Local artist combines images of landmarks to draw picture of Brookings

odelle Greiner/Register: Local artist Chuck Bennis works on a new mural at the Brookings Public Library in early March.

The Brookings Public Library is a gathering place, a classroom, and a part of the community, said Ashia Gustafson, director. 

Now, thanks to a local artist, it has a mural that reflects all of that.

Brookings area residents can take a look at the new artwork on the library’s Facebook page, and in person once social distancing is no longer necessary due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Chuck Bennis took an idea, developed it and came up with a four-paneled mural that graces the wall behind the circulation desk. He included images of the library, of course, but integrated other landmarks in town, especially the downtown area.

“I’m so glad that we got it done. He’s done a wonderful job,” Gustafson said. “I feel like the mural is very much a celebration of the community.”

She thinks the library is the perfect place for an art mural, which was unveiled in early March, just before the facility temporarily closed due to the coronavirus.

“We are also a community gathering place. I like to say a library is more than books,” Gustafson said, listing the craft classes and other activities they offer. “We are another place that people can get art.”

From idea to reality

The library’s overhaul last August gave City Manager Paul Briseno an idea.

“We were putting in the carpet, and Paul came over and was watching the process of it,” Gustafson recalled. 

The remodeling included new carpet, paint and a new circulation desk. The giant wall behind the circulation desk is “an imposing space, it’s a large area,” Gustafson said. 

It was also green. 

“He’s not a fan of it, and he said, ‘We need to do something there; you should put a mural there, that would be awesome.’ (We thought) ‘Yes. Yes, it would,’” Gustafson said. 

Briseno suggested Gustafson get in touch with Darla Biel at the Public Arts Commission. That’s where Brookings Arts Council Executive Director Ashley Ragsdale got wind of the idea, and she told Gustafson the Arts Council was interested in helping the library with the project.

“It went very quickly from there,” Gustafson said.

Coming to life

Ragsdale had an artist in mind: Chuck Bennis.

“The library staff mentioned how cool it would be to have a mural and Ashley knows me and she’s like ‘I know a guy that could, you know, do that, (and he’s) local,” Bennis said. 

“The library’s wanted artwork in that spot for a long time … but it’s a big process,” he said. “When we do it quick like this, it makes it look easy.”

They had a lot of help to pull it off. 

Ragsdale organized things, even setting up some funding from a private donor and a $250 Thrivent Action Grant. Some labor was donated, and Bennis worked with the library to hold down costs.

The green wall was painted white and the Parks, Recreation & Forestry department installed the four big white boards.

“They did an excellent job; it was perfect,” Bennis said. 

Each panel is Masonite board, only an eighth of an inch thick, “so it’s real thin,” Bennis said, adding he uses it quite often so he’s familiar with it. “It’s a nice, perfect, smooth surface. It’s actually fairly affordable to work with.

“They’re about 10 feet per panel. The middle panel behind the desk is about 12 or 13 feet, so that one’s just a little bit longer. We decided to do panels to have a nice, clean surface,” he said, pointing out the bricks behind the panels aren’t as nice for painting artwork.

He chose to work with acrylic markers.

“The medium I use quite often for interior murals,” Bennis said. “It’s just regular paint. Probably the most unique thing about this medium is that since it is in marker form, I can naturally draw, … where a brush would be short brush strokes that would have an uneven line. This has consistent lines with nice edges. And I’m really able to do some quite sharp detailed work with this tool.”

The markers let him work when the library was open, with patrons and staff present.

“It doesn’t stink, it’s not messy. I didn’t even need a drop cloth. I just go up (on a ladder) and do it,” Bennis said.

Meaningful images

Figuring out what he wanted to paint was a joint effort.

“I met with the library staff, kind of talked to them about what the library means and the history of it. They put out a board in the lobby here and had people write some words of what the library means and then I did my own research of the area,” Bennis said. 

He came up with a design in about 18-20 hours and spent about the same amount of time drawing the mural.

“When I do a piece, I make use of my technology, so I photograph the location and then from that photograph … I’ll illustrate each image that I’m doing, so each building, I did each sculpture. I had some other things that fit in there, so I illustrate some trees, … then I work all those together within the composition that best fits the layout of the actual piece,” Bennis said.

“I’m thinking about the size of everything. If it gets too detailed and small, that’s a negative thing, so I worked that all out digitally and then I submitted that to both the library and the Arts Commission.”

“Chuck sent us a couple different iterations of it and (asked) ‘what do you like, what do you not like?’” Gustafson said, adding they sent him feedback. “This is what we want to focus on and maybe not that. Maybe not these colors; maybe this color.”

Reflecting Brookings

With all the decisions on the design done, Bennis got to work.

“It was very fun to see it come to life and watch him paint it,” Gustafson said.

The library had to be included in the mural, of course, and Bennis really wanted to have the Arts Council in there since it helped fund the project. While doing his research, he found the perfect reason.

“The Arts Council is the original Carnegie Library, so that was the library,” he said, adding the building is on the National Register of Historic Places. 

The Brookings County Courthouse made the cut, as did the “beloved Children’s Museum,” said Bennis. He wanted to include it because it was originally a school and had its own library, as well. “A lot of education and learning happened in this area.”

Bennis didn’t just include buildings. Brookings is known for its artwork, so he included a bunch of sculptures. The Arts Council’s War Horse is there, too, along with Mama Rex from the Children’s Museum. 

There are others, like the owl from outside the library.

“My kids, every time we drive past the library, they point the owls out,” Bennis said, adding the owls are a personal favorite of his, too.

Bennis slipped in some name references, too. He included the names of his wife and kids, along with the names of famous artists who designed some of the sculptures he featured, like John Lopez who designed War Horse, and Scott Wallace who designed Oasis, which is outside the South Dakota Art Museum.

He included all that in the hopes his mural helps people learn more about their environment. 

“They learn more about what’s represented in there, why those things are important, why the Carnegie building? A lot of people don’t know that was the original library. They don’t know the history of these artists that did these pieces,” Bennis said.

He wants his mural “to be informative, as well as preserve some of the art and culture of the town.”

Around for a long time

Although the library is closed due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the mural will still be there for a long time to come.

“It’s gonna bring on new meaning to people in new ways, so that family that’s bringing their kids into the library for the very first time, that’s gonna be a memorable thing for them,” Bennis said.

Gustafson hopes library patrons take the time to look it over and feel “an appreciation” for it.

“It’s so bright and fun and we’re still finding little (things), ‘oh, I didn’t see that last time,’” she said.

“It is beautiful. We get lots of wonderful comments on it. It really captures our little downtown area here,” Gustafson said. “So, yeah, we really enjoy it.”

Contact Jodelle Greiner at jgreiner@brookingsregister.com.

COURTESY OF: The Brookings Register

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