The Library as Incubator Project is pleased to feature this interview with artist Elaine Luther, who shares her relationship to libraries and what they have meant to her and her work. – Laura

Tell us a little bit about yourself. How do you identify yourself as an artist (poet, fiction writer, painter, photographer, etc.), and what sort of work do you create?

I’m a metalsmith and a mixed media collage painter working in acrylic. I make medals that you wouldn’t want to earn, paintings about body image and loss, and assemblage sculptures about women’s work.

What is/has been your relationship to libraries throughout your life?  Throughout your work?

I love the library. My first library was in a small town in Texas, it was tiny and in “downtown” if it can be called that. My mom would drop me off and I’d watch a movie or get books. I remember being fascinated by a history of fashion book. In junior high, the library tried to restrict which books kids could check out and my mom wrote a note to the school librarian that said, “Elaine has my permission to check out any book at all from the library.” I loved that, that trust in me, and the belief that libraries shouldn’t be censored.

I’m what’s called a heavy user at the library, so much so that I was recently invited to be on a committee at my library on the future of the library. My current home library is a bit small (though they do a good job), so I use interlibrary loan extensively. I also use interlibrary loan because it saves me time. With three kids, leisurely strolling through the library on my own is not something I get to do very often. I keep books I’m interested in in my Amazon wish list, and then periodically, log in to the library and request a bunch of them. Books that I keep checking out, I go ahead and buy.

A neighboring library, in the town where I used to live, is where I spend more time. Especially in the winter because — and I’m embarrassed to say this — but because they have a parking garage.

As a mother, the library has served me enormously. When my middle child, my son, was a baby, I would go to the New Non-Fiction section and almost run through it, grabbing anything that looked interesting before he started making too much noise. Then, off to the elevator and to check out. “What do you read?” people might ask me. “Whatever the librarian picks out for me!” I didn’t have the time or ability to find anything on my own.

When my kids were really little, I barely had time to read, but I checked out books anyway. It was like this hope, this symbol, that the life of the mind would return.

Now I teach painting to kids once a week and I continue to use the library for research for my presentations on art history, for project ideas, and for my own inspiration. One of the most significant books I read last year was the new biography of Lee Krasner by Gail Levin, and that was a library book, come to think of it.

I continue to go to the library as one of my “mom’s night out” quiet times, for refuge and inspiration. The library also has an art gallery and I also visit it.

Tell us the story of a specific project that was incubated by a library– how did it start, and how did the library help to bring it to life?

I recently had a solo show, my first, at the Harold Washington Public Library. I responded to a call for art that they posted on the website Chicago Artist Resource. I had applied to a previous call for a branch library and gotten some interest in my paintings but wasn’t chosen. For this call, for work that could go in a locking case, I submitted my metal work, my series of medals you wouldn’t want to earn and was selected for the show.

I met with art librarian Leslie Patterson, who suggested that a few more pieces might be nice to round out the show. That gave me a deadline to finish some medals that were in progress or just sketches. The show ended up including 5 medals and a pocket shrine. Most of the pieces were fine silver, made in Precious Metal Clay, so it was extremely important to me that the library provided insurance, which they did. While some folks might prefer a commercial gallery that doesn’t offer insurance over a library that does, I’m all for non-profit spaces that take good care of the artists.

The library asked for text for the signs to accompany the work in the case. Leslie said that library patrons there really like to read and want complete information about the pieces. Luckily, I had written about these pieces before — one when it had been exhibited before in El Dia de los Meurtos at the Indianapolis Art Center, and others on my blog. So I was able to quickly pull that together for her.

After the show, I was able to keep all of the signage, some of which is now decorating my studio. The rest will go in a file box as a physical record of the show and a back up for electronic files.

I did an artist talk for the show, which was well attended, thanks to the library’s marketing staff, which managed to get the event listed on the popular website Gaper’s Block.

The library was truly an incubator for me in this work in that it commissioned more work, brought it all together in one place for the first time, and provided me with the opportunity to present it to the public and communicate about it.

Because these medals are highly personal, it was really difficult to hang this show. I felt absolutely naked in the library while installing the show. And talking about the medals — that was a new experience — to present to an audience about the pieces — I had to find a way to be comfortable with that.

In a larger sense, this show incubated me as an artist, by providing the external validation that comes from being selected for a show. Overall, it was absolutely a positive experience and I will look for additional opportunities to work with libraries in the future.

What can libraries do to serve artists like you?

As part of applying to shows at the Chicago Public Library branches, I finally got around to being added to the Chicago Artist Archive. Having a registry is one thing libraries can do.

An interesting side note about archives — I was emailing the person at the Harold Washington Library who’s in charge of the archives — to tell her about the Library as Incubator website. She wrote back and said, “Remember to keep me updated about your shows.” Oh right! I need to keep the archive up to date! I have been in additional shows since the one at the library and need to send her that information.

Having someone, anyone, at all interested in your art career, and documenting it, is pretty cool. And, needing to keep the registry up to date can help artists in keeping their own records and documentation — which artists can be pretty bad about. That’s sort of an unexpected benefit of being in the registry.

As an artist, what would your ideal library be like?  

I’m very interested in the question of the future of the library. Seth Godin has written that as paper books become less important, the library becomes less a house for books and more a house for the librarian — and he goes on to talk about how the librarian is more important than ever, as curator, as researcher, as connector.

I would love for libraries to continue to be more of a community center, more of a place for life-long learners to connect and learn together (such as sharing an online course experience).

I would love for all libraries to also have tool libraries and 3D printers. As long as we’re dreaming, let’s have it have large format ink jet printers and hacker space type stuff, and empower people to create their own classes.

The Harold Washington Library’s You Media Center for teens is a wonderful model of a place where kids go to create, not just passively observe or play a video game. Schools are a bit slow to change and provide the kind of creative skills that kids need — libraries should fill that gap.

I would love to connect with fellow artists at the library, to connect with them. I would love to connect with people at the library and do public participation art projects. I would love to teach workshops. I would like the library to be a connector to paying gigs for artists.

What resources and services do you use at your library?

I use the online research materials for writing articles and speeches. I attend events, go to the gallery shows and check out books, finding out from them from the paper newsletters, websites and a local email list for moms that lists activities. The library supports my work by supporting me in reflection. Art making requires reflection time and my reading and quiet library-escapes support that reflection.

What do you like about showing your work in libraries?

As mentioned above, my work was on display this winter at the Harold Washington Library, in the show, “You Oughta Get a Medal for That.” It’s different to show in a library because the audience is different — people happen to be in the library anyway, they haven’t sought out a gallery. So perhaps library exhibits are closer in spirit to public art. What would make the experience better? I had a marvelous experience, wouldn’t change a thing.

What does “library as incubator” mean to you?

Well, the library was very much an incubator for me, in that it requested more work, gave me the space to show it, an audience and a chance to do a public talk about it. Now that work continues, the medal series will probably grow to about 12 and then I think I’ll end it there. Having a body of work on a theme is pretty important as an artist, and this support from the library helped me get there.

Additional information:

Read more about Elaine’s show at the Harold Washington Public Library in her Artist Story on the Chicago Artist Resource website.

Elaine Luther studied jewelry making in college, trade school and through two apprenticeships. She has taught since 1992 at a number of art centers including Lillstreet Art Center, the Indianapolis Art Center and Marwen Institute. Her sculptures have been exhibited at those art centers and Gallery I/O in New Orleans, LA, Womanmade Gallery in Chicago, IL and the Target Gallery in Alexandria, VA. Most recent shows include a solo show of her medals series at Harold Washington Library and a group show, Mama Said, at Idaho State University.

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