“I find a lot of inspiration from party stores and Michael’s — places that are evocative of happiness," she says. To Cohn, the lightness of man-made objects can be transcendent and create deeper connections — both internally with the self and with the natural world. “This is a context where my imagination and my dreams can really run wild."
Her latest creation is called “Sparkle Cave.” It’s one of more than seventy exhibits built by hundreds of artists inside Convergence Station, the new installation at Meow Wolf Denver, located at the intersection of I-25 and the Colfax Avenue viaduct. The 90,000-square-foot building opens to the public on September 17.
"Sparkle Cave" is "nature in drag," says Cohn. It’s a two-story kaleidoscope of colors and textures embedded into the walls of a brightly lit and playful space that easily belies the years of physical work and planning she put into the whimsical creation.
Cohn first visited the Santa Fe-based Meow Wolf's House of Eternal Return in 2017, for her thirtieth birthday. “It was kind of this ‘aha’ moment,” she explains.
She was drawn to the art collective's origin story. Meow Wolf started as a DIY arts group in 2008. In the years since, with financial support from Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin, it’s grown into a multimillion-dollar corporation with leadership from Goldman Sachs, Disney and Lucas Films — but along the way, it has maintained its connection with the underground arts community and pushed the limits of how art and entertainment collide. “I was captivated by how free the visitors felt," says Cohn. "They changed a conventional experience in an art gallery. I loved that new sensibility they were cultivating."
Shortly after, Cohn found out there was a Denver Meow Wolf in the works, and she quickly submitted four proposals, three of which she describes as “wildly outlandish" — such as an enormous praying cat that would dole out fortunes — “and one that was more doable. My aim was to dream really big, to show my expanse of creativity and also my practicality.”
"Sparkle Cave," the doable proposal, was soon accepted.
Light and Space movement of the 1960s and ’70s. Like them, Cohn wanted to experiment with how light could affect perception and environment. She often thinks about the soft light of cathedrals and the fluorescent glow of malls. “How can we find that transcendent light play in a banal, everyday environment?” she asks.
She cites an “instinctual urge to connect with the natural world,” but acknowledges that nature isn’t always accessible. "Sparkle Cave" draws on this concept and offers visitors “an experience that lives outside of language or concrete reality," she explains.
The concept is in good company at Meow Wolf, as most of Convergence Station portrays an existence outside of reality. The space operates on a plot line where a cosmic event has fused four worlds together. The resulting universe is a topsy-turvy brew of interplanetary cohabitation.
"Sparkle Cave" is meant to be an oasis of calm within the hodgepodge of the worlds. “It is a place to recharge your inner sparkle,” Cohn writes in her artist statement. “Sparkle Cave is an internal site, it houses your dreams, your fears, and it holds the infinite space of imaginative possibility.”
But to create it, Cohn did have to deal in reality, through a process that involved lengthy planning. For example, she started by creating approximately thirty panels — most of them three feet by three feet — out of plaster, wire, ceramics and glass mirrors that had to be transported from her studio and hung on the walls. A contractor team helped fill in the additional space with plaster, which she then embedded with an additional, “somewhat hallucinatory amount of materials,” she says.
The ceiling is composed of wire mesh and iridescent film. There is a fiber-optic waterfall, stalactites that drip from the ceiling, laser-cut plexiglass backdrops, frozen bubbles, water projectors and a reflective floor treatment. There’s also glitter — a lot of glitter.
The process was arduous and involved many collaborators, including Meow Wolf staff and interns, KHS&S Contractors, Anuar Almanzan, Val Burnside, Matt Kuck, Isabella De Santiago, Cohn's parents, and her then-fiancé. She finished construction a week before her wedding in late June, after more than six months of working on site.
“This project has given me a lot of confidence in making large-scale things and exploring different materials," Cohn says. "I feel very energized to think and dream about the next thing."
She hopes that inspiration is passed on to visitors of Convergence Station.
“I hope that they become curious about the space and what they’re looking at,” she says. “That there can be this fluid play of imagery that inspires a revolution of something known or totally unknown that sparks their curiosity. I think that can be a really productive state to be in — a state of deep observation that’s calming and centering.
“It’s the Sparkle Cave, but I think we all have a sparkle in us," Cohn adds. "I hope that people can find that in the Sparkle Cave."
Convergence Station opens on Friday, September 17. For more information, visit Meow Wolf online. To learn more about Cohn's artwork, visit www.shayna.studio or instagram.com/shayna_cohn_studio.