Celebrating Spring with Art and Community: An Interview with Artist Dennis McNett

As spring arrives here in Ashland, residents of Southern Oregon will have the opportunity to celebrate the changing seasons with a unique and active art opportunity. The creator of Wolfbat Studios, Dennis McNett is the current artist in residence at the Schneider Museum of Art. He is known for his skateboard designs, as well as his puppets and masks. McNett has hosted printmaking and mask-making workshops at the Schneider in the past two months. His work is featured in “Pushing the Press,” the museum’s latest exhibit featuring print-making pieces from various artists. On Saturday March 18, his time in Ashland will culminate in “What the Robins Whispered: A Procession to Celebrate the Spring Equinox,” a procession from Lithia Park to the Ashland Plaza featuring artists, puppets, musicians and community members.

McNett named his studio Wolfbat after the Nordic legend of Fenrir, which tells the tale of Loki’s three children, Fenrisúlfr, Hel and Jörmungandr. The Gods had a premonition that Fenrisúlfr, a monstrous wolf, would kill Odin, so they bound him and cast him down beneath the earth. The story ends with Odin’s son eventually killing Fenrisúlfr. McNett didn’t care for this ending. “I have an affection for wolves,” he said.  “The wolf’s just trying to be a wolf. Why does he have to die?”

McNett redeemed the wolf in his ending. He wrote that as the world was engulfed in flames, Hel, the only character in Norse mythology with the power of resurrection, hid beneath the earth. Once the flames had died down, she resurrected the maimed wolf and crossed him with a bat to mend his wounds. “A Wolf Bat Was born so she could fly on the earth and destroy the Gods,” McNett said.

McNett also thought of rebirth when he came to Southern Oregon in January. Upon arriving in Ashland, the first thing McNett saw were robins on an open field. “Usually, you only see that in spring,” he said. He drew inspiration from another folktale, one about how robins carry the sun in their chests and bring light, warmth and spring. McNett saw the correlation between the coming season and the students of Southern Oregon University. “I also like the idea of working with younger people that have something that they would like to see done differently,” he said. “I’m basically handing them a platform.”

Students will have the opportunity to participate in McNett’s work on Saturday March 18. His latest procession will take place in downtown Ashland between Lithia Park and the Ashland Plaza. “What the Robins Whispered: A Procession to Celebrate the Spring Equinox” will feature two of McNett’s large puppets, as well as masks and costumes made in McNett’s workshops at the school. Put simply, a procession is a parade, but McNett also likens it to a 1960s happening. When the gathering reaches the plaza, students will align with one of the puppets, and McNett will take the opportunity to pay tribute to the youth of Ashland: “With the new spring coming in and all the new growth, we have some of the youth, which is the new growth, and they have new things they would like to see come in with the new season.”

“What the Robins Whispered: A Procession to Celebrate the Spring Equinox” will take place at Lithia Park on Saturday March 18 at 4:30 PM. Participants will walk to the Ashland Plaza wearing handmade masks and costumes. This event is open to the public as spectators or participants. “Pushing the Press” can be viewed at the Schneider Museum of Art until April 29.

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