Mexican tradition holds that the moment the heart stops beating is only the first of three deaths. The second death is when you are returned to the earth, and the third is when you are finally forgotten by all who knew you. Artist Alex Rubio feels fortunate that though he once came close to the first death, he escaped the second, and especially the third.

Rubio took a bullet in the chest during a drive-by shooting on the West Side at age 18, but survived and has gone on to decorate San Antonio with public art, to teach students at the Guadalupe Cultural Center and many other institutions, and to fill the homes of friends and art collectors with his paintings.

“That would have been the end of me,” he said of the 1987 shooting, which happened on Christmas Eve. “I would not have existed after that day,” he said because he wouldn’t have had the chance to make the art that fostered collaborations with friends and community.

Rubio is among a dozen Southtown artists invited to decorate giant skulls, or craneos, for the citywide Day of the Dead San Antonio festival Nov. 1-2.

Collectively the exhibition of skulls is titled Mictlán, after the Land of the Dead in Day of the Dead tradition, and will be on display and publicly accessible through Nov. 15.

The craneos will be set around San Antonio, joining three dozen other skulls produced by artists in Mexico City, including Menchaca Studios, which also produced the many-beaded “Selena Catrina” sculpture that will serve as mascot of the festival. Most of the skulls will be located along Houston Street downtown starting near the Alameda Theater, and along South Alamo Street past the Hilton Palacio Del Rio, The Friendly Spot, and Liberty Bar, to the Blue Star Complex, stretching south to Hernandez’s Burgerteca restaurant.

Though still being determined, farther-flung locations will include four H-E-B locations, San Antonio International Airport, VIA Crossroads Park & Ride, the Witte Museum, and La Gloria at the Pearl.

As a cultural advisor and co-producer of Day of the Dead San Antonio (DODSA), Chef Johnny Hernandez selected 10 other Southtown artists of stature to design craneos, using 7-foot plain gray fiberglass skulls as blank canvases.

“Southtown is home to San Antonio’s most active art community,” said Hernandez, whose home base is also in Southtown along Cevallos St.

Other artists involved include painter Ana Fernandez, with a math-on-chalkboard theme meant as a memorial to her grade school teachers; glass artist Gini Garcia with glittering glass appliques; muralist Shek Vega with a brightly-colored, high-contrast design; Regina Moya with a monarch butterfly theme timed to coincide with the fall migration; Cristina Sosa Noriega’s skull with pecan-shell eyes; Andy Benavides with a Mexican folk art-themed tile design featuring mirrored glass; and Eva Sanchez, with photorealist marigolds.

Marigolds, or traditional cempazuchitl, symbolize the nature of life, “as this beautiful, vibrant, yet fleeting blossom,” she said, but are also meant to evoke self-reflection, and “looking towards all of our own inevitable deaths.”

Rubio said that though skulls have dark connotations, he hopes his own curvilinear design and colorful palette will “lighten up that dark heavy stigma that death instills in people,” and inspire them to “enjoy life and also, in a way, enjoy the afterlife.”

Other artists from San Antonio include Cruz Ortiz, Joe de la Cruz, Joey Favela, and a group of students from San Anto Cultural Arts.

Javier Ruiz-Galindo, DODSA president and CEO, planned to bring craneos already produced in Mexico to the festival, and Hernandez saw a way to get local artists involved, along with local cuisine and music.

Ruiz-Galindo lent enthusiastic support, Hernandez said, and funded the project at a cost of $4,000 per skull, with additional sponsorships to pay for the artwork.

The 12 skulls for local artists adds up to almost $50,000, Hernandez said. “Who does that?” Hernandez said. “I think he’s just as crazy as I am.”

But Hernandez and Ruiz-Galindo might be onto something.

Martha Martinez Flores, DODSA creative consultant, said more locations want to be involved. “We’re getting so many requests, and we just don’t have enough skulls right now” to meet them all, she said. Like others involved with DODSA, she expressed hope that after this year’s initial version, the festival will grow.

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...