"I was too creeped out by people to go to camp as a child," says Wendy Raisanen, curator of exhibitions and collections for Scottsdale Public Art. "But if I'd had a camp like Camp Dreamtree, I might have been tempted."
Raisanen, who grew up in Scottsdale, is talking about the kid-centric art installation on exhibit at Scottsdale Civic Center Library's gallery. Camp Dreamtree is a follow-up to last year's Luster Kaboom's Funhouse, an installation by New York artist David Quan that was aimed at kids and based on old-time sideshow attractions. Quan's exhibit, also at the library gallery, was such a hit that it inspired an annual interactive installation for young people.
This year's version is an arty mélange of fantasyland theatrics and traditional sleepaway camp stuff. But Camp Dreamtree is intended as more than just a place to dump the kids during summer weekdays. The sprawling installation — which takes up 2,500 square feet of the library's gallery space and is based on a story (about a man named Evan Stevens and his accidental journey to the mythical land of Crystal Burn) by local artists Roy Wasson Valle and Koryn Woodward Wasson — has an agenda.
Kids enter through a sort of teepee called the Big Yellow House, where they take the Camp Dreamtree pledge about exploration and other worlds and making friends. From there, they learn traditional camp-inspired skills, like how to build a campfire and which direction is north, Raisanen says. Campgoers complete challenges along an adventure trail, collecting "adventure achievements" (rubbings of each achievement) in Dream Scout handbooks. They learn traditional camp activities: making a scout bag, tying knots, building a campfire. But there's also time given to less practical things, like recalling your earliest memory and learning to trust people — all set in the fantasy world created by the Wassons.
The couple had been working on a series of characters and fantasy environments for several years. For a gallery show called "Village" at Pravus in 2008, they constructed a model of an island populated with living houses and what they called "creature families." The piece sprang from stories the Wassons had been writing about an unhappy young man who, while out camping, stumbles into a dream world called Crystal Burn, where a house named Izimba talks to him about life and what we remember.
Answering the library's call to artists, the couple pitched the concept: a children's camp with morals lessons and lots of nudging about reading books. Koryn wrote the proposal as a commercial brochure for this apocryphal camp. "I read it and thought, If I were a kid, I would want to go there," her husband says.
Stranger and more compelling than Camp Dreamtree's talking houses and engagement in memory is its devotion to books. Dreamscouts, according to the camp's tenets, "pledge their love of books, nature, and the utmost respect for wonder" — in that order. Valle says that kids are asked to read the storybook history of the camp as they enter, and he admits that both he and his wife are enamored of books. Now that they have a daughter, 2-year-old Cora Rae, they're even more interested in nurturing the love of reading in children.
"We let Cora watch a little TV," he says, "and to look at little bits of Sesame Street on the iPad. But her main interest is still books."
This sort of gentle cultural manipulation is at the heart of the gallery, as well. The space is, Raisanen says, "a great bridge for people who would never go to a museum. Mr. Dude, who wouldn't dream of going to SMoCA, might come in here and look around and think, Oh, art is for everyone. We want to tell people that you don't have to be someone super-unusual to interact with art or art galleries."
Once Camp Dreamtree closes for the summer, Koryn wants to write a children's book based on Crystal Burn. "In a perfect world, we would box it up as a traveling show," she says. "We feel like we've only told a small part of the story. But we're limited by time and will. And the need to sleep!"