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Allentown's Casa de Arte to close on high note after 7 years

In 2011, Mara Odette-Guerrero and Rick Williams arrived in Buffalo to chase an unlikely dream.

The couple wanted to establish a link between two regions -- Buffalo and Cuernavaca, Mexico -- that seemingly had little in common but their rich and diverse cultures.

The link took the form Casa de Arte, an unorthodox gallery in a converted Allentown garage that has served as a bastion of Mexican art and culture for the last seven years.

On Nov. 12, when its popular annual "Day of the Dead" exhibition ends, Casa de Arte will close its doors for good. Odette-Guerreo and Williams, who own the building and plan to rent out the gallery space to another tenant, are moving back to their previous hometown of Washington, D.C.

At the end of their seven-year run, the couple is wistful about the gallery's lack of broader commercial success.

"As the years go on, the novelty wears off," Williams said. "You're competing against so many different things."

But they take comfort in the fact that its exhibitions have influenced the lives and broadened the horizons of hundreds of Buffalonians.

The most lasting impact of Casa de Arte might have been its annual "Day of the Dead" celebration. For seven years running, Williams and Odette-Guerrero have turned the gallery into a kaleidoscopic display of Mexican culture celebrating the country's biggest holiday.

This year, for example, Odette-Guerrero constructed an elaborate altar representing the religious and cultural diversity of Mexico. A Catholic church sits above an ancient pyramid, which towers over an even more ancient structure. Glasses of water -- later to be replaced with tequila -- flickering candles, thin paper and blooming chrysanthemums, which represent the elements.

Elsewhere, Odette-Guerrero's enormous "Katrina" sculpture of a skeletal figure in a traditional dress from Chiapas sends spooky vibes through the space while Williams' sculpture of wooden coffins in the shape of a cross lends the atmosphere a politely ghastly tone.

Casa de Arte's Day of the Dead celebrations have provided solace and revelation for many Buffalonians unfamiliar with the Mexican tradition of honoring departed loved ones and celebrating their lives. A pair of young girls who had recently lost their grandmother, Odette-Guerrero recalled, once visited the gallery and left a traditional offering of a sugar skull.

"They made their offer with the sugar skull and put it on the altar, because that's what we do," she said. "This custom, this tradition, is more than 3,000 years old."

In its time, the gallery has hosted a grab-bag of exhibitions, from artwork by local artists who live part-time in Mexico (Richard Huntington and Ben Perrone) to more high-profile work by internationally known Mexican artists like Francisco Toledo and Carlos Mérida. Sculptures by Odette-Guerrero and Williams have also been a near-constant feature in the gallery.

After nearly a decade, though, the couple is ready to spend their Buffalo summers without the burden of planning exhibitions, keeping gallery hours and competing with the ever-growing array of artistic activity the city offers.

Even so, Odette-Guerreo said, they feel they accomplished their goal of combating what has been a one-dimensional perception about Mexicans.

"So we came," she said, "and we have shown this community the other side."


Art Preview

Casa de Arte's final Day of the Dead celebration: Runs through Nov. 12 in Casa de Arte, 141 Elmwood Ave. Call 240-9248 or visit

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