The summer of 2003: I was between children's book illustration jobs, doing a swell job of simultaneously fretting about and ignoring my creative writing MFA thesis ("Hey look, I should teach myself how to knit..."), hauling my husband from one fika to another while visiting as many aging family members as possible in a 3-week trip to Sweden, and somewhere in there I was commissioned to make a really big dragon.
The work hung in the Samson-Dimond Branch Library in Anchorage, Alaska for 7 years, until budget cuts closed that space. Luckily, a manager for a library 20 miles away in Eagle River knew about the dragon banner and personally relocated it to the Chugiak-Eagle River Library where it's hung for 6 years in the children's area.
This public art installation was designed as a double-sided triptych, 15 feet long, made with cotton, wool, recycled clothing and various commercial fabrics. The original location was tight -- the tail faced a small new computer lab and the head faced the program/story time area. The suspended panels fit above computer stations and between small columns.
The work honors a young woman named Jessie Withrow who was killed by a drunk driver while riding her bicycle on an Anchorage sidewalk. She loved the library and fantasy books, so we made a dragon for her. When that little library closed, a piece this large could have disappeared forever into storage.
That is the short history of a multi-layered, important story, which involves a lot of people, their support and a willingness to hang on to memory.
Sometimes the very best stories go to sleep for a while, when they have a cozy place to dream. They probably deserve that rest.
But then something wakes them up.
And here's where this piece of artwork rises, after many years, to becomes a story again.
In 2014 I approached the library with some questions -- was there any interest in re-configuring this piece to better fit this new space? If it became a 6-panel, 30-foot dragon...would the library support an expansion like this? And what if we pulled together as many library users as possible -- children, moms, dads, grandparents -- to help make the reverse panels in a multi-step community art project?
What if we unfurled this whole story so it soared over the top of the entire children's section? What if we invited people to be a part of this kind of magic? Would they come? Could we teach them a new skill they could also do at home?
It took 2 years of grant writing, but the "Dragon Flight" project took wing and this month we started a series of community art workshops to create the reverse panels. If any of you follow me on Facebook or Instagram you've probably seen some of the images from these workshops and my studio ... and not a whole lot else. Even the Inheritance Project has been put on hold.
I've never used Wonder Under before. I'm not a super star stitching with monofilament thread (but I've gotten pretty good). And releasing 200 pre-cut squares to eager hands who've never done this kind of work before has been serendipitous and fulfilling.
The third and final "Sky Full of Stars" workshop is on Saturday, October 22, 2016 from 3 - 5 pm at the Chugiak Eagle-RiverLibrary. The large workspace is in the back of the children's area (you get to walk beneath the current dragon to get there). At the end of the month, the dragon banner will come down and I'll take it apart. All 6 new double-sided panels will be installed before Christmas, 2016. More on that to come in a future post.
Dragon on the front, party on the back.
My immense gratitude to the Chugiak-Eagle River Foundation, Friends of the Library and the Anchorage Library Foundation and to all the hands who've made this project possible. I'd like to thank fellow SAQA regional co-representative, Maria Shell, for posting about her experience working with a community on a large-scale textile art project. I'm not going to lie, I learned a lot from her post and you will, too.
Lastly, my heart extends to the family of Jessie Withrow, lover of libraries, reader of books, vessel for deep imagination. Muse.
Other posts about public art:
Artist in Anchorage, Alaska, sometimes blogging about the collision of history, family & art, with the understanding that none exists without the other.