Making Art in Santa Fe: Meow Wolfers Discuss their Home

Ever since Will Shuster set a match to the very first Zozobra in 1924, Santa Fe, New Mexico has been a haven for weirdo artists looking for a place to execute their unique work. In more recent memory Meow Wolf, a group of artists who originally just wanted a place of their own, created a piece of installation art that has attracted visitors from all over the world.

“It’s the thing that everyone always wanted, but couldn’t articulate,” said Lisa “Newt” Russel, whose brief love affair with Santa Fe in the early 2000s eventually led to her being a fixture around Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return.

[Video 0:56] Meow Wolf: The House of Eternal Return

It’s difficult to pin down to what degree Santa Fe is itself responsible for the House, but there appear to be qualities unique to the city which helped foster the collective’s development. To explore the artists’ relationship to their home (either “born here all my life” home or their adopted home) we asked them a pair of deceptively simple questions: What is it like to make art in Santa Fe, New Mexico and how has this experience influenced you as an artist? Taken together, their answers paint a picture of creative lives that are both products of and a response to Santa Fe.

Common threads in many of these stories are Santa Fe’s tiny size (a hair under 70,000 people at last count) and its commitment to the fine arts. In this context it’s easy to see how this sleepy desert town makes it possible for like-minded people to find each other and how a collective like Meow Wolf could take root here. More than that, the density of talent in such a small place creates its own kind of gravitational pull, bringing together complementary skills and personalities.

Case in point: Cathy Laughlin. In 2003 Laughlin was learning to write in kanji in Japanese 101 at the Santa Fe Community College. Her career path at the time was leading her into tech and computer programming. In that class, however, she met Emily Montoya and Benji Geary, who would go on to co-found Meow Wolf a few years later.

Montoya and Geary have a lived aesthetic that seeps into everything they make, wear, consume or even say. Laughlin met Geary just as he was entering his “UGA phase.” The United Goggle Alliance was Gearys attempt to raise Santa Fe’s awareness of goggles as a fashion accessory. Today, you can find a reference to UGA on the walls of Wiggy’s Plasma Plex arcade inside the exhibition. Montoya and Geary’s larger-than-life personalities attracted Laughlin’s attention.

“I distinctly remember being jealous because I look like a total idiot in goggles,” she said.

[Video 12:59] Radically Inclusive Art | Vince Kadlubek | TEDxABQ

But that strange flag of Benji’s signaled to Laughlin that she had found a fellow weirdo. In time she, Emily and Benji were geeking out over their shared love of anime, video games and electronic music. For Laughlin, her involvement with the Santa Fe art scene began socially. She soon found herself inside a building at Second Street, one of Meow Wolf’s earliest spaces in Santa Fe. It was at a show, Habitats (2010), where Laughlin started to realize the appeal. She sat in a human-sized bird nest built by Brandon William Behning and over the run of the exhibition it slowly filled with PBR cans, cigarette butts and even a lit candle or two — gritty and more than a little dangerous, sure, but at the same time it was enticing.

“I think that’s where Meow Wolf first achieved the idea of art you could live inside,” she said. “…In an overpriced zone like Santa Fe there was something very compelling about the idea of building a weird, cozy little ‘home’ you could live in without paying for it.”

A few years later, during the buildout for 2011’s The Due Return at Santa Fe’s Center for Contemporary Arts, someone handed Laughlin a heat gun and asked for her help melting plastic to make trees. She spent many nights drinking beer and listening to Daft Punk’s live album on repeat with her friends. Eventually, when Meow Wolf put out a call for computer programmers to help with the House of Eternal Return, Laughlin realized that she had an opportunity to quit her day job.

Zevin Polzin
Tech team member Zevin Polzin installs an eyeball in one of the forest’s aspen trees.
Photo Credit: Lindsey Kennedy

Some of the contributors, such as Russell and Aubrey Schwartz have had experience working in collectives before. Russell was a volunteer on the CORE team with Burning Man, perhaps the organization that Meow Wolf gets compared to the most. Schwartz comes from a theater background and she worked with the Motha Roux Krewe for Mardi Gras in New Orleans before moving to Santa Fe. Both have had a similar introduction to the art collective, someone heard they were moving to New Mexico and asked. “Have you heard of Meow Wolf? I think it would be up your alley.”

Schwartz, who said she “thrives on the collaborative process,” floundered for a minute in Santa Fe before meeting other people in the collective. Russell found an echo of Burning Man. Both she and Schwartz brought up “radically inclusivity” in the group’s ethos. The community aspect was something Russell, originally from North Carolina, missed in art communities back east. She said that as a lesbian she and her peers lived on “high alert” and there were few opportunities for community and inclusion. That changed in Santa Fe.

