Bradenton's Village of the Arts Festival of Skeletons comes full circle for founders

Village of the Arts celebrates 10th annual Festival of Skeletons

Village of the Arts celebrates 10th annual Day of the Dead Festival of Skeletons beginning Nov. 6.
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Village of the Arts celebrates 10th annual Day of the Dead Festival of Skeletons beginning Nov. 6.

BRADENTON -- It was 57 years ago when Zoe Von Averkamp said "I do" to her, husband Jerry, who passed away last June.

It was 18 years ago when Von Averkamp asked her husband to buy her a studio for her artwork and it was eight years ago when he finally said yes.

"He was a successful businessman and he always said to me: 'What's my bottom-line profit if I buy you a gallery?' I said they don't call us starving artists for nothing," said Von Averkamp, who opened Divine Excess Folk Art Gallery after driving through the Village of the Arts one day and seeing her current studio for sale.

"We came to a screeching halt and bought it that very day," she said. "He ended up having more fun here than I did. In his last years, he really enjoyed the gallery as much as I did. It was his legacy to me."

It also was the year the couple took over the reins of the former Latin Festival and started what has become one of the most popular Village of the Arts events in the Day of the Dead, Festival of Skeletons. At least twice a year for the past 20 years, the Von Averkamps traveled to Mexico to collect Day of the Dead folk art and attended the Mexican holiday when possible.

She fell in love with the holiday for what it represented. While it often falls around the same time as Halloween, Von Averkamp is quick to point out there is nothing scary about the Day of the Dead celebration.

"Mexicans believe their loved ones come back in spirit to enjoy their loved ones before they go back," she said. "Families build shrines in their houses to honor their lost loved ones, including pets. The Day of the Dead is much kinder and gentler than Halloween. Your grandmother isn't going to turn into a zombie and eat your cat. The Day of the Dead is loving and beautiful and filled with memories."

Though skeletons are heavily used to represent the celebration, Von Averkamp said authentic Day of the Dead art features happy, smiling skeletons.

"They aren't used to scare people," she said. "They represent the dearly departed coming back to enjoy music, eating, dancing and making love."

Each year for the past eight years she has chaired the Village of the Arts Festival of Skeletons event with her husband. Von Averkamp has added more features to authenticate the Mexican holiday. There will be a community shrine on the corner of 11th Avenue West and 12th Street West where each year all artists contribute.

Each year someone who has contributed to the arts is honored. This year's shrine will be a tribute to country music legend Johnny Cash.

The artists also build personal shrines for their loved ones available for viewing inside their businesses.

"What you will see here is very authentic from what you would see in any Mexican town," said Von Averkamp.

The event takes place from 6-9:30 p.m. Nov. 6 and 11 a.m. until 4 p.m. Nov. 7. There will be live music, skeleton procession, and village restaurants will offer authentic Mexican dishes.

At the community shrine, the village will provide visitors with cutouts of crosses, butterflies, peace doves or hearts to write or draw personal messages about their loved ones to be posted on the surrounding fence.

If you've ever wondered what happens to those messages, which have been posted for years, then you probably haven't met Von Averkamp.

"They are all on my wall," she said. "My daughter and I did not have the heart to throw them out. They are too sacred."

Von Averkamp recently completed the shrine, the hardest one she has ever built, inside her studio on 12th Street West. It honors her husband who has played such an important role in the success of the festival.

"This festival meant a lot to us," she said. "We made a good team. When he died, my daughter and I decided not to have a memorial service knowing that this festival was going to honor him. This is his wake weekend and he'll be here in spirit.

"Was building this shrine difficult and emotional? You bet. When I finished the other day, I pulled my chair out, sat down in front of it and cried my heart out for over a half hour."

Von Averkamp said that was the time to grieve, but she is determined to focus on the meaning of the couple's favorite celebration.

"Now it's time to celebrate, not to grieve," she said. "This festival is about celebrating life and remembering them with joy and love. That's what I plan on doing. That's the circle of life."

Information: Go to villageofthearts.com and click on the events tab.

Mark Young, Herald urban affairs reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041 or follow him on Twitter@urbanmark2014.