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The Zen Den: Artist's Reflection

By Melanie Zebrowski

It has been over a year now since the Zen Den made its first appearance at Celebration of the Arts in the Schuster Center. This multisensory immersive art installation was a labor of love — months of research, planning, experimentation and time-consuming handiwork that took the majority of my senior year to complete. Back then, I assumed it would end up like many of my other art projects: disassembled and collecting dust in a garage somewhere. Instead, it continues to live on and even flourish in the University of Dayton community. The Zen Den has found a cozy home in a little corner of Roesch Library, and curiously, so have I. This is our story.

Quest for wholeness, harmony

My name is Melanie Zebrowski, and I graduated in May 2018 with a visual arts degree and a minor in philosophy. Early in my studies, I realized the stigma that comes with walking the path of an art major. Inevitably, you meet others who will dismiss art as impractical, unnecessary and insignificant. But what I have found is that those people — and our society at large — have not yet learned what art truly is and what it is capable of doing.

During my time as an undergraduate student, my first design course taught me how to see — how to look deeper into the world around me to find the subtleties, the details, the colors and most importantly the beauty inherent in all things. There are principles of wholeness that all art seeks to embody (ever heard of Gestalt?), and I believe that the greatest artist is nature herself. Nothing has made that more clear to me than my semesters spent in the Himalayas and in Hawaii. Coming face to face with powerful landscapes more magnificent than I could imagine gave me the humbling realization that nothing I create will ever reach nature’s level of mastery. However, these travels also made me glaringly aware that we, as human beings, have been destroying nature. As our cities and artificial environments continue to replace the natural world, the need for harmony is greater than ever.

What would happen if we started conspiring with nature instead of against it? This idea has become central to my work as an artist. Look closely and you will find that the spaces we spend our time in — from classrooms, to homes, to offices — often isolate us from meaningful connection to the outside world. Although our designed spaces are efficient at providing comfort and control, they cause many of us to spend the majority of our lives in stagnant boxes staring at digital screens. This is an incredibly heartbreaking reality. How do you restore a sense of connection in a society that is increasingly disconnected from ourselves, each other and the natural world? I believe it begins with the feeling of wonder — and that art is a perfect channel for evoking such an experience.

Awakening a sense of wonder

Immersive art installations, in particular, can awaken a sense of wonder. Here, the artist is not confined to a flat composition or singular object but instead uses space to create new environments for others to experience. When viewers “enter” an installation, they are transported into an unfamiliar and exciting environment where they become not only a consumer of art, but a vital participant in it. Engaging with these unusual spaces is a memorable event that allows us to inhabit our bodies and senses with more awareness than we typically have. By forging this deeper connection of mind, body and environment, we may begin to develop a stronger sense of presence and — even if just for a moment — spark a change in how we relate to ourselves and the world around us.

As a synthesis of architecture, interior design and living installation art, the Zen Den represents the evolution of an idea to make immersive art spaces a more visible and experiential part of our society. It is an exploration into the psychology of spaces and is inspired by three key concepts: synesthesia (unifying multiple senses), psychedelia (altering normal perception) and biophilia (harmony with nature). A continuously evolving structure, this 10-foot mirrored geodesic dome is equipped with colorful lights, pillows, plants, flowers and a water fountain. All of these elements nurture a sense of wonder and promote the well-being of those who enter. Whether you are alone or with others, the Zen Den is a unique place to relax, meditate and let your imagination roam.

Although I wasn’t sure how others would react to my project, I’ve been humbled by the responses I’ve received and the captivated experiences I’ve been able to witness. Whenever I hear the gasps as someone happens upon the Zen Den for the first time, it makes me realize that this installation does what it was intended to do: create a bit of magic in an unexpected place. Seeing a variety of people actively use the space for studying, relaxing, sleeping and even praying reminds me that my artwork and the ideas it represents are significant, valuable and capable of intimately connecting with the lives of others.

Nature, art in ordinary places

What I’ve learned from my entire endeavor is this: We are the artists, the designers and the architects who imbue our spaces with feeling and meaning. We hold the power to create our surroundings that subtly shape and influence us every day. If we must stay bound to our boxes, why not learn to give them more beauty, movement and life? Instead of isolation, we should strive for integration by learning, as individuals and as a society, how to achieve a greater harmony with the natural world. The Zen Den is one manifestation of an ever evolving idea to bring our two separate worlds closer together. My hope is that by cultivating an appreciation for the wonders of nature and art in the most ordinary of places, I can help others remember that we are already connected and immersed in the greatest masterpiece of all.

See the Zen Den

The Zen Den is in the northwest corner of the fifth floor of Roesch Library. The noise level on that floor is "considerate," which means visitors should keep talking to a whisper and set device notifications to vibrate or silent.

— Melanie Zebrowski ’18 is a library specialist in the Marian Library

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