Anyone who has ever built a treehouse or pitched a sheet over a table and then turned it into a mysterious cavern will be able to identify with Maui Arts & Cultural Center's first artist-in-residence, Wes Bruce.
Still in his 20s, the San Diego-based visionary calls his installations "forts."
Actually, they're more like Taj Mahals of those childhood imaginings, on a scale large enough to transform imposing museum and gallery spaces into interactive environments. His forts are built from pallets and scrap lumber, full of rooms and hidden rooms, nooks and crannies, their walls covered with photos and maps; their shelves bulging with books, toys, tools, tiny animal bones, magazines, kitchen spices and utensils, totems, relics, endless containers of magic dust.
Wes compiles worthless, priceless treasures best known to curious young boys and girls and others of any age willing to be "Taken by Wonder," that is the title of his current project transforming Schaefer International Gallery into his newest fort.
The exhibit opens Sept. 7. A series of public chances to see the work taking shape are scheduled between now and the opening. (For details, visit www.mauiarts.org.) Once completed, the fort will fill two-thirds of the gallery, leaving space for visitors to make their own additions.
Wes' forts are never finished, the artist told an audience in McCoy Studio Theater last Friday at a screening of the documentary, "A Film About a Fort," by Bryan Bangerter. Born and raised in Kula before graduating from King Kekaulike High School and heading off to the Mainland for college, Bryan is the next generation of an especially creative Maui family who has gone on to success as a musician and an award-winning independent filmmaker in the San Diego area.
Building the fort is a process of constant evolution as each piece alters the energy of the pieces it is placed among. The artist's ever-changing awareness results in work that is alive with possibilities for realization and epiphany. Viewers become active participants in "creating" the work anew, each time they walk or crawl through it. The rooms and spaces in the installation send many back to very specific memories and sensations from their childhoods.
While comparisons to abandoned buildings, funky museums, and non-permitted home additions come to mind, so do analogies to churches or other sacred spaces for many of the interview subjects in Bryan's documentary. Like the fort it depicts, the film seems less a work of documentation than a collaboration, extending Wes' unique creative process into Bryan's medium of film.
While the fort and the film tap into a primal childhood instinct to simultaneously tease ourselves with our fears, even as we erect flimsy barricades to protect ourselves from them, the film's most poignant moments come from the reaction of Bruce's mother seeing artifacts of her own family history turned into bric-a-brac being carelessly mishandled by the gallery visitors at that show's opening.
This act of turning material so personal into objects for public scrutiny is not without its dangers, the young artist realizes. It's a tightrope well known to journalists as well as artists and other creative souls- the more real and true the emotion you're trying to capture, the more risk there is of hurting someone, no matter how sensitive, well-intentioned or even whimsical you thought you were being.
This revelation, too, becomes part of the artist's process - and the filmmaker's storytelling. Loss is tightly interwoven with rebirth, insecurity with exhilaration, uncertainty with triumph in the act of creating anything new.
As you read these words, Wes Bruce is concocting ways of filling Schaefer Internaional Gallery with surprises awaiting visitors on its walls or in their own memories.
Kids will delight in what he builds. And by "kids," I mean all of us.
No matter what the numbers on our drivers license or the lines on our faces say, we never outgrow our longing for a fort to keep us safe as our imaginations are set free to wonder.
* Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org