For­est fare

Artist and or­ga­nizer Tus­cany Wenger

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - Michael Abatemarco

The for­est ex­hibit in Meow Wolf’s House of Eter­nal Re­turn looks like some­thing from the pages of a sto­ry­book. Pa­perthin leaves, hang­ing wil­low-like on branch­ing vines, make you won­der how kids will be kept from pulling them down. Ac­cord­ing to Tus­cany Wenger, a lo­cal artist and part of the art-man­age­ment team that or­ga­nized the ex­hibit, the branches will be tucked up to pre­vent grasp­ing fin­gers from clutch­ing a hand­ful of fake leaves be­fore the show opens to the pub­lic. The leaves and branches are tougher than they ap­pear. “Th­ese were made on our laser cut­ter, and they’re Tyvek,” Wenger said. “It’s all been fire-treated.” Tyvek is a durable, tear-re­sis­tant plas­tic.

Ac­tiv­ity at the Meow Wolf Art Com­plex con­tin­ued daily and long into the night, the more so as the grand open­ing ap­proached. Wenger and other artists were reg­u­larly putting in 12- and 14-hour days. Much of Wenger’s time was spent in the for­est, a sec­tion of the ex­hibit com­posed of four bul­bous trees with a fort built into each one — a colorful, whim­si­cal pre­sen­ta­tion. “The for­est is where I started work­ing as a vol­un­teer this sum­mer. Then they hired me on to do some artist and site man­age­ment,” Wenger said. “The for­est was sort of the kitchen of the ex­hibit for me. I feel like it’s where I had my head­quar­ters. I worked on a lot of the other ex­hibit parts as well.”

Wenger vol­un­teered to work on House of Eter­nal Re­turn last sum­mer. She is a mem­ber of a loose art col­lab­o­ra­tive called The Squir­rels, who did a room of masks on the ex­hibit’s up­per level. “The Squir­rels are a group of my friends,” she said. “I feel like I have some cre­ative in­put in that pro­ject, but mostly I’m giv­ing sup­port, or­ga­niz­ing, and help­ing man­age a lot of other peo­ple.” She does mean a lot. Meow Wolf’s web­site states that 135 artists worked on the pro­ject. “I make a new list ev­ery day,” she said.

Meow Wolf di­vided the em­ploy­ees into a fab­ri­ca­tion team, an art team, a tech team, a nar­ra­tive team, and a sound team, to name a few, but the roles for each are not clear-cut. “There’s a ton of over­lap,” Wenger said. “Al­most ev­ery team worked on ev­ery com­po­nent, so there was a lot of com­mu­ni­ca­tion. I pri­mar­ily worked with the art team. Then there’s a whole slew of in­di­vid­ual artists who did in­de­pen­dent pieces or rooms. Some are from out of state and were only here for a short time, so the art team took on a lit­tle bit of prep or fin­ish­ing if they didn’t have a lot of time to com­plete their projects.”

While 70 small nooks and rooms that were pri­mar­ily de­signed as in­di­vid­ual artist spa­ces bear each per­son’s sig­na­ture in terms of his or her artis­tic vi­sion, there’s a co­he­sive­ness to the over­all ex­hibit, in part be­cause of the use of sim­i­lar ma­te­ri­als through­out. Many sculp­tural and ar­chi­tec­tural com­po­nents, for in­stance — whether it’s the sta­lag­mites and walls of the ex­hibit’s cave sys­tem or the an­thro­po­mor­phic crit­ters that pop­u­late the for­est — are made from Skratch, a durable but lighter-than- con­crete ma­te­rial, or from In­staMorph, a molded plas­tic sculpting medium. “Artists made ev­ery­thing from the root chan­de­lier to lit­tle bats be­ing hung in­side. There are a lot of mov­ing parts.”

The trees in the for­est were con­ceived by lo­cal artists Caity Kennedy and Amy West­phal, but oth­ers helped by ap­ply­ing Skratch and paint­ing the trees. “Amy, us­ing a forge in her stu­dio, forged and welded three of the four tree struc­tures. Then they were filled in with a com­bi­na­tion of lath work and many lay­ers of Skratch,” Wenger said. “We tried to get peo­ple to have own­er­ship over cer­tain ar­eas. So the in­di­vid­ual artists were re­ally re­spon­si­ble for com­plet­ing their rooms from be­gin­ning to end.” One of Wenger’s jobs was to stay in com­mu­ni­ca­tion with them about their punch lists and time lines.

Wenger has no plans to stay on with Meow Wolf now that the art com­plex is open. “I’ve en­joyed the build­ing process and told them that I’m very in­ter­ested in fu­ture projects,” she said. “I’m go­ing to take a lit­tle time off and do my laun­dry and pet my cat — stuff like that.” Still, the pro­ject has been re­ward­ing. “It’s prob­a­bly the clos­est ex­pe­ri­ence I can think of that’s like that bond­ing that hap­pens when peo­ple work on a movie to­gether. I feel like it’s been a peak ex­pe­ri­ence in my life. Ev­ery­body has been es­sen­tially ded­i­cat­ing their lives to get­ting this thing built.”

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