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Influential and timeless, the skeletal caricatures and illustrations of 19th century Mexican engraver Jos?Guadalupe Posada truly embody the phrase, "a picture paints a thousand words."

Chief illustrator for Antonio Vanegas Arroyo's publishing house in Mexico City during the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz in the late 1800s, Posada's political art was used to convey society's feeling of discontent with corrupt government. His images helped serve to mold public opinion of Diaz.

His most famous drawing, "Calavera de la Catrina," (The Skeleton of the Female Dandy), an icon of Day of the Dead celebrations today, was created to poke fun at the life of the upper class, the "1 percent," of Posada's time. The use of a skeleton was his clever way of reminding the 1 percent that no matter your station in life or how high you regard yourself, we all share the same fate.

The Petaluma Arts Center presents "Alas de Vida/Wings of Life," a Day of the Dead art exhibit featuring the work of Posada and fellow Arroyo publishing house artist Manuel Manilla on display through Nov. 4.

The exhibit also includes work by local artists inspired by Posada and Manilla's influence on contemporary Day of the Dead imagery and art that makes a statement about the social/political climate. "Alas de Vida" also celebrates the 100th anniversary of "Calavera de la Catrina."

"His artwork is timeless," said Jim Nikas, curator of "Alas de Vida." "His work influenced many artists, past and present, including Diego Rivera and muralist Jos?Clemente Orozco."

Nikas owns the most comprehensive privately held collection of artistic work generated by Posada and Manilla and will have about 30 original broadside prints in the exhibit on loan from the New World Prints Collection, which is owned by Nikas and his wife Maryanne Brady.

"I have Mexican in my blood from my father's side, so although I grew up in the states, Mexico and its culture has always had a place in my heart," said Nikas. "The art of Mexico called to me because of my roots and I started to accumulate what I call historical works on paper. I happen to have a large number of works by Posada and probably have the largest collection in the country of original engravings and wood cuts by him and his contemporaries who worked with him at the publishing house. My wife, Maryanne, was kind enough to support me in all this."

Nikas is currently working on a documentary about the collaboration between Arroyo and Posada. The two men worked together from approximately 1890 to 1913, producing thousands of images published in Mexico City.

"Posada is seen as bigger than life now, but his work really wasn't discovered until after his death," said Nikas. "He spent the last few years of his life alone and didn't leave a vast fortune. He made good money for his time as a commercial artist, about three pesos a day."

French artist Jean Charlot came across Posada's prints in the 1920s, and appreciating how his artwork spoke of Mexician culture, history and politics, is credited with bringing Posada's prints to a wider audience. His influence inspired the formation of The Taller de Grafica Popular, an artists collective, in 1937.

"Posada was largerly their inspiration," said Nikas. "Artists in the collective said to themselves &‘lets use art to make social movements and to affect social change. We can fight these things that bother us through art.'"

Posadas influence has gone on to inspire civil rights activists, Vietnam War artists and the La Raza movement of the late 1960s and early '70s.

"He was an artist of the people," said Nikas.

An opening reception for "Alas de Vida" will be held from 7 to 9 p.m. Oct. 13 at the Petaluma Arts Center, 230 Lakeville St. The art will be on display through Nov. 4. Nikas will discuss the art and imagery of social movements at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 19.

(Contact Yovanna Bieberich at yovanna.bieber ich@arguscourier.com)