When I was a kid, my parents took me to a lot of museums. They hoped I’d develop a lifelong love for the profoundness of art, as they had. They’d stop at every painting, sculpture and artifact to soak in its meaning and explain to me its significance and relevance to history and culture. I’d secretly be more interested in the intricacies of the flooring and the walls behind the exhibits, failing to experience what I was supposed to be impressed by.

As I got a little older, I’d take a quick walk through the rooms of a museum on my own, absorb what I saw in just a few seconds and return to find my parents still on exhibit number three.

Art was something inaccessible to me, both physically (Stand back! Don’t touch!) and experientially. I became less and less patient with standing and staring at objects.

Everything came to a head at one particular museum. The promise of a modern art exhibit on the top floor was something I was actually looking forward to, and I was hoping it would be something I could relate to. Not so. I remember the display that got me to protest ever entering another museum again. It was a piece of green yarn fixed to the ceiling on one end and to the floor on the other.

That was art?

I’d had it! No longer was I going to be dragged along to ponder the depths of a piece of canvas or stone or string. I wanted to run through the halls of the building, play hide-and-seek and pretend I was lost in a castle.

My parents were very disappointed that all the exposure to human creativity and culture they’d given me had resulted in a resentment against all things labelled as art.

No more quiet observation

Visitors going through Meow Wolf exhibit in Santa Fe - Art reimagined

Fast-forward to me at the same age my parents were during the museum fiasco.

My husband and I are travelling in the Unites States and find ourselves in Santa Fe, New Mexico. We hear about a venue there called Meow Wolf. It isn’t quite clear to us what it is, exactly. All we know is that it’s a huge immersive art experience that George R. R. Martin (A Game of Thrones creator and Santa Fe resident) has generously supported financially.

While it has that dreaded word attached to it, the two other words used to describe it—“immersive” and “experience”—are what draw me in. We decide to go and find out what it’s all about.

As we get close to the building, we see something huge and red towering overtop of other structures. We follow our GPS straight to it and discover that it’s a metal statue of a giant red robot smelling a round-petalled flower. It stands boldly outside of what was once a bowling alley and is now Meow Wolf.

An interesting introduction to the building. And, oh, that’s so just the beginning.

What we find once we go through the doors is that we aren’t stepping into a building, but rather, entering a 20,000 square foot explosion of all-encompassing art like I’d never imagined it could be.

The whole idea of being inside art, swallowed up by it and able to experience it from within doesn’t fit into any of my preconceived notions. Art is supposed to be hung on a wall and stared at. Now, we’re inside that picture and are encouraged to manipulate it by opening doors, pulling levers and pressing buttons.

It’s something like being Alice down the rabbit hole, tumbling into a kaleidoscope of colour, sound, light and story.

Each piece of art transitions into the next, with all of them woven together by an overarching story that evolves as we explore the first portion of the exhibit. It’s a full-scale two-storey Victorian house with art flowing throughout, found in architectural details, hidden objects and the textures of floors and walls.

The house is embedded into the story, which can be discovered through clues in each room. Video clips, newspaper clippings, journal entries and pictures in the house transport us into the lives of a family and the other-worldly dimensions they’ve discovered.

Beyond the house, we enter those wildly diverse dimensions, each a distinct art installation. We step inside a sculpture shaped like the skeleton of a woolly mammoth, enter a room of floor-to-ceiling ink pen drawings and poke around inside a fish tank with brightly painted tree branches that look like corals. The aesthetic has the quality of making us feel like we’re in someone else’s dream.

It’s a non-linear journey of discovery. There’s a secret passageway through a fireplace, a tunnel through a refrigerator door and many, many staircases.

We spend four hours there—half a workday—plunging into worlds that the wild imaginations of more than 100 artists have created for us. It’s easy to forget that the outside world exists.

A reconciliation

Kitchen in Meow Wolf exhibit - Art reimagined

Later, I think about my Meow Wolf experience. Meow Wolf got me excited about being alive. It was the explosion of creativity, the building’s massive scale and the absorbing revelation of an imagined reality that got to me.

Meow Wolf got me excited about being alive. It was the explosion of creativity, the building’s massive scale and the absorbing revelation of an imagined reality that got to me.

It was about taking things we see as so basic to our everyday lives (like a house) and infusing them with wonder and mystery. It pushed the boundaries of what art is and how we interact with and experience it. While doing so, I felt a sense of possibility and adventurous creativity taking up residence inside of me.

As a child, I would’ve loved running through the passageways, playing hide-and-seek and imagining being lost in a dream world. The drawings, sculptures, architecture and myriad of artifacts that I could touch and manipulate would’ve turned art into something that was accessible to me.

And I think my parents would actually have liked it, too. I can imagine them setting aside their preconceived notions of what art is and giving in to the journey of imagination. I could see them finding meaning in the artistic expression of an evolving story and how it’s been translated into this unique and immersive environment.

This makes me wonder if I should take another crack at those traditional museums my parents once dragged me to. Maybe now I could look at art I’d once seen as boring, and appreciate it as profound creative expression.

Maybe I’m ready to expand what kind of art I’m open to. I might even be able to concede that a floor-to-ceiling piece of green yarn can actually be considered art!

Author’s Note: Meow Wolf Las Vegas (Nevada) and Meow Wolf Denver (Colorado) are scheduled to open in 2019 and 2020, respectively.

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image 1: Hrag Vartanian; image 2: Hrag Vartanian