By LucyRose Till-Campbell
“I would love to help, but I’m just not an artist.”
This is a phrase that I heard over and over from patrons this summer as we worked on our community mural for the front hall of the library. Each time someone said it I reassured them that all they need to do for the project is trace their own hand and decorate it. Everyone can trace their hand! Usually, the person would smile and shrug and agree to give it a try.
Every other Wednesday during the summer, I set out paint, paint markers and 5”x5” squares of canvas, then turned on some soothing lo-fi music and waited expectantly for members of the community to come in and paint with me.
The premise for this mural was inspired by the book Stitchin’ and Pullin’: A Gee’s Bend Quilt by Patricia C. McKissack. The story of the quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend Alabama is told in poems and beautiful illustrations by Cosbi A. Cabrera. The community of Gee’s Bend quiltmakers are the descendants of enslaved people who have passed down the techniques and traditions of their craft from generation to generation. They still spend hours and hours together in quilting bees creating stunning quilts that have been displayed in art museums all over the world. During a recent Story Stretchers program, the kids and I made our own smaller quilt together, inspired by this book and the work of the Gee’s Bend artists.
After that story time, I continued to be inspired by the idea of people from a community coming together to tell their stories through collaborative artmaking. That’s why I designed the mural around the principle of a quilt: dozens of small squares of canvas that, when arranged all together, make a vibrant unit.
Some of my favorite moments were when people who started off dismissing their artistic abilities ended up getting deeply involved with their piece. For instance, one Saturday early in the summer I had a young girl and her mother, who were both very excited to work on the project, linger around the pop-up station for several hours. Eventually, they were joined by the family’s father, who we instantly tried to rope into making a handprint. It took a little coaxing from his wife and daughter to combat his insistence of: “Oh no! I could never do art. I’m a computer engineer, not an artist…” but eventually he agreed to join in. He ended up getting so involved with his handprint that he not only traced his hand, but painted it sand colored and added a tiny umbrella and sunglasses to make it “vacation themed”. The result was illustrative and charming.
Something magical happens when doing art with other people; each participant takes the initial idea and runs in a new direction the rest of us wouldn’t have thought of. In the first mural painting session, for example, one young artist traced their two fingers as though giving a “peace” sign and then painted it green and added two eyeballs to the fingertips. In the end it looked exactly like two alien antennae peeking at the viewer from outer space. The following week, I shared the alien square with participants, and they were inspired to make their own aliens. We even had one employee make an entire alien abduction illustration out of their hand, complete with a beam of light and a cow levitating up into a flying saucer!
When I look at all the squares, I can see each of the different personal stories people chose to tell. One artist came to every single session of the program and each time she painted her handprint into an intricate garden of multicolored flowers. During one session I noticed that instead of flowers she painted her handprint into abstract swirl of bold, dark colors. When I asked her about her inspiration, she said she had been struggling with chronic pain that day and she painted how she felt. It was moving to see how she allowed herself to be vulnerable with her painting and express something very personal.
Other pieces take on more narrative meaning: stories and scenes emerge, like one piece where each finger of the hand is painted to look like the artist’s favorite books. Another young artist painted each finger to be a mountain and then constructed tiny bridges between each one for miniscule figures to walk on.
Often, people also used their handprint to express something about meaningful relationships in their lives. One handprint was created by a mother of two young daughters. She painted her hand in between two swirls of color—each representing one of her daughter’s favorite colors. One evening two best friends came in and painted squares across from one another. The entire time they painted they told me stories about their friendship as neighbors who attend different schools. The girls firmly instructed me that I needed to hang their squares together because they drew them as a matching set linked by a border of the same grassy green.
The theme of Summer Reading 2023 was All Together Now and witnessing the community of River Forest come together, make art and express themselves and their stories was such a privilege to witness. I’m so excited to share the final mural with River Forest. So many people started off the summer saying “I’m no artist…” but I think we can all agree that this is not true: River Forest is full of artists!
Visit the Library lobby to view the completed mural.
Further reading about Gee’s Bend quilters:
Feel like getting artsy? Explore these recommended library resources:
LucyRose joined the Library in December of 2022 and spearheaded this wonderful project.
She is an exceptional artist and has a background in customer service. This is her first library job and we’re so lucky that she has chosen to share her talents with us.