“When I think about creating…” explains artist David Ocelotl Garcia, “It doesn't matter how skilled you are or if you can draw someone to look just like them, or can draw at all. That's not what art is. It's an abstraction. You can do a figure, and it's not about what it looks like. It's about how it feels and how connected you are to the energy around you. That's abstract. That allows you to create the abstract.”
Alongside artist Cal Duran — a fellow Denver native — Garcia created “Earth Spirits of the Subconscious Mind,” a room combining mural, sculpture, and sound inside Meow Wolf’s third permanent installation in Colorado’s capital. Opening in Fall 2021, Meow Wolf Denver is the result of a collaboration between hundreds of artists and creatives, including over 110 Colorado-based artists like Garcia and Duran.
“It doesn't matter how skilled you are or if you can draw someone to look just like them, or can draw at all. That's not what art is." – David Ocelotl Garcia
Although some might associate Meow Wolf with interactive portals and psychedelic stories, Garcia and Duran’s space offers something of a calming respite, with a focus on making art that connects to their ancestral roots. For Garcia, that means symbolism from his Mexican heritage.
“Ever since I was a child, I've been fascinated by Mexican pictography and tribal images, and I've been studying them since then,” Garcia says. “More recently, I've started to evolve. In my tradition, there's this tribal word called nahual. Nahual basically translates to your ‘spirit animal’, but it's much more than that. In Mexican culture, your animal self is not a separate entity. You're one and the same. It's like your primitive instinct and your intuition — all of this — is your nahual.”
Looking around the “Earth Spirits” installation, the first thing that most people are likely to notice is the faces. Together, Garcia and Duran developed the idea that when someone walked inside of their room it would be like walking inside of a great cosmic head, the walls covered with faces of their ancestors while murals and chandeliers of richly-symbolic corn emerged from every direction.
As you examine the faces, you’ll see Garcia’s nahuales depicted through half-human/half-animal masks. You’ll see people, some of which contain features honoring Garcia’s own family members who have passed away. You’ll see skeletons representing death as a mirror of life. You’ll even see mirrors themselves in the eyes of the faces, beckoning viewers to look within, or as Duran says, “reflecting spirit.”
“I think our space is a good way for people to connect to their roots. It’s about finding your own cultural identity through the organic feeling of the room.”
For Duran, an art teacher at the nonprofit DAVA in Aurora, Colorado, the theme of cultural identity comes from a deeply personal place.
“I didn't really grow up with a culture. My mom was adopted and my father was never really around. I have a lot of indigenous blood in me. My mom, she's East Indian and Native American and my dad's Mexican. So, it was just kind of a journey through art to find my identity and find parallels through these cultures.”
“I just see where the spirit guides me as far as my art.”
It isn’t hard to see the parallels between Garcia and Duran’s personal journeys. Neither went to art school, but both have found success in creative careers that jump between mediums, seemingly adapting their skills to whatever a given project requires, even if it’s not asked of them.
For instance, Garcia never studied music — his artistic accomplishments are centered around painting, sculpture, and murals — yet he composed and recorded the soundtrack for the “Earth Spirits” space, playing pre-Columbian clay flutes, drums, and conch shells in a soundscape representing the four elements.
As for Duran, he summarizes his career path simply: “I just see where the spirit guides me as far as my art.”
It’s not just an instinctive creative drive that binds the two artists, though. When it comes down to it, Garcia and Duran both seek inspiration in the spiritual and the metaphysical. Garcia even created a term for his creative approach, calling it “abstract imaginism.”
“Abstract imaginism is a visual manifestation of energy,” he explains. “That's really what it is. Energy from plants, from the universe, energy from other people, yourself, your connection. So I try to build sculptural forms or designs that visually connect these things together. My belief is that these shapes, these forms, these faces, the whole room itself...any object can absorb energy. As a creative person making something, you're transferring energy into this element, into this painting, into this sculpture. In the process of doing that, once it becomes viewable or people experience it, they then get to experience the energy you produced while making this... And it never stops. It's taught me everything I know about making art.”
While Garcia’s approach might be challenging for a viewer who operates on a practical plane of existence, there’s another side to abstract imaginism that feels, well, very Meow Wolf-y.
“I actually really relate to certain ideas and beliefs in quantum physics. They totally make sense to me because I experience these same phenomena as I'm working. That's the significance of some of the line work in (the “Earth Spirits” installation)...is that the gaps in the lines are almost like portals or windows into a different dimension.”
Whether you’re looking for portals between the lines, absorbing energy from nahual sculptures, or self-reflecting to connect with your cultural identity, Garcia and Duran ultimately just hope that “Earth Spirits of the Subconscious Mind” is a place that makes people think and feel differently than when they entered into Garcia and Duran’s shared headspace. Call it the fifth dimension.
“On a spiritual level, the fifth dimension is really empowering for me,” says Duran. “And seeing our subconscious go to this different realm and dimension. I think, to look toward the future, we have to go deep into our roots to transcend time.”
“I think when you make a piece of art, there's a lot of ways to go about understanding it and thinking about it,” Garcia explains. “I hope that this has that effect on people and that there's something to take back that’s not just, ‘That was a fun place.’ I want them to think, ‘Wow, I felt something in there that I didn't expect.’”