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Day of the Dead artwork readied for festival in Lauderdale

In a warehouse studio called the Bunker, death was the dominant theme Tuesday as volunteer artists and craftsmen rushed to get ready for one of South Florida's most spirited festivals.

Skeletal masks, sugar skulls and papier-mache puppets — including a 15-foot-tall Frida Kahlo with a gangly gray-black spider monkey — were just some of pieces that will play featured roles in the fourth annual Day of the Dead celebration scheduled for Saturday in Fort Lauderdale.

"It is a little like giving birth," said Sonia Matthews, who spent hours layering strips of gooey papier-mache to shape the outsized head of Kahlo, the Mexican painter with the iconic unibrow who will serve as the centerpiece of this year's procession along the downtown Riverwalk. "It can be messy."

Billed as "Memory for the dead, party for the living," the event blends the traditional Mexican holiday with the American version of Halloween into a unique South Florida stew, according to festival founder Jim Hammond.

"I love Halloween, a time when kids connect with things that scare us," said Hammond, a puppeteer. "But it should not be just a merchandising event.

"Day of the Dead celebrates life through sugar skull iconography. This is a family-friendly festival for our diverse community and I want people to have fun."

 The costumes, puppets, masks and artworks of fabric and oil on display during the daylong celebration are the results of thousands of hours of work by dozens of volunteers, said Luis Rodriguez, 26, who works with Hammond.

The puppets may begin as simple constructs of chicken wire, cardboard and tape, but end up as elaborate and decorative creations, Rodriguez said.

The giant figure of Frida Kahlo will travel the procession route on a wheeled wagon.

"The thrill for me is to see the faces of those who don't know what Day of the Dead is, and introducing them to a new concept," Rodriguez said.

Hammond, 43, describes himself as a born puppeteer who staged his first show at his sister's birthday party when he was a 10-year-old in upstate New York. As a teenager he landed a job working puppets at an amusement park.

After Hammond received a graduate degree in puppet design from the University of Connecticut, he held several theater jobs, and for seven years served as a puppet master for a managerie of 230 puppets in a touring company of "The Lion King."

"Puppetry breathes life into inanimate objects that are then be used to tell a story for an audience,"  said Hammond, who moved to Broward County in 1995. "And the Day of the Dead festival is about reconnecting with the lost often using masks and puppets."

"Instead of seeing ghosts, we are relishing time spent with those who have departed. That helps us understand what it means to be human."

The festival opens at the Nova Southeastern University's Museum of Art | Fort Lauderdale at 1 E. Las Olas Blvd., at 1 p.m. Saturday with a Dia de los Muertos Family Day that includes puppet shows, art workshops and other activities for children. Also on tap are cultural lectures and film.

The 6 p.m. procession begins at Huizenga Park and ends at America's Backyard, 100 SW Third Ave. During the day revelers will find altars to leave tributes to loved ones, artworks on sale in the Craft Crypt, live modern music on the Boneyard Bandstand and a Folklorico Stage to host dancers and mariachi musicians.

Also on tap are Ring Luchadores, interactive wrestlers in true Mexican style; Frida Kahlo's Mi Muertito, where performers re-enact paintings; and Galería de Piel Pintado, a body art exhibition. Craft projects and face painting will be available for children in Los Angelitos Kids Zone until 9 p.m.

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