Immersive Arts Were All the Rage...Then COVID-19 Started Raging | Westword

Immersive Art Was Red-Hot in Denver...and Then Came COVID

Social distancing makes participatory performances tough.
Is Everland, an eco-retreat and immersive art park in the making outside Sedalia, the future of Colorado culture?
Is Everland, an eco-retreat and immersive art park in the making outside Sedalia, the future of Colorado culture? Jeff Jones Photography
Share this:
Is Everland, an eco-retreat and immersive art park in the making outside Sedalia, the future of Colorado culture?
This year, in the midst of the pandemic, street art is Denver's hottest medium. But last September, “immersive” was the biggest buzzword in Colorado culture. While Meow Wolf Denver slowly rose above the Colfax viaduct, immersive events were wowing the town, offering audiences everything from immersive opera to immersive theatrical productions in one-off performance spots (not, however, the “immersive open house” advertised by one realtor). After the sold-out, inaugural Denver Immersive Summit in November 2018, complete with a brunch at Casa Bonita, organizers David Thomas and Jenny Filipetti had followed up with the Immersive Retrospectacle in August 2019. Thomas and Filipetti had big plans for 2020, as did other local arts groups. And then...

The world became immersed in the coronavirus pandemic.

“We thought we were riding a rocket, and we were,” recalls Thomas. “But then it crashed to earth.”

There are survivors, however. Although many of the big projects are delayed and a few dead, smaller creative efforts continue to pop up. “I’m optimistic about the arts, I’m optimistic about immersive,” says Thomas. But in the short-term, he admits, “it’s a disaster area.”

The pandemic almost wiped out Camp Christmas, the immersive hit of the last holiday season, an experience that drew more than 70,000 people to Stanley Marketplace to marvel over displays of Christmases past. Before it had even finished its run, creator Lonnie Hanzon was making plans not just for Denver’s display in 2020, but expansions to other cities. “I thought it was my career for the next five years,” he recalls.

That would be five years added to what’s already been a very long career: Hanzon was doing immersive art in the ’80s, long before the term was coined. He created floats for Denver’s Parade of Lights, decorated Hudson Gardens, then moved on to light up Houston. When he returned home, he made annual installations at Pride and then unwrapped his idea for a huge holiday experience.

The pandemic made him pivot, and now he’s turning Camp Christmas from a physical spot into a virtual extravaganza. “You can’t go to Camp Christmas, but we’re bringing Camp Christmas to you,” promises Hanzon, who’s in the process of creating an online fantasy camp that will have an $8 buy-in for Base Camp, with access to the digital world “that I’ve been madly drawing.” For an extra fee, merit-badge packages will be mailed to happy campers, allowing them to participate in more activities. “It’s a way to celebrate,” Hanzon says. “I think people are going to need Christmas.”
Lonnie Hanzon with Siobhan O'Loughlin, star of Broken Bone Bathtub, an immersive hit in Denver 2018.
courtesy Lonnie Hanzon
“Lonnie’s a fighter,” says Thomas. “He had the biggest hit pulled out from under him, and he’s coming back. I’m rooting for the people who’ve already put in the blood, sweat and tears, from the little to the big.”

In the immersive world, there’s nothing bigger than Meow Wolf. Work on Meow Wolf Denver is proceeding, and although the target opening date had already been pushed back from the first predictions when the project was announced at the start of January 2018, when the entire city got immersive fever, “our timeline has been late 2021 for some time now, and we are still on track,” according to co-CEO and Chief of Content Jim Ward.

“I have no doubt that immersive experiences can survive the pandemic — they just may look a little different than they did before,” Ward says. “At Meow Wolf, we are always thinking about ways we can use elevated storytelling and technology to integrate art into the new reality. For example, we have commissioned artists to create hand sanitizer dispenser sculptures and more digital tools like a new app that helps share our narrative storytelling experience. Instead of flipping through a physical newspaper or book for clues at the House of Eternal Return, you’ll soon be able to use your mobile phone for a non-touch experience. We have modified art that was ‘high touch’ into ‘no touch’ or ‘capacitive touch.’”

While Hanzon and Meow Wolf are adapting, hopes are flying high at Everland, an eco-retreat and immersive art park — or, as a recent Kickstarter to help fund the art-park portion promised, “so much more than a casual hike in the woods.” But these days, a hike in the woods can seem like just what the doctor ordered if you’re trying to avoid the kind of arty immersive experience that involves touchy-feely activities that now seem somewhat kicky.

Jonny Jenkins had spotted the 145-acre property that straddles Highway 67 heading into the mountains from Sedalia almost five years ago. A former church retreat center, it seemed the perfect spot to realize a concept he’d been working on for years: There were already eight cabins on the property, as well as a large conference center and a house on a hill across the highway, where Jenkins and his co-conspirators are currently living and plotting their dream, inspired by such innovators as Meow Wolf and the 10 Principles of Burning Man.

In addition to that art park, filled with creations by dozens of artists from around the world, there will be performances in the woodsy amphitheatre, seminars and other organized activities, and just downtime in hammocks hanging from the trees. The target for opening is summer 2021, but "I don't want it to ever end, Jenkins says. "As we're building Everland, the story is about the journey, not the finished project."

And the journey continues. “COVID-19 definitely slowed it down, just like it slowed everyone down,” Jenkins acknowledges. But he’s convinced the pandemic just affirmed the need for Everland “as a place for healing, for people to come connect with nature, with themselves and with each other. It’s one of the antidotes to the chaos.”

If you can’t eat at Casa Bonita
Can you help us continue to share our stories? Since the beginning, Westword has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver — and we'd like to keep it that way. Our members allow us to continue offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food, and culture with no paywalls.