Photo: courtesy of City of East Lansing
Story Totems by area artist Lezlee Worthington is the first art installation sponsored by Friends of the East Lansing Public Library (FOELPL) since the library was renovated. It opens Sunday, January 8 in the new Brick Wall Gallery and continues through the month.
In this, her latest project, Worthington presents twelve panels of fiber art with applique and decorative stitching on hand-quilted backgrounds. Her project is based on the Native American use of totems, an assemblage of figures which each represent family members, significant happenings, or spirits and which, taken together, create the story of a people or a place. All the images in Story Totems are a symbol, says Worthington, which collectively tell a story, and may not make sense in any other way. She knows the stories they speak to her, but believes each viewer will see a story of their own. "Story Totems will very much be interactive," she says.
Worthington has engaged in various arts throughout her life, but it is not surprising she would use her current art form for telling stories. She took art classes through high school. She was a ballet major in college. And for her work as children's librarian at the East Lansing Public Library, she studied puppetry and the art of storytelling -- reducing a story to its essence and telling it simply.
Worthington says the inspiration for Story Totems comes from her many years of looking at children's books and making up stories for kids. She believes stories, messages, and anecdotal thoughts are best conveyed by animals and other stylized images, not photographic or realistic figures.
Worthington acknowledges her work might be considered “outsider art.” Her forms and materials are not the usual. Hers is not a professional artist's resume. Her work reflects the happenstances of her life -- a father who was an artist, a mother who taught all her children to sew, the fact she "came to her senses" and went back to school for a library degree so she could earn a living, and that this living connected her to children and the stories they love to hear.
In Story Totems, viewers may see the typical charm of outsider art, but they will also feel the strength of an artist who has found her style and her story and owns them. As a friend once observed when Worthington lamented that all her art looked like her, "Good. That's the point."
A reception for the opening of Story Totems on January 8, from 1-3 pm in the Brick Wall Gallery, also marks Worthington's retirement from the library after 25 years of service. She values her years at the library for allowing her to work with children, tell stories, reach into the community, and most important to be part of the lives of families. She believes her opportunity to interact with families over many years -- to meet a child, see new siblings arrive, observe parents' changing circumstances, or have a high school student drop by and ask hopefully "Remember me?" -- provided her a rich experience.
Worthington notes the remarkable changes in technology during her life as a librarian. "Everything changes in an instant," she says. "What is here today is gone tomorrow." But people remain the same in their need to be seen, heard, and remembered, she says. "Public libraries may be among the last places where someone will listen to you, remember you, and be a part of your life."