• Mary T

The Invisible Theater

Updated: Mar 12, 2020

I just finished my first week teaching at Decordova Sculpture Park and Museum's Summer program The Hive. It was literally my dream job. I wanted to share today about our process and the collaborative sculpture installation I facilitated with thirteen eight year olds for Illusion Week.

The Hive bases weekly themes off of current work in the museum and sculpture park. Education staff chose the theme of illusions based off of the New England Biennial currently on display in the museum. Many of the works in the museum explore "the increasingly indeterminate realms of truth and belief."  Curators connect this to larger social and political forces at work in our world today - how do we know what to believe?

For the kids camp we take that same theme and run with it! Education Director Sarah Brockway described The Hive's Week Two theme in a parent news letter:

How did the artist do that?! How can gobs of paint placed just so camouflage a surface? What devices can create a sculptural illusion? Let’s take a moment to marvel at stunning mirages and find truth within the illusion!

Illusions mess with your mind.

They shift perspective and feel like surprises once figured out.

Participants question what is real and how things are made.

Illusions are not magic, illusions can be explained!

Our goal is to obscure and reveal.

Campers will experiment with infinite reflections, imitating nature and create contraptions of their own invention. Beware a piece of chalk drawing by itself. There are as many illusions as there are campers this week! To showcase the participatory trickeries, structures are taking form. A house of illusions has a surprise around every corner, on the walls and even on the ceilings. Watch your step on a carpet of clouds under a ceiling of grass. It may feel like summer, but when you see stark winter trees in The Grove you may question the season.

So, with that context in mind, let me show you our process and explain a little more about our participatory installation: The Invisible Theater on view Friday, July 19 at 4pm in The Grove, DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, Lincoln Mass.

We started the week playing with mirror reflections through our classroom window and creating D.I.Y kaleidoscopes. For the Mirror Movie, students stood one floor below, outside our classroom window and bounced light off the sun onto the wall inside. We gave up trying to make a linear narrative because the outside people could never see the images on the inside! We discovered this serendipitous illusion by accident one day when one group was outside creating our cyanotype murals.

We also created kaleidescopes with recycled bottles, sand, glitter, christmas ornaments and other trinkets and bobbles. The kaleidoscopes were a happy accident as well as campers relished the opportunity to mix together treasure also used for the cyanotype murals. What are the cyanotype murals you may ask?!? We used our bodies to make images on a fabric dyed with a chemical called Cyanotype. This mimics the photography process, in that, any part of the fabric that is exposed to the sun is altered chemically. Any part that is covered will remain "undeveloped" / it won't oxidize. This is actually one of the oldest photographic processes! 

For these hanging fabric mural we designed a scene on the photo blankets and then laid on them in the sun for 15 minutes. To "develop them" we rinsed the fabric with water then hung them out to dry. The results are the incredible human clouds on starry deep sky blue backgrounds you can see in my galleries page.

On day two we played with my analogue projector. We wrote stories, made shadow puppet plays and explored all the crazy treasures in DeCordova's basement - a collection of supplies and materials from past projects and donations to the museum. This humungous art supply closet is paradise! We used feathers, old art history slides, microfilm and colored cellophane paper to create enlarged shadow illusions/ manual cinema stories. We loved our shadow performances so much we decided we needed to find a way to show them on Friday at the parent outdoor art show. How could we make a dark space in which to use the projector on a bright summer day? We could use the light block curtains from the basement to create a big dark space and bring the projector inside! But... how could we disguise it to be also an illusion? An thus, the Invisible Theater was born!

We could use our cyanotype murals to disguise the dark space so outside it looked like blue summer sky with random sounds coming out of it. To blend into the forest floor, we could make fake grass, bugs and even a huge snake to disguise the extension cord! To further embellish our sky illusion we could make giant floating clouds suspended above the theater! We spent some time reading about clouds, watching clouds and writing cloud haikus in order to research what makes a cloud, a cloud. We made rain cloud experiments using food coloring and shaving cream. We used a Reggio Emilia technique to create large cloud sculptures (show above) . Then, we put it all together to create The Invisible Theater. Read more on Reggio Emilia here.

Reggio Cloud suspended above Cyanotype Mural theater box structure
Reggio Cloud suspended above Cyanotype Mural theater box structure

The day of the art show we brought it all out into the installation site shared by all groups of campers - The Grove. This site was centered around one of the bieniale pieces- a large tree illusion sculpture by Boston Artist, Josephine Halvorson. For the Invisible Theater, we made a map and a sign. Then we climbed on a tall ladder to hang the floating clouds. Right before the art show we had one more last minute idea to exhibit alongside the theater, the movies, the shadow puppets, the kaleidoscopes and the clouds: A Parade of Imaginary Friends! All building around the concept of an illusion. This installation was participatory- along with creating name tags for the imaginary friends student's invited to the parade, we asked spectators to make a name tag and reserve a place for their friends as well. Perhaps one of the aspects I love most about my work at the Hive is the way in which this community of educators facilitates the making of conceptual art with young people. We are doing so much more that drawing fruit in a bowl!

This project also got me thinking about the role of intuition in art making. Because of deCordova Hive's unique set up, all teaching artists go into the week with almost no idea what the final collaboration will be. We start with materials, aesthetic assemblages and, perhaps a feeling. All further ideas are filtered through youth artists. Process is usually the key to big ideas. Without knowing what would happen, our little group created a rich aesthetic world. I am so proud of us for having enough faith to trust the process.

Week two was equally imaginative and experimental! Youth artists created and Inside Out River by painting giant pieces of tulle over 100 feet long. This is the large snake tulle installation you may have seen on my pedagogy page (see site menu). Students used their hands to create glittery, iridescent swaths of fabric. In the July sun the fabrics almost moved and sparkled like water! For the exposition on the last day of camp, we strung this fabric up to create another interactive sculpture. Guests could wander through the Inside Out River seeing birds in trees where there should have been water, and a bubble machine and fish puppets on the outside - where there should have been air!

As a teaching artist at the Hive, I felt the creative time with students felt very much like an intense residency period for me. Along with the campers I was strengthening and expanding my imagination muscle. I am grateful for the opportunity to continue to evolve my teaching practice in this way. For the rest of the summer I will be pondering: When we leave things unplanned is there more room for creativity? When does too much structure stifle the generation of new ideas? I am excited to apply the creative energy from the Hive to my dance practice and as an offering for my BPS students this fall!

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