Day of the Dead: A Cultural Celebration – Wiregrass Museum of Art

Day of the Dead: A Cultural Celebration


This lesson will focus on student's knowledge of the Mexican celebration Day of the Dead. Branching off from this knowledge, students will then create a vibrant skeleton.
Image Credit: Billy Hassell, Game of Chance, 1990, Oil on canvas, 1998.10.16

Essential Question

Can we show an anatomically correct skeleton while honoring people for Day of the Dead?

Student Learning Objectives

Students Will:
  • Learn about the Mexican holiday and traditions of Day of the Dead
  • Learn about the skeleton
  • Draw an anatomically correct skeleton
  • Demonstrate knowledge of the skeleton through their work of art



Discussion Prompts

  1. What story is Billy Hassell telling in this work of art? Is it realistic or abstract? Can a work of art be both at the same time?
  2. What symbols are shown throughout the painting?
  3. What are the skeletons doing?
  4. What is the Day of the Dead? How is is celebrated?

About the Artist

Billy Hassell is inspired by nature as well as the much deeper role pattern and repetition have in everyday flora and fauna. In his work, Hassell explore patterns, such as scales on a fish or birds in flight, and searched for repeating similarities in the chaos of our natural world.

“They (the patterns) are not merely decorative embellishments, but have a basis in reality and, to some extent, establish location and a sense of place. This sense of place is important to me; it anchors the work.”

While the work is stylized and exaggerated, Hassell’s compositions are created from direct observation. He depicts birds, fish, and other animals because their presence or absence can be a strong indicator of the well-being of an environment. His work shows stylings and inspirations of American and Mexican folk art.

“What attracted me to this subject, as a context for a painting, was the positive and celebratory look at life after death, to view death as a spiritual journey and not merely the end of life, a time to remember and to contemplate deceased friends and family members and to remember the good times, pleasures, and events of their lives.

In addition to the two main figures in the painting, in the forms of skeletons – a man, distinguished by a serape over his shoulder and a sombrero on his head – and a woman with a dark patterned skirt – there are additional, secondary figures.

The two figures are dancing, the background is a night sky, punctuated by stars in a pattern that is repeated in the skirt worn by the female figure in a kind of whimsical poetic gesture. The rooster represents the morning to come. The boat, a means to transportation and navigation, represents passage through life. The pair of dice represents the game of chance that the painting is named after. And the game of chance is a metaphor for life and the chances we take.”

Skeletons are scary, right? Not if you’re celebrating Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.


Day of the Dead combines the ancient Aztec custom of celebrating ancestors with All Souls’ Day, a holiday that Spanish invaders brought to Mexico starting in the early 1500s.

The holiday, which is celebrated mostly in Mexico on November 1 and 2, is like a family reunion—except dead ancestors are the guests of honor. Day of the Dead is a joyful time that helps people remember the deceased and celebrate their memory.


First, people set up a candlelit altar in their homes so spirits can find their way back to their relatives. The altar also offers some of the favorite foods of the deceased—just in case they get hungry. Items that were important to the ancestors when they were alive, such as a favorite book or musical instrument, are placed on the altar as well.

Then it’s off to the graveyard for a big party. Families bring a huge feast to eat while they clean tombstones, sing songs, and talk to their ancestors. Parents might even introduce a baby to a grandparent who died before the baby was born.


And don’t forget the skeletons. During Day of the Dead, life-size papier-mâché skeletons and miniature plastic or clay skeletons are everywhere. Why? Mexicans honor their ancestors on Day of the Dead, but they’re also reminding themselves that death is just a part of life. Hanging out with skeletons reminds people that one day they will be skeletons—but not for a very long time!

The skeletons are posed doing all sorts of wacky things, such as playing guitar, taking a bath, or making tortillas. Apparently people aren’t the only ones who get to have fun on Day of the Dead!


white and colored construction paper, markers, colored pencils, or oil pastels, scissors, glue, image references (optional)



After look at Billy Hassell’s artwork Game of Chance and discussing Day of the Dead, students will then be able to create their own inspired work of art!


On a white piece of paper, draw out your skull and bones with a pencil. Keep your initial lines light in case you need to erase. A skull can be drawn with a circle and a rounded rectangle attaching to the bottom of the circle. After drawing those lines, add in the circles for the eyes, triangles or upside down heart for the nose, and the lines for the mouth and teeth.

Looking at a skeleton for reference,you can draw additional bones such as vertebrae and clavicles. Make sure to draw the bones as a full shaped form, not just a line. The skull and bones will be cut out.


Cut out the skull and all of the bones. Glue them onto a colorful background. Using various colored pieces of paper, or coloring your own, draw fun elements to add to your figure. Billy Hassell added a sombrero and a skirt onto his dancing skeletons. You can add hats, mustaches, flowers,wigs, clothes – anything at all!

Draw your new elements, then cut them out and glue them onto your project.


Tip: When using Elmer’s Glue,add a small amount on the piece to be glued, then use your finger or a paint brush to spread it around. A thin, even layer of glue will attach better and faster than a raging river of glue!



Want to create art for the Day of the Dead but not draw a skeleton? Design a cut paper vase of marigolds! Marigolds guide the spirits to their altars using their vibrant colors and scent.


Review This Lesson Plan

This program has been made possible through grants from the Southeast Alabama Community Foundation, and the Support the Arts License Tag Fund.

Youth Art Education Policy

Outside of tours, family days, and open house events, individuals who are not enrolled in a class are not allowed in WMA classrooms except by written permission of the Executive Director. Parents may not join children in the classroom during instruction times in order to ensure an atmosphere conductive to creativity. It is important to limit the number of adults to keep the focus on the kids, their learning, and to accommodate limited seating in the studio. Parents are welcome to stay in the museum during class but must remain outside of the classroom during instruction time.

Museum educators are experienced in creating positive learning environments for all ages and are required to go through a background check to ensure the safety of our students. Parents and guardians are encouraged to visit the studio at the end of class to see what their child has created. All docents and volunteers working with children are also required to go through background checks.

Thank you for understanding our policy and priority on the safety and well-being of participating students.

Refund Policy

The Wiregrass Museum of Art may cancel any class with insufficient enrollment; students will be notified and given a full refund. If a student withdraws at least 1 week before the class begins, he/she will be refunded for the full cost of the class. If a student withdraws 24 hours before the class begins, he/she will be refunded for half the cost of the class. There are no refunds after the start date of class, and membership fees are nonrefundable. Students are not enrolled until complete payment is received.

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The Wiregrass Museum of Art reserves the right to photograph and reproduce chosen works publication, publicity, and educational purposes. Participation in this exhibition shall be an agreement on the part of the artist to these conditions. The museum reserves the right to exclude works submitted without appropriate preparation (documentation, mounting hardware, suitable frame/mat, etc.), or which are damaged or incomplete. The museum is not responsible for the safekeeping of any works left in its care ninety (90) days after the close of the exhibition.