By Thomas Vogel
Elaine Luther became aware of her hometown's dearth of public art a few years ago.
As she explained to the Review in an email, "The library has a stained glass window, and there's a painted elephant on the roof of a building on Madison Street. That's it. No painted murals, like Oak Park has, no sculptures anywhere, nothing."
Luther is an accomplished local artist, speaker, and author heavily involved in a variety of capacities throughout the Chicago art scene. She continues to exhibit work across the Chicagoland area, has taught at several local schools and regularly blogs about her projects. Aside from her artistic pursuits, she is also a regular at the Forest Park Library.
"My family and I are the kind of people who the librarians know by name," she said.
So when Alicia Hammond, who serves as the library's community engagement librarian, approached Luther about a collaborative public art project, she was immediately interested.
Although originally conceived in the summer of 2014, the pair initiated the project this summer in concert with the library's event series entitled "The Summer of Exploration." The library's program includes separate tracks for adults, teens and kids. Events include a bike repair workshop, a trivia night at the Beacon and even a "pop up" library at this past weekend's MusicFest.
"The library has always been a place that provides inspiration; what better to express that mission than through an outdoor art installation with a great message?" said Hammond.
"Art is incredibly important to a community. Of course it provides something nice and interesting to look at but it can also serve as a spark for creativity and ideas and as a way for community members to connect and talk," said Hammond.
Both Hammond and Luther admire the work of Matthew Hoffman, a Chicago artist and designer. His installations consist of giant letters spelling "You Are Beautiful" affixed to buildings, fences, and a variety of other surfaces across the country.
Using Hoffman as inspiration, it was decided Luther would, in a nod to the summer program's theme, construct four-foot wooden letters spelling "Explore" that would be displayed in the library's yard.
"I love the word explore and it's definitely a big part of our summer theme. However, I think it also is a great word to connect with the library in general. We provide a place and resources that help you explore your world whether that is through a book, on the computer, through art or attending an event." Hammond said.
On the morning of July 11, after the installation was complete, library patrons were encouraged to paint the letters. A few dozen Forest Parkers participated, ranging in age from eighteen months to 60 years old.
"Normally that section of lawn at the library is just that – lawn, you just walk past it. We made it a place where people came together, made art, had conversations, crossed barriers. People slowed down and had a moment of unexpected beauty in their day. A truck drove by and honked and waved in support," said Luther.
"I want [the installation] to be enjoyable to the community and library-goers, but if it could also inspire people to get more creative and explore in their own lives, that would be great," said Hammond.
According to Hammond, community reaction has been positive.
"Many people have told me they really enjoy seeing it on their drive down Des Plaines or out on a walk."
Luther extolled the project's benefits as well. "I do hope that it draws more folks into the library, but the main thing is to make you smile, brighten your day. If you were grumpily walking down the sidewalk and this caught your eye, you'd slow down and take a look. It could change your mood. That's the power of art."
There are plans to create more public art soon, with the library's teen service club developing a project for the fall. Hammond and Luther are also collaborating on an instruction kit to share with other libraries with the hope that the successful project will be replicated.
The installation will be on display through August. Hammond said, "We definitely want to do more [public installations]...This installation has inspired me to not only provide more opportunities for public art but also for more hands on art experiences for our community."