Anyone who’s ever visited a Sunday morning yard sale or a roadside swap shop might understand the feeling of investigating the piles of musty, yellowing books. Old library books in particular carry an extra layer of mystery. Flipping open ones of a certain vintage will reveal a card stamped with the book’s history, offering a glimpse at the many pairs of eyes that once graced its tattered pages. Like an artist archeologist, Jonathan Lee is drawn to that spot where memory meets imagination and old objects are given new life. Over the past year, Lee has orchestrated a group art project called Curriculum Lab with nineteen other Richmond-based artists. Together, they used the library card pockets from the interior covers of children’s books as a jumping off point to explore themes of education, visual literacy, memory, and moment.
The title for Curriculum Lab came directly from the name of Virginia Commonwealth University’s collection of Juvenile books from the early 1900s to the late 1970s. For years, Lee had been collecting those library card pockets and other discarded materials for use in his own artistic practice. After the 2016 election, he began to think about ways he could use art to positively impact the Richmond community, “I happened to pull out a stack of cards after Scott Pruitt and Betsy DeVos were nominated to run agencies they ultimately want to dismantle,” he explained. “I was feeling frustrated and wanted to do something beyond attend another march. The project was inspired by both the materials and that moment in history.” The cards inspired Lee to conceptualize a project at the intersection of children, community, and arts education. “Initially, I just wanted to create a fun project for a group of local artists that would do direct and seeable good in the community. It just kept growing from there.”
For the project, Lee asked nineteen other artists to create artwork inspired by those Curriculum Lab card pockets. He explained, “Each artist received a package with instructions and a minimum of 20 3.5-by-3-inch card pocket fronts to draw on, cover, cut, manipulate, combine, or add to in any way they chose.” Some of these artists Lee knew personally, others he knew only by their artwork. Regardless, he took the time to curate a set of cards specifically for each participant. “The plan was to get a good variety,” he said. “I wanted artists that worked within different mediums: painters, illustrators, sculptors, collagists, designers. There’s a near balance of women to men. There are artists from a variety of races, with different backgrounds and sexual orientations. I wanted the artwork to be wide ranging.” In the end, all the pieces will be exhibited together in a grid at Studio Two Three.
Lee stressed the importance of community involvement with the project from its conception. “I wanted to engage people, get them discussing larger ideas through the same materials.” To achieve this end, he coordinated with Studio Two Three to ensure that the proceeds from gallery sales would directly benefit the Richmond Performing Arts Alliance’s Early Literacy Learning through the Art (ELLA) program. Lee emphasized, “As the project grew, I wanted it to be more than just a fundraiser.“
As a means of further involving the community in the exhibition, Studio Two Three will host workshops in November for members of the community. Over the summer, Lee tested out workshop ideas with RPPA as well as the Richmond Young Writers. “The workshop exercises are hands-on/minds-on activities,” he explained. “Through art-making and discussion, participants take a deeper look at the relationships they have with words and images in order to create effective visual narratives. The outcomes so far have been really interesting and everyone seems to have enjoyed it.”
To record all these activities for posterity, a group of teens at RPAA are currently producing a documentary about Curriculum Lab. “The class is free to public school students from anywhere in the area,” Lee explained. “I’ve talked to the class and gave them cards to do just like the artists so they feel connected to the topic.”
All of these connections have combined to create a portrait of a community united in appreciation for art, literacy, and collaboration. “The exhibition looks like a manifestation of the barrage of visual information we encounter each day,” Lee summarized. “The audience is forced to get in close, take their time, and make connections.” The project’s intimate nature offers its audiences a sense of comradery: united by our mutual existence in this peculiar moment of human history, as well as the beauty that can be created when we band together.
The Curriculum Lab opening reception and panel talk will be held at Studio Two Three on November 4 from 7–10 PM. Additional workshops will be held on November 12 and 19. For a full schedule, visit studiotwothree.org/curriculum-lab. See more of Jonathan Lee’s work at jleerva.com.
Photography by Shaun Aigner-Lee