Whimsical Wednesdays in the Library

While I know today is Monday, I want to share about the Whimsical Wednesdays I started hosting in the library for my middle division students. Like many of you, I see the library as a place of creativity as well as productivity and scholarship. I have loved being part of the maker movement and arts integration in libraries. Wherever I am in my career or program, I always want to share my own creative processes. This year as we all acclimated to new norms of navigating a pandemic I saw the opportunity to bring whimsy back to the library.

On Wednesdays after school I host an hour of creative exploration in the creative commons area of the library. I offer a theme or craft exploration for students based on my own creative meanderings and students’ interests. Some of the mediums we explore are journals, scrapbooks, upcycled book arts, book binding, zines and graphics. Actually, over the past couple of years I have tried to start a club or elective based on these concepts, but it did not make traction among my middle division students at the time. The impetus to try again came from a student and their parent asking about activities after school. I realized this as an opportunity to offer this creative hour on the day that I am already designated for staying later. This year our creative area was not open to the general public because of our safety precautions, but hosting Whimsical Wednesdays as a designated time under supervision re-engaged this part of our library.

To kick it off I pulled many of our crafts and art books from the 745s of the stacks along with some of the books from my own stash. These serve to inspire and instruct students to follow their creative whims. I also share my own collages, journaling, and art both in-the-works and finished to emphasize the process over the final product. In my own creative practice I have learned from local creatives. Through Keep St. Pete Lit I attended many intuitive journaling classes that sparked my own creative well. One of my library department’s professional development and mini-retreat activities was taking a bookbinding class together at Print St. Pete Community Letterpress. I have also taken online art and illustration classes from Minneapolis School of Art and Design as well as fallen down the rabbit hole of classes offered by Creative Live and Domestika. Bits and pieces of all of these endeavors are remixed in the Whimsical Wednesdays. I love facilitating a time and space of creativity for my students.

A Few of My Favorites

image by Courtney Walker

I have been heavily inspired by Sabrina Ward Harrison’s art journal Spilling Open: The Art of Becoming Yourself, and I show examples of her pages to illustrate expression takes many forms and to let them know not to be afraid to get messy. I have also found that books geared towards creative writing offer prompts that I tell students can take flight in any form of expression. Another of my personal favorites is PoemCrazy by Susan Goldsmith Woolridge; even though it is intended for poetry it can be translated to any medium as well. I let students know that any of the prompts that I offer are suggestions and they can use any form that moves them. The Brooklyn Art Library’s sketchbook project also has many sketchbooks to view online and a program for people to submit a sketchbook to their collection. I learned about them a few years ago when they had their traveling library in town. There are so many more books in this vain to make this a turn key program for busy librarians.

For professional resources, I always turn to The Library as Incubator Project founded by librarians , Erinn Batykefer, Laura Damon-Moore and Christina Jones (Endres). While the original blog is static now there are still many resources housed there, and they have two books that are great references for librarians. If any of you were at the 2015 AISL Convention in Tampa Bay they were the kick-off speakers and held sessions on The Book to Art Club and The Artist’s Library session. I am also so excited to see them back with AISL programming through the AISL Summer Institute 2021: Incubating Creativity hosted by member Melinda Holmes of the Darlington School on June 21, 2021. I will definitely refill my creative well by attending the online session with them this summer so that my Wednesdays with students stay whimsical.

Art Exhibition: Get the Picture! Contemporary Children’s Book Illustration

Over this Labor Day weekend, my family and I ventured out to the Brandywine River Museum of Art to see the exhibit Get the Picture! Contemporary Children’s Book Illustration. This exhibit featured the illustrative work of eight notable picture book illustrators: Sophie Blackall, Bryan Collier, Raúl Colón, Marla Frazee, Jon Klassen, Melissa Sweet, David Wiesner and Mo Willems. Seeing artwork from books I remember reading to my daughters and those I currently share with my students in an exhibit space, enabled me to appreciate the illustrations more fully. The collection of work curated by H. Nichols B. Clark, former director and chief curator of the Eric Carle Museum of the Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts, was a phenomenal representation of the high caliber artwork made accessible through so many of the picture books in our school library collections.

