Artists in wonderland

STEVENS SQUARE — In Cris Halverson’s world, there are two types of people.

“Either you really, really like ‘Alice,’ or you’re indifferent, you don’t really care,” Halverson said, referring to the Lewis Carroll book properly called “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”

There’s no doubt on which side of the divide Halverson stands. The artist behind “The Alice Project” showing this month at Stevens Square Center for the Arts (SSCA) is an avowed “Alice-phile” and has been since the 8th grade, he said.

It was then that a young Halverson was assigned to read Carroll’s 1865 fantasy novel in an English class. Up to that point, he was most familiar with Disney’s version of the story, released in 1951 as the animated movie “Alice in Wonderland.”

It’s kids stuff, he thought — until he read the book.

Halverson recalled his enchantment with Carroll’s nonsensical wordplay and fascination with the bizarre characters encountered by Alice on her journey, especially the drowsy, hookah-smoking Caterpillar. He dove into the text, attempting to decipher its symbolism like a book-length riddle, and hasn’t come up for air since.

“Since then, it’s been an obsession,” he said.

The Windom neighborhood resident found he was far from only artist who dipped into the creative well that is Wonderland. A request for submissions netted 11 other local artists who joined Halverson for “The Alice Project,” an exhibition that is part group show, part art installation.

A couple of days before the July 26 opening, Halverson was at work transforming SSCA’s small second-floor gallery into a little piece of Wonderland.

Partway up the narrow stairway that leads into the gallery, visitors encounter a gateway. Passing through it is like a trip down the rabbit hole (only in reverse, since you’re heading upstairs).

Inside the gallery, Halverson creates a winding path that leads visitors through several scenes from the book, ending with the mad tea party. The gallery is packed with props to evoke the fantasy setting, like the flamingoes and hedgehogs required for Wonderland-rules croquet.

Art inspired by “Alice,” including Halverson’s digitally manipulated photographs, hangs along the path.

Those photographs were created over about three years, with each image pieced together from Halverson’s vast collection of digital snapshots. Take a tree from the Bahamas, layer it over a bit of a tropical garden from a Las Vegas casino, add two models shot in his home studio and — with a touch of digital magic — they combine to recreate Alice’s meeting with the Cheshire Cat.

Halverson applies a layer of digital effects to the photographs. The scenes are dreamily distorted, as if viewed through rippling water.

Among the other artists participating in “The Alice Project,” there are a range of interpretations of the story and characters. Many draw directly from the original John Tenniel illustrations for the book or the blond Alice popularized in the Disney film.

Others, like Carlye Beseman, who also works in digital media, present re-worked but still recognizable versions of Alice, the White Rabbit and the Queen of Hearts. Beseman’s Wonderland is a darker place, where even the Cheshire Cat’s grin seems menacing.

For Halverson, the malleability of the “Alice” story is what makes it so magical.

The original book, now in the public domain, has been reinterpreted on the stage and screen and in print countless times over the past 143 years. In each version, familiar characters and scenes are retained, left out, or altered to meet the needs of a script.

The result, Halverson said, was that “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” became a kind of modern myth, a story that keeps changing while retaining its familiar contours. Every artist makes the story his or her own.

Halverson sees the book as a coming-of-age story.

“I look at Alice [the character] as this person who suddenly finds herself in a world that doesn’t make sense,” he said, drawing parallels to the transition from childhood to the adult world.

“We’re all Alice in a sense, anybody who has felt out of place,” he added.

Halverson suggested Carroll — the pen name of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson — might have been one of those people.

The idea that Carroll preferred the company of children to adults is a persistent one. While his friendships with children led some to speculate about darker aspects of the author’s personality, Halverson preferred to view Carroll as a boy who never wanted to grow up and leave behind a youthful fantasy world.

“I do see myself in that role,” he said. “I’m never going to grow up. That’s just the way it is.”

Go see it

“The Alice Project” runs through Aug. 17 at Stevens Square Center for the Arts, 1905 3rd Ave. S. 879-0200.
www.stevensarts.org