Mankato artist Justin Ek touches up his exhibition at the St. Peter Arts Center with a fresh coat of fluorescent paint. (Carson Hughes/southernminn.com)
Justin Ek’s Day of the Dead exhibit at the St. Peter Arts Center glows in the dark underneath ultraviolet light. (Carson Hughes/southernminn.com)
Justin Ek poses after completing his exhibit for the Arts Center of St. Peter. (Courtesy of Jusin Ek)

Mankato artist Justin Ek touches up his exhibition at the St. Peter Arts Center with a fresh coat of fluorescent paint. (Carson Hughes/southernminn.com)
You haven’t seen the latest installation at the St. Peter Arts Center until you’ve viewed it twice — once during the day and again at dusk.
It’s impossible for passersby not to notice the dazzling display of orange-yellow symbolic flowers, hanging multicolored sheets of perforated paper, vibrant serape blankets and paintings of skeletons in the street-facing windows of the Arts Center at 315 S. Minnesota Ave.
Creator Justin Ek is a longtime professional painter and muralist, but the installation’s debut on Aug. 30 marks the Mankato artist’s first-ever exhibit in an art gallery. The installation runs to the end of September.
Taking inspiration from his own Mexican heritage, Ek fashioned the installation in the style of a contemporary ofrenda, a home altar where people place offerings for their deceased family members on Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead).
Like in a typical ofrenda, the exhibit incorporates symbols for the four elements of nature: earth, air, fire and water. Colorful tissue paper banners, known as papel picado, are strung together from the ceiling to represent air. Religious candles are placed upon the striped, many-colored serape blankets covering the floor, signifying fire. Earth is represented by food, in this case carrots made from paper, but for the sake of preservation the installation does not feature the glasses of water placed on a traditional ofrenda.
Justin Ek poses after completing his exhibit for the Arts Center of St. Peter. (Courtesy of Jusin Ek)
Contrasting with the vibrant yellow-orange hues of Cempasúchitl (Aztec marigold), traditional flowers said to attract the souls of the dead to their alters, strewn throughout the exhibit, Ek painted pictures of the deceased in life and as skeletons in a cold, cyan shade.
At night, the bright yellow-orange world of the living is drowned out by a violet blacklight. The UV light triggers the fluorescent magenta and neon green accents on the paintings of the deceased to glow.
Ek often takes inspiration from his Mexican heritage in his art. The artist aimed to create something that St. Peter’s Latino population could find themselves represented in while drawing curious eyes from audiences outside the culture.
It’s rewarding because cultural art is not on the forefront and it’s good to be bringing that representation for my people and amplify our voice…” said Ek. “I saw a little girl that stopped with her mom, they were Latino or Latinx, and the smile that they had, seeing that as representation brings joy to different communities.”
Ek said he became hyperfocused on the Day of the Dead after he and his wife suffered a miscarriage. As an artist, he hoped to channel the grief into a piece that would bring joy to the community while also relating to death.
Justin Ek’s Day of the Dead exhibit at the St. Peter Arts Center glows in the dark underneath ultraviolet light. (Carson Hughes/southernminn.com)
“With the loss of a pregnancy and stuff like that art is always the catalyst to get through life and it’s just part of my identity to be a maker and a creator,” said Ek.
Artistry runs in the family. His father took up painting as a youth after he immigrated to the United States at 11 years old. While working on a farm in Minnesota, Ek’s dad learned both English and oil painting from watching Bob Ross tutorials on repeat.
“Seeing him make oil paintings all throughout childhood, we always wanted to be painters and then we started a house painting company,” said Ek.
Today, the family owns Bellissimo Paint and Coatings, a Mankato business which offers painting services to commercial and industrial buildings in Southern Minnesota.
In addition to his work as a co-owner of Bellissimo, Ek has made a name for himself in the local and online arts community. His spontaneous style of dribbling and splashing leftover house paint to create murals has garnered over 63,000 followers on TikTok.
Reach Reporter Carson Hughes at 507-931-8575. ©Copyright 2022 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All Rights Reserved.
Old Town Mankato is celebrating the Day of the Dead on Saturday, Oct. 29 with a free cultural event hosted by Bellissimo Paint and Coatings, Twin Rivers Council for the Arts, the Hub Food Park, Bumbelou, Old Town Mankato and Mom & Pop’s. 
From 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., the day features a lineup of street performers, musicians, a car show and a Mexican wrestling ring. 
Data included is taken from the Minnesota Department of Health Daily reports. Because all data is preliminary, the change in number of cumulative positive cases and deaths from one day to the next may not equal the newly reported cases or deaths.
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