A Story Waiting to be Read
I did something different one morning and made a left turn outside of my apartment building instead of making a usual right. Living in Edgewater for a couple months now, I hadn’t really explored anything around the vicinity. It was always an immediate right to the train station to head down to the loop and then back to my apartment after school. But this day I decided to head up north to the neighboring area of Rogers Park, hoping to discover something new and spectacular. However, I didn’t even make it past Edgewater and found that spectacular something just a couple blocks down on Winthrop Avenue after a 15-minute walk. I’ve noticed my neighborhood consists of many senior citizens since there are a lot of senior living complexes in the area. But there’s also a lot of young couples with kids, which is why I wasn’t surprised that just a couple blocks down from my apartment building was a CPS elementary school called the George B. Swift Specialty School. I was not aware that this school was in the area and what caught my eye and forced me to halt in front of this massive building, that was so quietly situated in this residential neighborhood, were the mosaics that adorned its walls.
At the entrance of the school, the mosaic starts on the left wall and goes through two doors that have two dancers painted on them. The circular patterns continue to pull your eyes directly ahead to the two-door entrance in front and conclude past the entrance doors just until the window towards the right. As my eyes moved along with the pattern into the distance and stopped at the window, they then immediately refocused to what was right in front of my vision, a massive light gray mailbox in the shape of a house. It’s rectangular in shape and situated lengthwise, with a monotone blue roof that has purple, blue, and green flowers painted on it. It is mounted on a tall wooden stand with a clear rectangular window or a door with a knob in the front to open it.
The roof has a sign painted on it that reads, “You can live a good story. newstory.” There is a green arrow, almost in the shape of a boomerang also painted on the top of the y’s at the end of the word story in each sentence. The flowers continue onto the side of the box in red and blue. The knob opens the box and there are some books inside for anyone to take or leave some books for the next person who walks by. The message on the roof is not only inviting, but the whole box is a physical platform for encouraging students to be positive about their outlook on life and escape into a fictional world where they can imagine anything to be possible. The box interacts with the mosaic to bring you into the magical world that is created at the entrance of this school. It stands as a beacon that allows for creativity to flourish and encourages kids to read.
As the sun’s rays hit the colorful parts of the mosaic, the light illuminates the vibrant colors and I can feel the dance of the mosaic come to life. The two dancers on the doors of the left wall are painted as silhouettes in black in front of a blue background with a quarter of a red circle on the top right that is fully completed in shape by the mosaic on the wall. The figure on the left appears to be male and is doing ballet, while the figure on the right is a young girl jumping into the air with pure exhilaration. While the mosaic is abstract in design towards the left of the door, on the right there are images of art, music, science, and Chicago embedded into the design. The circles on the left comprise of abstract shapes made from different colors and carefully placed linear pieces. There is a sunflower after the first two circles that radiates out in shades of yellow and orange and the circular theme continues onwards to the right of the door. The skyline of Chicago can be seen on top, while the rest of the circles contain the CTA Red Line and images that represent all of the academic subjects such as art and science. There is a profile of a woman’s face in yellow and a globe surrounded by people of the world to celebrate diversity. The mosaic ends with a red flower on the top right, and then the circular pattern breaks off and continues on the left on the corner of the entrance doors.
Facing forward, the mosaic around the entrance doors glistens even more in the sunlight, reflecting the gold and silver in it. There is a rhythm created through the harmony of the circles and how they intersect with each other, evoking a sense of pride and belonging through its images that also celebrates knowledge, the arts, and community. The mosaic has become a visual stamp on the building that loudly declares, “we are here, we belong.”
The George B. Swift Specialty School has an integrated Fine and Performing Arts program that includes music, art, dance, and drama that is adjusted for each student’s individual success. So it's not surprising that the school has carried its mission and values over to an eccentric environment that promotes learning beyond the classroom. The box with the books in front of the school especially inhabits this mentality and I was curious to learn more about this structure. I spent some time researching where this idea of a book “house” was conceived from and came across a non-profit called Little Free Library. (https://littlefreelibrary.org) These book houses are called sometimes called The Lending Box and the concept is simple, students and community members can leave a book or take a book to read. They are many placed around the city of Edgewater but the idea originated in Hudson, Wisconsin in 2009 by Todd Bol who built a wooden box with a glass door and placed it in his front yard. The box was modeled after a classroom and it was his way of celebrating his late mother’s career as a teacher. By 2012 the idea developed into the non-profit it is today and these miniature libraries are quite popular in many neighborhoods around Chicago.
The idea of the Little Free Library has spread over America and each box can be customized to look like a schoolhouse or any fantasy like building. The non-profit also provides naked wooden boxes that can be painted. The concept of the library box has increased exchange of more books and access for all readers from different backgrounds and ages. But beyond that, the library box has also enticed interaction of neighbors where they can develop stronger community bonds in a place that unites their values. In juxtaposition with the mosaics, the library box is part of a larger goal to create a community identity that aims at living and doing better. The library box at the George B. Swift school helps sustain community interaction and gives kids an opportunity to not only expand their reading list, but to also envision a life they want to live and create their own story that’s waiting to be written.
The mosaics continue onto the other side of the school building where there is a playground also open to all the kids in the community as well. The side entrance of the school has a mosaic border around its column that continues the designs created by linear and colorful pieces in greens, blues, and yellows. The wall to the right of the side entrance also has a mosaic that leads to the painted murals on the CTA walls. As I kept walking down the street of the school, I made a left towards the train station to see how far this mosaic and mural trend went. Under the bridge I found a whole wall covered in a musical array of mosaic celebrating the city. But it didn’t stop there! I made a right after the train station and kept walking down Broadway only to find a 2-D mosaic at the local Whole Foods. This mosaic comprised the aspects of nature and agriculture to display the importance of eating well. I noticed the same linear patterns placed strategically together, along with the randomness of each colored pieced to create a gradient of realistic animals and food.
The visual characteristics of the George B. Swift School and its surrounding neighborhood express a community’s dedication towards creating a healthy and positive upbringing for its kids, especially the importance of starting at a young age. The visual vocabulary of aiming higher, eating well, and incorporating the arts into the curriculum project an awareness of a community that is clearly promoting these qualities by allowing exploration and discovery. The continuous patterns and shapes give life to the dynamic and engaging environment and the library box invites the viewer into the space to have a personal interaction with the space. As I walked around this area, I felt a feeling of home in this new place and memories of my childhood came flooding back. I remember the excitement of going to the library to get a new book every couple of weeks to complete my summer reading list. The endless shelves of books in the library set no limit, but the library box at Swift school creates a sort of mystery and excitement, kind of like reaching into a surprise bag not knowing what you were going to pull out. Similarly, each book inside the library box is waiting to be chosen and has a story that’s waiting to be read and discovered.
-From my Good Lookin' assignment
This is a project to explore and observe, to take in the visual landscape more astutely than is your normal habit, take off the blinders and filters and really look.
Take a walk. Hop on the train or bus. Follow your instincts. Explore the location of your choice--your neighborhood, somewhere in Chicago (safely), or anywhere further afield. Find something (or things) of interest, something(s) that grabs you, something(s) that you may not have considered within your field of vision or within your field of reference, previously.
Document an example (or examples) of the vernacular built and/or personally adorned environment that interests you, using any method of image-making/recording (photography, drawing, video, etc.) and writing. The written component should be a carefully composed, concise description of the place (within the city or whatever larger context is appropriate), the setting, and the things or elements that you discovered within this setting. Your writing should describe the place, setting, and thing, as clearly as possible, so one can get a sense for it without the visual component. The writing should also evoke your personal feeling for what you found.