The Invisible Art Collective

This article originally appeared in the April 2016 issue of Voice of Youth Advocates (VOYA), and is reprinted here with permission.

The difficulties of drawing teens

At my branch, I sometimes have trouble getting teens and tweens to participate in formal programs. I've tried bringing them to the meeting room, using sncaks as incentives, and occasionally moving a program to the teen area and letting everyone who's there know that we're "doing a thing" when nobofy has appeared for the formal program. These efforts have had successes, but participation for a program can feel like it hinges on variables such as whether or not a white bird met a blue bird at a specific place at a specific time, and how long they talked together.

Passive programming has been a bigger success for me -- setting up a video game system in the teen area and making it so that users can check out the controllers when they want to play has gone extremely well (many thousands of circulations of each controller each year), as has leaving a selection of board games in the teen area for casual play. One of my most exciting programming and feedback successes, however, involces an easel, a pad of paper, and a willingness to encourage whatever appeared.

If you leave it out, they will draw on it...

The idea for the program came from one of our teen librarians, Jami, at another branch of the system. Jami had a whiteboard in her teen area and would use it to announce programs, but also as a space to ask questions of the teens in the space. Sometimes they were programming questions, floating ideas, or asking about school projects and assignments. Sometimes they were fandom questions or asking their preferences between options. The whiteboard was decorated with responses, even though, at the time I was visiting, there were few teens actually in the teen section.

I initially set out a sheet of paper with a question on it, sometimes silly, sometimes serious, and sometimes related to library things. While there were responses, it idn't seem like there was all that much interest in just answering questions on occasion. After a while, the sheet would start to attract answers that were neither helpful nor safe for work.

I decided to leave the entire pad on the easel, still with a question on the front sheet, which continued to get some responses. Underneath the front sheet, however, there were other things coming in.

I discovered artwork on the sheets after I was flipping through some of them, having noticed a couple of sheets starting to sprout letter-guessing games with not-work-safe answers. Art was a thing to encourage more of, so I came up with an idea of how to keep and showcase the art so that others would also be encouraged to draw.

...and then you exhibit it.

The first showcasing incorporated the art into a rotation of slides already on display in the teen area. Like the whiteboard, the slides were used to announce upcoming library programs, mention features of the library available physically and digitally, and also to show off some of the entries in the library's annual system-wide art and writing contests. To get the drawings into proper form for use in the slides, I digitized the pencil drawings and then used an image-manipulation tool, the GNU Image Manipulation Program to trace over the lines and make sure they stood out against a clean white background image. Digitizing a work takes about an hour to two hours, depending on the complexity of the lines drawn. To generate the final slide, each image was digitized separately and then placed together with a paragraph of text mentioning what kinds of art could also be put in place.

Digital representation seemed to work well as a beginning effort, and as time went on, more art appeared on the easel to work with, mostly of a fannish nature, but some original pieces and more realistic drawings and styles have appeared. Several new slides' worth of artwork have been didigitzed and placed into the rotation of slides

I wanted to physically exhibit the work in addition to the digital slideshow. Ideally, there would be some blank space available to affix artwork to or pushpin board to highlight it. Most of my teen area, however, is comprised of wide windows that let in a lot of morning sunlight. Standard ehxibiting solutions like painter's tape, masking tape, pushpins, or other fasteners would either not be effective on the glass or would leave a residue behind that would be difficult to clearn when the artwork needed to be changed or moved to a new location. The expertise of my peers came to my aid again, with a suggestion from Dana, one of the other youth services librarians, to use repositionable contact paper to affix the pictures to the windows and other surfaces in the teen area. The repositionable paper doesn't leave residue, doesn't strip paint, and provides enough of a seal with a compatible surface that the artwork remains affixed to wherever it is put if the surface will hold on to it in the first place. Which some of the walls of the teen area don't. The gallery I created is captioned, using the smaller windows about the large windows that contain the artwork, with a fragment of a quote from the film director Kevin Smith -- "It costs nothing to encourage an artist." (Memo from your future self: This quote was retired in 2015, replaced with "Art is the proper task of life." from Nietzsche, which will in turn be retired later on.) This quote has proven quite true and effective for the easel and my teen area. Since figuring out how to sho off the artwork physically as well as digitally, the output of artwork has increased significantly, with ew pieces appearing almost as quickly as I can work through the older ones for exhibition and digitization.

The strangest part of all of this is that I have yet to see anyone actually working on the art in the teen area dueing my work shifts. The scheduling of my work shifts and the artists' inspiration and work do not seem to coincide with each other at all. This isn't a new phenomenon to me, as I rarely see any of the people who are in the teen area picking up books to check out, but it is an interesting facet of successful programming at my branch -- sometimes the best things are the things that involve the staff the least. Passive programming ideas like this demonstrate that there are people coming to the library who may be interested in what you have to offer.

Start an Art Collective

Attracting your own art collective, invisible or otherwise, is a relatively inexpensive process in terms of materials -- an easel and an easel pad. If you have physical exhibition space for finished works, great -- repositionable contact paper makes more surfaces usable. Maybe there are some digital resources you can use, like blogs, social media presences, or your own advertisement slideshows, to showcase the works that you receive. Check with your organization regarding permissions or notifications that will allow you to exhibit the work in public-facing places or spaces so that you can maximize your ability to show off the great work being done. Signange may be needed to encourage the first few pieces of art, but once there are some works on display, physically and/or digitally, the momentum can build organically from there.

Eventually, decisions will have to be make about rotating out art to keep the exihibition space fresh -- if you have a digital display, this id easier, as when the physical items go off of diaplay, they will still be available for digital viewing. Depending on the volume of new art and the size of your space, art may be changed out more often at certain times than others, but seeing new art in the space is upholding your end of the bargain about encouraging artists to draw their work for you. Here's hoping that if you have problems with a program like this, it's one of too much art and not enough space (like I have), and not one of too little. Your art collective awaits!