Wednesday, 29 April 2015

An Artist Residency at Shaler North Hills Library

Today we present a lovely talk with artists and library staff members from the Shaler North Hills Library in Pennsylvania. The library is starting an artist residency program developed out of a wonderful long-running program called “Art and Inspiration”. Read on for some serious inspiration on how to start up an artist residency at your own library! ~ Laura

Library as Incubator Project (LAIP): Please introduce yourselves – who are you? And what sort of work (creative, day jobs, etc.) do you do?

Jennifer Nagle Myers (JNM): My name is Jennifer Nagle Myers, or Jenn, and I am a visual artist and director based in Pittsburgh, PA.  My various part-time jobs include teaching art at colleges and museums, as well as acting as the collections manager for a large art collection here in the city.   My artistic practice involves storytelling, object-making, and performances that are designed to help me imagine a different and more radical world, one that puts all people and all living systems first.  This includes tribute, re-enactment, and performance as ways to create the space for this type of imagining.

First Place Woman: Transformed 50 Times on May 16, 2014 50 unique digital color prints Edition of 1 plus 1 AP 11" x 8" each 2014 Also accompanied by a stop-motion video UNTITLED (OUROBOROS, UMBRELLA, WOMAN) 30" x 22" Chalk pastel on paper 2015 Floor Drawing #01: Self Portrait as Woman as Animal Canvas, chalk pastel, charcoal, gesso on unstretched canvas 6' x 5' 2014 A City Without Guns (Miniature Version) Wood sticks that have been cut Dimensions variable but each of these is no bigger than 2" long 2015

See more of Jennifer’s work at her website,

William Rock (WR): I am an artist.

Marie Jackson (MJ):  I am a librarian.  My title is Adult Services Librarian at the Shaler North Hills Library.

LAIP: Please tell us how the artist residency at North Shaler Library came about – what was the impetus for establishing the residency?

WR: “Art and Inspiration” with William Rock was established at Shaler North Hills Library three years ago. It has a long, intense history of attracting artists, scientists, monks, writers, poets and others to the library to have dialogues and share their creative work with others ( The impetus for establishing the residency was when I saw the creative talent and people skills Jennifer Myers possesses. She is fully present and has a real exuberance when engaging others.

Jennifer when she began residency with her "check out" an artist sign. Jennifer does an Art and Inspiration with William Rock podcast.

LAIP: What sort of preparations did the library have to do in order to make the residency happen?

MJ: The most important aspect of an Artist in Residence in the library for me was staff awareness of the idea and concept. Our staff is welcoming and attentive to library customers and enthusiastically encourages library users to participate in the programs and events that we offer. I wanted all the staff members to recognize Jennifer when she arrived at the library and to know her role as Artist in Residence. To accomplish this, I invited Jennifer Nagle Myers and William Rock as presenting guests at the library’s annual daylong in-service staff meeting which was scheduled one week before Jennifer was starting the residency. Jennifer was a wonderful guest at our meeting and she charmed the staff with her experiences about self-publishing her book of stories written by her father. She was so engaging that 2 staff members approached her with their ideas about how she could help them with their creative projects. (They both made appointments with Jennifer during her residency at the library.)

Michael, age 8, "checks out" Jennifer for a creative consultation concerning a book he is self-publishing. Jennifer meets with David Bonnett, a retired nuclear submarine commander and a Pink Dolphin of The Amazon researcher. David invites Jennifer to The Amazon to observe the Pink Dolphin from an artist's perspective. The Cabinet of Curious Delights created and curated by Jennifer. Shaler North Hills Library patrons were invited to exhibit a small personal object in the cabinet and then share the story behind the object.

LAIP: Jennifer, what was compelling to you about an artist residency in a library? Can you tell us some of your plans for the artist residency?

JNM: It is interesting to think about how the artist can be active in her community.  There are many ways.  Being an artist can be extremely isolating if you let it be.  Time spent in the studio can be all-consuming.  I realized several years ago that I needed another outlet other than just the studio work/world, and that led me to create performances for site-specific public spaces throughout the city as a way to connect to the world and the people.  I am still exploring what that means.  Being an artist at a library is one way that this is being explored, as I like to think of the library as a site.  I am doing a site-specific residency at this particular wonderful library, that is full of the most supportive and interesting people, and it has been a wonderful and rich experience.

