Megan Dickerson, with Panca, The New Children’s Museum
Sometimes, after a year like we’ve all had, you need to take a chunk of time to reflect.
On September 24, I did that with Panca, the artist creating a new installation at The New Children’s Museum in San Diego, California. In an alternate, COVID-less universe, on the day of this interview Panca would have been the 107th artist to open an art installation at The New Children’s Museum. Panca will also be the first artist commissioned by the museum who visited the museum as a child, having been brought by a neighbor in the mid-1990s for one memorable visit where she wore provided coveralls, painted an actual truck, and left thinking, hey, art might be something I can do.
Panca’s project, now called El Más Allá, will open in 2021. In keeping with the museum’s practice of commissioning artists to create each exhibit, it will be a space unlike most children’s museum exhibits. Vibrantly colored, twenty-foot-tall murals will cover the walls. Kids will explore inside and around fifteen-foot-diameter sculptures representing characters Panca developed in collaboration with families in the community (think: a unicorn who roller skates, followed by her pet balloon, or a constantly shape-changing creature named Pinky). And to enter the installation, visitors can choose to swoop down a forty-foot-long slide, or, alternatively, take the elevator to a beautifully lit corridor, both entries acting as portals into a world that—like the English translation of the title, El Más Allá—is “beyond” this one.
In what follows, Panca and I reflect on creative work as medicine, great ideas as a digestive process, and whether a giant slide can transform the way we view our ever-changing world.
Megan: We began developing your art installation in 2019. We had planned to prototype your project at seven community centers starting in spring 2020. But then COVID hit. Suddenly, we were doing Zoom drawing classes where you could work with families to develop characters and other ideas for your project. Today is the day that we had originally planned to open your project. How has the pandemic changed how you think about this installation? About the world?
Panca: I can only say that I’m glad that it’s being pushed back because, mentally and emotionally, I am not there. From Breonna Taylor to George Floyd to the wildfires here on the West Coast, it’s overwhelming. And in the middle of all that, you have to think: CHILDREN’S MUSEUM and… COVID! How can we teach kids to be good humans through art, but at the same time, how can we protect them from this virus? During our Zoom meetings, I see our faces and sometimes we are just like, “Uh, are we okay?”
M: We have spent a lot of time over the past seven months debriefing about whether we are okay.
P: The hardest thing for me, to be honest, were those [online] drawing classes with the kids, which we did right as the pandemic started. Those hit me hard. I’m used to being alone, living a hermit life. But the kids reminded me that I have to be strong, not only for myself, but because I have a job I need to do. Although I’m depressed—half the world is. But I’m the artist-in-residence in the freaking museum! After a drawing class, I would hear all these heartfelt thank yous from the kids and parents. It was like medicine for me. I would think, “Okay, everything sucks. The world is on fire, literally, but you have a job to do, and in the end, just think about the good influence that this can have on children.”
When you use art to process what is happening in the world, it comes out in a different way. It comes out as empathy. I didn’t want any of my bad vibes to go into this project. The museum project is a beautiful escape, but without ignoring what’s going on. Meditation and creativity can be an escape, but they’re also constructive for your mind.
M: So, the role of the artist, and maybe children’s museums too, is to help us digest everything that’s happening?
P: Yeah. It almost sounds like I’m going to say yep, chew it up, swallow it, and poop out something great, but it is!
M: [Laughing] How did working with the community in the spring change the art installation you had planned as of February 2020?
P: First, I thought about eliminating the slide because of COVID. But I started thinking, the whole museum is about touch. At some point, we will figure out safety measures that aren’t that difficult so you can use the slide. So, no, the slide stays because we all miss and need that safe adrenaline rush that flips you fast into thinking you’re in a new world. Leave everything else behind. You’re here, have fun. Explore and move around.
M: Tell me about the characters you developed for the imaginary world of El Más Allá.
P: There are these characters in the world—Maslow, Pinky, Mimo, Chelo—that are expressions of everything that we’ve all felt during this time—a little bit of fear, anxiety. Normally, kids would experience these emotions at very low levels. But now they’re fairly high for kids and for adults. I started out wanting this to be a kick-a** exhibition for kids. And now I want it to be a soothing escape for adults AND kids that have been in the same boat—confined and stressed.
