Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Exploring Public Art at the Forest Park Public Library

This post originally appeared on the LAIP in July 2015. It’s one of our favorite public art projects to take place at a library–just in time for outdoor activities! 

Today’s story (and project kit) comes to us from Elaine Luther, an artist whose work with libraries we’ve featured on the LAIP before, and Alicia Hammond, Community Engagement Librarian at the Forest Park Public Library in Illinois. Elaine and Alicia give us the scoop on the process of installation a major public art piece at a library. Enjoy! ~Laura

The finished EXPLORE installation at Forest Park Public Library. Photo by Elaine Luther.

The finished EXPLORE installation at Forest Park Public Library. Photo by Ralph Romero.

by Elaine Luther and Alicia Hammond

Interactive public art projects are risky, but they work like magic to bring people together, activate spaces and bring energy and excitement to the library!

As part of the Summer of Exploration Summer Program, the Forest Park Public Library’s Community Engagement Librarian Alicia Hammond enlisted artist Elaine Luther to create a very special interactive art installation.

Both of us are very inspired by the work of Chicago artist Matthew Hoffman whose “You Are Beautiful” installations are popping up all over the Chicagoland area and beyond.  These outdoor installations feature freestanding or fence mounted letters that spell out a phrase.  Elaine had experience creating installations including part of a “You Are Beautiful” installation as well as building the word “LOVE” for a Valentine’s Day themed gallery show.

We selected the term “EXPLORE” and found an open area on the library’s front lawn.  However, we didn’t just want to install art in front of the library.  We wanted to create an event that encouraged the community to have a hands on opportunity to get creative.  After Alicia secured permission from the Library Director, it was all systems go.

Elaine decided on creating four foot tall letters out of wooden boards.  The letter “O” was selected to be three dimensional to play off the exploration theme and create visual interest and variety. She concentrated on creating letters that would be able to weather rain, some wind and the humid heat of Chicago summers.

Letter being assembled. Photo by Elaine Luther.

Letter being assembled. Photo by Ralph Romero.

The color palette was selected to match the Summer of Exploration program’s marketing materials (designed by Yearbook Studios).

The day of the event brought a beautiful summer day. The letters were installed into the ground and we brought out a table with paint, brushes, water, and hand wipes.  The color palette remained simple with red, blue, and yellow paint in order to remain cohesive.

Letters installed. Photo by Elaine Luther.

Letters installed. Photo by Ralph Romero.

We weren’t out there long before people started showing up and painting.  We had about 15 people signed up for the event but were more than open to drop ins.  We invited anyone who walked by to pick up a paint brush and contribute.  The kids were more than happy to jump in but some of the adults took a little more convincing. Several told us there were too old to paint or were afraid to mess up our project. If an adult was hesitant, Elaine would encourage them to start small and make dots with a cotton swab. That worked. Anyone can make dots!  (Next time, we will bring smocks also to eliminate the fear of getting messy.)

Participants painting letters.

Participants painting letters. Photo by Ralph Romero.

Participants painting.

Participants painting letters. Photo by Ralph Romero.

Altogether about 30 people stopped by to paint. However, the reach of this event and piece of art is much more.  The installation will be out in front of the library for about two months.  We truly activated the space, it was so exciting! We even slowed traffic as drivers slowed down and rubber-necked! A few drivers honked and waved to show their approval. Neighbors who knew each other by sight but had never spoken before met and had conversations!

Below is the materials list, instructions for building the letters. Following that we have suggestions for variations, things we learned might do differently next time.

Below is the materials list and instructions for building the letters. We have also included variations and things we might do differently next time.

Materials for the building of the letters:

  • 9 boards – 1” x 8” by 8’ (Elaine chose 8’ boards because that’s the largest she could  fit in her car.) You can make all the letters to spell out “EXPLORE” (except the O) out of eight boards. Think about including one or two extra boards in case of errors.($64)
  • Wood glue
  • Screws
  • Electric drill
  • Screwdriver
  • 12 plastic strips for the “O”  from the Re-use store. ($6)
  • Drill bits to match the size of the pop rivets. Elaine used 1/8 and 3/16 drill bits and pop rivets
  • Pop rivets ($10.14)
  • Pop rivet tool (about $2o)
  • Exterior primer and paint.  Elaine used exterior oil based primer* which cannot be used indoors and may have been overkill.
  • Colored exterior latex. (4 quarts of paint x $16.68 each with leftovers.)
  • Plus one gallon of paint donated by the artist.
  • Garden stakes, we used steel stakes, 4’ and 5’ ones (8 x $4.99, 1 x $5.99)
  • Zip ties (for the letter O) (11.99, with leftovers)
  • Screws and washers (insignificant cost, we used what we had on hand in the basement)

Supplies for the day of:

  • lots of baby wipes for cleaning patron’s hands
  • plastic cups to pour paint into
  • a bucket of rinse water
  • paper towels
  • bottled water for patrons, esp. if it’s a hot day ($4.99 for a case)
  • paintbrushes ($0.69 each x 12)
  • table to hold paint and supplies, covered with a plastic drop cloth
  • cotton swabs for detail work and because they are less intimidating than paint brushes
  • trash can

*oil based primer can be used under latex paint and increases the water resistance and longevity of the paint job. It also makes the top coat of paint glide on smoothly. It’s recommended if possible, but is not totally required.


You could use the words for a summer reading theme, a 100th anniversary, or to highlight a new product or service at the library. For example, the Forest Park Library has wifi hot spots, they could have 4’ letters outside saying, “CHECK OUT THE INTERNET.”

Instead of painting the letters with a color, they could be painted with chalkboard paint and patrons would be invited to answer a question in chalk. The question could be made out of 4’ letters, or it could be on a nearby sandwich board.

Notes on construction

For this project, Elaine learned to use a table saw and built the letters by assembling them with wood glue and screws. While it’s very straight forward for the E and L, it was a little tricky to to figure out the angles and method of construction for the P and R.

If you aren’t able to find an artist to run the entire event, the library could break up the project and have a woodworker build the letters and an artist choose the paint colors and run the workshop.

Another option is to have the letters custom cut using a CNC router. Creating the letters was extremely time intensive and took multiple trips to the hardware store. The additional cost of CNC routing may be off-set by a reduced wood cost, as a less expensive type of wood (plywood) may be able to be used. Another benefit of CNC routing is that it could be used to draw in additional populations at the library. For instance, teens could be invited to create the digital files (perhaps using Inkscape, a free, open source program) for the letters.

A related workshop could be held where teens use a Silhouette Cameo to make vinyl cut letters to decorate an indoor section of the library (I believe the Silhouette company makes some low tack material for applying removable decorations to walls and cabinets). This would extend the project and theme to the inside and outside of the library and generate buy-in for the program with teens.

Here are some close-up photos showing the installation method.

Further reading:

from Library as Incubator Project

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