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Cultural Collections

U-M Library collection inspires community-created artwork with Detroit artist

By Alan Piñon

Oshki 1

ANN ARBOR—Many hands may make light work—and they can also make great work. 

Over the course of the last year, more than a hundred community members in southeast Michigan worked to co-create 10 large-scale paintings—all drawing inspiration from collection materials at the University of Michigan Library.   

The project, led by Detroit-based artist and U-M alumnus Doug Jones, will culminate in an exhibition titled “Connect the Dots: Collective Interpretations of the U-M Library Collections.” It opens Monday, Oct. 7, at the Hatcher Graduate Library, 913 South University Ave. An opening reception, free to the public, is scheduled for 4-6 p.m. in the Hatcher Gallery.

“Connect the Dots” consisted of creation sessions for community members from Detroit to Ann Arbor, where Jones walked participants through a process he has dubbed the “Pixel Technique”—a dot-by-dot process akin to pointillism, where an image is broken down into individual pixels and painted one-by-one. The process allows for anyone, regardless of familiarity with any particular painting technique, to participate in the creation of the work. 

“The end result of this project is multifaceted,” said James Hilton, dean of libraries. “Students and community members were able to enjoy the benefit of creating in a communal fashion. 

“We are able to draw on our collection for a unique and different purpose outside of academic research and we are left with artwork for our library created by our community.”

The idea for a community-based art project originated with U-M librarian Emily Puckett Rodgers.

“This project is explicitly driven by our value of diversity, and this is one way that we can create a more inclusive and welcoming environment for our campus to enjoy—by featuring artworks that were literally created by our students, faculty and staff from across campus and the region,” Rodgers said. 

Connect the dots

Participants in a creation sessions for “Connect the Dots” use the Jones’ pixel technique at the Ann Arbor Summer Festival. Photo by Emily Pucket-Rodgers.

“People have been surprised and inspired by the subject matter, and it’s been a great way to introduce people to the depth and breadth of our work and to the different subject areas we cover.”

Jones worked with students and staff on campus during small work sessions; he also worked with community members at the Ann Arbor Summer Festival and held sessions at U-M’s Detroit Center.  

“With ‘Connect the Dots,’ I learned that students, faculty, and staff found my Pixel Technique relaxing during otherwise stressful and competitive days,” he said. “I also learned so much about the University of Michigan Library—past, present and future—and I learned so much about so many of the people who work as its stewards.”

In the end, the community helped create 10 pieces of art that represent a wide variety of ideas and subject matter: 

  • A rendering from “Connect the Dots” featuring an image of Qemberxanim, a pioneer of Chinese dance from a marginalized ethnic minority within China.

    The first piece chosen is a reproduction of the Snowy Owl, from John James Audubon’s famous book “The Birds of America,” which was the first book bought by U-M Regents for the university’s library. 

  • One image draws inspiration from the library’s Anatomage Table, a technologically advanced visualization system for anatomy education.
  • Another pick is a map street-view of the Poletown neighborhood in Detroit; it was pulled from the Sanborn fire maps, which are intricately detailed precursors to modern day GPS.
  • There is a 15th-century “hilye”—a written description of the Prophet Mohammed—drawn from the library’s Islamic Manuscripts Collection.
  • Included is a visualization of data spanning three decades from associate professor ​Stephen Smith​’s “Circle of Life/Tree of Life” research. 
  • One selection is an image of Qemberxanim, a pioneer of Chinese dance from a marginalized ethnic minority within China; her style radically developed Chinese dance as an agent for social change within China. 
  • Four works are inspired by a 1920s pochoir pattern book, originally owned by the U-M Architecture Library. Pochoir, the French word for stencil, was a major way that full color information was disseminated prior to modern printing technology.

The works, which measure 8 feet tall and 3 feet wide, will be on view Oct. 4 in the Hatcher Gallery and will be permanently installed throughout library buildings following the opening reception.

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