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Small Town Mall: Big City Knockouts, Small Town Budgets and Not Dying from your Heart’s Desire

A detour to Meow Wolf in Texas inspires while challenges brew at home

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Phil Chwalinski

INSPIRATION NATION

This past fall, during my annual trip to see Big Tex at the State Fair of Texas (the largest state fair in the country), I made a detour to Meow Wolf – north of Dallas, in Grapevine – for inspiration.

It’s located in the thriving suburban mall of Grapevine Mills, billed as “North Texas’ largest shopping destination.” It is arranged like a racetrack with 19 large anchor stores (our Upton Mall in Hot Springs, Ark., has seven) and smaller brands on its inside track.

It has a movie theater, parking and food. Upton Mall has a movie theater, parking and food. Our mall is in a resort town inside a National Park with plenty of travelers from all over the state, region and country. There is a family-owned T-shirt business in a larger space with a thriving online business. Grapevine Mills also has a thriving T-shirt shop. Yet, Grapevine Mills has few empty spots covered up with advertisements, and we have many empty spots blocked out with black plastic inside the windows. It’s not fair to compare the two malls – its big oranges to little oranges – and I have spent a year trying to develop a group of creatives to fill those empty dark spots in our mall. Those spaces could look better with a little visual merchandising or graphics in front of them.

Small Town Mall: Big City Knockouts, Small Town Budgets and Not Dying from your Heart’s Desire

Courtesy of Meow Wolf


 

Back to Grapevine Mills, Meow Wolf was everything and more than advertised. It was easy to find from the parking lot with the big painted logo outside. Its main entrance is inside the mall, where its gift shop is also located. They have a little cafe and multiple exits, so you can relax and then go back into the experience. Inside, its design reminded me of “Stranger Things” – one of the sets featured portals in a regularly styled house allowing patrons to literally walk into other worlds. I went through the fireplace, through closets and the refrigerator. Inside the “house,” there is a storyline and hidden clues to help you figure out what happened to the people living there and elevators taking you off to other places.

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Small Town Mall: Big City Knockouts, Small Town Budgets and Not Dying from your Heart’s Desire

Courtesy of Meow Wolf


 

Meow Wolf, with the help of local Texas artists, built this inside a two-story anchor spot in a mall. It blew me away. It is a totally immersive environment with glow-in-the-dark colors and neon lighting, with room after room of weird and wild displays of the imagination. Some of that inspiration I took back with me. (Milwaukee has a smaller version of this with local artists creating different environments to walk through called Deep Lake Future.)Just imagine if we could do that in our small-town mall.

WINDOW WARRIOR

My winter/spring window displays will touch on our horse racing, historic ostrich farm racing, big hats worn on Arkansas Derby Day and colors inspired by peacocks.

I wanted to open up the small window on the right side of the rolling door near the old Victoria’s Secret location and completely change the color story from pink to blues and greens. I needed a wall-sized photograph of a peacock tail and started looking on Google. Shower curtains were cheap enough, though not big enough. While doing this alone and on the cheap, I still spend money. I clicked on a peacock image online that hit all the criteria, but it was $40 for a seven-by-10-foot photo backdrop. Reminding myself why I’m doing this (to build my portfolio, gain experience and write this blog), I broke out the credit card and ordered it in early November.

I also needed to change the window’s burgundy carpet to green or blue material, and I settled on a large roll of green felt. The big window is 21 feet long and about three feet deep. The window is 12 feet tall, so above the backdrop, I wanted to do blue and green plaid wallpaper to cover the pink plaid wallpaper. I found some gift wrap to do the trick.

In December, I received a notice the peacock backdrop was out of stock, and I was refunded. Pieces for the window were already in, and I didn’t want to change it this late in the game, but I asked for the product, not the refund. It arrived Christmas Eve!

Small Town Mall: Big City Knockouts, Small Town Budgets and Not Dying from your Heart’s Desire

Phil Chwalinski


 

The windows went up in stages. First, the small one where I hung various-sized balls with ribbons on the ceiling from an eight-foot ladder. The next weekend, I spent another full day doing the same in the larger window. Hanging paper, hanging balls and taping the backdrop with gaffer’s tape (re-taping it twice as it kept falling) and finally using finishing nails to keep it up on the wall. I covered the burgundy carpet with green felt, added peacock feathers and dressed the mannequin. The peacock print dress I used was from Old Navy, and the peacock-blue faux-fur coat I thrifted for $60, but it was so worth it. The hat? I made it. While the props didn’t go together as well as I hoped, the overall look fits the plan. But something was wrong – little did I know just how wrong, and I would soon find out.

In the middle of working on the other storefront window, I ended my day abruptly. I was tired, and knowing my limits, I needed to go home. Within a week, I was diagnosed with a long blood clot in my left leg, and two weeks later had an episode of Afib – both of which are still ongoing issues. But I’m not done yet! I’m not ready to give up this project. I didn’t want to be that part of history: “Window Designer Dies in Front Of Display.”

Small Town Mall: Big City Knockouts, Small Town Budgets and Not Dying from your Heart’s Desire

Phil Chwalinski


 

Since then, I’ve finished the other window with a graphic black, white and red theme, and I have plans through the summer. I had to change out a female mannequin for a male one in the old Victoria’s Secret space, probably the first time that was done. He’s wearing a suit, not lingerie. It was not a surprise to see Bath & Body Works closed their location next to one of my windows. They opened a new location not far away a couple of years ago.

But this old man is still here, and my heart’s desire is still ticking along. Thankfully, a new skincare store has opened in our small town mall.

PHOTO GALLERY (13 IMAGES)
📷 Phil Chwalinski

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