Archive for the “Library Art” Category

ClarDamBy the reference desk in the Central Library is a statue of an Ancient Greek boxer known to history as Damoxenos. However, for as long anyone can remember he’s been known around Somerville as Clarence. And like all  Ancient Greek athletes depicted in sculpture, Clarence isn’t wearing anything

A few days ago a woman who was clearly in a hurry came into the main reading room with two small children. One of them, a boy who looked about five or six, pointed to Clarence and asked, “Why isn’t he wearing pants?” The woman, presumably his mother, was obviously in a rush to get what she wanted and be on her way and said, “We’ll talk about this later.” The boy, clearly of a curious bent, asked, “I want to know why he’s not wearing pants.” His harried mother said, “Not now.”  The boy, clearly burning with a thirst for knowledge worthy of a Galileo or a Magellan, stamped his foot and said, “I DEMAND TO KNOW WHY HE’S NOT WEARING PANTS!”

Then they left.

The child is gone.

But the question remains: Why isn’t Clarence wearing pants?

The easy answer is that Greek artists often depicted men, especially athletes, nude, but that doesn’t really answer the question.  To understand the prevalence of naked men in Greek art, you have to understand two Greek beliefs.  First the Greeks believed that a physically fit body was a reflection of a fine mind and even a beautiful soul, so it makes sense that their art would celebrate muscular bodies, which indicated spiritual as well as physical development. Second, for the Greeks nudity could be a sort of costume. At athletic events, nudity was essentially an outfit displaying their prowess.

So young man, wherever you are, that’s why Clarence doesn’t wear pants.

I wish you well.






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A small art installation by the Somerville Arts Council’s 2014 Multi-disciplinary Artist Fellow Kris Hatch has found a permanent home in two of the Somerville Libraries.  Stationed appropriately between the Mystery and Reference sections at the West Branch, ‘The Book of Knowledge’ is a Victorian curio cabinet that invites the viewer to become a part of the mystery.  A second “cabinet” can be found near the Mythology section of the Central Library.

This project is supported in part by the Somerville Arts Council, a local agency supported by the Massachusetts Cultural Council.


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libfrVisitors to the Central Library often comment on the frieze in the main reading room that runs along the perimeter of the room just below the ceiling. It’s a partial reproduction of the friezes on the Parthenon, one of the finest surviving buildings of Classical Greece and a symbol of Western civilization.  Ever since this building opened a century ago, library staff have been telling anyone who asks that the frieze depicts the Panathenaic Procession, which concluded the annual festival of the same name held in honor of Athens’ patron deity, the goddess Athena.

Why have we been telling people this? Because everybody knows it, everybody in this case being Classical archaeologists and art historians.

But everybody might be wrong.

New York University archaeology professor Joan Connelly takes issue with this interpretation. First, if the Parthenon friezes do depict part of an annual religious festival, they would be unique. All other known Greek temple art depicts mythical events.  In her latest book, The Parthenon Enigma, she sets out an alternative theory that many other scholars find plausible.

First she calls our attention to the so-called “peplos panel,”* which is central Peplosto the notion that the frieze represents a religious procession. All we really know is that it shows a bearded man and a younger person of undetermined gender folding a cloth. Traditionally experts have maintained we are seeing the unfolding of the peplos, the new woolen robe draped over the statue of the goddess Athena when the procession arrived at the temple.

However, Connelly points out that the younger person is partly undressed. Partial nudity at such a sacred moment–the culmination of the Panathenaic festival–would have been considered sacrilegious. She also notes that if the frieze does depict the Panathenaic procession, key elements are missing, such as the woman carrying a reed basket who traditionally led the procession,  a fake ship bearing the peplos as if it were a sail, and representatives of Athens’ allies bearing tribute.

Connelly thinks the frieze depicts something else entirely, a horrific event from Athens’ early mythic history, retold in Euripides’ play Erechtheus.  Athens is at war with Eleusis.  The title character of the play, the king of Athens, consults the Delphic oracle, who tells  him Athens will be saved if he sacrifices one of his daughters. He returns home and tells his queen, Praxithea, who replies, “This city, though it bears a single name/Holds many people in it. Should I then/Destroy all these, when it is in my power/To give one girl to die on their behalf?” She’s saying yes, our daughter must die, for everyone’s sake.

So what we are seeing in the frieze, according to Connelly, is the imagined procession to a human sacrifice. And the so-called “peplos panel” depicts a young girl changing into the ritual garments she will wear when she dies.

