When I was 14 years old, a buddy and I took all his GI Joe figurines out back, positioned them on a tree branch reaching over a creek and executed them with a BB gun. Goodbye, childhood, we thought.
However, looking at the graveyard of headless Joes collecting silt in the cold stream, I felt a repressed guilt, remembering that primal, even violent, curiosity I had felt when I believed my toys were alive and still tore them apart. I had been sentimental and had attempted to put them back together, but they never looked the same.
Solace comes in a conversation with Meow Wolf’s Nicholas Chiarella, who assures me that a childhood curiosity about how things work is not only natural, but essential to an imaginative human being.
“I just never stopped breaking things and looking at how they were put together,” Chiarella says.
The key is to turn that act of destruction into an act of construction.
We’re in Anna Marie Tutera Manriquez’ office at the Santa Fe Children’s Museum to talk about Plushtronic Zoo, a Meow Wolf/SFCM workshop for kids 8 years old and up, which prompts them to tear apart stuffed animals, sew them back together in different configurations with electronic parts and create a narrative about the new creature.
By example, Chiarella shows me Ruprecht, the Screaming Telefishie of Doom & Despair, created by Wolfer Akira Watts. He presses a button, causing Ruprecht to wiggle, moan and light up.
Aiming for a low teacher-to-student ratio, Meow Wolf designed the class to hold eight to 20 students with six to eight artists and technicians. The workshop costs $75 for four sessions, and Chimera, Meow Wolf’s education outreach collaboration with the Center for Contemporary Arts, offers four scholarships.
Manriquez, the museum’s executive director, shares some big-picture, mission-statement reasoning behind the workshop: Middle schools have a high dropout rate; kids need mentors in the arts and sciences; technology and hands-on experiences intersect. B ut when we break down the curriculum to its intention, Manriquez and Chiarella hope to give kids encouragement—nay, the permission—to break things to find out how they work.
Chiarella shares an anecdote: “Learning how things work doesn’t have to be a classroom experience,” he says. “In a documentary, Grandmaster Flash [the influential disc jockey]…said he got started by breaking turntables apart.”
So a Pablo Picasso-like return to imagination and first-hand experience fuels the Plushtronic Zoo experience. If we try to make more of the idea, it slips through our fingers. The workshop offers few concrete outcomes, aside from the toys themselves, which Manriquez hopes the children will lend to the museum for an exhibition. As far as evidence for the value of imagination in the workforce (ie how it translates into skills), that might be a question for sociologist Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class. However, we don’t need a scientist to realize that standardized testing, based on hard outcomes, isn’t helping kids achieve or advance.
“It’s very empowering for a child when he or she does something him- or herself,” Manriquez says. “It can be addictive, when you look into things.”
It can also be cathartic: The primal act of destruction may create regret, but it also gives permission to make mistakes in the name of creation.
I’m thinking of Aaron Sorkin’s play The Farnsworth Invention, in which Philo Farnsworth and his ragtag team of engineers race against the early electronic monolith RCA to make the first television. Success hinges on a sealant to connect a glass tube to another part, which the scientists over at RCA know isn’t possible, so they don’t try. Farnworth’s teammates, on the other hand, aren’t “educated.” They simply ask, “What would happen if we tried this…?” And then they try it.
“This is how innovation happens,” I tell Chiarella and Manriquez. “Education can limit our imaginations, but when we try things for ourselves…”
“Would you say that I said that?” Chiarella asks.