THE BIRTH OF THE ART DIVISION LIBRARY
By Dan McCleary, Art Division Founder and Director
I believe that looking at art and at images of art can change our lives. Something inexpressible happens to us when we fall in love with an image of a painting or a photograph. That encounter awakens a feeling in us that never leaves. I have experienced that feeling time and time again—sometimes as much from seeing an image in a book as from seeing the actual work in person. Sometimes, in fact, my relationship with an image in a book is more intense because it is incredibly intimate. I can engage with the image, one-on-one, interrupted by no one and nothing.
When I was 19 years old attending the San Francisco Art Institute, I often went into Brentano’s bookstore to look at art books. In a monograph on Éduard Manet, I came across an image of his portrait of Victorine Meurent. The model seemed to look directly at me. A flash of light illuminates her, flattening the volume of her face. A thin black ribbon encircles her neck that tells you her neck it is not flat, but cylindrical. The image jolted me. I had never seen a painting like it: clear, simple, and direct. And the canvas was a perfect square.
Looking at this painting changed me somehow. I refer to it and think about it constantly. Eventually, I did an etching of it, copying it to the best of my ability.
My desire to create a library of art books began 20 years ago when I visited IAGO, Instituto de Artes Gráficas de Oaxaca, founded by Francisco Toledo in 1988. The institute comprises an art library and gallery that exhibits prints in the center of town. Originating from Toledo’s own collection, the library includes more than 60,000 art books housed in about six rooms where one can quietly explore the contents. I try to go to IAGO whenever I am in Oaxaca.
I began working in a tangible way toward my goal to create a library in 2004 when I started collecting art books. My mother had recently passed away and I asked people to give me art books instead of flowers. My father was an artist and my parents had a modest collection of art books that I leafed through constantly growing up. My nascent library was originally housed at Heart of Los Angeles, HOLA, a youth organization where I worked at the time. With my colleagues, we received about 20 books and a $500 gift certificate. I used the certificate to buy two large books: one about Diego Rivera’s murals and the other about Leonardo de Vinci. The HOLA art department also held a dinner and the guests were required to bring an art book.
The artist Chris Burden, best known for his performances in the 1970s and the City of Lights installation at LACMA, heard about what we were doing. He offered us most of his mother’s extensive and sophisticated collection of books. Many more gifts followed, including one of more than 100 books on African art from the library of two Los Angeles collectors, Dr. Leon Wallace and Ms. Fern Wallace. They were also generous enough to give us an African sculpture that is in our library today.
HOLA is located near MacArthur Park, and I wanted to create a library like the one at IAGO in that neighborhood not only because I have lived and worked there for 35 years but also, and more importantly, because the neighborhood has a long history as vital art hub. Since the early 1900s artists have gravitated to this part of town. Los Angeles’s earliest art schools, Chouinard, Otis, and Art Center all had campuses in and around the park. Chouinard became CalArts, Art Center ended up in Pasadena, and Otis remained until 1997 when it moved to Westchester.
In 2009 I left Heart of Los Angeles to start Art Division. I wanted to create an art center that offered classes and training to young adults ages 18 to 26. It was also important that the center provide the students with a place to study and work. The administration at HOLA generously allowed us to transfer much of the library to Art Division, leaving behind the books geared for the younger children they serve.
Art Division was first housed in a small room in a senior center on Rampart Blvd. Our initial faculty and staff lined its walls with what books would fit, storing the rest in my studio. Four years later we moved to two storefronts on 6th Street next to MacArthur Park. One storefront is a paint studio for students while the other is our library. Over the years we have amassed more than 10,000 books on the shelves and many more in boxes ready to be catalogued. The library also serves as a classroom and Art Division’s administrative office. There are large tables in the center of the room forming one long workspace where three or four staff members work during a typical day. At Art Division we also hold lectures in the library as well as gatherings for our students and community.
John Densmore, the drummer for The Doors, led a drum circle. Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide and artist James HD Brown led a bookmaking workshop. We have held conferences on solutions to homelessness, the importance of voting, and social activism though crafts.
I wanted Art Division to have a library close to or even in the same room where classes are taught, allowing teachers and students immediate access to books during class discussions. Our art history class, for example, takes place in the library where the instructor, Fabian Cereijido, can instantly reference books that relate to his class. If he is talking about art during the Mexican Revolution, for example, he will have books on hand to illustrate that art.
Along with duplicates we continuously receive gems: out of print monographs, limited and first editions, a book of photographs by the writer Paul Bowles, a signed copy of a book on Alice Neal’s portraits. When we first set up the library on 6th Street, Art Division student Luis Mateo found a beat-up copy of Robert Henri’s The Art Spirit. He asked if he could have it and, since we had another copy, I let him take it. Every day that week he called me early in the morning to ask if he could come to the library where he could quietly read in solitude. He finished the book in a week. Next, he read Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. His reading habit continues. Luis is now our mural instructor and a student member of our board.
I asked artists to talk about the importance of art books in their lives. Painter John Nava notes that his first art book was a volume of Michelangelo’s drawings. Nava told me, “Today in the age of ‘Google image search,’ it is hard to imagine how important such books were to a child with no way to access the history of images. With this book…I could see the not-so-famous works, the unfinished works, trace how ideas for images evolved. I don’t feel the same looking at images online. To me an online reproduction feels more objective—a bit distanced, less intimate—very good for getting the information, less good for getting the feeling. The real worth of books lies not just in their detail or informative value, but most of all in the way they can give an isolated young adult a connection to a vast world culture of image makers.”
Artist Katherine Sherwood writes, “It was art books in a high school library that made me choose to study art history in college. It was through art books that I finally received the courage to become an artist, not only a scholar of art.”
Javier Carrillo, one of Art Division’s co-founders, now runs our printmaking department. “One day a few years ago,” he told me, “I opened a book from our library
about Pablo Picasso. I was surprised by how much it moved me. Reading about his life and knowing that he created classical paintings at the age of 13 inspired me to paint even more. Picasso, Wayne Theibaud, David Hockney, and Diego Rivera are a few of the artists who have inspired me. I have books of their work next to me while I am painting. When I’m stuck, I take a break and look at the books. Picasso amazes me because of the different styles he has and the way he returns to them. I look at both Wayne Thiebaud and David Hockney for color and Diego Rivera for inspiration with my portraits. I definitely can’t create an artwork without opening a book.”
I asked writer and photographer David Carrino if any art book changed his life. He responded, “In high school I had an art teacher who lent me a book of photographs by Diane Arbus. I remember sitting at my parents’ dining room table turning the pages, light fading in the room. When I was done looking at the book, I was a different person. A light had gone on in my head.”
According to Art Division student Luis Hernandez, “Most art books were unavailable to me. They were so expensive that buying one was out of the question. Ed Templeton’s The Deformer is a book I was aware of but it costs more than $300. Seeing it in the Art Division library was very important to me. It is a book I return to often and share with other students.”
Our library continues to grow. Donations arrive weekly. We give duplicate books to other nonprofit organizations and youth detention centers. My hope is to set up other art libraries while continuing to improve that of Art Division.
It surprised me that books in a library absorb sound. I treasure the silence the library provides, and I think the students do, too. Located in one of the most densely populated neighborhoods of Los Angeles, the Art Division library offers a lively yet peaceful space where students can open books and nourish their artistry.
Essay Written in August 2020.
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