By Chris StoneTwo small boys lean against the railing at the New Children’s Museum and look down from the second floor at a new creation unfolding. They are puzzled. “I think it’s an octopus. Yes, it’s an octopus with a hole in the back of its head,” one boy says with some certainty.
Below, artist Jason Hackenwerth — in his fifth day of an eight-day residency at the downtown museum — is meticulously assembling a 14,000-latex-balloon sculpture called Crystal Cortex.
It will open into a cascading semicircular shroudlike wing at least 50 feet high in the museum’s 70-foot-tall atrium.
Completed Monday, it will be on display for three months. (On Sunday, Hackenwerth will hold a hands-on workshop with museum members about his technique.)
This isn’t the first time that the St. Petersburg, Florida-based, artist has brought his talent to San Diego. He was here in 2009.
But since 2018 is the 10th anniversary of the New Children’s Museum downtown — at 200 W. Island Ave. — and its 35th year in San Diego, executives decided to welcome back a few of their most memorable guest artists.
Hackenwerth is happy to hear the children’s guesses about his art.
“The kids will just say what they think it looks like,” Hackenwerth said, “and I heard hedgehog and snail so far, which is great. I love that.
“Adults just always want to ask, ‘What’s this supposed to be?’ You know, use your imagination — think something up.”And that use of imagination is at the heart of the expanding chrysalis-like structure.
“The idea was to try to create a piece that could be both about the innocence of children and about the painful knowledge that we as adults try so hard to deal with in our daily lives, and this was an idea about using something very beautiful that could remind us of the joyful innocence of youth,” Hackenwerth says.
So the grown-ups need to look to children to show them how to be more joyful, open and caring and shed “selfish attributes,” he says.
“We’re in a creative place,” he says. “It’s an opportunity for people to just let their imagination go. And so — it surprises me, when they just won’t, still. That is what this piece is about. People are so trapped in their own little mental jail cells.”
The children’s museum is known for its mission to stimulate imagination, creativity and critical thinking in children and families through inventive and engaging experiences with contemporary art.
Calling the museum an incubator of imagination, Hackenwerth said few museums of this kind exist in the world, so it’s a real opportunity for him.
Hackenwerth — famed for his large balloon designs resembling animals, insects and other creatures — has shown his works in New York, London, Abu Dhabi, Switzerland, Hong Kong, Italy, South Korea and throughout this country.
“Another thing is the space,” said the 47-year-old artist. “I wait months, even years, for a 70-foot-high vertical space to do something in. So to have that is a real blessing, and a challenge.”
Hackenworth’s creation started with a sketch, but its metamorphosis evolves as needed.And while you hear the artist softly singing as he creates, the sound of balloons popping can’t be ignored.
That’s purposeful, he said, as interwoven areas are tied up. But he admits a 3 percent accidental popping rate.
And that leads to doing a lot of math along the way. So he encourages young people to pay attention in math class.
He has a set of drawings as a map, he said, but makes changes as needed.
“If we get to a point where I can’t follow the drawing anymore, because things have just gone crazy or the drawing was impossible to begin with, … we just have to make it work.”
And the colors have their own meaning and purpose.
He started with darker colors on top.
“But look at what it does for inside here,” he said. “Without that dark contrast on the outside, how would we have this big surprise — this glowing inside structure so that when the light is hitting it from back here, and you’re up there on that balcony, and you see in that opening — like a little bird’s hole in his birdhouse — and it’s glowing in there — that’s so exciting.”
He further explains his color scheme in the intricately woven hanging sculpture.
“I’m trying to put together something that is a sophisticated journey for a viewer in a way that, if we have to tell them what that journey is, then there’s no surprise.”
And the nontraditional medium for sculptures?
Calling it a “great cross-over,” the artist sees his balloon art as something recognizable and nonthreatening as well as whimsical and strange.Visitors can see the sophisticated weaving pattern, architecture and engineering and appreciate it from that angle, he said.
“So for me, I think of this as a … gateway to art for people who might not otherwise understand or feel like they don’t like art because they don’t understand it,” he said. “This medium, this material, is a great way to get people involved, and they don’t even know it.
“So it’s very stealthy that way. That’s why I like it,” he added with a smile.
Tomoko Kuta, deputy museum director, said: “Jason’s colorful balloon structures are fascinating, and a great example of how to make contemporary art accessible and engaging.”
In May, the museum will bring back artist Brian Dick who previous created No rules except… (called the “Mattress Room” by visitors).
Over the past 10 years, the museum has collaborated with over 100 artists from around the world.
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