Honoring Diverse Cultural Traditions Through Respectful Art Engagement

For over thirty years, Dr. Alison Aune (Art and Design) has been fostering collaborations that promote cultural awareness.

Her longest running annual class project is a partnership with the Multicultural Center, the Tweed Museum of Art, and local elementary schools for Dia de los Muertos.

After joining the Department of Art and Design in 1999, Aune began including a study of Dia de los Muertos as a lesson on sculpture for Art in Elementary Education classes, which includes education majors and art education majors. During the unit, students create their own Mexican folk art inspired sculpture for a group ofrenda and they create lesson plans. The students then present their instructional work to elementary school children to gain practical experiences in the methods and techniques of meaningful and creative art education.

On the day of the event, area children come to UMD for a tour and program at the Multicultural Center and Tweed Museum of Art. Some of the groups who have participated include Spanish classes at Lowell Elementary School, Myer-Wilkins Elementary School, Spirit of the Lake Community School, Chester Park Pre-School, and Summit School. 

The event has grown significantly over time. Aune explained, “Many students are familiar with Disney’s Coco and have seen Dia de los Muertos artifacts in chains such as Target and Michaels, but they often do not know the ancient Pre-Columbian roots of this celebration.”

Susanna Pelayo Woodward in the Multicultural Center helps provide needed context about the celebration by gathering visuals about its history. In addition, each year she and her students create new ofrendas at the Multicultural Center. Large-scale ofrendas have been added to honor the memory of George Floyd and murdered and missing Indigenous women.

While the scheduling and logistics are challenging, Aune believes the event’s success makes the work worth it. “It is such a beautiful and powerful annual event for my students and the children who we work with,” reflected Aune.

UMD students agree. Mellisa Larson (Integrated Elementary and Special Education ‘25) noted, “The greatest success of this collaboration was in the thought-provoking conversations and idea-sharing between the college students and the elementary students. We were provided with a culture-rich environment that fostered in-depth conversations on the diversity shown in front of us; these conversations benefited both the elementary and college students. To me, this is what learning is all about, growing and expanding together to gain a better understanding of our world. I especially loved that students were able to make art inspired by things they saw in both the Tweed Museum and the Multicultural Center; this opportunity brought to life the ideas and showed children they are artists too.”

Aune asserted, “It is my goal that by participating in this collaboration, the UMD elementary and art teacher education students will continue to honor the cultural traditions of Dia de los Muertos by creating and teaching respectful lessons to children. By connecting with community partners, these future teachers will help shape the futures of children by including and celebrating the wide diversity of cultural and artistic traditions in Minnesota.”

Her aspirations already appear to be manifesting themselves as Larson reflected, “The collaboration taught me to have a more open view when thinking about art education. By this, I mean that students, even young students, can find value in going to a museum and visiting locations with culturally diverse artwork. As a future teacher, it also made me rethink how I want to incorporate art into my classroom. Specifically, this collaboration has shown me the importance of culturally diverse art and hands-on art experiences which I can provide to my future students.”

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