A fabrication class uses radical collaboration to create a public art experience
by Jen Reel
There is a monster in the College of Fine Arts.
It’s not scary. In fact, it’s rather shy and stays hidden in its nest—revealing only glowing eyes and soft trills that sound less like a monster and more like a cat stretching and settling into a nap. But it exists. And tens of thousands of people have witnessed it.
This elusive creature was built by students in a Fine Arts class for the 6th Annual Waterloo Greenway Creek Show, a free event in Austin hosted by the Waterloo Greenway Conservancy (formerly Waller Creek Conservancy). The conservancy uses the event to encourage people to experience Waller Creek by inviting them to a curated exhibition of lighted art installations along its path. This class was the first-ever group of students invited to participate.
Over the course of 11 nights this past November, attendees snaked single-file below the streets to view the displays along the creek before emerging to an open, street-level space. Here, the students’ 10-foot, dome-shaped nest sat on a glowing carpet of leaves, greeting the audience with soft purrs and ethereal music. Colorful lights bounced off surrounding trees and created a wonderland for the audience as they walked through and around the nest, touching it and timing their selfies with blinking clusters of eyes. Some leaned in close, smelling its leaves of ligustrum and arundo. It was an enchanting installation for its visitors and a remarkable success for its creators: More than 60,000 people attended the event and saw the students’ work.
Building the beast was a semester-long labor of love for students in the fall 2019 Creek Monster Habitat Class, a course added under new curriculum offered through Texas Applied Arts (TAA). TAA was created in 2017 by Karen Maness and J.E. Johnson, Texas Performing Arts instructors, shop supervisors and longtime co-workers who were both feeling restless and wanted to shake things up in their classrooms.
They got together to brainstorm ideas and first looked at their most successful students. Those students took risks and tried new things. They shared knowledge and asked questions. They tended to explore projects outside of their comfort zones and weren’t deterred by failure.
“The question we kept asking ourselves,” says Maness, “was, ‘How can we create opportunities that mirror those experiences for all students?’”
The answer came in the form of velociraptors: specifically three full-body costumes built in a spring 2017 fabrication class co-taught by Maness and Johnson for a UT production of the play Enron. That class was the starting point for TAA and has served as a working blueprint for all of TAA’s courses, focusing on student-led, inquiry-based, design-centered collaborative projects.
The raptors were wildly successful and seen by many, including some creek show planners who asked Maness and Johnson whether the raptors could be a part of their event. They said no—logistics and availability of puppeteers would prove too difficult— but offered to create something new. They immediately set to work drafting what would be the creek monster class.
When Maness looked out at the class that first day, she felt excited. The students came from Theatre Design, Studio Art, Arts and Entertainment Technologies, Landscape Architecture, Radio-Television-Film and Engineering—all with skills that could be shared and developed throughout the semester.
The students were just beginning their quest, but Maness had been in the thick of it for months.
She spent the summer researching materials and building methods, and coordinated guest artists from organizations like Meow Wolf and the Santa Fe Opera to offer feedback throughout the semester. Johnson had to leave the creek monster project to focus on another course, and Maness, a large-scale painter by trade, would be leading the class without his building expertise.
She secured funding and resources, including grants from the UT Office of Sustainability Green Fund and the Graduate School Academic Enrichment Fund, and formed a design team, bringing in M.F.A. students Delena Bradley and Bill Rios. They finalized the monster habitat prototype while Carolina Perez, an assistant professor of practice in Arts and Entertainment Technologies, oversaw audio needs in equipment specification, system design and mentorship. Maness also brought on Khristián Méndez Aguirre, a Theatre and Dance graduate student, as a dramaturg to help focus the messaging behind the creek monster. Méndez worked closely with the Waterloo Greenway Conservancy to understand its mission and help the UT team craft a narrative to align with the conservancy’s goals.
