This post was originally published June 2013.

Today, we’re delighted to welcome Dominique Dunstan to the site to share not only her beautiful re-interpretations of natural history, but also the extraordinary library-based artist fellowship that supported their creation. Read on to learn more about the Staff Fellowships at the State Library of Victoria in Australia, which Dominique calls “visionary,” and her deeply researched Whiteboard Project.  You won’t regret it! ~Erinn

Dominique Dunstan. Rainbow lorikeet, after Sarah Stone (detail).

Dominique Dunstan. Rainbow lorikeet, after Sarah Stone (detail).

Library as incubator Project (LAIP): So the Whiteboard Project came together because of a unique artistic fellowship hosted at your library.  Can you tell us about that program?  How did it start, and why do you feel it’s important to support artists specifically in a library setting?

The State Library of Victoria

The State Library of Victoria

Dominique Dunstan (DD): For the last decade, the State Library of Victoria has sponsored two streams of fellowships. There is an external program and a staff program. The external creative fellowships are offered annually to artists and scholars, working in any medium or discipline, who propose thoughtful and innovative ways to use the Library’s collections.

Since 2004, staff fellowships have been offered to members of staff who can demonstrate that their project will have lasting and/or significant benefit to the Library and to the staff member concerned.

The fellowships aim to:

  • Promote the State Library of Victoria as a centre for scholarly activity and research
  • Encourage scholarly, literary and creative use of the Library’s collections and the production of publications/work based on them
  • Publicise the Library’s collections

The principal benefit of the Staff Fellowship program is to give members of staff the means and the uninterrupted time to work closely with the rich resources of the State Library of Victoria. Staff fellowships vary in length from one to three months, depending on the nature of the project. Fellows are provided with an office and are free of all other work duties for the duration of the project.

That the library encourages scholarly and literary use of the collection in this way is wonderful, and one might expect that. That the library welcomes and supports artists takes things to another level.

I think it is visionary. It promotes and celebrates creativity, imagination and innovation across disciplines and expands our perception of libraries as not just repositories, but engines of cultural production and activity. The way we record and express our history and culture is evolving so quickly. The collaboration of artists and libraries seems a perfect relationship for capturing this process and gives meaning to it in a way that can be shared far and wide.

LAIP: You’re a reference librarian, so you’re trained to find information for all sorts of purposes.  Did you find that your work as a Fellow changed how you looked for project resources when your focus was creating art?

DD: It took me a while to reconcile my librarian and artist mindsets. This was a bit of a surprise but the fellowship was full of surprises. Artistic inspiration is an omnivorous beast. Ideas and images come from the most unlikely places and you learn so much by doing, or “tasting” to continue the analogy. The information environment of a librarian is very orderly by comparison. It is full of protocols and systems. I had to find a way to let order and serendipity, the visual and the verbal interact. Sometimes I would spend a long time pursuing a resource or line of research without much result but when I moved to another approach the penny would drop and something I’d overlooked would jump out and take me forward. I literally felt like an explorer. Tangents, happy accidents and the luxury of time let me see my resources with new clarity, and think about how and why I do things.

Dominique drawing wallaby photo by Ross Genat 2013

Dominique drawing a wallaby. Photo by Ross Genat.

LAIP: Tell us about how the Whiteboard Project developed over the course of your fellowship. 

DD: In 2012 the Board of the State Library awarded me the Jane Nicholas staff fellowship. This fellowship is offered in honour of one of our colleagues who passed away in 2010. It allowed me to spend three months on a research project of my own design and gave me a unique opportunity to combine my two major interests – art and libraries. The topic of my fellowship is A Natural History of the State Library of Victoria: a personal discovery and visual document of a Victorian icon. I have worked at the library since 1997 so it has been a big part of my life. There have been so many changes during that time and there are no signs of things slowing down. It is very much a living library and you don’t need to spend much time here to realise its evolution has been continuous and unstoppable. For these reasons the theme of natural history offered a multi-layered way of looking at the library and its collections, past and the present, and to also look at the process of discovery and information sharing, in the days of great explorers compared to today. Reading about this golden age of natural history, I was struck by the spirit of collegiality that united enthusiasts, collectors, scientists, artists and adventurers around the globe. I wanted that spirit to inform my research and tried to think of ways to include the staff at the library and share my results.

The Whiteboard Project was one attempt to do this. For the first time in all my years at the library I was able to spend hours and hours poring over treasures in our Rare Books and Manuscripts collections. The artwork, writing and materiality of these early collections, journals and sketchbooks were a revelation. It was an experience I wanted to share in a way that was immediate, personal and open. I sent out a library-wide offer to create artworks on empty whiteboards in staff areas. The artworks were to be based on early illustrations of native animals. The response was overwhelming with many more invitations than I could fulfil. Originally I’d planned to do lots of quick sketches but as I started working I became more aware of how people inhabit these spaces. I wanted to make work that respected that and contributed something of value. I also fell in love with the illustrations I was studying and wanted my homage to reflect their beauty and comprehension. This meant producing drawings that were more detailed and refined and of course took much longer, so there were fewer of them (10 so far). To offset the number of people I had to disappoint I gave priority to communal spaces so more people could see them – kitchens, thoroughfares, open-plan areas.

