The Experience of Secret Spaces in the Useum by Kari Achatz

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Creating the Useum installation at the Burchfield Penney Art Center was a rewarding and satisfying experience. Secret Spaces is an interactive art space that invites visitors to engage their imaginations through the building of blanket forts. Nick Napierala, my Useum partner, and I have been blogging about our collaborative journey since Secret Spaces was just a concept. You can follow our progress from furniture pick up, to installation, to our adventures at Second Fridays at the Burchfield Penney Art Center on our blog

When Nick and I, first heard of the opportunity to submit a proposal to create a Useum TM installation in the spring of 2012 we were overwhelmed and excited. Throughout our time in our graduate studies at Buffalo State College we had seen several amazing creations come to life in the Useum TM , we couldn’t help but wonder how our ideas as art educators would shape our own unique vision. Creating Secret Spaces was a long process that took a lot of thought and went through a lot of changes but Nick and I always came back to one simple word that untimely shaped the installation you see today, Imagination. No matter how many times our ideas of how to implement Secret Spaces changed, it was the core idea of imagination that kept us grounded and focused.

At first it was extremely difficult to go from art educator to artist. Nick and I are painters, and this was the first installation we had ever created. Creating an interactive and engaging installation space was daunting and terrifying, but we knew if given the opportunity we could make an engaging and interactive art space. When Nick and I were thinking about how to create Secret Spaces we were thinking too much like teachers and not enough about being artists. We wanted to take visitors through the artistic process of planning their blanket fort, and then telling us where it took them, and finally providing them with materials. We decided this approach was not going to work and after many late night conversations we decided to take what was going to be a small part of the room and expand on that idea. This is when the idea of a room filled with white furniture that you could write on was born! We decided on a bedroom that has elements of everything you would see in a bedroom but we decided to make it feel powerful and push the idea of imagination. Dressers are stacked, beds are raised off the floor, and surprises wait in unopened doors.

I believe it is our experiences in the art room with our students that helped make Secret Spaces such a success. Through conversations with our students and each other, we realized our students wanted a place that was free of the constraints they felt in their home and school. Secret Spaces was designed to be a place to imagine where you want to be, you can become anyone you want. Everyone at some point or another has drawn on the wall and got in trouble; in Secret Spaces we encouraged visitors to draw, write, and doodle, to leave a small part of them selves behind. It is the drawings, doodles, and conversations that are left behind that has made Secret Spaces such a special place to visit time and time again.

I can honestly say this has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my artistic and teaching career. The conversations that have occurred throughout the course of Secret Spaces have inspired me in my teaching and art making. So many wonderful people have told us how much they enjoyed connecting with their children on a deeper level, and inspiring them to create. It has been amazing to watch strangers work together to create a blanket fort that fills the space so everyone can enjoy it. Nick and I would like to thank everyone who worked so hard to help use create Secret Spaces, it was truly an honor to be involved in such a special project. Secret Spaces closed September 30, 2012. Check our blog to see some of the final pieces left behind in the Useum.


Kari Achatz graduated from Buffalo State College in 2011 with a Masters in Art Education. Kari is a painter and currently teaches Pre-K through 8th grade art at Queen of Heaven School in West Seneca.