If you asked Programming Director Melanie Beck to describe Chimera in an elevator pitch she might say something like “it’s art for kids of all ages.” But in actuality Meow Wolf’s Chimera program, located inside the David Loughridge Learning Center at the art complex, is a space that serves many different functions.
Art for Kids as a DMZ
The first function is a kind of “demaximalized zone” from the immersive art exhibit inside the main space. While I was talking to Melanie for this article I saw a mother and her young daughter come into Chimera’s studio from the exhibition. The girl looked to be about as amped as most of the other wild-eyed, hyper kids I see coming out of the show. There’s so much competing for your attention inside the main exhibition, many lights, sounds, colors and moving images as well as things to climb on and many winding, twisting pathways. That’s like catnip to a kid and many of them get inside the space and go haywire. The girl I saw while I talked to Melanie was no exception as her mother herded her to one of tables in the studio and convinced her to take a seat.
“Kids eat everything with their eyes as quickly as they can,” Melanie said. “They don’t take enough time to slowly digest their experience.”
And while that glut of stimulus can feel great, there’s the risk that an overexcited kid will burn out too fast, too soon and so not get the full benefit of the exhibition. That’s part of what Melanie Beck and Chimera do in the field of art for kids. They give children a space apart where they can integrate what they saw inside the exhibition into their own creative lives. The mother and daughter started working together on a drawing using some of the studio’s soft pastels. One of the studio’s methods is this kind of hands-off approach. No teacher is dictating that day’s art for kids, they merely supply the necessary tools and let the child make their own choices.
For that little girl, it gave her the ability to funnel all of that energy generated inside the exhibition into the work she was doing with her mother.
“Many kids do not have this ability to do whatever they want,” Melanie said. “Choice-based learning and choice-based creativity are really liberating for children. They want to create after they come out of there.”
The fruits of that are evident all over the walls of Chimera. Children have colored their own depictions of Snaggy, Meow Wolf’s unofficial mascot, like devotees of a cult. Outside by the giant spider in the parking lot is a rock therapy garden next to a fence lined with neon scarecrows waiting for the fall. As with most creative projects, art for kids is sometimes helped with a prompt. Collaboration helps too, as Melanie describes seeing children create alongside their parents.
“(Often parents tell me) ‘there’s never enough time to sit down and make art with my kids.’ The parents seem so grateful to create side-by-side with their children and make art.”
Chimera Predates the House of Eternal Return
Chimera has been making art for kids since about 2011, before the bowling alley was even a gleam in our eye. Earlier iterations of Chimera had Meow Wolf artists visiting schools to coach the children on the collective’s methods of collaborative art. Drawing on our cross-disciplinary group of writers, painters and builders, Meow Wolf would send a handful of artists to work one-on-one with children in schools between Santa Fe and Albuquerque.
These artists would go out to schools, sometimes two in one day, to collaborate on multidisciplinary art projects. Though some of them weren’t the full immersive experience Meow Wolf is known for, they all had a depth to them that comes from bringing many creative disciplines together for a single project. Christopher J. Johnson, a Meow Wolf member who has helped Chimera since the earliest days, said one of the projects broke students into groups with the goal of creating alien creatures. These creatures had physical forms as well as pseudo-scientific narratives explaining why they looked the way they did.
The artists also worked on site-specific installations with the kids. Meow Wolfers worked with students at Wood-Gormley Elementary on a project that didn’t have much of a narrative component, but still brought an element of the fantastic into a mundane space. Johnson said that Gormley’s building has skylights and the students made creatures that flew in these brightly-lit spaces. Students learned the importance of light’s relationship to artwork (something many professional curators could stand to brush up on) and how an installation can change the character of a space. If one spends enough time in a space its unique qualities become mundane, they fade into the background. But by using art to speak to a unique feature of the mundane, the space becomes new again— alien, even. This art for kids project, although simple, taught a fundamental principle of Meow Wolf’s design philosophy.
I was very tangentially involved in one of the more in-depth art for kids collaborations, Project Dreamscape (2013). Meow Wolf partnered with 12 students in Albuquerque to create an installation inside of the Museum of Art and History. High-school aged students partnered one-on-one with a Meow Wolf artist, almost like a mentorship program. Together they explored the dreams of Lance Flansberg, a bespectacled failed screenwriter who was working a dull 9-5 accounting job and who had just broken up with his girlfriend. To cope with his depression he started to study lucid dreaming. The installations symbolize Lance’s different lucid dreams. The young artists borrowed several pictures of my wife and I to serve as the models for the characters.