“Whoever you are, you’re valid,” Russell said.

Writer and poet Christopher J. Johnson, who worked on the exhibition’s narrative team, had less of a vocabulary for collaborative art than Russell and Schwartz. In fact, it took moving to Santa Fe for him to realize that he was an artist. Back home in Madison, Christopher and his friends built haunted houses for Halloween or wrote their own radio dramas. Johnson moved to Santa Fe for college and started producing his body of writing.

“It wasn’t until I moved to New Mexico that anyone called me an ‘artist,’” Johnson said. “When that term was first applied to me I was, quite frankly, astonished. I was lucky enough to be young, productive and driven, so that my output of work garnered attention pretty quickly. I started to meet other artists in the community.”

Santa Fe artist Liberty Yablon
Santa Fe artist Liberty Yablon installs work near the caves.
Photo Credit: Lindsey Kennedy

Johnson quickly became entrenched in the community creative scene in Santa Fe, a fact that seems strange to him to this day. Writers, by their nature, are solitary people. One doesn’t typically picture them poring over design documents in a committee or swinging hammers in a work crew, but Johnson learned that the critical difference for him was in the way he applied his art, rather than the medium. Former Meow Wolf member Nicholas Chiarella talked Johnson into doing a storyline for The Due Return and Johnson realized the kind of presence his writing could have when it comes off the page and enters a 3D space.

“It’s funny,” he said. “World building, so to speak, has been a lifelong interest of mine. As a teen I was obsessed with costuming and construction for Halloween-related events. Only now do I realize that the larger idea of world building was what was behind my interest even then. I wanted something that was slightly different than what was… To live in an altered reality. The real world, and I love it as much as anything, seemed to be slightly out of phase with my desires… I have always tried to make the world more of what I feel than what I experience.”

You can notice parallels of Chris’ journey in the House’s characters: they are concerned with the world that could be and they know that their lived experiences are only the tip of the spear.

Dylan Pommer's Cartoon Kitchen
Dylan Pommer’s Cartoon Kitchen combines two influences on his art: Santa Fe landscape paintings and animation.
Photo Credit: Lindsey Kennedy

Dissatisfaction often comes up when discussing Santa Fe with its younger residents. Laughlin sees the exhibition as something that fills a void. Large, busy, family-friendly attractions such as arcades and bowling alleys are on the decline in a city that is largely concerned with its tourism and world-famous art markets. Johnson is more inclined to view these things through a positive lens. Meow Wolf works in Santa Fe, he says, because the city has a low-density population of like-minded people. Some of those lucky enough to have been born here have an enviable familiarity with fine art that they’ve honed over their entire lives.

Dylan Pommer, who created the Cartoon Kitchen room in the exhibition, is one of these people. As a child, his mother took him to exhibitions in galleries up and down Canyon Road, Santa Fe’s largest art district. While other children may not have appreciated that, Pommer reveled in it; he was young enough that the stuffy formality of a fine art gallery couldn’t touch him. As such, he developed a love of something that is very stereotypically Santa Fe: Southwestern folk and landscape art. This fascination found an unlikely partner in his fascination with animation and cartoons, though it’s not such a stretch to understand why. Chuck Jones, famed animator and director of Wile E. Coyote, Roadrunner and Marvin the Martian cartoons, loved New Mexico and its lonely desert landscapes show up all over his work. It’s no accident that Dylan’s animated kitchen has a window that looks out over one of these scenes.

“When you watch Disney movies and Looney Toons shorts all morning and then later that day your parents take you to Indian Market, there starts to be a blur between those two worlds,” Pommer said. “I love the Southwest; it’s where I’m from and so the fictional world I’ve created is very similar.”

It’s this synthesis that Pommer tries to show other people. Cartoons don’t have to be exclusive to children and landscapes don’t have to be a relic of Santa Fe’s art history. The trick is to take away the thing that doesn’t serve either demographic and to Pommer that’s the false distinction between “high” and “low” brow art.

“Meow Wolf is the emergence of a youthful art movement that is a counter to the old, stagnant style of downtown Santa Fe,” Pommer said. “It shows that there are young artists with fresh ideas and unlimited creativity who just need an outlet. It’s important for Santa Fe because it has revitalized interest in a city that many had written off as a glorified retirement community.”

Though it can be a complicated relationship at times, Santa Fe has given many of Meow Wolf’s artists the opportunities and tools they needed to make a mark on their hometown.

— Billiam Rodgers

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Additional Reading:

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Meow Wolf — Best in Santa Fe!