Raven Brings Light to this House of Stories

Sarah Michalak, Assistant Director, Planning & Development

In October, 1994, Libraries staff members and users watched with interest as Carl T. Chew, Mare Blocker,
J.T. Stewart, and Ron Hilbert arrived in the Allen Lobby to install their collaborative artwork, Raven Brings Light to this House of Stories. As the 40 large raven sculptures and the other pieces of work were installed, the lobby became a lively and welcoming space.

The installation was the culmination of a unique process of designing and creating a major artwork for a public space. In 1991, the Washington State Arts Commission, Art in Public Places Program, in cooperation with the University of Washington Public Art Committee, issued a call for proposals for a major installation for the Kenneth S. Allen Library. In 1992, Carl Chew submitted a detailed proposal for a work for the Allen north lobby.

Chew is an alumnus of the University of Washington and is noted for his dramatic rugs, whimsical sculpture, paintings, and computer-aided designs, as well as typeface design, book arts and postage stamp design.

Chew asked the Libraries' staff to help articulate goals for the installation. They responded that the immediate objective was to create a work that would add vitality, interest, and warmth to the rather austere space. The work should not make noise or need to be turned off or on; it should not be easily stolen or vandalized; it should not need explaining or get in the way of users, special events or exhibits. Staff members requested themes which would respect the Libraries diverse clientele and work force, with a special preference for the Native American heritage of the Pacific Northwest. Also it was important for the work to acknowledge the Libraries knowledge mission to acquire, manage, and preserve knowledge.

Chew listened to staff concerns, studied the uses of the Lobby as a major campus pedestrian pathway and as a location for information service, and then gathered together artists who would bring a number of different perspectives to the project. Blocker is an accomplished book artist, several of whose works are held by the Libraries Special Collections and Preservation Division. Stewart is an African-American poet, and Hilbert is a Native American artist, whose people are the Lushootseed, among the earliest inhabitants of the Seattle area.

The completed work is composed of four major parts. Most noticeable as one enters the Lobby are the 40 ravens suspended from the ceiling. In Pacific Northwest Native American lore, the raven is the being who went east to bring the light to the west. In this work, the light is the knowledge housed within the Libraries collections. Each bird carries a sample type style or other symbol from cultures around the world. A number of ravens are placed in surprising locations on other floors of the building.

The second part of the exhibit is the central pedestal called "Table of Knowledge." Hilbert carved images of human forms into a piece of old growth cedar cut in the 1890s. On top of the table is one of Blocker's elegant books entitled Raven brings Light to this House of Stories: Presentations from the International Symposium of Light, November 18, 1994. It tells of the raven's journey to bring light in the context of a whimsical academic conference. Across from the pedestal on the south wall, the title Raven Brings Light to this House of Stories is displayed in large letters in both the Lushootseed language and English.

Stewart's contributions include poems in the Table of Knowledge book and three poems which are hand-press printed, framed, and hung on the south wall of the grand staircase. The poems are entitled "Praise poems for the House of Light: Spirit Song," "Circling Back" and "Raven."

Two collages placed under glass on study tables on the first floor balcony and on the third floor include some of Chew's favorite themes and feature the Allen Library in the background.

Dedicated in a late afternoon ceremony on November 18, 1994 with a traditional Native American blessing, Raven Brings Light has brought many happy comments. The artistic collaboration between artists and Libraries staff, and the enduring theme of the work symbolize the Libraries role of bridging the past and the future with its services and collections, bringing the light of wisdom to generations of teachers, learners and scholars.

More about:

Mare Blocker:
Ron Hilbert Coy:
Bus Shelter; Ron passed away in January of 2006. Seattle Times Obituary.
J.T. Stewart:
UW Site