Praxithea’s statement has been considered the most uncompromising expression of Athens’ nascent democratic ethos: no one, not even a princess, can stand in the way of the common good. Or to put it more brutally, a mother should not value her own child’s life over that of others.

discusWhether Connelly’s right or wrong, her argument opens the way to clearer  thinking about the Ancient Greeks, a people that those of us  in the West usually think of as our cultural forbears. A professor at my undergraduate school taught a survey course on the ancient world. He always began his lectures on Ancient Greece with the words, “And now we are coming home.” In other words, those Egyptians and Babylonians–their art, their architecture, their ways of thinking–they’re just all so different. But the Ancient Greeks, these are people of the past in whom we can see ourselves.

But only if we close our eyes to much of Greek life. We live in an optimistic society, where we expect a certain fairness in the world, and we tend to shield ourselves from many ugly facts, whether by turning our heads or turning off the news.

But the Greeks believed that cruel, capricious gods governed the world and they stared directly at the most hideous realities. They knew everything comes at a price. For example, one man’s leisure is bought with another man’s enslavement. They glory of a soldier like Achilles comes from the deaths of the men he slaughtered. And in the case of a foundation story of the most iconic Greek city, that community’s existence and all that followed–democracy, art, literature–comes at the most senseless of prices, the murder  of  a little girl.

The past is a country more foreign than we can ever grasp.


*Not included in the Central Library frieze.


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That guy painting the switchbox in front of the Central Library is the wonderful Jef Czekaj.

Jef is a cartoonist, children’s book author and illustrator, and musician who lives and works right here in Somerville.

His comic, Grampa and Julie: Shark Hunters, ran in Nickelodeon Magazine for more than 10 years. A collection of the first three years of the comic was published with the help of a Xeric Foundation Grant and distributed by Top Shelf.

Jef has illustrated 3 books, and written and illustrated 3 picture books and one graphic novel. His books, Hip and Hop, Don’t Stop!, Cat Secrets, and The Circulatory Story, were all chosen as Junior Library Guild selections. Cat Secrets was a finalist in GoodReads Best Books of 2011.

At the moment, Jef is also cold (you would be too if you were painting outside in December!) so if you see him out there, stop by and offer a warm hello. Thanks for brightening up our neighborhood, Jef!

This switchbox project is supported by the Friends of the Somerville Public Library and the Somerville Arts Council.


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If you visit the Central Library then you know Thy Toeum as one of our friendly Circulation Desk crew. Thy also makes a mean 3D paper snowflake, and this past Saturday he led a fantastic workshop to teach people how he does it. In case you missed it, a few pictures are below. Thy also brought his workshop to the Concord Library recently. Here’s an article about that session from the Boston Globe. We’re so happy that Thy is here to share his many talents with everyone at the Library!


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The kickoff for Somerville Reads is this Saturday from 2:00 to 5:00 p.m. at the East Branch Library. There will be lots to see and do – a dance performance, henna art, music, yummy food – but one of the things we’re most excited about is the communal art project we have planned.

We’re going to work together to create a paper immigration “quilt” that will tell the stories of the people who make up our City. Everyone is invited to make a square – or more than one – to add to the quilt. Above are a few examples to inspire you. The one on the right represents the Ganguli family, the protagonists of this year’s Somerville Reads book, The Namesake. The one on the left shows some of my own ancestors. We’ll supply all of the materials you need, but if you’d like to include personal items – photos, maps, documents – please bring them along. Make sure the things you use are copies (we have a copy machine at the East Branch if you need it) because we won’t be able to return them. They’ll become part of the quilt which will be displayed at all Library locations over the coming weeks.

We hope you’ll add your own family’s immigrant story to the quilt – the more the better! I can’t wait to see how it turns out!


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Parthenon frieze at the Central Library

Many patrons ask about the frieze that runs along the interior wall of the main reading room.  It’s a reproduction of one of the friezes that adorned the Parthenon, a temple built in Athens between 447 and 432 B.C.  The temple was dedicated to the worship of Athena (the city’s patron deity) and the frieze is believed to depict the Panathenaic procession, which took place annually in the goddess’s honor.

But the fact that the frieze is colored gives some people pause. After all, most people think that Ancient Greek sculptures were white. Actually archaeologists and scholars have long known that the Greeks painted their buildings and sculptures: faint traces of color linger on some artifacts; there are also references to the colors on statues in Ancient Greek writings.

Of course 2,600 year-old-paint residue and written references aren’t enough to tell us what the fully painted sculptures actually looked like, so the colors on our frieze are guesses based on the color scheme of a reproduction of the Parthenon that once stood in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

But in recent years German archaeologist Vinzenz Brinkmann has been using ultraviolet light to examine the faint traces of paint on Ancient Greek sculptures (traces often not visible to the naked eye) and determine the materials used in making the pigments. And to illustrate his findings he created copies of Ancient Greek (and Roman) statues and painted them using the pigment combinations he’s found in his investigations. The results are radically different from the austere sculptures we see in museums (and from the subdued hues of our own frieze):

brightly painted statue of Athena (reproduction)

brightly painted ancient Greek frieze: battle scene (reproduction)


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