This coloring book depicts a central intersection in Madison Wisconsin from multiple points of view. All the art was created between November 2020 to May 2021. In that short span of time, I drew over 30 locations on and around State Street.
In the Fall of 2012, I was digging (and saving)1 at our local thrift shop when a small cabinet caught my eye. I used it to make the Little Library that is planted in front of our home. Since the library is a few steps from my door, it is easy to stop and tinker with it. I often find myself wondering what I should do next. Usually there is some object that speaks to me and says, “I was built for a, b or c function, but my real purpose in life is to serve as x, y or z part of the library.” Over the last few years, I let my imagination carry me where it will, and so I added the museum, bulletin boards, Lincoln Logs, solar lighting, magnetic poetry, etc. It is a little out of my control, but anyone who thinks they are in control are kidding themselves.
If the library were an essay being brought to a professor for a grade, it would likely come back hanging its head with a B- and lots of comments in red ink about lack of focus and the need for a strong thesis statement. He might scrawl a note in the margin saying, “Does a fairy ladder really support the main idea of lending books?” Perhaps the professor would throw in a bone about how the library has lots of good ideas but lacks development.
I confess I share this trait with my library. Unfinished projects pile up in my basement and attic. My life will probably receive a disappointed B- from God who sees all my unrealized potential. Hopefully in the fullness of time, all of the good ideas that I have laid aside will one by one come to fruit and I will be able to pull out an A+ for the final grade. Lets hope that in the second semester of life I don’t do something ruinous to further bring down my grade, but all this talk of grades makes it sound like I am in control. When in reality, we really live under grace and life that is more of a pass/fail proposition.
Over time a number of things have failed. The library roof was a spectacular disaster. I had fabricated a low slung hip roof using found material, but I was overly optimistic in thinking that a few coats of paint would protect the whole thing from the elements. As moisture penetrated the fiberboard, it began to swell. In a desperate rescue attempt I added a layer of vinyl to protect it, but soon it looked bloated. I tossed the whole spongy mess of a roof into the trash and started from scratch. The replacement roof was engineered to not only meet the challenges of the elements, but to support a roof garden. The first plantings did not fare well, so for my second planting I gave more care in choosing my plants and watered them religiously. At the end of last summer the roof looked lush, green, and shaggy. This spring the plantings have emerged from winter’s frost with new shoots.
When a failure is imposed by mother nature, there is no appeal process. Leaky roofs and dead plantings must be addressed. On the other hand, some rubrics are subjective. Where one evaluator might see a lack of focus, another might find poetic expression. If a Swiss Army Knife can claim the title of knife, then surely my library can rightly claim the title of library. I would hope that some years from now, when my work gets turned in for a final reckoning, the eye that reviews it will be sympathetic to who I am and what I have hoped to achieve. Even if not everything gets the scrutiny of a four point scale, I want to try my very best.
More images and information on the library can be found at http://funliteracy.com/
1 The store’s name is Dig and Save
A few weeks ago I was looking through old books at a rummage sale. A sign on the wall read: “vintage books 50 cents”. There were stacks of books that my grandparents or great grandparents might have read in their youth. In that pile I found Horatio Alger’s 1890 book, Five Hundred Dollars. While the narrative was rather plodding, I was fascinated by the now exotic view of our country where a hearty meal cost 25 cents and transit is by horse and carriage. If I had not been aware of the myth, I might have come to the conclusion that the name Horatio Alger is synonymous with stilted predictable writing. The myth of Horatio Alger, is well stated by Wikipedia, which says he writes about “impoverished boys and their rise from humble backgrounds to lives of middle-class security and comfort through hard work, determination, courage, and honesty”. This myth runs deep in the American psyche. I remember hearing it from my parents and grandparents, so I was prompted to pick up the book to discover how the Horatio Alger myth was formed. The book did not live up to my expectations of the Horatio Alger myth and in my eyes it failed as a work of literature, as well as a source of moral instruction.
The Horatio Alger myth has a certain beauty to it as we imagine an underdog fighting his way to success. As I read this book, I found that the story deviated from my understanding of the myth. While the author takes pains to endow the protagonist with traits of hard work, honesty, and good character, his achievements were made possible by intervention by others. There is a rich uncle in the story who plays the role of fairy godmother to a poor Cinderella boy. Contrary to my understanding of the Horatio Alger myth this protagonist’s rise was was due to connections.
I did not expect much from the book as a work of literature and in that respect I was not disappointed. The characters are rather one dimensional, the plot is predictable, and the dialogue is stiff. This is a book of moral instruction and the author goes out of his way to draw characters in black and white.
As I contemplated this book as a tool for moral instruction, I began to wonder what values were being advocated to my grandfather as his young impressionable mind was soaking up this adventure. The theme of avarice vs. generosity eclipses everything else. In pursuing this theme, the author takes pains to document every penny spent in this book. In the end, virtue is rewarded, monetarily, but the process of achieving this result seems to strip life of any joy aside from that which money can provide. For example, the protagonist’s brief stage of career is praised for it’s high wages and short hours. I was disappointed in the accountant’s view of reckoning, where every moral choice seems based in monetary reward.
As I contemplate the faults of this book, I wonder if it has any bearing today. I fear that Tea Party nostalgia longs for Horatio Alger. If this book were to become a template for our society, I would expect that many rich uncles would fail to play their part as fairy godmother. Even if they did perform scattered attempts at charity, what will become of those poor boys who are not such shining example of virtue?