Brushing up the library
Public art a major component of Durango’s new library

Welder Bill Freese packs up his tools on Monday afternoon along the east side of the new Durango Public Library. An abundance of public art is one of many highlights of the environmentally friendly structure. “The Life Wall” is one of the major art installations and will be mounted  on this railing, which Freese built./Photo by David Halterman

by Jules Masterjohn

A celebration will be held in honor of the current Durango Public Library, a building dedicated to the use of citizens for the past 100 years, this Saturday night. After the event, the library staff will lock the building’s double glass doors for the last time. This closure signals the beginning of another era for literature-loving and knowledge-hungry citizens of La Plata County as the new library, located at the former site of Mercy Hospital, is readying to open its 42,000-square-foot building.

A state-of-the-art LEED gold certified facility, the library cost approximately $19 million, which includes the site acquisition. The new facility utilizes advanced technology in the heating system and parts of the plumbing system, as well as in the “materials handling system.” In layperson’s terms, that means radio tags will be placed on all books, tapes, videos, CDs and DVDs as identification to scan borrowed materials. The dust from the last 16 months of construction has been cleared from the building: the largest task remaining before the library opens Dec.1 is to move 94,000 volumes to the new location. In keeping with “green” practices, the library’s collection will be transported in leased, environmentally friendly boxes made from recycled disposable diapers and plastic bottles. The finishing touch will be to install five new pieces of art, three of which were designed especially for the site.

Norman Schwarzkopf and Whoopie Goldberg await placement on “The Life Wall,” one of several public art projects being isntalled at the new Durango Public Library./Photo by David Halterman

The new library’s architecture is airy and light filled, an inspiring space for displaying art and a work of art itself. The sculptures will be placed throughout the interior and exterior of the building. Allan Houser’s bronze sculpture, “My Children,” will continue to greet visitors at the new library entrance, as it has for the last four years in front of the E. Second Avenue location. Houser’s tender scene of a Native American woman embracing two children will be relocated in November.

Within the next few weeks, “The Life Wall” will be mounted on a specially designed metal railing that spans the perimeter of the library’s outdoor courtyard along the river. “The Life Wall” is a 40-piece collection of portraits cast in bronze, ranging from a newborn to the elderly, of 4 “people who have made significant historical impact or those whose faces reveal a depth of character and human dignity,” offered Carol Martin, chair of Durango’s Public Art Commission (PAC). Four of the life masks – those taken from the heads of American actor Robin Williams, civil rights activist Rosa Parks, folk artist Tony Anaya, and Native American writer N. Scott Momaday – will be mounted inside the building, looking out on their notable counterparts in the courtyard.

The sculpture, by Willa Shalit and Dean Ericson, was created in the 1980s, toured American museums from 1990 - 2000, and was anonymously donated to the city’s public art collection last year.

It seems fitting to have this sculpture displayed in a house of knowledge, for it was in Hellenistic Greece that libraries were first established and during that same period, figurative sculpture found new levels of expressiveness. These late-era Greeks created likenesses of civic and political leaders that were intended to reveal the inner life of the sitter. So, too, does “The Life Wall.”

Embracing the other end of the stylistic spectrum are three abstract figures by New Mexico artist Melissa Zink. “Chamberlain of Letters, “Minister of Words,” and “Book Warden” are life-sized bronze sculptures belonging to a series that Zink calls “Guardians.” Fragments of text cover the highly polished surface of each sculpture, emphasizing Zink’s interest in the life of the mind. The sculptures will be a donation to the city by Durango’s Zink family and friends. They have formed The Guardians Project to help raise the needed money to purchase the sculptures from The Parks Gallery in Taos, which will be installing the sculptures free of charge. The Guardians will be standing watch on the library’s second floor.

Three more sculptures to be sited at the library were chosen from artists’ proposals. A public panel made the final selections. These commissioned sculptures as well as installation costs for “The Life Wall,” are funded by an allocation from the building’s construction cost. Through successful collaboration between the PAC and library administrators, the city’s public art collection has grown more valuable and more varied in styles and media, with a significant portion of the artwork displayed together in one location.

Soon to be placed in the Children’s Room is “The Reading Tree” by Arizona-based artist Rachel Slick. This whimsical aspen tree is fabricated with resins formed over a steel armature, and its lofty branches act as a perch for representations of native birds. The storyteller sits within its hollowed lower trunk as its branches reach up 10 feet above the floor. The functional sculpture is colorful and kid friendly with easy to clean surfaces, an important aspect of this piece of public art.

“Turbo Books,” is a 4-foot diameter spiral of real books mounted on a steel armature. Durangoan Carl Stransky’s original concept was to install the spiral in the stairwell of the library. The sculpture was not ultimately chosen for that location, but the selection panel was so taken by it, that the PAC decided to purchase the piece for another location. Stransky is soliciting input from the facility’s librarians as to which books to incorporate into the finished sculpture.

Jay Dougan, artist and Fort Lewis College associate professor of art, won the stairwell sculpture competition with his proposed piece, “Card Catalog.” Thirteen maple drawer fronts, sized at 2-by-2½-feet, will be mounted into the maple paneling that lines the stairwell’s three walls. The end result will be a site-specific sculpture that looks like a two-story high, obviously oversized, card catalog equipped with the requisite alphabetic labels on the drawers.

One of Dougan’s goals was to create a sculpture that was integrated with the library, both conceptually and physically. He also wanted to create a piece that library visitors could interact with, so he began to play with scale. “As an adult, it is fun to think of being smaller than a place remembered from childhood verses the usual experience of spaces being smaller than us … it’s a whimsical experience.”

As with Stranky’s “Turbo Books,” Dougan has invited the library staff to assist him in coming up with the words to be listed on the front of each drawer. “Dewey Decimal will be used on the ‘D’ drawer. I like Kurt Vonnegut’s writing, so I will use Vonnegut for the ‘V’ drawer.” Dougan wants the names on the drawers to remind us that we are part of a larger world, an appropriate intention for a sculpture placed in a house of knowledge and inspiration. •



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