Monsters are crawling on the walls in the neighborhood surrounding Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. One is a mix of blue and green with three gaping black holes for eyes, another is a serpentine-cat hybrid, known to the locals simply as, “Gatomonstro.” The most flamboyant of the bunch is a bright orange praying mantis-like being who strikes a pose in the garden of Ba Ba’s Deli. Artist Kylin O’Brien is responsible for releasing these creatures to roam the streets — and the community couldn’t be happier. After all, they helped bring them to life.
The Monster Project is a public arts initiative conceived by O’Brien and a group of children, ages seven through nine, within the neighborhood. Funded by the Brooklyn Arts Council, the children sketch the monsters and O’Brien blows them up into 20×20 foot murals painted vibrantly on the walls. Creatures have always been a thematic interest for O’Brien, using them in her previous paintings of conceptual landscapes. It was O’Brien’s daughter, however, who made the beast that could eat the camel’s back. On the wall just outside their home’s window is a 20-foot long red dragon.
A 14-person workshop would later be held, where local children assisted in thinking up the creatures that would soon in invade the Prospect Park area. “The first drawing I had them sketch was simply a representation of what they feared. One girl, for example, said she was afraid of the dark. Period. ‘But it’s just the dark, how can I draw that?'” she asked. If the dark was a monster, what would it look like? That was all she needed.”
The result is an interdependent collaboration between child and artist — what one lacks in motor skills, the other makes up for in years of painting experience; what one lacks in naivete, the other makes up for in innocence, a life untainted by ego or commercialism.
After having them draw their greatest fear, O’Brien asks the children to “take that same kind of energy – something that is fierce and powerful – and think of it as a guardian.” The third exercise is to have the children envision themselves as a monster-guardian. By surrendering their fears to these neighborhood protectors, the children transform the terrifying into awe-inspiring.
“These monsters can only exist outside of us,” explains O’Brien, “they’re this catch-all for the dark, what’s around the corner. It’s a bit of a commentary as well on society and a media that’s very sensationalizing. We do tend to be immersed in a media that espouses a culture of fear. The kids are growing up in this world.”
Monsters are universal creatures; they appear in numerous cultures in different languages, different eras. They roam throughout our history, as Medusa in Greek mythology or as The Wax Phantom in Scooby Doo. The Monster Project taps into a collective consciousness of plus-sized characters, and so it comes as no surprise that these creatures also appeal to the grown-ups.
“Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” is a short story in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. Two venomous snakes, Nag and Nagiana, plot to kill a family in hopes of regaining a garden to hatch and raise their children. Referring to the 1975 cartoon adaptation, O’Brien confesses her childhood fear: “Two of my big monsters have been serpentine. Giant talking snakes. And they would talk like thissss,” she says, dipping into a slithering hiss. “That, and Dracula.”
And then there are the real-life threats: “There’s plenty that we don’t understand. We have our monsters, too, but we’re just afraid of being able to give them expression; they’re really more terrifying,” says O’Brien. “Maybe it’s a sense of our own mortality, terrified of death — it’s the only thing you can count on. It sounds kind of morbid, but it’s true.”
Despite the project’s deeper, underlying meaning, O’Brien is quick to add that, “at the end of the day, it’s just fun. We certainly need more of that in the public sphere, something celebratory, colorful, quirky.” She also emphasizes how the monsters must be painted not by outsiders, but by children of the neighborhood: “I want the kids to live with their work, and the work to live with the community.” The children have been given an empowering voice, albeit one that is spoken vicariously through otherworldly, sometimes serpentine beasts.