“And so the story goes, here I am in the cabin being a weirdo, making weird art, and then I get a call from Meow Wolf saying that they have a new client and their client is an ambassador of Snarflak. Snarflak is a planet on the other side of our galaxy — it's actually, probably, a distant galaxy — but it's a garden planet.”
Jesse Wilson is a storyteller first and foremost. From her cabin tucked away in the Sierra Nevadas — the home base of Skull Island Art and Fabrication — Jesse goes into rich detail about the story behind her installation at Meow Wolf Las Vegas’ Omega Mart. It’s one that blurs the lines between the business of creating art and the art of nature. Titled “ALMOST EARTH,” the installation is described on the Skull Island website as “an otherworldly, ultraviolet exhibit that brings you to a familiar, yet distant place.” But, to hear Jesse tell it, ALMOST EARTH is a planet occupied by self-aware, emotionally-high-maintenance flowers and plants who are kept alive by humanoid hive keepers.
“I think the ability to tell stories is one of the most visceral and human traits that we have,” Jesse muses. “If I'm going to make you a piece of art, I want to understand how it fits into the world. And so in order for me to do that, I give it a character, I give it an environment, I give it antagonists and protagonists that might help shape some of the lines you see in a silhouette.”
To shape the giant flowers of ALMOST EARTH, the Nevada City, California-based builder/designer/mad scientist utilized pasta colanders, mesh screens, wire armature, paint, aluminum foil, and Meow Wolf-approved epoxy clay to sculpt everything from petals to pollen grains. The flowers pop out from a landscape mural with UV paint depicting similarly-sized flowers, creating an optical illusion and concept that Jesse refers to as “2 1/2-D.”
While the result of Jessie’s ambition is an immersive escape to nature from the hard lines and digital atmosphere of the rooms surrounding ALMOST EARTH, there’s so much more to the story than one medium can tell, and her restless artistry is more than happy to indulge curious minds...including her own.
For instance, Jesse made an accompanying film for ALMOST EARTH that dives into interplanetary flora exchange, undercover drug trafficking, and pollen that makes you become sexually attracted to nature.
“So, you get filled with serotonin and this euphoric overload, and then all of a sudden you're aroused by the natural world,” Jesse explains. “And not only do you want to care for nature, but you're in love with it, and you flirt with it. And I feel like that's the whole story of Snarflak.”
Of course, as anyone who thinks about art beyond the art experience knows, the whole story doesn’t end when the experience is over. For many, it goes beyond the walls of the exhibit, the last note of the song, or the end credits of the film. For Jesse, during her installation process, the story would even trickle into the parking lot, where a lotus tree would regularly steal her attention.
“I would stop and pet that tree for five minutes. I got caught by contractors every time, and they were just looking at me like, ‘What the fuck are you doing?’...It's my friend, it's my Snarflakian connection to nature. You don't get it! You should though. You should love nature.”
For a long time, Jesse’s creative energy has been focused on commercial art. She considers herself a specialist, an interpreter of other people’s ideas who’s providing a service. Yet, despite Renaissance-like experience as a carpenter, restorer of Navajo rugs, and flat weaver — to name just a few — Jesse recognizes that the commercial art world is one of diminishing returns. It’s a world that often expects you to be an electrician or a plumber before expecting to pay you in nebulous artist rates.
In other words: It works until it doesn’t.
“Understanding the business side of art is profoundly valuable on so many different levels, especially to your self-worth and your self-esteem. You should know your value, and the greater world doesn't teach that to you. They don't encourage it in art school. I have no idea why.”
As someone disillusioned with traditional education, Jesse has used the mirror of the COVID-19 pandemic to reconsider her creative energy’s focus.
“I was a creative consultant to a STEAM school in San Diego, and we made a very custom educational program that is vastly important to me.”
The project, called CCACE (Creative Catalyst Artists Consulting Educators), represents an opportunity for her to make an impact on a system that often leaves visual, hands-on learners in the dust. It’s a 10-part tutorial, a mini-course on cinematography and filmmaking that works as a complimentary assistant to core class subjects and an alternative to end-of-year projects.
“I went to an alternative high school, and until I got into that place, I did really, really bad everywhere else,” Jesse explains. “I was a hands-on learner. I was a visual learner. I learned through speaking and interaction and not as much (through) studying. And though I have the capacity for reading, that's not how I absorb knowledge. I absorb it environmentally.”
Through programs like CCACA, Jesse hopes to ensure that artists, creative thinkers, and children with limited resources aren’t left behind. For example, if one child didn’t have access to a glue gun, they’d use tape. If they didn’t have tape, Jesse would teach them how to do joinery with slots cut into cardboard.
“The tutorial starts with understanding empathy before you can even have an idea. You could just see how effective it is and how happy these kids were and how excited and proud they were to share their work. You could tell that the knowledge really sunk in and that it wasn't just the project. They were at the beginning of a life skill. And they're doing all of this with their phones! So, instead of this vortex of energy that gets sucked away from these kids and into phones and computers, it's projecting outwards to the world. They're learning how to articulate their thoughts and share vulnerabilities...and it's just so cool.”
When Jesse Wilson tells the story of her life as an artist, a familiar theme keeps coming around: adaptability. Whether it’s learning new mediums to execute a commercial art job, finding ways to repurpose garbage and single-use items, or simply learning how to learn, it’s clear that she has a knack for hammering, folding, or reforming what’s presented before her into an opportunity for success.
More than anything, this ability of learning to adapt is what Jesse hopes she can impart to young artists, especially those who don’t feel seen or heard.
“That you get to even ponder that and have an adult recognize it is truly remarkable. I can't wait to show these 12 and 13-year-old kids that I followed the same thing that you did, I used the same materials that you did. Everything is the same. This is what it can turn into, and this is what it can be.”
If adaptability is lesson number 1, the ability to collaborate is 1A. Jesse knows that she needed to unlock her own learning process to realize her creative potential, but she also recognizes the importance of finding inspiration through our teachers and peers.
“I look at the installation that I made in Meow Wolf as a heritage quilt, in a way. I don't have any ownership over that. We all did it together, especially the mural. During the process, I think almost every manager on site helped paint the mural. It isn't mine. I don't look at that and go, ‘Me, me, me. Jesse Wilson.’ I look at that and I'm like, ‘We did something so cool. Damn, those flowers are high maintenance.’”