Climb on this: Public art for kids by Tim Watkins and Carol May

The kids of Athens have everything on toddlers in Manhattan this month. The Greene County riverside community has played host to the über-children’s museum and public art design team of Tim Watkins and Carol May for years now. It has watched as bits and pieces of the just-opened and much-heralded EatSleepPlay permanent exhibit of the Children’s Museum of Manhattan (CMoM) showed up outside the couple’s home and design studio in an old firehouse there, and then started coming together, getting fabricated and shipped out by van from the old Elco Electrical Boathouse down by the Hudson.

I know: I’ve got an almost-six-year-old who has been petitioning for daily trips up the river to see what was showing up on the Athens streets for years now. He recognized everything on a recent visit down to CMoM, and gave the results his totally enthusiastic thumbs-up – just as he had previously done for the toddler-area aquatic fun park that May and Watkins designed and built for the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, or their whirring, Calder- and Tingueley-like works spotted where kids’ eyes turn all over our countryside.

“Our objective is to create visually dramatic, inspirational environments that fulfill the needs of varied audiences,” reads their mission statement. “Our interactive components engage children and adults in activities that are creative, challenging and fun. Our expertise in fabrication as well as design enables us to produce exhibits that are durable and cost-effective.”

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May paints indeterminate landscapes. You can see her love of the Hudson Valley and Catskills in the rich, earthy tones in which she works, the eye for both detail and more generalized atmosphere. Watkins has a more kinetic Pop feel to his sculpture, with hints of darker statements and a flowing appreciation of all things organic. He must have been a mighty bug-collector when young.

In person, the two are affable, quiet yet conversationally adept. They love living and working up here, free to have the space and natural inspiration of rich surroundings the better to bend the minds of well-funded urban institutions ready to try some fun stuff on their kids.

For their latest project for the Children’s Museum of Manhattan, May and Watkins did their finishing and shipping work from the massive Elco Electrical Boat Factory on the waterfront in their hometown: a fabulous space in its own right. Never heard of it? Launched in the 19th century as the Electric Launch Company, Elco pioneered the idea of electrical boats and has been a major player in luxury boatmaking, on and off, for well over a century (including a generation’s hiatus).

The big move of materials down to the City occurred about a month ago, when four moving vans showed up to load – piece-by-piece, section-by-section – the couple’s single 3,000-square-foot work of art, including a host of custom-made “Smallagtites.” On the CMoM website, kudos have been coming in since the new play area’s launch, including a biggie from first lady Michelle Obama. There are info stations, a humongous brain that answers questions, a walk-in stomach and seven-foot heart, even a natural gas chamber – all explaining how food fuels us and works its way through our systems.

Part of the crowd that saw the design couple’s latest creation off did so out of loyalty: The Elco Boathouse ended up under two feet of water during the late-August Irene floods, and many in town came out to help dredge pieces out and repair them. Shall we say that this one took a whole village to make?

You’ve got to get down and see what Tim and Carol have made this time. The Children’s Museum of Manhattan is located on West 83rd Street; visit www.cmom.org for further information. Even better, get over to the Brooklyn Children’s Museum if you can; it’s way out there, but represents hours of fun for kids of all ages: www.brooklynkids.org.

For more on May and Watkins and all they do, visit www.maywatkinsdesign.com. Or drive up to Athens and look for the firehouse, as well as the historic and fabulous Elco Boathouse.

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