Through dialogue with Bill and Marie, we came up with the idea that this would be an inherently very public residency.  The core of the residency is that I am available to be “checked out” during my weekly “office hours”, from 1-5 every Thursday afternoon.  So people sign up to “check me out” and schedule 30 min or 1 hour appointments with me, where I provide creative consulting and creative mentoring to anything that they are seeking help with.  This can range from patrons needing more information about self-publishing, which I am experienced with, or ideas for how to create a giant collage in their living room with their children.  I have met with an eight-year-old who wants to make his own books and a 75-year-old who wants to have a website to share her amazing paintings with the world.  Many of the consultations become personal stories and are interesting and compelling ways to experience people in a very intimate and immediate way.

LAIP: Jennifer, what is/has been your relationship to libraries in the past – as an artist, as a reader, as a community member…however you feel like responding to the question.

I have always loved libraries, I assume like most of us.  They are like homes away from homes, a place of comfort and quiet and above all else – books.  Books, stories, the imagination, ideas, new ways of thinking, new languages, everything is in a library.  They are also amazing community centers, and recently that has been much more apparent.  They function as a space for community engagement and activity with classes, lessons and groups in a way that I increasingly realize is radical in its potential and breadth.  They are public spaces where we can be alone, doing the most solitary thing (reading a book) as well as meeting up with each other and sharing knowledge.  They are like what’s best about school and university.

I grew up in New York City, so I had the New York Public Library as my standard.  That place is holy.  But it seems that all libraries are sacred, aren’t they?  And librarians have always captured my imagination as a figure who stands between two worlds: the world of the book and the world of the public.  I love librarians because they feel like intermediaries to me, and they handle books all day long which is kind of like a dream to me (I am sure after a while it gets old, but books are so magical!).

The other thing I love about libraries is that they are public, not private, and have resisted feeling corporate.  They are ours, they belong to us, we own and share them. This can be said of very little these days.

Jennifer creating art with Cree Mullin, 25, an artist on the autism spectrum. Jennifer in front of The Cabinet of Curious Delights. A Cabinet she created in which library patrons were invited to place a personal object and then share the story of the object. In this instance the group hears the story of G Mueller (on far right) who carried a tiny pair of dice with her as her family escaped from communist East Germany. Jennifer leads a Collage Salon attended by 32 people.
LAIP: I’d love to hear from each of you a few lines about why you think an artist in a library is a worthy effort.

JNM: An artist in a library is an exciting possibility.  There is so much potential.  What I bring to the role another artist will not bring.  She will bring something different.  It feels like there are infinite possibilities with this idea.  Even with just myself, there feels to be so many options as a way to share my practice, my values, and my insight into this public space.

I could imagine that instead of being very public, and holding office hours and being available for “check out” I would instead be completely silent, and just be in the library doing my regular studio work, which would most likely just be drawing.  So imagine if I was in the library, and I took up some public space there, and I was just drawing the whole time.  That might be very odd, strange, unusual, and it might also be amazing, challenging, thought-provoking, new.  I like that there are so many options with the artist-in-the-library idea.  I would love to keep playing with the many ways I could mix it up and create compelling and rich spaces that the public could interact, or view me, within.  It is also a way to think about the artist as a public servant, the artist engaged in her community.  This is important.  It is active.  It is activated.  It has great potential.   Imagine if there were many libraries that could do this.  Do you know how many artists need good jobs?  This would be such a great job to have.  The number of applicants you would get would truly be staggering, I think.

WR: I got noticed initially in the library when Marie Jackson asked if I was an artist because I checked out a lot of art books. Marie is an arts enthusiast and collector. She asked me if I would do an arts program. Then with Marie’s unwavering support I started hosting some innovative arts programs which contributed to Shaler North Hills Library winning The Institute of Museum and Library Services National Gold Medal in 2012. Jenn’s right this is a whole other story. Yes the fact Jennifer Myer’s was totally booked (pun intended)  for creative consultations during her residency proves libraries and their patrons need artists.


An artist in a library is a worthy effort because she sees the world in an open and holistic way and brings that perspective to the library.

Libraries are in a precarious position at this time of electronic devices and fast-paced 24/7 news.  People are able to retrieve information from their phones.  The technology that we carry in our pockets can create an isolating lifestyle that includes little face-to-face interaction and exchange of ideas.  An artist can bring us together with beauty.  Jennifer initiated the Cabinet of Curious Delights, a display case that held objects of special value for each recipient.  Every person who brought a precious treasure for the cabinet was asked to write a short essay on the object.  The stories were endearing, touching, sometimes funny and sometimes sad.  It was an amazing experience to be a part of such a personal, and yet communal, art project.  Jenn truly used the library as a site-specific work of original art.  Jenn also brought the community together with her hands-on collage salon.  Once again, the people who participated brought their personal stories and created meaningful collages as an expression of their life experiences.

This is what an artist can do for libraries – bring people together and teach us how to use our creativity.


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