The exhibit materials were grouped by artist, which provided the perfect platform for drawing comparisons. The museum also utilized iPads for an interactive exploration of David Weisner’s illustrations. This dynamic use of technology created a hot spot for the youngest museum goers. Films made with each of the artists discussing an aspect of the creative process were streaming in the gallery, and are available through the Brandywine’s site about the exhibit. I would highly recommend using any one of these videos in conjunction with a read aloud of one of the illustrator’s books to show students how they choose various media and how artists accomplish research for specific illustrations. Check out Jon Klassen’s video which captures his process of using atypical materials to draw a dog!

Get the Picture! Exhibit

Exhibit attendees reading books by the authors featured in Get the Picture!

The lasting lesson for me from this exhibit is to keep looking critically at the books we select. There are so many new styles and techniques emerging in the books we read to students, as well as a limitless crop of new talented artists rethinking the art of stories. Barbara Elleman provides a framework for picture book art evaluation where she stresses that we actually look at picture books with a multifaceted perspective: “with the lens of an artist, the needs of a librarian, and the appetite of a child.” After viewing the exhibit and reflecting on this helpful summary of how we engage with illustration, I plan to reinvigorate our class discussions about the illustrations in books we read together. My aim will be to have my students critically think about illustrations and how they add to a story, especially through recognition and analysis of artistic techniques utilized in picture books. I know that these questions will stimulate our discussions and provide students with an opportunity to showcase their visual observations and understanding.

This is a page from the exhibit guest book which reads, "I love knuffle bunny and pigeon books."

This is a page from the exhibit guest book which reads, “I love knuffle bunny and pigeon books.”

Reanimating Frankenstein (through Art): An Ekphrastic Writing Workshop

To write a poem is to explore the unknown capacities of the mind and the heart; it is emotive, empathetic exercise and, like being struck by lightning, it will probably leave you stunned, singed, but also a bit brighter. (Young 1)

The Ancient of Days 19th C. William Blake (1757-1827/British) British Museum, London

The Ancient of Days 19th C. William  Blake (1757-1827/British) British Museum, London         (Britannica Image Quest)

Dean Young’s quote from The Art of Recklessness: Poetry as Assertive Force and Contradiction suggests a poet has the ability to bring vitality to life experiences by startling the mind and senses into a deeper reflection. How appropriate then to take the classic tale of animating life, Frankenstein, and try to reanimate it, breathe new life into it, through a poetry-writing workshop.  And, with a flourish that Romantic poets would appreciate, spark this poetic process by viewing artwork and describing sensory and emotional reactions to the art, thereby enhancing comprehension of themes and the emotive and psychological drama of Frankenstein.

Combining art viewing with writing, an ekphrastic process, is a “vivid description of a scene or, more commonly, a work of art. Through the imaginative act of narrating and reflecting on the ‘action’ of a painting or sculpture, the poet may amplify and expand its meaning” (Poetry Foundation).  An example of Romantic ekphrastic poetry would be “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” in which describing the figures on the urn becomes a jumping off point for John Keats to ruminate that the scene of pipes and timbrels, maidens and gods, is a “cold Pastoral” that will outlast man (Keats).   This joining of reading, viewing artwork, and writing becomes a triple strength: 

  1. Slowing down to look closely at both text and artworks
  2. Identifying imagery that has special meaning
  3. Describing that meaning through figurative language

Incorporating writing as a pre-reading strategy to deepen analysis is supported by research of Tierney and Shanahan, who conclude that  “writing, together with reading, prompted more thoughtful consideration of ideas than writing alone,” and the combination of writing and reading is “more likely to induce learners to be more engaged” (cited in Smith 24-25).

