Walking into Imagination Installations’ interactive, multimedia art exhibit in the cubic 60-foot concrete building at the Center for Design Innovation near Old Salem felt surreal. For one, the sound of a cellist playing greeted visitors as volunteer Melissa Vickers of Winston-Salem passed out acorns she collected in her backyard. The earth-, wind-, water- and fire-themed exhibit only appeared more eccentric and extravagant as visitors further explored the space.
Vickers encouraged exhibit-goers to take a moment and set intentions for what they’d like to get out of the exhibit, and to cherish those notions by planting their acorns in the dirt-filled pots when they got to the middle of the Earth.
An elevator that smelled of lemons would carry them down, its car decorated to resemble the bark of a tree.
Participants made their way toward a room representing the earthly elements, decorated with corn, crystals and a flower, their eyes adjusting to darkness with the aid of only a salt lamp.
Moving counter-clockwise, families and some older couples wound through a delicate maze from which colorful ribbons and wind chimes hung. Few resisted the chance to hit a small gong with its accompanying mallet, however softly.
“It’s like a little fairy tale for kids,” attendee Kristie Wallis of Winston-Salem said.
She brought her elementary-school-aged daughters Amelia and Sadie to the exhibit and eventually found a seat in a few rows of chairs by the entrance, presumably for parents looking for a break.
But adults overwhelmingly participated in the whimsy first. Parents toyed with the dangling chimes and grandparents ducked through the openings in a giant array of cardboard boxes stacked to create a fortress for the fire section. Inside, a spinning disco-ball represented a camp-fire and Christmas lights illuminated words like “glow” and “blaze” painted on the boxes inside the alcove.
As a whole, the space encouraged wonder; despite the cold, concrete perimeter it was easy to breathe in the peculiar space. Inevitably, small children tilted their heads upward to stare, starry-eyed, at images of the Milky Way and sweeping views of lush deciduous forests from a helicopter’s perspective projected onto the far four-story high wall. The video also featured historical scenes from the area and photos of community members at events such as Earth Day fairs over the last six years. There Imagine Installations founder Cheryl Schirillo had prompted them to write their hopes and dreams on pieces of construction paper, the same ones laid out on tables or tied to metal tree figurines in the entrance upstairs.
“I thought it was great how they tied in the historical aspect of our community,” attendee Rebeccah Byer, 43, said. “You can talk about community in a generic sense, or how it relates to us here specifically.”
Byer who is the executive director of the Olio glassblowing studio, said she found the water section “fascinating and invigorating.” There, volunteer Cherry Woodburn met participants who wandered into the area and gave each a single word that came to her mind right then, inviting them to scribble some associations or doodle on large sheets of paper decorated with simple blue lines representing the “River of Dreams.”
Byer’s sons appreciated the experience, as well.
“It was awesome,” Elliot Rush, 10, said as he jumped and opened his arms wide to express his enthusiasm. “It’s like a museum but better. I liked the box part because you got to write your dreams and you could dance.”
He wasn’t alone in dancing; Salem College dance students volunteered to pirouette around the giant infinity symbol painted in the middle of the floor space. Glow sticks in hand, their movement kept the space dynamic and alive. One father led his two daughters — mostly interested in twirling — around what became the dancefloor.
Rush’s brother Henry, 11, preferred the wind section, particularly the chimes just within his reach. He said the exhibit reminded him of his favorite anime shows, which are often thematically rooted in the elements of earth, wind, water and fire.
“I thought it was elemental and cool and magic,” Henry said.
As Elliot alluded, hand-bound booklets awaited participants after emerging from the fire area, each representing one of the exhibit’s elements. If someone wanted to write about a dream or something else the water area made them think of, they could find the booklet decorated with blue ribbon and the painted image of dolphins springing forth from the sea.
Schirillo’s set-up encouraged visitors to consider how they might manifest their dreams in the community, translating their experiences into tangible action as hand-painted posters prompted.
“I loved the messaging for kids,” Kristie Wallis said. “Your dreams can be anything and you can dream as big as you want.”
As participants left, a woman tied a red thread around their wrists, symbolizing the connection everyone who attended the exhibit now shares. Though the exhibit’s symbolism felt heavy-handed from an adult’s perspective, the experience rendered universally-inspiring themes and seemed geared toward driving the message home for kids: The people have the power and to dream big is no silly exercise.