Phoenix artist Bill Dambrova is a visiting creator who contributed a mural in the House of Eternal Return. During his few short weeks of intensive painting last spring, he found some time to chat about his artistic practice and the process of creating large-scale work with Meow Wolf.
The interview was conducted by email and has been edited for style and concision with assistance from Sarah Stickney.
How did you hear about Meow Wolf?
Before you opened, I happened to be bringing some paintings from Phoenix to my [Santa Fe] art dealer, Eileen Braziel. I saw the Billboard off I-25 that just said MEOW WOLF, and I was intrigued. I started asking everyone what it was and got a billion different answers. Later on, Eileen wanted to me to do some sort of collaboration [with Meow Wolf] and her gallery. I got [Meow Wolf Chief Creative Officer] Caity Kennedy’s info but we never connected.
When Meow Wolf opened, I had a rough idea that it was an immersive experience, but that was all I really knew. I am a painter, but also a museum exhibition designer, and I specialize in immersive, family-oriented exhibitions. I figured I would go and steal some ideas. I usually start breaking these types of things down when I go in, figuring out how they’re built etc. Five minutes in, I forgot all of that. I just played and explored with a friend for, like, four hours! I came out into the parking lot feeling altered, and I didn’t want the experience to be over. At that point I knew that MW was going to be a game changer.
How did you get involved with these upgrades?
…A friend of mine was applying for positions at Meow Wolf. I had Caity’s email and figured it wouldn’t hurt to send a recommendation letter. I wrote Caity and reminded her how we were connected. She replied right away and said, “Oh yeah we know about her and we are waiting for the perfect position to open up… BUT I went to your website and love your paintings, would you like to do a mural here at MW?” I did a happy dance and then basically dropped everything I was working on, and within a couple weeks I was here painting.
Are you usually a collaborative artist? Have you worked with a collective before?
My painting practice is very much a solo thing, but I have collaborated on projects at Burning Man and East Jesus. I’ve painted murals with friends where no one really takes ownership or signs their name. I love making what I consider to be ‘academic art,’ but it is also refreshing to step out of that for a bit and create art that that has nothing to do with the ‘art world/market’ or worry about whether or not it fits into my artist statement or ties into a body of work.
What is your artistic process like?
I like to make big paintings. I begin with no real plan and often start by making an abstract background. I try to make the backgrounds as random as possible by experimenting with different ways of creating marks. At a certain point, the painting begins to show me what it needs. I start seeing imagery in the abstract shapes and marks, sort of the way you see shapes in clouds that look like animals or whatever. I try and paint really fast, pulling figurative imagery from the chaos. I may get some recognizable objects or symbols that I like, and eventually a composition forms. When things start to feel too precious, I will go back in and ‘disrupt’ the surface again by painting over parts of it or vandalizing it in an interesting way. I keep building up imagery and destroying it until the painting is done.
Can you tell me a little bit about your mural for Meow Wolf?
This mural really painted itself. I employed the same process I described above, which is a bit risky considering I didn’t have a solid plan coming in, and a limited time to finish. I wanted to feel out the space and see what it needed when I arrived. I started with an abstract background as I usually do, and I pulled shapes from the chaos with reference to some of the imagery and feelings in the surrounding areas. The mural is in a transitional space. I wanted my work to evoke a feeling of its own, but I also wanted it to blend into the connecting spaces. The mural is on the second floor where the narrative becomes especially chaotic. The existing chair-rail gets wonky and there is a portal-type opening into the forest near a ‘tornado tree.’ I was riffing off those elements and activating the space with expressive, juicy shapes that have a lot of movement and color so it would still be very much my own work.
How did you come up with this particular mural design?
At the beginning of the hallway there is some really weird, Victorian-style wallpaper that looks to me like creatures on a totem pole. I wanted to make it look like the wallpaper was transforming into strange creatures. So I painted on it in order to make it work like an animation: the wallpaper slowly changes as you move from left to right. As you move to the end of the hall toward the kid’s bedroom, things get weirder and weirder as the wallpaper morphs into different creatures. On the opposite wall, I wanted to contrast the figures standing like soldiers with lots of movement. So again, reading from left to right, it starts with a few totem creatures and as you move down the hall you see that they are being torn apart and blown around as if they were in a tornado, leading you to the portal into the forest where you see the ‘tornado tree’ or whatever it is called.
Do you have anything else you are working on right now that you would like to tell me about? Any big or favorite projects?
I just landed a major public art project at the Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport. I am designing a 6,000-square-foot Terrazzo floor based on my painting style and using lots of bright color and organic forms. This floor will be in a new Sky Train rental car return station scheduled to open around 2020. Check out my page to see what other art events I have coming up.
Do you always work on murals or do you delve into other types of art as well?
Painting in the studio and working on canvas is my foundation but I love to challenge myself and try new things outside my comfort zone. If an opportunity comes up that sounds fun and there is a chance to grow and meet amazing people the way I have with this project at Meow Wolf, I am in!