Kat Garcia, an SFA Friends of the Visual Arts board member and co-chair of the upcoming Día de los Muertos Fiesta, poses by the community altar at Cole Art Center.

NACOGDOCHES, Texas - Merci Nicklas of Nacogdoches was instilled with a great appreciation of art at a young age because of her family's history of creating art.

"My father was a professional artist in Austin," she said. "His love for art took us to many museums and art shows and on walking tours through downtown Dallas to marvel over the architecture. I lived with my dad in the late '80's as his business of creating beautiful etched glass art and furniture went from a dream to a reality."

In the 1940's, her grandfather was a window artist for F.W. Woolworth Company, first in downtown Dallas and then in Houston.

"I never knew my grandfather but heard stories and saw some of the beautiful signs and displays that he created," she said. "My great grandfather came here as a Czech immigrant at the turn of the century and made a living as an ornamental iron worker in Dallas."

But Nicklas is also interested in Hispanic culture, specifically Hispanic art and cuisine. That interest, coupled with her background as a professional caterer, led Nicklas, owner and chef of Merci's World Cuisine Catering, and her husband, Tracy, to start creating sugar skulls, the traditional image associated with Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.

So when Día de los Muertos Fiesta takes place in downtown Nacogdoches on the night of Nov. 1, Nicklas will find herself in the midst of all the activities. Nicklas and Kat Garcia, both board members for the SFA Friends of the Visual Arts, are co-chairing the Día de los Muertos Fiesta. The celebration and fundraiser will take place from 5 to 9 p.m. inside and outside The Cole Art Center @ The Old Opera House.

At the fiesta, approximately 30 booths, ranging from food to jewelry to face painting to art and more, will be manned by various organizations, many of which will be Stephen F. Austin State University student groups such as the SFA Art Alliance and the School of Theatre. Proceeds from a silent auction in Cole Art Center and the Friends of the Visual Arts booth will benefit gallery programs and art scholarships, while proceeds of other booths, including food sales, will benefit those individual organizations. Silent auction bidding will begin Tuesday, Oct. 28, and continue until about 7:45 p.m. Nov. 1. Winners will be announced that evening.

A Day of the Dead community altar, where community members can pay tribute to friends and loved ones who have passed on by placing photos at the altar or writing personal messages on a memory card, sits in the window of Cole Art Center. Gathering tributes is already under way and will continue up until the night of the fiesta.

Among the entertainment will be Mariachi music, a performance by the Chikawa Aztec Dancers and a preview of the musical "Spamalot" presented by SFA theatre and music students. A traditional Day of the Dead foot procession will also take place that night as part of the festivities.

"Día de los Muertos combines the tradition and the foods of Mexico into a colorful and intriguing celebration," Nicklas said. "My role as co-chair is to help create an opportunity for our community to explore the art and traditions that were part of the fabric of Nacogdoches and can still be found in our large Hispanic community today. My goal is to make this a fun and educational experience for kids, adolescents and adults with music, great food, activities and crafts, all while keeping close to the traditions of Día de los Muertos."

In addition to the Friends of the Visual Arts, event sponsors include University Rental, 103.3 The Bull radio station, R&K Distributors, Main Street Nacogdoches, Casey's Tattoos, Hampton Inn and the SFA Sound Recording Technology Department.

For more information about Día de los Muertos Fiesta, call (936) 468-6557. Cole Art Center is located at 329 E. Main St.



Here is a closer look at FVA member Merci Nicklas:

If you could move anywhere in the world, where would you move and why?
I would move to a big boat in the middle of the ocean and sail around the world because it seems like a peaceful lifestyle. If I have to choose a place on land, I would choose the South of France because it is beautiful, the food is marvelous and I love the way French people sound.

If you had $1 million, what would you do with the money?
I would invest some of it so I could continue to make more. I would quit working for money, travel around the world (maybe sail) and help people less fortunate.

What is your biggest fear?
Spelunking! I could never do it.

What is the best compliment you ever received?
Aside from the compliments that my husband gives me, the greatest compliments I get are not spoken but shown on the faces of the people whose celebrations are punctuated by the food I cater to them. I also have to add that my grandmother recently told me how proud she was of me, and that is a great feeling.

What is one thing you would like people to know about you?
I used to hitchhike around the United States doing migrant work and seeing Grateful Dead concerts. I have visited 45 of our 50 states. I once hitchhiked from California to the East Coast and back three times in one year. I de-tasseled corn in Iowa, picked apples in Wisconsin, harvested blueberries in Maine and planted trees throughout the South.

What is your favorite thing about Nacogdoches?
The big beautiful trees and rolling hills are my favorite things about Nacogdoches. I have an incredible group of close friends. I love the small town feel of Nacogdoches, combined with the diversity of being a college town.

What is the last movie you saw?
At the theater, "Guardians of the Galaxy." At home, the original "Halloween."

What is your favorite musical genre?
That is difficult. My grandparents raised me so I have a diverse taste in music. Big band has got to be one of my most favorites, along with traditional country. My first concert was Neil Diamond, but most know me as a fan of goofy '80's pop music.

Family background:
I was born and raised in Dallas by my grandmother, a first generation American daughter of Czech immigrants. I moved to Austin in the mid '80's to live with my dad and attend high school. While traveling from Texas to Maine, I stopped in Nacogdoches to visit a friend and met the love of my life, Tracy Nicklas. We do not have children unless you count our canine and feline ones.

Do you have pets? What?
We currently have two elderly dogs and an elderly cat. I feel that I should include the rest that have recently passed. At the beginning of the summer, we had five dogs but have lost three of them in the last three months. Our vet claims we run a geriatric home for animals. We live on 10 acres and have plans to expand the family with goats and chickens soon.

What do you like to do in your free time?
I volunteer with the Nacogdoches Junior Forum, I love to work in my garden, and I have a great group of friends and family in Nacogdoches that I enjoy spending much of my time with. My grandmother lives next door to me and I enjoy having coffee with her and hearing her stories of when she was a young girl. I fulfill my artistic side making crafts and building things with my husband in our shop.