Exhibits Explore How Libraries Define Us
Three artists create exhibits for and about the Barrington Area Library.
Ela and Cuba. Two words heard often in Barrington, but where did they originate?
A recent art exhibit at the Barrington Area Library explored these words to expand perception, moving library patrons' conjured images from places to people. Artist Iain Muirhead, commissioned by the library to present a "site-specific" exhibit, aimed to engage his audience by inspecting the role and power of Barrington history remembered and forgotten, though his exhibit entitled "Condition."
"The first thing I did was to explore the library's archives," Muirhead said. "It makes sense, since historical research is one important purpose of a library."
From his investigation of the library's history, he learned that in 1914, a member of the Barrington Women's Club named Caroline Ela, donated $1,000 to purchase books to share with the public, and from this, the Barrington Library was born.
He also discovered that in 1850 a general named Narciso Lopez led 600 mercenaries to appropriate Cuba for the United States. Lopez failed and was subsequently killed. The failed attempted was national news at the same time Barrington leaders were trying to decide on a moniker for its township. The village chose "Cuba" simply because it was in the news.
Two abstract portraits of Ela and Lopez, entitled "Mother" and "Father" were the result of Muirhead's research.
"I was intrigued with the idea of these historical figures, male and female, and their tenuous relationship with the founding of Barrington. I wanted to change the perception of these words from geographic locations to people. All of my work is about a change of condition," he said.
Muirhead's exhibit was the first of a three-artist series entitled "Construction/Destruction," featuring art created specifically for the Barrington Library. In addition to paintings, Muirhead's exhibit also included an outdoor sculpture entitled Loop. Using clear acrylic, Muirhead fashioned three-feet high letters and formed them in a circle. Only by reading from the inside out, could the observer see what the letters spelled: "The Truth."
"This idea came to me from my childhood growing up as a Jehovah's Witness," Muirhead said. He explained that every year, thousands of Jehovah's Witnesses gathered at a central meeting point, often at a major sports arena, to hold a study convention.
"I attended these conventions and remember being captivated by the way the community unveiled that year's ministry focus: Waist-high letters placed in the center of the field, spelling out the theme. To belong to and be accepted by the community, one has to accept 'the truth' of the Jehovah Witness lens. I found this notion of "the truth" increasingly problematic as I expanded my access to information through the study of art."
Although Muirhead ended his association with the Jehovah's Witness in his teenage years, the experience of growing up in a fundamentalist religious sect fueled artistic tension.
"Growing up in the shadow of an extended community's apocalyptic vision, my childhood took on a particularly gravity, as every decision carried with it the weight of my soul's salvation."
This tension was dramatically revealed in a digital video installation in which Muirhead stacked Jehovah's Witnesses books and pamphlets into a cairn-like structure. The tower of books, 5 feet 8 inches tall and 145 pounds, Muirheads weight and height when he left the religion in 1991, investigates the struggle between growth, information and balance.
"These books would never be allowed in a library," Muirhead said. "Jehovah's Witness leaders did not want their followers inside libraries, where information often contradicts 'The Truth.'"
Muirhead, who lives with his wife on Chicago's North Side, graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In addition to owning an exhibition and service consulting business, he teaches painting at the Chicago High School for the Arts in Bronzeville.
The Construction/Destruction series will run until Jan. 7, 2012.