Taking up the challenge to ignite high school students’ poetic muse with encounters of art, I collaborated with two high school English teachers, Patrick Connolly and Jennifer Smith, and a poet and creative writing teacher, Kyle Martindale, to create an Ekphrasis Writing Workshop.  The process included the following:

  1. Gathering art images (sources included Web Gallery of Art, Britannica Image Quest, Artstor, and National Institute of Health—view Bibliography of Images)
  2. Preparing students with a Mary Shelly webquest
  3. Modeling the ekphrastic approach during the writing workshop led by Kyle Martindale 

These samples of student poems, paired with artworks that inspired them, illustrate how students gave a voice to Frankenstein, the “mad creator,”  and the Monster, his tortured creation.

Andreas Vesalius

(Hamman, Edouard. Andreas Vesalius. 1848. National Library of Medicine. Bethseda. Frankenstein: Penetrating the Secrets of Nature. NIH. 9 July 2015. Web. 6 Sept. 2015.)

Poem by Jeffrey

In one hand, I felt the warmness
Of the yellow skin.
But in the other, I felt the coldness
Of the skull.
My left hand was filled with hope,
And my right hand was filled with death.
I am great and full of Knowledge.
It is shown in my book of Creation.
I stare upon the Crucifix and laugh.
He was said to be so great
And the Son of God.
But I hold his brother in my left arm.
I created him.
Therefore, I am God.

Screen Shot 2016-01-21 at 6.09.51 AM

(Beatrizet, Nicholas. Progressive Dissection of a Standing Man. 1560. Anitomia del Corpo Humano. National Library of Medicine. Bethseda. Historical Anatomies on the Web. NIH. 5 June 2012. Web. 6 Sept. 2015.)

Poem by Julie

Enclosed by another’s misery,
I dangle loosely by a thread,
Left to wonder how much
I would give to be dead,
Escaping my own despair.
My disfigurement only makes my pain
Grow stronger.
Stronger am I because of how I was structured?
Leaving me nothing but a brain to wonder.
Is my imagination even my own
Or the man before me
Perhaps the man who laid the foundation
Of my being?
My thoughts aren’t my thoughts,
My words aren’t my words,
My everything is another man’s nothing.
I am bound by a wild desire to cure
My illness inflicted by another.
It is as though I am captive to
His own predetermined mutations,
That is why I am disfigured and dangling—
Enclosed by another’s misery.

As a librarian who has a passion for words and a background in Fine Arts, I encountered powerful connections between words and images in assembling artwork for the workshop: artists’ deliberate choices of design elements (color, shape, texture, space, etc.) have parallels in writing.  One student in the workshop described poetry as “compressed language,” and artworks have similar multiple layers to communicate meaning.  One way to expand the ekphrastic writing experience would be a class trip to an art gallery to view the artworks and create poetic reflections.  Also, exhibiting student writing alongside the artworks that inspired them would be a thought-provoking way to show the interaction of word and image.  In February, at our library-sponsored Writers Café, students will read a selection of these poems accompanied by slides of the artworks.

This workshop was an opportunity for students to enliven their senses and stir up thoughts as they connected to an artwork and dramatized the experience, while also deepening insights into the emotive and psychological dimensions of Frankenstein. Through a deliberate choice of words and imagery, both the original artwork and the newly created poem became supercharged in the experience as students created an expanded dialogue of images and ideas.  Poet and scientist Jacob Bronowski said, “There is no picture and no poem unless you yourself enter it and fill it out” (cited in Moorman 46).  Students took the challenge to enter into the dialogue with art, and they filled the conversation with memorable ekphrastic poetry.  

Works Cited

Keats, John. “Ode to a Grecian Urn.” 1820. The Poetry Foundation. Web. 6 Sept. 2015.

Moorman, Honor. “Backing into Ekphrasis: Reading and Writing Poetry about Visual Art.” English Journal 96.1 (2006): 46-53. PDF file.

Smith, Jennifer. Creative Writing for Empowered Reading. Nashville: Aquinas College, 2015. Print.

Young, Dean. The Art of Recklessness: Poetry as Assertive Force and Contradiction. Minneapolis: Grey Wolf, 2010. Print.