The current building of the Exposition Park - Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune Regional Library is an LEED Gold Certified (environmentally sustainable design) structure built in 2008. Renamed in 1973, the branch dedication occurred in 1975 at one of its former locations on South Vermont Avenue. The branch is dedicated to influential and inspiring educator, philanthropist, presidential advisor, activist, and trailblazer Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955). This regional library is home to a Charles White mural inspired by its namesake, Mary McLeod Bethune (1977), and folktale-themed multi-layered glass artworks and artisanal hand-carved, glazed ceramic tiles by Cha-Rie Tang.
Art must be an integral part of the struggle. It can’t simply mirror what’s taking place. It must adapt itself to human needs. It must ally itself with the forces of liberation. The fact is, artists have always been propagandists. I have no use for artists who try to divorce themselves from the struggle.
Charles White (1918-1979) was a renowned, celebrated, and influential master draftsman, painter, printmaker, teacher, and activist. He was known for portraying and chronicling ordinary and extraordinary African Americans, infusing their portraits with dignity, beauty, and realism, counteracting the racism and stereotyping that sought to dehumanize them. His portrayals of the African American experience are infused with grace and incisive social commentary. Like Dr. Bethune, White was an educator; he was the first African American faculty member at the Otis College of Art and Design and taught there from 1965 until his death in 1979. He inspired, empowered, and mentored generations of artists, including Kent Twitchell, David Hammons, Judithe Hernández, Kerry James Marshall, Alonzo Davis, and Richard Wyatt.
Adorning the wall and soaring above the library’s circulation desk under the clerestory is White’s powerful and evocative oil on canvas triptych mural, spanning 10 by 14 feet. Dr. Bethune’s philosophy of education was also a triptych: the “three-fold training” of the head, hand, and heart. The center panel features Dr. Bethune seated in voluminous green robes, hands crossed in her lap, and a young student at her feet, reading an open book in front of an alphabetical chart.
In the panel to the observer’s left, a father sits strumming a guitar, barefoot, in front of the first half of Dr. Bethune’s My Last Will and Testament inscribed behind him:
I leave you love
I leave you hope
I leave you faith
I leave you a respect for the use of power
I leave you the challenge of developing confidence
The right panel features a mother, seated in profile, with wrapped hair, her strong arms resting on her legs, and she sits in front of the second half of Dr. Bethune’s My Last Will and Testament:
I leave you racial dignity
I leave you a thirst for education
I leave you a desire to live harmoniously with your fellow men
I leave you finally a responsibility to our young people.
Geometric forms in greens, blues, browns, and other earth tones repeat behind and below the figures, reflecting the figures’ African heritage. The triptych’s themes are repeated here.
The head: knowledge, learning; the hand: music, the arts; and the heart: mother.
Gordon, look! The words on the mural say, “Love, hope, dignity, and education.” This is what he believed in, and this is what he wanted to share in his art.
—C. Ian White, Grandpa and the Library: How Charles White Learned to Paint (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2018), p. 4.
White’s son, C. Ian White, is the keeper and caretaker of the Charles White Archives and is an artist in his own right. His mural, Genocidal Tendencies (1990), can be seen on the wall at the intersection of 6th Avenue at Jefferson Boulevard in South Los Angeles. He visited the Exposition Park - Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune Regional Library with his young son, Gordon, to show him his grandfather’s mural. White’s wonderful picture book, Grandpa and the Library: How Charles White Learned to Paint, arose from this experience. Check out a copy from the branch while you admire the artwork within.
The dignity of labor is of the mind and heart, not of the hand alone.–Ernest Batchelder
Hanging along the wall of the children’s reading area of the library are six framed, multi-layered fused-glass artworks, Windows in a Forest of Wonder (2009), created by architect, ceramic artisan, artist, and designer Cha-Rie Tang. She used a dozen techniques to achieve the three-dimensional effect of the multi-layered glass, including stained glass, sandblasting, stenciling, copper etching, casting, dichroic fusing, painting, and dye sublimation. The six pictures are inspired by world folktales: Weaving of a Dream (Chinese folktale), Magic Lamp (Arabian folktale), El Muchacho Que Mato al Gigante (Mexican folktale), Algonquin Cinderella (Native American folktale), Firebird (Russian folktale), and Anansi the Spider (African folktale). The fanciful themes of the works are enhanced by the delicate, dream-like quality and vibrant colors of the fused glass.
Installed along the length of the wall below the fused-glass works and above the bookshelves and the couch seating in the children’s reading area are Tang’s hand-made, hand-carved, glazed ceramic tiles with nursery rhyme and fairy tale themes, including a unicorn, fox, and quetzal. Tang is the founder of Pasadena Craftsman Tile, her ceramic studio for hand-crafted, custom-carved tile inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement and renowned Pasadena artist and Craftsman tile master, Ernest Batchelder. When a friend excavated 1930s molds of Batchelder tiles in their backyard, Tang began reproducing and making molds from them, infusing them with her own artistry. In addition to the artworks at the library, her public art commissions can be found throughout Los Angeles and Orange County, including River of Time at the Foothill Gold Line Metro, Monrovia Station; Pasadena’s A.R.T. bus; and 12 glass panels in the Los Angeles County Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration.
Mind, heart, hand. Head, hand, heart. Public art, like the library, is for everyone. Anyone can be transported out of their daily lives or challenged or inspired by public art. Art in the library: feeding the mind, labor of the hand, speaking to the heart.