In 2010, painter Alison Rector settled in at the Blue Hill Public Library and beheld the sweep of light falling across the floor. She imagined the decades past, when generations of readers relished the calm and quiet of the space, just as she was doing.
Soon after her visit to Blue Hill, Rector heard a story on National Public Radio that described how Andrew Carnegie turned his fortune into a library legacy. She learned there are nearly two dozen Carnegie libraries in Maine, and set out with a painter’s eye to visit them all. Along the way, library enthusiasts suggested others, and Rector visited them too.
Rector, who lives in Monroe and South Portland, has painted the interiors of 42 libraries in Maine, celebrating their beauty and cultural connections to the communities they serve.
In an exhibition titled “The Value of Thought,” the Ogunquit Museum of American Art is showing 18 of Rector’s Maine library interiors through Oct. 31, when the museum closes for the season.
“I was charmed by the rooms designed for thought and quiet reflection, the stacks of books and historic art collections. Now if I pass a public library, I usually stop and go inside,” she wrote in an email.
What captivated you about this project, and what sustained your interest?
What captivated me was the beauty I found. I spend hours exploring old buildings, studying how light falls through doors and windows at different times of day, looking for unusual corners and studying the bones of the architecture. I work to find the personality of each space while creating engaging compositions.
Each library visit led me to the next one. I went deeper into studying the early history of public libraries, how and why they exist.
I titled the show “The Value of Thought” to honor early 20th-century philanthropists and citizens who placed an importance on education, reading and thought. Across the nation, industrialist Andrew Carnegie funded the construction of over 1,600 public library buildings in the 19th and 20th centuries, working in partnership with community leaders. Other patrons did the same all over the state of Maine and beyond. Personally, I’m concerned by a current popular disregard for the value of intellectual study and thought.
As I looked at the paintings, I appreciated the individual character of each place. On a personal level, what was it like for you to travel to all of these places? What did you learn to appreciate about Maine libraries?
In my studio, I plotted the 20 Carnegie-funded libraries on a large Maine map. This map guided me to small towns all over Maine: Vinalhaven, Rumford Falls, Milo, Madison, Caribou and Presque Isle. The parameters of the project took me down many winding Maine roads to towns I hadn’t known. And there were stunning surprises. The Madison library is one example, a building surprising for its distinctive octagonal tower, spectacular arched dome and elaborate woodwork.
I learned that citizens in these small and sometimes remote towns felt strongly about funding public education through building libraries. One hundred years ago, the public library was a source of great pride for these communities. The buildings they designed and built are glorious and can be found in very small towns in Maine. These libraries continue to adapt and serve communities well today.
Does the series continue?
Yes, I’m still continuing the series, but very selectively now. I’m primarily working on new work, oil paintings about color and light.
Finally, I am interested in the reaction you have received to these paintings. What do people say about them? What do they like about them, and how do people relate on personal levels?
I’m interested in the reaction to the paintings, too. I’ve had lots of good conversations with museum visitors and art viewers – and librarians – through the years of making this series. People admire the paintings as engaging works of art and also as visual documents celebrating places they love.
I’m astonished by how much people love libraries. Many people speak to me of their favorite library, their memory of getting their first library card as a child.
Viewers say that they admire the sense of light and atmosphere in the paintings. That’s what engages me and challenges me as I make a painting.
It’s not just a representational image. I’m really hoping to invite the viewer to explore the space of the picture plane, to move their eye through doors and windows, to pause and see beauty in the everyday.
WHEN: Through Oct. 31; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily
WHERE: Ogunquit Museum of American Art, 543 Shore Road, Ogunquit
HOW MUCH: $10 adults, $9 seniors and students, 11 and younger free
INFO: 207-646-4909 or ogunquitmuseum.org