Turning a new page on book art
Residents of Walnut Creek were greeted with a larger-than-life “Shhh!” when they showed up for the grand opening of the city’s new public library on July 17. And they didn’t seem to mind at all.
A library user looks at Christian Moeller's book sculpture on a cell phone at the Walnut Creek Library. The image becomes clearer when viewed through a lens.
That’s because the universal warning to be quiet comes from an eye-riveting, two-story-high sculpture entitled “Shhh…Portrait in 12 Volumes of Gray” created by Christian Moeller, a UCLA design | media arts professor. Composed of 3,960 books with covers in 12 shades of gray arranged on a gigantic steel bookshelf, the artwork displays the image of a woman’s face as she makes a “shhh” signal. It stands 26 feet tall and eight feet wide in the library lobby.
Library users aren’t being intimidated by the giant face. On the contrary, they like it. “People are not taking the sculpture too seriously,” said Cindy Brittain, senior library manager. “It’s been well-received since it’s an unusual artwork in the new library.”
Moeller, whose art installations can be found all over the world, started to design the sculpture three years ago. “The sculpture is informed through photography,” said the artist, who was awarded the $200,000 project by the Walnut Creek Arts Commission. He created an image in 12 different shades of gray along a spectrum that goes from pure white to pitch black. Each book spine represents one pixel in the entire image.
In fact, the pixels are so large that the image looks distorted to the naked eye. But the picture becomes clearer if you see it through a camera lens (as in the photo) or if you squint. “It's proven to be a fun thing for folks to discover, and we've put a sign near the piece telling people to look at it through their cell phone to see the image,” said Gayle Vassar, communications and outreach manager for the City of Walnut Creek.
Creating the sculpture had its challenges.
Willem Henri Lucas
The toughest task, according to Willem Henri Lucas, professor and chair of the Department of Design | Media Arts, was coming up with 12 shades of gray required to make the picture. Moeller enlisted Lucas’ help with the typography because Lucas’ forte is book design. Although it can’t be seen in the installation, each book cover is embossed with a volume number, from 1 to 12, based on its shade of gray.
Only seven shades of gray are actually available on the Pantone Matching System, a standardized color chart used by the printing industry. “We could do it in seven shades,” Lucas said, but the image would have become too abstract. “So we had to mix inks and figure out if we could make a fluent process from white going to black. That was basically the most difficult thing.”
Other challenges in creating the overall sculpture arose. “We had to use thinner book binders in order to compress the volume of books,” Lucas said. “Only later did we realize that there would be spaces between the spines.” Since paper gains weight and thickness when it picks up moisture, it was not as stable a material to work with as they initially thought. Also, because of the cost, there was no possibility of starting over. “All these elements were crazy to figure out,” he said.
“Sometimes things that seem very, very simple are actually very complex,” Lucas added.
A close-up view of the individual volumes.
Production of the books took two years. “Most of that time was spent by Delta Printing trying to make that gradient as flawless as possible, and that was really difficult; they used basically every printing trick in the book to get it done,” Lucas remarked. The Santa Monica printing firm had to manually mix the colors, starting with the darkest shades and moving on to the lightest.
The final installation of the books took place on June 8. It took four people nine hours to assemble, with all their work documented in a time-lapse video
provided by the City of Walnut Creek.
The Walnut Creek Library sculpture is unique for another reason.
The pages in all of the books are blank, but perhaps not for long. Residents can purchase an exact same-shade replica of a specific volume in the sculpture and write in it. They can then bring the book back, and it will replace the corresponding blank book in the sculpture.
“Over time, the sculpture will fill up with the notes and memories of the Walnut Creek community,” Moeller said.
Moeller’s latest creation, “Sliver,” will be publicly unveiled at an opening on August 2 at 7 p.m. in the newly renovated Santa Monica Place mall, which officially opens on August 6.
Watch the sculpture being assembled: