Interview | Jane Dickson: City Maze
In the 1970s and 80s, New York City was a place of unbridled creativity and boundless innovation. It was a place where artists could afford to live and work, a place that drew inspiration from the people and the landscape itself. City Maze was one such historic work, a cardboard maze that was originally installed at Fashion MODA in the Bronx in 1980.
Artist Jane Dickson invited John “Crash” Matos to collaborate when he was just a teenager. In celebration of their work, Matos invited Dickson to return to the Bronx, where they presented a new City Maze at Wall WORKS as part of “Fashion MODA: 35 Years Later, Session II”.
As Dickson recalls, “Crash was always thoughtful and cautious about his career. He now has his daughter helping him run Wall Works. It’s a way for him to honor the people and friends who have worked with him over the years. Crash was sixteen or seventeen when we made the original City Maze. I treated him like an equal, and not like a kid. I thought of him as an expert in his field and let him do whatever he wanted. In 1980, it was a radical thing to invite kids to paint on walls. I like to collaborate with people. I get energy from it.”
At the time, Dickson had been hired at the Jamaica Arts Center, Queens, to teach animation to middle school students with attention issues. Dickson remembers how challenging it had been: “They were supposed to sit there and draw for six weeks and at the end they’d see a three-minute animation. It was trial by fire. Only kids who were super withdrawn liked animation. The others rioted. With that experience fresh in my mind, I wanted to make something kids could enjoy, something that would drive them wild with delight.”
New to the city, Dickson thought of New York as a labyrinth. As a child, she had seen hedge mazes in England, and found them mind-boggling. She remembers, “That was a cosmic experience when I was ten years old, and I wanted to do something like that for the kids at Fashion MODA, the middle school crowd, kids that were old enough to leave the house without parents, but not yet go far. I wanted City Maze to be a participatory experience with dark alleys, dark corners, a place to symbolically explore the environment without being afraid.”
City Maze was constructed out of cardboard and used translucent fiberglass panels for the roof so that light could filter though. Dickson remembers, “We made City Maze out of refrigerator boxes; we rented a pick-up truck and drove around the Bronx for two hours and got all the cardboard we needed from vacant lots. Back then, there wasn’t garbage pick-up every day, but the boxes were good and clean, no smelly or dirty. We cut the boxes open, and set them up at right angles. Then we began stapling them together. We stapled for days. It took everything I had to design and build it. I’m not an architect, and I look at it now and wonder, How did I do that? [Laughs].”
Dickson wanted to work with graffiti artists on City Maze so she asked her husband Charlie Ahearn, who had just begun working on the seminal Hip Hop film, “Wild Style.” He introduced Dickson to Crash and Noc because they lived nearby. To create a complete environment, Dickson worked with Sandee Seymour on a mixtape that was then placed at the center of the maze and playing the whole time. She put together popular songs like King Tubby’s dub hit of the summer, bits of George Clinton and the Treacherous Three. She also included sounds from Pac Man and Japanese cartoons, giving the mixtape a distinctively ‘80s feel.
City Maze was a neighborhood blockbuster. The regulars told all their friends about it and there was a mob of kids out front every day waiting to get in. One day, when, the space opened late the kids pounded on the door out front until broke it. Another day they pounded on the window, ‘Let us in! Let us in! until they broke that too.’ When the door opened they ran in laughing and screaming. They were just playing games inside and having an ecstatic time.”
The show’s success inspired Dickson to create a film about City Maze. As an animation designer for the electronic billboard at One Times Square, Dickson understood sequencing and editing. She engaged a friend from Columbia Film School to shoot it in 16 mm. and she directed the film, plotting out most of the shots she wanted to capture, orchestrating things the kids were doing already. Dickson observes, “The film has had a non-stop little life over the years, playing on TV, in festivals, and museums around the world. It’s awesome to see something I did 35 years ago still receive so much support.”
Photo of Jane Dickson in City Maze © Jef KIDNERD Castillo. All photographs with the maze only © Jane Dickson.
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.