Walking with the dead

Nausicaa Renner

The exposed rafters of the old Pullman Railcar factory looked ominous against the gray sky–quite appropriate for the night before Halloween. But across the street, artist Linda Bullen welcomed visitors into her warm and colorful home–a restored company executive’s house from the 1890’s–for a celebration of Día de los Muertos. Bullen, an artist, originally became interested in the Mexican-Catholic tradition through an admiration of its art.

Inspired by the designs, she began to  build her own ofrendas a few years ago, and though in previous years Bullen had to urge other people to join her, this year her neighbors embraced the tradition to create a varied and informative walk. The walk on Sunday left from Bullen’s house and covered much of South Pullman, passing by the old Market Hall as well as Hotel Florence, while weaving through residential blocks to see six other altars.

Día de los Muertos traditionally honors family members and friends who have died by offering gifts to the weary spirits: a glass of water, marigolds, oranges, sugar skulls. Most of the homes on the walk were building altars for the first time, and only one person was of Mexican descent. Thus, many of the altars offered unique interpretations of the holiday. The Mosnart Gallery, for instance, invited participants to write notes to paste onto a stark white wall, and Donald Stahlke’s altar resembled a collage, incorporating the artwork of his students. But even the more conventional altars contained fascinating histories behind them. One honored a Marine who placed Hamm, the first monkey in space, into his space capsule, another commemorated a chef whose favorite foods were peanut butter and fried egg sandwiches, and a third paid tribute to a World War II pilot who delivered supplies over the Himalayas.

The residents of Pullman are genuinely devoted to preserving the past; as Mosnart said, he came to Pullman in his twenties and knew immediately that he “just had to live here.”  Whether long-time homeowners or newcomers to the area, almost every house on the walk had been restored by its owners, and some of them had been preserved by the very people who were now being memorialized. The houses themselves seemed like altars, with their marvelous details: from the pristine copper ceiling of one home to the stained glass skylight of another, to the simple dark woodwork of a third, and the paper bags lit with tea light candles lining the path to a fourth. A Metra train sounded in the distance as we strolled back to Bullen’s home for a wonderful traditional buffet, and the stormy night was tempered by the warmth of candles and neighborly hospitality.