The whiteboards were perfect for this project. They offered freedom to experiment in a way that may have been very difficult in public spaces, I could work on an ambitious scale without impacting on the building or facilities, staff could be part of the creative process as well as the outcome and conceptually it gave me a medium to interrogate the nature of the office environment itself. In a play on the subject matter I used materials native to the environment. Therefore I had to use dry erase markers, and a defining characteristic of the whiteboard is its transience. Conventional office materials however made challenging art materials. The work was physically demanding, and technically difficult.

Rakali (final state) photo by Ross Genat

Rakali (final state). Photo by Ross Genat.

LAIP: Why is it important that these whiteboard works are ephemeral, and that they’re placed in non-public areas (staff spaces)?  How have people reacted to these pieces?

The drawings are very fragile and ephemeral and fixed to their specific sites (quite the opposite of the books that inspired them, some of which have lasted 200 years and been around the world). Tension and value comes from this vulnerability. Like much of our native fauna and flora, they are easily wiped out. I have no idea how long the drawings will last. To my surprise and delight they all still survive. One reason the drawings are still there is because the boards have not been needed for something else. It shows how the once ubiquitous whiteboard is gently sliding into obsolescence. It’s like discovering small spaces in the library that have been abandoned and then letting these wild things find them and make their home there in our midst. The busiest institution has these quiet, forgotten niches that the imagination can colonize. I’ve had wonderful support from my colleagues and got to know so many people, learned about what they do and shared stories. I have documented the whiteboard project in a blog on my website. Although the term of the fellowship ended in December 2012, I have carried on working on the whiteboards in my own time. Progress is slower but it is still very rewarding and I hope to continue the series until the end of the year.

LAIP: Create a book list for us:  what are 5 titles you wish you could find in the stacks at every library?  Why these?

Fish of NSW, after Sarah Stone.

Fish of NSW, after Sarah Stone.

DD: Here’s what I’d want to find:

  1. The Sketchbooks of John Cotton. John Cotton (1802-1849), a pastoralist and naturalist, emigrated to Australia with this family in 1843. He planned to publish a work on the birds of Port Phillip District of New South Wales, but died before achieving this goal. We have his original sketchbooks. They are filled with the most exquisite drawings and watercolours of native birds, observed directly in the Australian landscape of the 1840’s. You can see the artist’s hand and mind at work on every page. It is so alive. Of course as manuscripts they are unique and ours is the only library you will find them in. If only everyone could enjoy these treasures. Hang on a minute!… View gorgeous digitized scans of these sketchbooks from the State Library of Victoria HERE and HERE.
  2. Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, by Francesco Colonna. Because it is so strange and beautiful. Filled with riddles and invention, it has mystified and inspired its readers for hundreds of years. Definitely my favourite incunabulum.
  3. Magic made easy, by David Devant. We have a conjuring collection at the State Library, donated by Will Alma, a magician. This was his first magic book and it changed his life. Watching someone perform a magic trick (well) is just fantastic. Everyone should learn at least one magic trick in their life.
  4. The Dictionary. Fun, interesting and useful. I’ve always liked reading dictionaries; from looking up swear words as a kid to learning just the right word to express an idea. The other day I discovered what umvelt meant and I am still excited about it. A dictionary is like an old friend that never lets you down.
  5. Wikipedia. As above. Even more fun than the dictionary but perhaps not quite as reliable.

LAIP: What would your ideal library be like?  What could you find in its collection and what would you be able to do there?

You’d be able to learn, share, meet, create, contribute and even have a little nap if you got too exhausted doing all this. Then you could continue online when you got home or come back in tomorrow because the library would always be there. ~Dominique Dunstan

It would be a lot like the State Library of Victoria. It would have at least one and preferably several grand reading rooms, with very high ceilings. A great glass dome would be nice, so you could read in daylight, see the weather change and notice the days getting longer and shorter. It should have quiet rooms, so you can hear yourself think, and louder ones, so you can hear what others think. The architecture should be beautiful, chairs comfortable and the building energy efficient and sustainably managed. It would be full of staff that love working there and are really good at what they do. It would be free to all and welcome anyone with clean hands and reasonable manners. Of course you would find everything you were looking for, be it knowledge, treasures, local history, music or Facebook updates. You’d be able to learn, share, meet, create, contribute and even have a little nap if you got too exhausted doing all this. Then you could continue online when you got home or come back in tomorrow because the library would always be there.

wallaby and emu (final state)

Wallaby and emu (final state).

 

Want More?

  • Find out more about the State Library of Victoria’s artist fellowships and their projects HERE.
  • Visit Dominique’s website to learn more about her work and recent shows: www.dominiquedunstan.com
  • Follow The State Library of Victoria on Twitter @Library_Vic
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