Desireé Vaniecia, one of Meow Wolf’s collaborating creatives for our 2023 Grapevine, Texas location, is an artist and teacher whose painting will take on a unique life of its own inside the exhibition.
Guests, she hopes, will walk away from her light-and-sound-activated mural feeling as though they are never truly alone, that their struggles are seen. Nothing gets lost inside the cosmos.
“I want guests to experience the feeling that someone is always looking out for you,” she said of her work (which we promise not to spoil here). “We sometimes get into this mindset that no one cares about what we do, or no one is invested in what we do. Even if the people around you don’t say anything, that doesn’t mean they’re not invested in your well-being.”
Vaniecia’s distinctive, flat figures are anything but two-dimensional. From these iconographic designs, she weaves rich stories of her family’s history, confronts stereotypes black women face in society, and even shows us the softer side of the seven deadly sins.
For her work in Grapevine, Vaniecia is creating a large mural of characters who are immediately recognizable to fans of myth and classical storytelling. These characters will be activated with lights and an audiotrack. A chorus to the story of the Grapevine show, they may not be aware of our presence, but they are not so aloof as to be above it all. They’re having a disagreement, but this disagreement is simply a matter of lived experience. How much do you help people? And how do you continue on after getting burned?
“One (character) is not jaded but over it,” she said. “Another is severely over it, but is like, ‘I’m going to let her live her best fantasy. She’ll be on our side, eventually.’ They remind me of conversations I have with my friends. I’m the hopeful one. The others saw the worst the art world had to offer, but they tell me, ‘It will be fine. You do you, baby.’”
“It’s also this idea that they’re on a pedestal, but did they ask to be put on a pedestal?”
Her Grapevine work relates in part to a miscarriage Vaniecia experienced after years of trying to have a baby. She recounts going to bed one night, in despair, wondering if she should give up. She remembered feeling peace that night, serene. A season of life had just changed.
“We —I mean me and whoever the higher being is. The one who sees everything— we got this,” she said. “It was a serene experience. It pushed me along.”
That link between personal relationships and otherworldly circumstances extends to Vaniecia getting the offer to work with Meow Wolf in the first place. She was on maternity leave when a friend asked if she wanted to go to Meow Wolf in Santa Fe. She was not able to, but then…
“I came back and got an email (from Meow Wolf) asking if I’d be interested in doing this,” she said. “I thought, ‘Really?! Wow. That’s insane. Sure.’”
“I’m the type of person…when an opportunity comes along, I’ll see how far I can go. I’m not going to say no, especially when I can do something vastly different than what I started out with.”
That approach is how Vaniecia came to the art world in the first place.
“I didn’t go to college to be an artist. I went to college to be a doctor,” Vaniecia said. “I went to sign up for pre-med classes and someone told me, ‘You’re not going to have a life, just be ready.’ I said ‘nevermind’ and went to graphic design instead.”
When she started Vaniecia said she knew little about art or art school. She gravitated between different influences until she found her distinctive iconographic style. She teaches that seeking mentality to her students today, even as she tries out new artistic disciplines for the first time. They’re learning ceramics together. She tells her students to try, but also be prepared to let things go.
“I tell them it’s about uncertainty,” she said. “I say (when we’re firing clay), ‘It can die here. You have to let it take its course. You can do everything perfectly and it can still explode on you.’ When we load up the kiln I tell them, ‘If it doesn’t make it, I’m not going to hold it against you. And don’t you hold it against me.’”
That complexity between loss, acceptance, and hope is a running theme in Vaniecia’s work. Her recent series, Is This Living?, explores one of the seven deadly sins and her relationship with the faith in which she was raised.
“I actually don’t see them as mistakes,” she said. “They’re a passage you have to go through to get to the next stage of life. It was a challenge in my upbringing. I was raised in a Baptist household. They say, ‘Don’t be slothful,’ but I want to take my time! What’s wrong with taking my time?”
Close family relationships are another theme drawn from Vaniecia’s personal life. During this interview, her mother was watching her sons, the way her grandmother and aunt helped her mother when Vaniecia was young. It’s a simple experience, but one that makes her think about her family’s legacy. Her great-grandmother’s mother was a slave. Her great-grandmother was married twice at 22, before she could even vote.
“And now your great-granddaughter is a teacher full-time. She has her own life. I really wanted to touch on that with my pieces, the legacy my family created…We have come so far and have done so much. What were those things we did to change how the trajectory of our family went? We had so many different upbringings in such a short period of time.”
You can see Desireé Vaniecia’s work when Meow Wolf Grapevine opens in 2023. Just follow the sound of a loving disagreement between family members.
— Billiam Rodgers is a Story Lead at Meow Wolf.
More from Desireé here.