By Cori Wilbur
August 16, 2021
When faced with abstract concepts such as stress, joy and fear, it can be difficult to confront, compartmentalize and comprehend them–especially for those who are at tender stages of physical and emotional development. This is why you often hear the suggestion to hit or scream into a pillow when you are angry–turning that anger into something tangible makes it easier to handle.
The latest exhibition of international street artist Paola Villaseñor, better known as Panca, El Más Allá, aims to engage children (and their adult chaperones) in an immersive exploration of emotions and creativity. With the help of five characters she devised, she anthropomorphizes shared feelings amidst a global pandemic. Each mural and immersive installation, on view at The New Children’s Museum since August 13, presents visible and tangible looks at the pandemic-affected human psyche.
Megan Dickerson, Director of Exhibitions at The New Children’s Museum, says she contemplates how to fashion designs for both children and adults, since children will more than likely, be accompanied to the museum with a parent or care-giver.
“Kids will engage in play, no matter where they are; the only thing that stops children from playing is our adult control over that,” she noted. With her role at the museum and experience in play-work, Dickerson wants to encourage children (and remind adults) to participate in necessary elements of play.
Since 2015, The New Children’s Museum has welcomed community-based artists to set-up residencies. Panca was originally slated to be the artist-in-residence back in 2020, but obvious situations delayed this plan by a year. This exhibit is not only intended to bring joy back into the community’s lives but is also an expression of the artist’s own grief and healing.
One character, Maslow, who got his namesake from Abraham Maslow, references the psychologist’s hierarchy of needs. This wise and caring triangle reminds us of the value of support in meeting other aspects of self and community. Chelo, short for Consuelo, is painted on the walls of the exhibition in roller skates, a clear homage to the roller activities a wide contingency of us collectively took up as a mid-pandemic hobby. Her pet balloon, BuBu, reiterates the significance of friendship in times of order and entropy.
Pinky, the character Panca notably identifies with the most, stands for the complex nature of anxiety. Moreover, Pinky is the result of channeling busy thought through creativity. Mimo, the cloud with superpowers, expresses tears of both sorrow and elation. Ultimately, this motley crew represents the indistinct existence of emotions in a playful and colorful manner.
“One day you might feel like one character and the next day you might feel like another, but it is okay to feel that whole spectrum of emotion,” Dickerson pointed out. In turning these emotions into sentient beings in a way, Panca became the architect of a world where we can learn to empathize with all types of emotions, even the kind our conscience tells us to ignore. Instead of avoiding our anxiety, Panca has us play with it.
Additionally featured in this exhibition is a 48-foot mural, SMILE, appropriately placed along the Museum bridge, which serves as a conduit into the world of imagination that Panca has constructed. Also in place is a 40-foot slide which symbolizes the art of surrender.
“Contemporary art is one of the best ways to encourage critical thinking,” Dickerson added. “The more you look, the more you think [about the ‘Why?’ aspect of things].”
To say the pandemic left society with a need for release, laughter and love is an understatement. El Más Allá provides a space for kids and adults alike to find a reason to smile again. Upside-down, heart-shaped noses, are a signature of Panca’s work featured here–a reminder that love is around, even when it is not obvious.