Talking Shop with the Mayor of JUNK City



Zach Dorn is an animator of worlds. That is not to say his medium is animation; Dorn often performs an engaging one-man concoction of theater, comedy and puppetry. Rather, Dorn’s strengths lie in his ability to impart breathing, feeling inner worlds upon the inanimate. With poignant wit, weirdness and humanity, he fabricates third dimensions for the cardboard characters and worlds that populate his imagination.

The Thinkery is very excited to collaborate with Zach Dorn on his newest work, JUNK City, which will be occupying our west gallery from November 15 – January 15. We spoke with Zach about his personal stakes for the project, how he aims to harness young learners’ desire to be creators, and how grilled cheese just doesn’t cut it.


A sampling of some of the treasures in our JUNK City (currently under construction!)
A sampling of some of the treasures in our JUNK City (currently under construction!)

How are you bringing your artistic sensibilities to JUNK City?

At ten I got my head stuck in a dollhouse. My relationship with the dolls, the tiny furniture, and the stories they helped unravel were so real, the next logical step was to physically enter their world. My mother had to pry my head out with vegetable oil. In college, a classmate had a bucket of action figures. Somewhat jokingly, he asked if I wanted to play with them. I picked one up and felt foolish and self-conscious. The one part of my brain that used light up at the sight of an electric train set flickered out like a light bulb.

This moment fostered a fascination with my suspension of disbelief – and of course what happens when it butts heads with reality. My work, in particular Junk City, combines elements that foster a child’s limitless imagination while trying resuscitate an adult’s. In JUNK City, these elements are miniatures, junk objects, and puppets.

What have been some of your main sources of inspiration when planning out the city?

 Well, for this specific project, I would say I found a lot of inspiration at The Abita Mystery House in Abita Springs, Louisiana. It’s a human-sized version of the Junk City. A roadside attraction that is like entering another dimension. Bizarre taxidermy, incredible handmade dioramas. Everything is reinvented from something else. I was also inspired by other attractions — The Miniature Railroad and Village in Pittsburgh, PA and the hypnotizing dioramas inside Sleeping Beauty’s castle at Disneyland. I also feel like the makeshift and transformational worlds of movies like Mystery Men, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, and the TV shows of Sid & Marty Krofft have been on my mind ever since I was a kid.

I have received some amazing junk. Some of it feels rich with stories it tells me exactly where it wants to go. Sometimes the junk is so wonderfully familiar that by simply adding simple illustrate windows, it totally transforms the ordinary. The junk stays junk, and I don’t want to disguise it or even alter it too much. I want it to be a pile of junk and a city. It needs to be in-between worlds. There is a bit of a blueprint, but I am also at the whims of what I find and what’s donated to the project.

Much of your work seems to stem from stream-of-consciousness narratives. How have you altered your methods in creating something like JUNK City, which may be a more static piece that exists independent of a clear POV?

I don’t see it as a static piece. That’s because when I am not performing inside of it, I want the visitors to fabricate their own stories. Each visitor will take on the role of storyteller. Except his or her story is going to be totally different than mine, and the next kid’s story is going to be totally different, and then everyone gets their own story to share. I’ve incorporated fragments of narrative events inside the city, little pieces of scenes and characters that I hope will inspire these stories.It’s exciting because once it leaves my hands it’s up to the visitors’ imaginations to make the piece active.  The city is a great excuse to make-up stories, imagine, and fib.

How has being conscious of Junk City’s audience influenced its conception and construction?

I used to teach art classes to young kids during the summer. We would visit fine art galleries filled with sculpture and contemporary art. And sometimes, while asking questions about the art, students would become transfixed by the window blinds, or air vents, or the plastic casing on the electrical outlets. They weren’t able to separate the art from the ordinary, because everything seemed to provoke a sense of wonder and excitement. It seems to me that kids love things that leave possibility — pipe cleaners, Legos, even games like Minecraft. Things where no one tells them “this is what to look at”.

In this creation, I am trying to tap into that sense of possibility. I am not trying to build things that are impressive, but rather create objects that leave room for a child’s imagination to project onto it. I don’t want kids to tell me that this looks awesome and then forget about it; I want kids to tell me this is awesome because of something I would have never noticed, because of something they’ve created. They will be creating their own miniature worlds, and perhaps this will give them the confidence to change the real one.

When you were a kid, what did you like more: grilled cheese or mac ‘n cheese?


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