“I help guide a lot of the framing and focus, really asking why and what it means to be making the work,” says Méndez. “There are things we can find out when we make art if we approach it with the right mindset, with a reflective mindset.”
It was decided the monster would serve as a guardian of the creek: a benevolent spirit to remind us that the creek is a home and safe space for many living beings, past, present and future. Every decision the students would make—how the monster and its nest would look and sound, what materials would be used—would be informed by this narrative.
With the design and story in place, the students went to work. They organized themselves into teams to frame, light, dress and animate the piece. They welded and tested steel to shape and stabilize the structure. They risked exposure to poison ivy while harvesting truckloads of invasive and prolific plants to dress the nest, with help from UT Landscaping. They sculpted and engineered blinking, glowing eyes and coordinated lights, sounds and movement to engage their audiences. They secured and waterproofed a hidden sound system of speakers and 1,050 feet of cables. They considered the durability, sustainability and safety of their materials, including their glowing carpet of “leaves” that would inevitably be trampled by thousands. They spent hours together working on problems and testing ideas amid looming deadlines, feeling the anxiety of setbacks and the thrill of successes.
When the piece was ready, the students rotated through evening shifts during the two-week show to monitor it. They sat through long nights, freezing temperatures and heavy rain, troubleshooting issues that arose from the wear and tear of thousands of spectators. Most of the students had never been a part of something like this—so big, so collaborative, so open to the public.
When it was over, they gathered in their classroom to debrief. Sticky notes lined a wall under a set of questions. What triumphs did they see in themselves? In others? What were the surprises? Where did they see growth, and what advice would they give to others just starting out in a similar class?
“I actually wrote on my note, ‘I BECAME A LEADER,’” says Adri Lara, a senior in Arts and Entertainment Technologies who led the lighting team. “I wouldn’t say I’m not a go-getter, but I am definitely a shy person. This has really changed things for me.”
“It’s really an exercise to reflect, ‘What am I learning? Why am I learning what I’m learning? How am I going to use that in my future?’” says Méndez.
Christina Jansen (B.A., English, 2017) agrees and says students of the creek monster class will benefit in ways they may not imagine. Jansen was a student in the raptor course and says that while interviewing to work for a political campaign after graduation, she was asked to explain a recent project she completed.
“I said: Well, I made these velociraptors. And they were like, ‘Wait, what do you mean? How did that work?’” says Jansen, laughing. “I don’t think as political people that was in any way what they were expecting to hear, and we spent the rest of the interview talking about how I built these raptors with 15 other people in three months.”
“I think what that communicates, regardless what field you’re going into, is: I can complete anything. If you give me a task, even if it sounds crazy or impossible, I can get it done for you.”
Jansen got the job.
“Projects like these really have the potential to highlight the value of a Fine Arts education to the university as a whole,” says Méndez. “I think putting people in a bit of a pressure cooker and saying ‘You have this much time to do a thing and here are the resources’ really forces them to learn how to work in a group, but it also makes them more reflective on what they can bring to the table.”
Maness says applying a do-it-yourself framework with a do-it-together ethos in the classrooms is what Texas Applied Arts is focused on growing in the College of Fine Arts. Its curriculum is meant to get students comfortable in an environment of uncertainty so they can be confident in their ability to solve problems both on their own and with one another.
This spring, new students are taking the next iteration of the creek monster class—the Waller Creek Earth Day Project course, taught by Maness. Their goal is to take the creek monster and prepare it for its next home along Waller Creek, this time on campus. The class will recycle and remount most of the initial installation, transforming it from the creek show ultraviolet night spectacle to an Earth Day installation that will have sustainability, healing and environmental awareness at its heart. The creek monster will still be present but possibly appearing in a different form.
“In my mind, Texas Applied Arts is like an umbrella,” says Maness. “We can reach out and work with other units and departments, like Architecture, Engineering, Radio-Television-Film. What an exciting thing to have in the College of Fine Arts, this hub where we can serve students from all areas and create a meaningful project together.”
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