The project was unique for Chimera because it was the closest to one of Meow Wolf’s full-scale installations. The teens came up with a shared narrative and then drew on that for their individual projects. Visitors could walk through Lance’s ethereal cloudscapes or his murky nightmares populated by metal pipes and dark ambient music.
The collaboration between the students was illustrated in this video about Project Dreamscape, which is edited so that the different teenage artists are completing each other’s sentences.
[Video 4:45] Project Dreamscape – Lead With The Arts, Meow Wolf, ABQ Museum
Training Our Future Competition
From her catbird seat inside the Chimera studio, Melanie Beck is in a unique position to compare attitudes between art for adults and art for kids. It appears as though adults want to attribute the exhibition to one creator. We talked for a little bit about the concept of the auteur and how that seems to be on its way out with the new generation of artists. Art for kids, she says, is focused more on collaboration. The children seemed primed for it, even eager for it in a school environment that focuses more on individuals than groups.
“School tends to squeeze creativity and joy out of children and we want to make sure that’s kept alive,” Melanie said. “…Kids naturally collaborate. They love to play dodge ball, hide-and-seek, build with blocks… That’s normal for kids and somehow it’s squeezed out of them. They’re encouraged to compete against one another too much.”
Art for kids acts as a counter to that conditioning. Randomization of who they collaborate with helps create better work in the long run, according to Melanie. Children work side-by-side with each other, with other kids who may not be their next-door neighbors.
And having a permanent home for Chimera means that Meow Wolf can branch out on their offerings of art for kids. The projects don’t have to be all-encompassing any more. Meow Wolf-affiliated artists have hosted on-site art for kids workshops that stand out for their specificity. Sarah Dallas, who worked on much of the buildout for House of Eternal Return hosted a class in which kids made their own skateboard decks. Ben Wright, who composed much of the ambient music in the exhibition, got close to a dozen children composing music on synthesizers as part of his electronic music production course. Golda Blaise and Maggie Anne Thornton taught children how to wire and sculpt their own glow sculptures, similar to the ones inside the exhibition’s forest.
We’re bringing it all together again with the most extensive art for kids project since the bowling alley opened: the Chimera After School Program (2017) will be open for teenage students from junior high to high school to create a collaborative sculpture similar in design and philosophy to Meow Wolf’s larger-scale projects. The classes meet once a week after school from 3 to 6 p.m. Sarah Dallas and Mike Rae will teach building 101. Leo Brown will teach 3D, computer-assisted fabrication. Christopher Johnson will teach poetry. Olivia Brown will lead workshops in Adobe Illustrator. Ben Wright will guide music production. Golda Blaise will lead glow sculptures. Lysander Cramer will teach students to transform a drawing into a laser cut creation. As for myself, I’ll teach a narrative class for students interested in world building and nonlinear, collaborative storytelling in a 3D space. The project will have Meow Wolf co-founder Caity Kennedy acting as a consultant. If all goes well, the work will be included in local venues, schools, shop windows, malls and pop-up gallery spaces.
The overall goal of this assignment is to teach the skills we’ve learned as members of an art collective to the next generation of creators, training our competition, so to speak.
“I really want to use Chimera and all our artists to help create the next generation of artists and makers who will be the next —not Meow Wolf, but they’ll have all the information they’ll need to brand themselves,” Melanie said.
Chimera will host open houses for interested teens on the days before and after the Holidays, from December 19th – 23rd and then again on December 26th – 30th. The hours will be between noon to 4 p.m. Different instructors will be on hand to meet with parents and kids and talk a little about the classes.
Classes will begin on February 1st, 2017 and will run once a week for three hours, from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. They will continue through the Spring semester, wrapping up on May 24th. Costs for the courses are expected to be about $15 per class.
So if you’re an interested teen looking to make some weirdo art, let’s talk!
(Image above) Senator Tom Udall and National Endowment for the Arts Chair, Jane Chu visit Chimera and Meow Wolf. What an honor to share our work connecting youth to the power of creative community!
And speaking of the Holidays…
Those same weeks we’ll be making art for kids of all ages with a program that reflects the after school classes. This will take the form of a special charity project. We’ll be coming up with our own Meow Wolf spin on Santa Claus as we decorate shopping cart “sleighs” and fill them with toys, clothes and food for families in the area. In addition to the decorations and gift making we’ll meet with kids to come up with a new, modernized version of a Santa Claus-like figure. In addition to loving the Holiday season, I’m a big folklore and mythology geek and would love to put that knowledge to use as I collaborate with our younger guests.
– Billiam Rodgers