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Take Five: Library artist on creating tapestries of knowledge and flights of fancy

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 11, 2013 - Inside the renovated Central Library are 4 million books, CDs, maps and other items surrounded by a blend of old and new design. But the downtown jewel also boasts another kind of treasure: original art.

Local designer/illustrator Julie Heller Rosenfeld created 14 seven-and-a-half-foot-long tapestries and 17 winged images that hang and fly above shelves and hallways. The cotton tapestries, printed with eco-friendly ink, are digital collages of images pulled from the library’s collection.

Installed on the second floor, half the tapestries are installed in the government, business, language and law room; the others reside in the fine arts room.

Each has a theme. For example, one looking down upon the fine arts books features thinkers, including Jacob Lawrence's painting “The Library,” Milton Glaser's “Dylan” poster, Jean Dominique Ingres’ “Bather,” Donatello's relief of “Madonna of The Clouds”and Giacometti's “Walking Man.”  

Downstairs on the first floor, hovering above the hall of the children’s area, are the canvas-and-aluminum flying pages known as “bookbirds.”

The idea for the pair of projects was born two years before the library's grand re-opening, in conversations with library executive director Waller McGuire. Rosenfeld talked with the Beacon about the art’s inspiration and execution.

The Beacon: How did this project evolve?

Julie Heller Rosenfeld: A big issue was the soaring walls above the shelves on the second level, where the ceiling height is almost 24 feet. The restoration called for an elegant solution to the question of, what do we do with all this wall space?

There are six feet of bookshelves in each room and the spaces had previously been dotted with a mix-mash of donated pictures that landed there over time. The idea was, how can we take imagery and ideas from the collection and make them visible to people, in keeping with the architecture?

Why tapestries?

Rosenfeld: I proposed tapestries to create a sense of warmth and residential grandeur, versus a more commercial or institutional feeling. Working with fabric would have a visual and acoustical softening effect and also save time and money and have less environmental impact.

Just before presenting my proposal, I saw a pamphlet that said the building’s architect Cass Gilbert had intended to have tapestries hang in some of the building’s alcoves.

How did you determine what the tapestries would depict?

Rosenfeld: Waller connected me with Brian Novak who works at the library and has an art background. I designed the panels as collages, making visual rhymes, collecting images and ideas with the help of library staff. Sometimes it would be about, “I want something from this particular time period that’s this certain color.”

As much as Waller loves the building, he’s really passionate about the collection. It’s so incredible and rich but it’s all closed up in books. He was itching to get some of this wonderfulness out of the stacks and in front of people.

How did you assemble the bookbirds?

Rosenfeld: The bookbirds are along the lines of a kite or a mobile, using illustrations from fairy tales and other old books. One is a photo of balloons next to floating molecules -- kind of a visual pun.

Another is a photo of rice paddies paired with the wing of a bird and a monarch butterfly, and the shapes are similar to the shapes of the paddies -- they look like they belong together.

They all appear to be flying along the first-floor corridor connecting the Grand Stair lobby and the children’s room. They sort of lure you back toward the kids’ area.

Will you create more library art in the future?

Rosenfeld: There are 14 tapestries and the original plan was for 28, to hang in all four rooms of the second floor. It would really thrill me if we could drum up the money to finish the project.

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