River Festival

During Riverfest, you can hug a painting, help grow a garden in this imaginary land

JooYoung Choi is inviting Wichitans to help make flowers for a  magical floating garden, this year's River Festival art installation.
JooYoung Choi is inviting Wichitans to help make flowers for a magical floating garden, this year's River Festival art installation.

This year’s Riverfest Artist-in-Residence invites festivalgoers to come hug her paintings in a fictional land she’s created called the Cosmic Womb.

There is Albeir the Miracle Bear, Pound Cake Man and Putt-Putt, a pink octopus covered in yellow spots as the result of being saved from a pot of boiling water.

These and other human- and animal-inspired characters JooYoung Choi (pronounced chay) has brought to Wichita are puppets based on paintings by the 35-year-old Houston-based artist. They all live in the Cosmic Womb, Choi’s paracosm – a highly structured imaginary world that the creator knows is not real but feels responsible for.

The artist herself will be dressed as Queen Kiok, who governs this make-believe universe.

Choi started creating puppets about four years ago as a way to make her art accessible.

“If I do a puppet of the character that’s in the painting, they can actually hug and play with this puppet and interact with it in a way that’s much more accessible,” she said. “When they’re hugging the puppet, it’s almost like their hugging my painting, which is really cool.”

While puppets might sound like child’s play, Choi encourages all ages to participate.

“I’m trying to reach into the part in all of us that’s been there since we were children,” she said. “The part of us that’s still brave enough to believe in wonder, still brave enough to marvel and to be curious.”

This is the fourth year of the artist residency, a program sponsored by Harvester Arts in conjunction with Wichita Festivals, Inc.

Choi arrived in Wichita last week and will be in residence through the end of Riverfest, which runs June 1-9. For her Riverfest installation, she has created the Garden of Courage and Love within the Cosmic Womb. Festival-goers will find the garden inside a 10-by-20 tent within the Ackerman’s Backyard area, which is south of the Douglas Avenue bridge in A. Price Woodard Park.

It is an immersive experience: walk through or sit surrounded by a magical floating garden where thousands of flowers are suspended in space and time. Alongside 3,000 flowers made of felt and fleece, there are honeybees, ladybugs, existing characters from the Cosmic Womb and two new characters: a Brontosaurus named Perennial Favorites and her adopted brother Big Time Believer. They are large inflatable dinosaurs that have been customized with costumes designed and made by Choi.

As with all of her invented characters, these two have elaborate creation stories. Choi said the persistent questioning of whether the Brontosaurus is a real species inspired these creatures.

“I often take issues and concerns I see rising up in everyday life and translate them into stories that play out within my imaginary world,” she said. “For us as human beings, how do we cope with the moments when we feel like the whole world doesn’t believe in us?”

Choi said her world-building was inspired by many well-known imaginary worlds, from those found in Marvel comics to Jim Henson’s muppetverse, Mister Rogers’ neighborhood and one that is close to the hearts of many Kansans – L. Frank Baum’s Land of Oz.

“Baum’s imaginary world was a place that was all about growth and creativity and problem solving and finding ways to peaceably work out issues with one another,” Choi said. “The books are really powerful storytelling. I started rereading them while I was working on my master’s, so when I started to create my own narrative with my characters, I used a lot of his methods as a model as to what types of characters I wanted. I didn’t want ones that would just cry when things didn’t go their way, like Alice in ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ Dorothy was supposed to be a strong Kansas girl and just roll up her sleeves when there was a problem and handle it. I really love that. So a lot of the characters in my work are very much modeled after the can-do attitude that Dorothy had.”

The Garden of Courage and Love will grow throughout the festival as visitors are invited each night to make a flower that represents someone who believed in them and helped them become the person they are.

The new flowers will be put in the garden and will become part of the project, which is scheduled to be reinstalled in spring 2019, this time at the Art Museum of Southeast Texas in Beaumont, Texas.

Flower-making happens from 6:30-7:30 p.m. June 2-8 in a tent next to the installation. This activity is for all ages, though an adult should accompany children because glue guns will be used.

Attendees need a Riverfest admission button ($10 adults, $5 children, free age 5 and younger) to reach the Ackerman’s Backyard area. However there are no additional costs to visit Choi’s installation or to create a flower.

The installation is open 5 to 11 p.m., Friday, June 1; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Saturday, June 2; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday, June 3; 5-10 p.m., Monday June 4 through Thursday, June 7; and 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday, June 8 and 9.

Choi plans to introduce her crew of imaginative Cosmic Womb characters to Wichita on a cloud-shaped float in the Safelite AutoGlass Sundown Parade, which begins at 6:30 p.m. Friday, June 1 along Main, Douglas and Waco.

Outside of Riverfest, Choi will present an artist talk at 6 p.m. Wednesday, May 30 at Harvester Arts, 215 N. Washington.