Wolverhampton University Library – Bringing real art to the book shelves

Written by Rebecca Collins

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I paid a different kind of visit to the University of Wolverhampton Library a little while back. My business was to paint walls and my road to those walls was not guided by the normal way to a library.

Serendipity: ‘the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way’. This is how I describe how I came to be painting walls in the University of Wolverhampton library last week. Just three weeks ago, the university library for me was the building of guilt, the place where I should be spending more time. It loomed as the daily reminder, shining in its lime green glory as I walked past on the way to get coffee, that I should be writing my thesis. Now, it feels like my second home.

Wolverhampton University

The University of Wolverhampton is almost 190 years old and know have 4 different libraries across campuses: Harrison, Walsall, Telford and Burton. My task was to carry out at the Harrison Library. The library offers a range of different study: Social areas, quiet and silent areas. It also offers pods, group and single study rooms.

I am currently a second year part-time MA student at the university. I am studying for an MA by Research in Art and Design. The world ‘research’ might give something away about how I feel about books and libraries. No, I do not fear them for their dusty tomes and weight of knowledge. I love them but I don’t spend enough time in them, or at least not this one, when I should be. And, I also love art, of course, hence why I am studying it. So when the chance to combine my two loves came about, I jumped, feet and paintbrush first.

About three weeks ago I received a message out of the blue from an old school friend who told me in his message that in his capacity as user experience consultant in the academic library environment that he was going to be in Wolverhampton for a few days. ‘Let’s meet for coffee!’ he said. I was rather pleased with the chance to reconnect. Little did I know at that point that this was to be more than a chance to remember embarrassing teenage experiences.

Over two Americanos on the campus Starbucks we reminisced about our sixth-form days, mused over how much we’d both changed and discussed all things library-related. During our conversation my friend said to me: ‘Hey, I might have a creative project for you!’ Ask a busy person and you will get things done. That seems to be the mantra we both have in common. I am a very busy person and he knew this but he also knew I’d say yes. I love creative projects. So of course I said yes. I positively effervesced with enthusiasm. The project? To use my artistic skills to decorate two meeting rooms in the library and a room that was to become the ‘Reading Garden’.

The catch? It was to be done quite soon, in two weeks’ time.

Knowing that I wouldn’t be able to do this entirely alone and motivated by a desire to share the project, during the ensuing two weeks I gathered together a group of artists and art students from the university. We came up with a project for the two meeting rooms: Project Paint The Library. We had been given a loose brief (artists love a nice loose brief). One room had to reflect diversity and integration. The other room was to bring the outside in.

The basic premise of our idea was that we would take photographs, project them on to each wall, and trace the images. Out of that, two murals would develop. Also, we wanted to include the library users as much as possible. The idea was accepted.

For the Diversity Room we asked library users, mostly students, to allow us to take their photograph. We then projected their images onto the wall and traced the images in black pen (or asked the students to, if they wanted to). All the students had to wear a mask to semi-conceal their true identity. The wall gradually became a crowd – a crowd of the very people who use the library serves. It became a true wall of diversity.

For the Outside Inside Room, we photographed discarded litter found around campus, projected the images on the wall and out of those images, which we also traced, this time in a white pen, we created a wall of the near environment. Here, we want the library users to reflect on the effect littering has on their campus and the larger environment around Wolverhampton. There is a lot of pride in the city, despite its image to outsiders, and we wanted people to reflect on this and care more for their immediate environment.

This collaborative project took place largely over three days and was a huge success. The students responded very positively to being involved in decorating their library space. The staff also were very positive, some of which are now immortalised on the diversity wall along with their students. It has been such an enjoyable experience. I am hungry for me now.

The final room I was tasked with decorating is the new ‘Reading Garden’. Its previous incarnation was the room for holding reserved books. It has been given a new life as a space for relaxed reading, much needed in an academic environment. The brief, again, was loose: ‘create a tranquil garden scene’. So that is what I did. I painted this room myself. As well as a freelance editor, writer and part-time student I paint on walls. I love mural painting. Painting is in me. I created a garden from my imagination. The feedback I received from staff and library users as I painted was energising. They loved it.

I feel privileged to have been able to take part in this project. I must add that a lot of other subtle and not-so-subtle changes have been taking place in the library, involving the students on a much deeper level than previously, thanks to the work of my old school friend and the library staff at the university. I heard nothing but positive comments from students about the general changes as they came to view my artwork. As a student myself, I can’t wait to spend more time in the library now as I get closer to my deadline for handing in my thesis. I feel that I will be making more use of the space now, and not just because I need to crack on and write the beast, but because I will choose to. I no longer fear the lime green, I embrace it.


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