M: The character name “Maslow” is an homage to Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a model for thinking about how our needs (physiological, safety, love, self-actualization, etc.) interact with each other. You were talking about the hierarchy of needs even pre-COVID.
P: The hierarchy of needs is the backbone of this whole project. That hasn’t changed, but with the pandemic, and what has been happening socially, it has been enhanced. It has been difficult but constructive to emphasize security, home, and love and try to represent it through Maslow’s system.
M: The installation is called El Más Allá. What does the title mean to you?
P: In my family, when we say, “whoa, El Más Allá,” it’s like saying “we’re in The Twilight Zone.” How was that described on the TV show—“…that middle ground between light and shadow?” The phrase can also mean death, like, “No, ya se fue al más allá,” or, “he’s gone.” Or it can mean “in another time,” like way over yonder. For me it’s the same feeling as the movie The Neverending Story, you know? I always liked the basis of that movie, that creativity was ending and their world was dying, and in order for the world to stay alive, kids had to keep believing and using their imagination. El Más Allá has a lot of that.
M: It’s like saying “We don’t know,” and it’s okay to not know.
P: Yes, it feels like we are in this weird limbo, from the project to life. El Más Allá is a place in between all of that.
M: There are some children’s museums that focus on emotions, and how the way you are feeling when you are creating something affects the thing you are creating. And then there are others who might say, “Maslow’s great, but what exactly are kids going to learn from that? Can you make a list of what they are going to learn?” Sure, we can, but the main point is we don’t know. We can only say this is how we hope they will feel.
P: All this emotion, all of this processing of what has happened over the past year, is going to be represented through visual language. I don’t want to go all the way and say, “this is therapy art.” No, it’s not therapy art.
M: You’re very emphatic about that. Why?
P: I’m not qualified to give therapy!
M: Ha, you’ve been my therapist over the past months!
P: [Laughs] Yeah, inadvertently! But you know what I mean… I think a lot of it will rely on the visual language. I want to split up the areas and the art is going to give you a feeling. All of that is going to happen with the paintbrush. I can’t explain it. It happens with my hands. [She holds out her hands to the camera].
M: I put myself in your hands, and you put yourself in my hands! Trust. I would say that’s what children’s museums can learn from working with artists. I don’t need you to create an exact diagram of what the painting is going to be on this wall, and this wall and this wall. There are walls, and there is paint, and there’s you. I trust it’s going to be fine. It always works out. And it gives you and us the ability to be flexible if a new idea comes up. Or, for example, if… A GLOBAL PANDEMIC EMERGES in the middle of developing the project. With trust and flexibility, we can do what needs to be done. Not just stick to the original script because that makes us feel more in control.
P: Yeah, someone might wonder, “What is she going to do? Draw a giant police car on fire?” No, context people, context! That’s what’s in my brain, but not what I am going to show the children who visit. I’m using shapes and color. There’s no hidden message except to be free. And if that’s a problem, then I don’t know, that’s your problem!
M: That brings me to my final thoughts. I know we have also talked about how you came to this museum as a kid, and you have often wondered: if I came back here as a kid now, what would I need from it, especially after what we have experienced and continue to experience?
P: I go back to my first visit at the museum. I remember wearing my little suit, and painting, and feeling really free, and just thinking, “I can’t believe I can do this! I can do this! And they’re actually giving me paper, and they’re giving me a car to paint…” And when I came home, I realized that drawing wasn’t stupid. I wasn’t exactly told it was stupid, but my parents were immigrants and they told me, “you’re going to die if you don’t get a normal job.” Well, I knew what they meant, but visits to museums were very helpful because I was able to see like, whoa, there are some wacky people out there making some cool stuff for kids. It just blew my mind, to the point that I can still describe that realization and I’m thirty-five years old and obviously this is what I do now.
I’m super excited about creating this world for kids. I think at first, when everything was happening with COVID, I got really depressed thinking, “man, am I up for this?” But now, even though everything is still happening, and often seems even worse, I feel like almost more of a sense of responsibility to make my work even better. There was a point where I was like, “Oh, maybe I should pull back, maybe I should just minimalize all of it, the structure.” But then you think, “No, this is going to work out, and it needs to be 100% great.” Whoever does see the final installation, it needs to be great for them. It’s motivating. In the time I’ve already spent at the museum, and everyone who I’ve seen work there, and the kids, and I’ve seen how it affects them. And it’s really needed right now.