Visitors to the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts this weekend will be treated to a new kind of art in the form of book benches. Twenty-five painted benches in the shape of open books will be placed around Centre County in the coming year.
Sean Bodley is one of the artists painting a book bench for the project. His studio is set back off a quiet road in Lemont, almost hidden by a thick patch of trees. The landscape is central to Bodley’s work as an artist.
“I’m very focused on climate change-based art,” said Bodley, “and trying to use my art as an activist tool for change, in addition to capturing the beautiful landscape.”
The benches are the first project of the Centre Foundation’s Centre Inspires grant project.
Molly Kunkel is the executive director of the Centre Foundation. She says the Centre Inspires project is meant to be a “transformational grant in the community.” The 2014 grant award focused on the arts and community engagement.
“I think as they start showing up around the county and people will start to recognize them and be excited about hopefully touring around and seeing where they are,” said Kunkel.
The benches project was the winning grant proposal of SPE Federal Credit Union and the Child Development and Family Council, where Ann Walker is the executive administrator. Walker is one of the first to admit that the project is a little outside her organization’s wheelhouse. But, she says that was one of the appeals of the grant.
“Our goal was really to do something that would be different,” said Walker. “You know, that would be an art object so people would have something interesting to look at and to view that would tell the story of Centre County.”
The idea of placing the benches in different communities around Centre County is similar to other community sculpture projects, but Kunkel says she thinks the benches are the first of their kind. Originally, the applicants had considered animals but couldn’t find one animal that seemed representative of the area.
“It’s something very different,” said Kunkel. “It gives the ability to really reflect the nature of the area on the bench because there’s a lot of surface area on the bench. And because this area is so focused on learning, with the university here, and reading, it seemed like the perfect icon for Centre County.”
Local artists have volunteered to paint the benches. Bodley’s bench will be one of the first on display this weekend at Arts Fest.
Bodley attended a meeting at the State College Borough building and incorporated the ideas of the community into his proposals for the bench.
“The ones that spoke to me most were landscape and weather,” said Bodley, “and since I do a lot of landscape outside, that’s the one I chose to pursue.”
Bodley says he’s done community art pieces in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he went to art school. But the book benches are his first community piece in State College.
“I’m really interested in the public art aspect,” said Bodley. “A lot of times artists get cooped up in their studios or in galleries, and to have your work in a public sphere is really an honor. In a lot of ways it’s the most honest way to get feedback for your work when people see it.”
While artists are painting the initial benches, there are plans for future benches that will mimic “paint-by-number” projects so the community can assist in the design.
Kunkel estimates the entire project should be finished by the end of the year. But she hopes the project continues long after the initial benches are completed.
“I think they’re just going to be so much fun,” said Kunkel, “and so much fun for people as a way to encourage people to explore around the county.”
The first benches will be unveiled at the State College Borough Building Friday 10am.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said the benches were paid for by SPE Federal Credit Union and the Child Development and Family Council. They were paid for by the Centre Foundation's Centre Inspires grant project.