Gettin’ Funky at Creature Camp

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by Kristina Domitrovich // photos by Lindsay Pace

Seven years ago, when Rebecca Blevins and Brett Hunter bought their camper, they had vague thoughts of renting it out, almost Airbnb style, but they didn’t have a distinct vision for it. 

Not yet, anyway.

“It was just a project at first, just to renovate it,” Hunter said, “Which took forever.”

“There were a number of computers in it and just weird stuff,” Blevins said. 

That was back when the two were living in the Carbondale area in Illinois, before they came to Nashville about four years ago. In August 2020, they “finally” finished the space because they “really had nothing else going on,” Hunter said with a laugh.

It took them a month or two to prepare the camper for visitors: hooking it up with an AC and heating unit, painting the outdoor shower and bathroom area overlooking the sunset, outfitting the interior with their own collections of folk art – a myriad of pieces they’ve traded their own work for over the years, things made by their friends.

“One painting in there is like a naked lady that I bought for $3 at a convenience store in Baltimore,” Hunter said, laughing. 

Anything “weird,” as Hunter put it, that either were attracted to over the years.

But the biggest takeaway is always what’s outside the camper in the yard. The creatures, or “aminals.”

These “aminals” are wonky critters the two have created over the years, all funky and brightly painted. 

“All these creatures are all my designs, but we both worked on them,” he said. “Most of them were for taking to Bonnaroo Music Festival. I sold a few, but ended up keeping a bunch.”

The first year Hunter was commissioned to make his creepy crawlers for Bnnaroo was in 2018, and again in 2019. The process is pretty “chaotic,” and for music festivals, it’s a fast turnaround.

“The festival thing is really rushed,” he said. “We made 12 creatures in two months.” 

“That was kind of all we did,” Blevins added, laughing.

All the creatures were made from “really crude doodles,” in Hunter’s studio on their property. 

“I just wanted them to be creatures that didn’t really look like anything real. I like it when people say something like, ‘Oh, I like that blue gator dog,’” he said. “You don’t really know what it is, and I don’t name them or anything. So I just like that somebody has to make up what it is.”

The creatures are made to be movable, so they can easily be placed at events; but for things like Bonnaroo, they have to be sturdy enough for “a hundred thousand adult children” to climb all over them. Hunter has found a sweet spot.

“They’re made to be moved around, (and) they’re heavy, but they’re not like normal concrete sculptures,” he said. “They have a foam base and then there’s concrete mix plastered on the outside, so it’s kind of a shell.”

Hunter also uses papercrete: paper pulp mixed with clay or cement. He’s found papercrete is really great for intricate portions like facial features. Oftentimes, he has to hire extra help; and they mix the material for the outer shells by hand.

“I got really buff,” Blevins laughed, reminiscing on the summers building the creatures for Bonnaroo.

Each creature is usually several feet tall and made to be interactive. Some have a tongue curving out that can be used as a slide, “that one was a huge hit –– everybody wanted to crawl through it;” others have gaping holes as mouths. Hunter laughed that sometimes he would find festivalgoers sleeping in or on his sculptures.

“It’s fun to see them get some use though, it adds some life to them,” Blevins said. “I think just sitting in a space they wouldn’t necessarily have (that), but the interactive quality is the best part, I think.”

One of his larger creatures stood eight feet tall, was yellow and had built-in benches; usually, he found people crawling to the top to sit there, rather than using the benches down below.

“Those kinds of festivals aren’t really my thing, but it’s like an art show times a million,” Hunter said. “To have a hundred thousand people just partying on or around my sculptures is really cool.”

Hunter has experienced both sides of exhibiting his art: Crazy events and festivals, or art shows that are usually about a month long, where people quietly and calmly meander through the exhibit.

“It’s almost like they’re at church or something,” Blevins said. “But out here, people are giggling and laughing.”

“Here, it’s somewhere in between the festival and the gallery,” Hunter said.

They have a slew of visitors; ranging from pandemic-bound people longing to travel, to families with small kids wanting an interactive escape. The camp is a work in progress, and Hunter and Blevins are looking for ways to expand and add new creatures. Their property includes a little treehouse, which they’re debating turning into “some sort of psychedelic giraffe thing.”

The camp comes as a bit of relief, as Hunter and Blevins are both artists. Blevins, a modern ceramist, is an adjunct professor at the Watkins College of Art at Belmont University in Nashville, and owner and artist of Blevins Ceramics. She laughed and said that if it was up to her, everything would be clean lines and “all white.” During a year that upended their profession, especially since Hunter’s work was often used in huge events that have since been cancelled, the camp has provided a sense of security for the two.

“Being self-employed, both of us, money is here and there,” Hunter said. “Sometimes it’s really good; sometimes it’s not at all. So having that steady-ish thing going on has been really nice. Even though it’s minimal income, it’s been really cool to just not be sweating whether or not we can pay the bills.”

In the hilly country right outside of Nashville, the two have created a wonky hiatus for people to “really chill out when they come here, which is nice,” Hunter said. Blevins said she wanted to string lights outside and through the treehouse, to encourage their guests “to sort of wander” while they’re visiting. The pair’s house, which plays with equally as much shape and color as the camp, is further up the hill from the camper. The two, with their pandemic-rescue dog Peanut and their three ducks, all named Lillian, somewhere in the mix, enjoy hearing their visitors explore and enjoy the creatures, and like reading the feedback they leave behind.

“‘These creatures are speaking to me,’ ‘(I) feel like I’ve seen them before,’” Blevins said. “People are really excited.”

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