A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert. — Andrew Carnegie, industrialist and philanthropist

Imagine browsing the shelves at your local library as the strains of live ensemble music or the rhymes of a poem pulse through the stacks.

Or maybe you just stopped in to use a computer but got drawn into an art-making project with other library patrons, community residents, and artists from the Community School of the Arts (CSA).

Thanks to ASC’s Culture Blocks, these kinds of arts collaborations and events are happening at libraries around Mecklenburg County. Culture Blocks partners with Charlotte Mecklenburg Library and Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation to provide residents with cultural experiences close to home — for free.

There are seven geographical pockets of the county where Culture Blocks programming takes place — North, East, Northwest and Southwest Charlotte, Mallard Creek/University City North, Pineville and the West Boulevard Corridor. The program, created in 2015, aims to increase access to cultural arts by funding programs in low-income areas and reducing transportation and parking barriers.

“What they are doing with Culture Blocks is amazing, and I know these areas are benefiting from it. I can see it,” says Shane Manier, founder of Guerrilla Poets, an arts-outreach group that has been providing music and art instruction at West Boulevard Library.

QCity Metro thanks its sponsors. Become One.

“The people who come to the workshops always have fun and it inspires them to go out and do something beyond the workshops, which is probably the biggest point — to get the community inspired to carry it throughout their day or their week or even get inspired in their own lives.”

Events spur return visits from residents 

Public libraries are a meeting place for community residents of all ages, which makes them a natural fit for Culture Blocks. More than 25% of Culture Block events this year have taken place at libraries.

“I think there’s something really approachable about the library,” said Tiera Swanson, Culture Blocks program director. “It creates a welcoming environment for everyone to come out and participate, which makes it an ideal space for cultural programs and activities.“

A Sign of the Times is a popular request, appearing at a number of libraries that collaborate with Culture Blocks.

Events at Hickory Grove Library in East Charlotte range from live music and drum circles to theater to pottery classes.  Librarian Letitia Cunningham-Jordan says she normally has a full house for Culture Blocks events, arts programming she couldn’t otherwise afford on her budget.

With dozens of programs to choose from, Cunningham-Jordan says, “I try to bring programs to this community that I think they want to see.”

On a recent Saturday afternoon, jazz ensemble A Sign of The Times, always a popular draw, packed the house at Hickory Grove. Such events keep residents returning to the library, Cunningham-Jordan said.

Many of the programs made available to the libraries are directly related to feedback ASC received at community dinners and informal conversations with those living and working in the seven Culture Blocks areas.

“We have a passion for our community and our community does not have a lot of the resources some other communities have,” said Vickie Chapman, librarian at the West Boulevard branch. “To be able to have people exposed to these things really makes a difference.”

In May, West Boulevard Library unveiled artwork based on the African folktale, Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters. On four Saturdays, community residents worked with two CSA artists to envision, design and create the permanent art installation.  Chapman said they stood at the door and invited people in to participate and put their “footprint” on the piece of art that could stand for years.

By bringing those types of opportunities to the library, Chapman said, “our walking community, our driving community gets to work with (artists) to do a lot of great things they might not be able to do otherwise.”

Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters art installation at West Boulevard Library. Photo courtesy of CSA

Partnership bolsters outreach 

The fairy-tale art installations at West Boulevard and six other library branches grew out of a CSA project that first took shape at Sugar Creek Library.

ASC’s Swanson, impressed by the interest and engagement evident in the project, asked Community School of the Arts to do similar projects at other libraries in Culture Blocks zones, said Devlin McNeil, CSA President and Executive Director.

Fairy-tale artworks adorn spaces at Sugar Creek Library (Little Red Riding Hood), Beatties Ford Regional (Beauty and the Beast), Independence Regional (Goldilocks and the Three Bears),  West Boulevard (Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters), Scaleybark (Aladdin), and University City Regional (Princess and the Pea).

More than 75 community residents attended the latest reveal at Hickory Grove Library, where its Snow White and the Seven Dwarves installation was projected on a wall so that each participant could get a close-up look at their handiwork, McNeil said.

CSA continues to offer its visual arts workshops at libraries. “Accessibility is in our mission,” McNeil said. “I’m not just talking about finances, but location. We have always taken our programs out into the community and Culture Blocks allows us to continue to do that and continue to reach a broader audience for our programs, and that’s just exciting.”

Manier, of Guerilla Poets, says her artist collective is thankful to be a part of Culture Blocks. “Our whole mission in our group is to touch lives through the arts and they’ve really given us a means to do so.”

A sampling of events coming to your library in 2018:

Clayworks workshop. (Photo by Jon Strayhorn)

Youth Workshops in Clay by Clayworks: Hands-on visual art projects integrate science, nature, and multicultural heritage, every third Tuesday of the month through May at Independence Regional Library.

Creative Clay Workshop Series by Clayworks: Workshops for families, seniors, adults, teens and special needs groups will be held at various times through June at Hickory Grove Library. Each workshop will have a different topic to reflect the history and cultural influences of clay and the ceramic arts.

Explore with the Bechtler: Community, Identity, and History Art-Making Workshops: This four-day collaborative workshop is open to all ages, is taught by a professional artist and focuses on community, identity, and history, every Saturday in January at Hickory Grove Library and  Beatties Ford Road Regional Library.

Music workshops are provided by Guerilla Poets at West Boulevard Library. (Photo courtesy of Guerilla Poets)

Art and Music Workshops by Guerilla Poets: From figure drawing to Afro-Cuban Percussion, these monthly music and art workshops are held every first Saturday of the month through June at West Boulevard Library.

Forget Us Not … We are the Links to Your Past presented by LATIBAH Tours: LATIBAH Tours presents a life-size installation of The Door of No Return & The Middle Passage, Jan. 10 at Sugar Creek Library. The exhibit pays tribute to those who endured the inhumanity of the Middle Passage and honors their courageous determination.

Talk Series presented by LATIBAH Tours: This series will focus on the Middle Passage, led by a panel of local leaders and historians who will engage the community as they discuss the importance and deep significance of remembering this pivotal period in African American history, Jan. 3, 20 and Jan. 23 at University City Library.

Little Red Riding Hood (Photo courtesy of CSA)

Visual Art Workshop presented by Community School of the Arts: This visual art workshop series will focus on a different project activity each month. These workshops are intended for families and appropriate for all ages, Saturdays at Sugar Creek Library.

Culture Blocks activities also take place at parks, recreation centers, and relevant community spaces. Check out the FULL calendar of Culture Blocks events around Mecklenburg County.

Learn more about Culture Blocks and how you can get involved.