Finding art and inspiration at the library

This article by Librarian Betsy Langley was originally published in the Arizona Daily Star on Aug. 27, 2016.

It was a little more than 10 years ago I found myself living in Tucson – newly arrived from Minneapolis — and not knowing a soul. Having just completed a master’s in library science, I was looking for a change of scenery and fresh inspiration.

I felt drawn to the desert and mountains and thought Tucson could be an interesting place to call home. So, here I was, living on Ninth Street near the famed Buffet Bar and walking most days downtown to the Joel D. Valdez Main Library to get out of the house.

A book lover and avid library user my whole life, one of the first things I did was to get a library card so I could use the internet and check out books to keep myself occupied while I was searching for a job.

It was then that I first discovered the library’s rotating art gallery. I was captivated. I’ve been painting in oils since I was 15 and I absolutely love looking at all kinds of art. It moves me and always provides new ideas for mood, subject matter, and color schemes in my own work.

Little did I know, those first visits to the library were just the beginning. I had no idea that I would eventually become the librarian coordinating the art and exhibit spaces — a job that has offered me amazing opportunities to meet and talk to Tucson’s many local artists and the incredible people devoted to arts education in our community.

Have you ever wondered how artists get selected to show their work in the library gallery? Every odd year, we host a Call to Artists, welcoming Pima County residents and employees to send in submissions. A jury of art experts and library staff meet to examine and discuss the work, including the artists’ statements.

Generally, about 24 artists out of 60 to 70 entries are selected to install a month-long solo exhibition over the course of the following two years. From the digital mixed media works of Gary Bjorkland to the sacred feminine fine art and illustrations of Mahala Lewis, the featured works always offer something for everyone.

Plus, we’ve got other spaces throughout the first floor (towers in the café area and three-dimensional cases in the lobby) where we showcase even more art. We often host exhibits from art guilds and nonprofits like Arts for All, the Tucson Art Quilters, Southern Arizona Clay Artists, Global Arts, Old Pueblo Knitters, Paperworks, and the Decorative Painters and Tucson Embroiders’ Guilds.
Artwork from Pima County’s Living River of Words youth poetry and art contest is a yearly favorite and we often show pieces from the Drawing Studio and the Sonoran Desert Model Builders as well. It never ceases to amaze me how dedicated the library is to offering community organizations an opportunity to share information about what they do and how others can get involved. It’s just one of the reasons I’m proud of the work I do.

For more than 20 years, our annual High School Art Invitational show has been the most beloved by library staff and visitors alike. Every spring, we ask visual art and photography teachers to submit five pieces of student work for display throughout the month of March. There’s always a wide range of media and styles filling the gallery and it’s amazing to see such talent in Tucson’s youth.

Perhaps you saw our Big Read exhibit last year? During Literacy Connects’ Big Read, we partnered with the Tucson Pima Arts Council to host a joint exhibit of 150-plus pieces of visual art inspired by the intriguing writing of Edgar Allan Poe.
We held an opening reception for artists, and their family and friends. It was so wonderful to connect faces with names and artwork, while also talking about the role of literary inspiration. It was a fun and engaging way to wrap up seven months of Poe programming throughout Pima County.

Maybe you’ve seen me hanging around the art space at the Main Library, or maybe you’ve seen me up on the third floor, where I also spend my time as a reference librarian. Research is another passion of mine, so when I joined the library I couldn’t believe my good fortune of landing a position that allowed me to build and hone these skills every day.

After 10 years, I still enjoy helping people find the exact information they need. I especially love working on the in-depth reference questions we receive, the ones that involve digging through old books and newspaper clippings. I like the challenge of inquiries that require strategic search strings and a creative use of resources.

Do you have a question? Stop by and ask us in person, call Infoline (791-4010), or shoot us an email through the Contact Us link on our website.

For me, the Library is a wonderful place to find inspiration from all sorts of media and to connect with the resources that help us fuel our own creative pursuits. When I think back to my first days in Tucson, I’m most thankful for those early trips to the library, which helped me gain my footing in a new town and eventually become the librarian that I am today.

Betsy Langley is a librarian at the Joel D. Valdez Main Library and three creative kids keep her busy at home. One of her favorite books is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and the expressive artist she’s been following lately is Andrea Lavery. She encourages interested local artists to submit their work for exhibition during the next Call for Artists in taking place September 2017.