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Joyce Ellington Library Project

Lucy Liew at the library's grand opening

One of the most exciting aspects of my journey as an artist is the opportunity to bring art into various - corporate and public spaces. The Joyce Ellington Branch Library in San Jose is the site of my largest and longest (start to finish) installation--a public art project that has informed the trajectory of my work. The library had been a significant part of the community for many years when I first learned of this project in 2004, but its age was showing. It desperately needed an updated look. The library management opened discussion of the remodeling to the community, presenting 13 different local artists as options for the public art pieces. I am grateful that the community chose my artwork, as well as the work of sculptor Masayuki Nagase, to contribute to the remodeling.

A meeting was held for the community to meet the artists they had chosen and share what they found meaningful about the library location. The park-like environment was special to the community, and many locals expressed strong attachment to the stately elm trees that had previously stood on the site of the library’s property. The San Jose community was not alone in their sentiments; trees have special significance for cultures everywhere. In many religions, they are regarded as sacred symbols, evoking themes of strength, life, and knowledge. With these themes in mind, I drafted a design that used trees to represent the community’s strong identity, diversity, and love for knowledge.

My design involved two installations: “Trees of Knowledge”, forming a gateway to the Children’s section, and “Metamorphosis — Transformation in the Woods”, a 7’x16’ mural in the storytelling section. Both make reference to Western folklore and literature through the frame of my own vibrant and multilayered artistic style, with influences of my own cultural heritage.

Trees of Knowledge

Having decided upon trees as the focal element of this installation, I wanted to create an entrance that prepares the young visitor for the world of imagination and learning awaiting them. My initial concept underwent a series of transformations, from clearly representational trees to columns whose branches and foliage have been simplified into more organic, curvilinear shapes reminiscent of butterfly wings. The wings are filled with interwoven tendrils, which hearken back to the rainforests of my homeland, and have been a signature element in my art. In the finished design, they can be viewed as both leaf and butterfly wing veins, while also symbolizing the enduring bond between parents and children.

My paintings typically only require me, my canvas, and my tools. But this project required extensive collaboration to meet the challenges of the installation’s unique process. I worked with architects and a fabricator to determine the details of the project, such as mounting requirements and what materials to use. In this case, I wanted something that would be relatively lightweight and translucent. To achieve this, the initial wing / foliage design “template” was first created as a conventional acrylic painting on canvas. This painted “template” was then digitally captured and reproduced as mirror-image pairs onto translucent polyester fabric using a dye-sublimation printing process. These fabric pairs were then sewn together to create a “sleeve”, which was carefully fitted over a wing-shaped Plexiglas form. A total of eight foliage “wings” were ultimately attached to the “trunks” of two structural steel columns to create a pair of fanciful trees, providing a festive “gateway” to the Children’s section of the library.

Metamorphosis — Transformation in the Woods

This mural further develops the tree and wing imagery of the gateway installation, guiding the visitor’s eye to a large butterfly form mounted on the walls behind the “Storytelling Corner''. The mural’s colorful wings present a symbolic reference to the flights of imagination that await young listeners.

Inspiration for the form and title of the installation came from my own personal journey. The image of the caterpillar that transforms after being hidden away in a cocoon was one I keenly identified with after a season of overcoming hardships. “Metamorphosis” captures ideas of new life and growth, the burgeoning development present in children, seen in the characters in the mural. I chose figures from two classic fairy tales, Hansel & Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood, which both share the classic theme of finding one’s way. A prominent yellow tendril serves as a path, creating a link between the “good” and “evil” lurking on the edge of each wing. Messages playfully hidden among the tendrils—“Beware” and “Courageous”—remind viewers both of the principal lessons from these classic children’s stories, and the wisdom we should heed along our own life’s journey.

This installation began with three large (4’x8’) MDF sheets, from which the wing pieces were cut out, sanded, and coated with three layers of Gesso to prepare the surface for the acrylic paints. The painting proceeded in much the same way as my canvas works; but instead of using an easel I ended up mounting the MDF panels to the walls of my studio! After mounting the wing pieces, I sketched the elements, laid down the background layers, and added the figurative elements. Once again, colorful interwoven tendrils were a prominent element in the “Metamorphosis” piece. This seemed fitting, since both fairy tales took place in a forest setting. Finally, to complete the butterfly motif, I added veins and shading to bring structure to the wing form. Once completed, the wing pieces were mounted on the walls of an acute corner behind the storytelling area to transform the reader into a magical butterfly.

While the project may sound straightforward, it took almost four years from its beginning to the final installation. The successful completion of a public art project requires a collaborative effort between the organization, community members, technicians, and artists. Seeing the final pieces, mounted and hung as I had envisioned them for months, was deeply satisfying.

It was also a great accomplishment to be able to create art that conveys meaning for a whole community. The Joyce Ellington Branch Library project not only affirmed the role that art serves to enhance the spaces we move and operate in, but the project also affirmed in me the importance of listening to my clients, and incorporating their ideas and experiences into commissioned artwork. My themes, artistic style, and even mediums have evolved over the years, but the essence of my artwork is still storytelling. It is said that “a picture is worth a thousand words” and it is the ability of that story to connect artist and audience that continues to drive my art.

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