’ The answer is simple: ‘It will be destroyed.’ But we’ll make another. Another will come again and be new and beautiful.”

Preparations for the Creighton alfombra started with the hand-mixing of paint and sawdust in a vat, a process in which several Creighton students and faculty took part. The concoction is then laid and shaped by hand over a bed of sawdust. Castellanos Lara created several forms to help the work’s flowers, birds and other designs take shape.

“It’s like cooking,” Castellanos Lara said. “It’s a long process and it takes some time to get the color right. But once you start getting the sawdust down, that’s when it all starts. The color evolves and the whole piece starts to open up. People think that I have a plan. I don’t. I just let it happen as we go. I love the freedom to work like that. And that’s the other part of this. As a visual artist, you have to be flexible. Things are constantly changing, we’re constantly learning and acquiring new vision. What’s going to happen in the end? You never know.”

Of course, at the very end is the piece’s obliteration, but even that leaves a searing imprint on the minds of those who saw it. With the larger Creighton alfombra aimed at the social justice issue of immigration, those who helped Castellanos Lara create it are hopeful the image sticks in the minds of those who will walk across it this weekend.

“It’s been a blessing to be a part of this,” said Ricardo Ariza, who helped make the alfombra and will also take part in the panel discussions that will follow each reading of the The Dairy Maid-Rite. “There’s a complex story behind migration and we hope it provides some discussion. Migrants are seeking a better future, a better life. When structural barriers impede them, there’s still strength and hope and people who support them.”

After completing the Creighton pieces, Castellanos Lara will return to his home in Cleveland, where he annually helps schools and community organizations with other alfombra.

“It’s fascinating to work on and I hope people find them fascinating to see,” he said. “We enjoy the moment and watching that moment unfold and then… it’s on to the next one.”

The final production of The Dairy Maid-Rite, followed by the walk on the alfombra will take place at 2 p.m. on April 22 in the Studio Theatre at the LECA. Admission is free with a suggested canned-food donation.

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