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The inspirational story behind these tiny shrines

Ibara-Sandys' take on Mexican nichos, or small shrines, inspired by Dia de los Muertos imagery.
KUOW Photo/Marcie Sillman
Ibara-Sandys' take on Mexican nichos, or small shrines, inspired by Dia de los Muertos imagery.

Amaranta Ibara-Sandys was 18 years old the first time she traveled to Seattle from Mexico City.

The year was 1992; teenagers from around the world were flocking to the Pacific Northwest, enticed by Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and other Seattle bands.

“I loved grunge,” Ibara-Sandys says. “I loved the music!”

But she didn’t love the series of low-paid restaurant jobs she had to take to pay her bills.

Even though Ibara-Sandys had a high school diploma, “I didn’t have very good English then.”

Ibara-Sandys wanted to be an artist, but she didn’t have the money for art school and, she says, her immigration status didn’t allow her to apply for loans.

So she returned home to Mexico City, moved in with her mother and spent the dollars she had saved in Seattle to finance art school there.

Mexico City might have been her hometown, but Ibara-Sandys had no intention of staying. Three days after she finished school she booked her ticket back to Seattle.

Two decades later, the West Seattle resident is a full-time artist and an American citizen.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Amaranta Ibara-Sandys in her backyard cottage studio in West Seattle", "fid": "132439", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201612/IMG_1184.JPG", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Marcie Sillman"}]]Even though she’s lived in the U.S. for most of her life, traces of her native Mexico are easy to find in her artwork.

Small skeletons or skulls inhabit dozens of small, brightly colored boxes that have been lined with velvet or glitter. The imagery comes directly from Mexico’s Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, tradition.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Artist Amaranta Ibara-Sandys incorporates imagery from Mexico's Dia de los Muertos into her work. This skull was created with a technique called paper quilling.", "fid": "132517", "style": "placed_left", "uri": "public://201612/skull-2_0.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Marcie Sillman"}]]The boxes themselves are Ibara-Sandys’ version of Mexican nichos, or small shrines. The artist intends them to be inspirational; her newest boxes contain little gears she says symbolize forward momentum.

Ibara-Sandys doesn’t dwell in the past. Although she trained specifically in ceramic arts, after a divorce she lost her clay studio. So she shifted her emphasis to the small boxes and works on paper. Now she’s transformed a tiny backyard cottage into a studio that barely has room for the plastic storage tubs full of art supplies.

In early December, a folding table displays cards, boxes and small magnets Ibara-Sandys plans to sell at a local holiday art fair. 

[asset-images[{"caption": "Amaranta Ibara-Sandys has transformed a tiny cottage behind her West Seattle home into her art studio", "fid": "132440", "style": "offset_left", "uri": "public://201612/IMG_1185.JPG", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Marcie Sillman"}]]She doesn’t rely on sales to support herself; she teaches art workshops at local library branches, many for Central and South American immigrants like herself. She wants them to make art and also understand the rich artistic cultures they come from.

“I can never leave my roots,” says Ibara-Sandys. “I always incorporate them.”

She gestures to a box on the table in her studio. It’s a small rectangle, three by six inches or so. Ibara-Sandys has glued a pair of orange plastic butterfly wings to the back of the box.

“It’s the body of a Monarch butterfly,” she says. “They migrate from Mexico to the U.S.”

Ibara-Sandys is a lot like those Monarch butterflies: Her dreams, like her art, have no borders.