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Old and new are blended in E.C. Doren library’s artwork

Sculptor Darren Kall incorporated Old North Dayton landmarks into his contemporary outdoor fence

It was a massive outdoor mural in New Jersey that inspired a young Darren Kall to dream of creating public artwork someday.

“It gave us all a sense of place, a landmark, a foundation, and an identity,” said Kall of Stefan Knapp’s large-scale mural on Alexander’s Department store. At the time, it was the largest outdoor mural in the world.

Kall is hoping his newest work will provide that same sense of place and identity for people who visit the Electra C. Doren Branch Library in Old North Dayton. The renovated library was rededicated Saturday — 87 years to the day after it originally opened. It’s the first of 17 Dayton Metro Libraries that will be treated to original art installations by local artists, thanks to an anonymous gift of $1 million.

The Tudor-Gothic-style building at 701 Troy St. is the oldest in the county-wide system. It’s the first to undergo renovation in the $187 million “Libraries for a Smarter Future” project, approved by voters in 2012.

“There is a different achievement and gratification that comes with creating site-specific artwork by commission,” Kall said. “I’m not selling a finished art piece, I’m selling an idea. My patrons don’t want a completed art piece to put in a space; they want something designed for that specific space, with a specific purpose.”

This type of public art, he adds, requires a deeper understanding of the goals of the patron and the limitations and possibilities of the environment.

“Whether the site-specific art is public art or private art, I love taking on the challenge to be creative within constraints.”

Kall’s vision

Kall’s sculptural steel fence surrounds a new outdoor reading terrace for library users.

The fence is made up of eight steel cutout panels that reflect the industrialization that built Old North Dayton. Among the landmarks included are Kiser Middle School, the Barney & Smith Car Works, Dayton Waterworks, Duncarrick Mansion and the Kossuth Colony. The library itself is given the prized spot in the center of the fence; the original building was designed by Albert Pretzinger, who also designed Memorial Hall downtown.

In Kall’s project proposal, he said the fence panels would “invite you to contemplate their patterns and inspire you to be part of Dayton’s industrial spirit. Their vibrant reflections, solidity and playfulness are letting you know that the Dayton spirit of making things is still alive.”

Because he grew up with disabled relatives, Kall said he wanted to ensure that his sculptures would be touchable for the visually impaired.

Collaborative process

Kall’s collaborative process involved working with the library board, the architects renovating the library, the two construction companies doing the work, the company installing the reading terrace fence, and the company fabricating the fence.

“We collaborated on the sizing, placement, materials and surface treatment of the sculptures,” he said. “I wanted the raw metal to stand out from their background as paintings in a gallery do, but I also wanted them to be integrated into the color scheme, landscaping and architecture of Electra C. Doren.”

After sketching out the views and relative sizes of the buildings, Koll used a hand-chalking transfer process to put the sketches on black art paper. He then hand-cut the black art paper into images one-fifth the size of the final sculptures.

After the black-and-white images were scanned and translated into machine- readable CAD drawings, the fabricator used a water-jet cutting process to reproduce Kall’s design cutouts in sheet aluminum.

“Instead of using the sheet aluminum as it is produced, I wanted to create a surface that looked more like steel,” Kall said. “To do that I had the surface hand-finished with a grinder, then coated with a clear coat. This gives it more depth of reflection and warmth of color like steel.”

How artists were chosen

The ReImagining Works project is being coordinated by the Library with help from the Dayton Art Institute.

An art selection committee began the process by picking pieces from the museum’s permanent collection that might inspire local artists to come up with their own artistic concepts for each library and its community. The public was then invited to vote and area artists were encouraged to submit ideas.

Diane Farrell, the library’s director of external relations and development, said Kall’s submission was “intriguing.” She said all proposals were reviewed carefully and considered for their direct response to the inspiration pieces as well as the specific site. For the Doren library, the art would need to enhance the outdoor reading terrace and be appropriate for the neighborhood.

“Darren’s proposal allowed this project to pay homage to the people and places of Old North Dayton,” Farrell said. “His fencing tiles allowed all of us to research the community, reflecting on the truly impressive contributions from Old North Dayton residents in building this region.”

More about Kall and his process

Kall, a Dayton-based artist who lives in Oakwood, received his bachelor’s degree from Rutgers University in studio art, specializing in sculpture. He has done private and public commissions in both painting and sculpture, including the bas-relief tiles in the portico of Oakwood High School.

For the library commission, Kall suggested turning the reading terrace into an art gallery by integrating his sculptural panels into the fence.

“This way when library patrons are enjoying the reading terrace they are surrounded by images of the Old North Dayton community,” he said.

The DAI painting he used as his inspiration was “Stacks in Celebration,” by Charles Sheeler, a modernist industrial scene that incorporates smokestacks and factories.

“I created sculptures that prominently feature buildings as Sheeler did in his work, and behind these buildings I put my interpretation of Sheeler’s cubist-fractured skies rendered in metal,” Kall said. The white spaces in the cutouts allow light to pass through.

The historic photographs on which the sculptures are based came, appropriately, from the library archives.

“I worked with Nancy Horlacher, the local historian of the Dayton Metro Library system, to gain insight into the Old North Dayton community and to uncover historical images,” Kall said. “I spent time walking around the community seeking out buildings and meeting people who live in Old North Dayton. It reminded me of the neighborhood where I grew up in New Jersey, with strong industrial ties and immigrant roots as a foundation.”

Welcoming patrons

Branch manager Jonathan Cline said he’s glad that his “gem” of a library will retain its historic character — its Gothic-revival architectural style, vaulted ceilings, large oak beams. At the same time, he’s looking forward to the modern additions: state-of-the-art technology, a community meeting room, new carpeting and additional restrooms.

“A new marketplace area for bestsellers and featured library materials along with more open seating gives the branch a more comfortable feel,” Cline said.

Other original art comes in the form of a “Little Engine That Could”-themed mural in the library’s children’s room. The mural, created by Cambridge Design, also provides meaningful ties to the neighborhood because of the Barney & Smith (railroad) Car Co. and Dayton Children’s, originally named the Barney Children’s Hospital. The mural incorporates both whimsical and realistic images and features a Barney railroad car.

Kall said the New Jersey mural from his own youth taught him important lessons that continue to influence him today.

“I want viewers in the community to feel ownership of my work,” he concludes. “Mostly I want my public art pieces to become part of the nostalgia of growing up in the place where the artwork lives. These sculptures are the past and the future — how many kids will come here for an event and take memories of this artwork away with them?”

Next up

The Ritual Wine Vessel (jue) from the Shang Dynasty was the inspiration for Dayton artist Stefan Chinov’s outdoor sculptural grouping, to be situated near the front entrance of the Miami Twp. Branch Library.

Look for our story in summer 2015, when the library opens.

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