Downtown Berkeley has acquired a delightful new attraction: Kaleidoscope, the marvelous tapestry that was recently installed in the fourth-floor Story Room of the Berkeley Public Library.
Based on original art by North Berkeley children’s author-illustrator Elisa Kleven, the 10-by-6-foot cotton hanging offers a vivid panorama of a verdant, park-like Berkeley peopled mainly by kids in motion.
There are kids on bikes, kids on skateboards, kids on scooters, kids playing soccer, kids riding BART, kids riding the merry-go-round at Tilden and above all, kids with books. A few children are reading, but most are flying book-kites featuring illustrations from well-known children’s literature, including many works of authors and illustrators with close connections to the San Francisco Bay Area. The most prominent structure is the Main Library, which itself looks like a big mint-green book opened to pages depicting children on every floor.
Kaleidoscope was funded by Giorgia Neidorf through a trust fund created in memory of her son, Max Delaware Neidorf-Weidenfeld. Max’s fondness for salamanders and other small creatures is represented in the tapestry and the art on which it is based, as well as the salamander bookplates that can be found in the hundreds of children’s books bought by the trust fund for all branches of the Berkeley Public Library.
The Story Room is the Central Library’s main venue for its many children’s programs.
Children’s Librarian and Acting Manager for the Library’s Children’s Services Elizabeth Overmyer brought Neidorf together with Kleven, and the three of them collaborated on the tapestry’s design.
“We knew we wanted books,” says Overmyer. What they didn’t want, she adds, is “teddy bear art … When you hear ‘children’s art,’ unsophisticated images come to mind.”
Their goal was a work that would appeal to children but wasn’t childish. It was also a work that would engage the Story Room’s clientele, who range from infants to 8th graders.
It was Kleven who came up with the kite imagery. “Books are like little journeys,” says the artist. In Kaleidoscope books literally take children onto flights of fancy: some of the kids are flying through the air, buoyed aloft by their kites. After doing preliminary sketches, Kleven produced the watercolor and collage that hangs over the fireplace in the Historic Children’s Room, which is also on the fourth floor of the Central Library.
Transforming Kleven’s 30-by-22-inch art into a 10-by-6-foot tapestry was the next step. City of Berkeley Civic Arts Coordinator Mary Ann Merker put Overmyer in touch with Magnolia Editions’ Don Farnsworth. Located in Oakland, Magnolia Editions is a fine art print studio whose clients include many distinguished artists and their patrons.
The Magnolia Tapestry Project originated in a commission to produce hangings to cover the walls of the huge nave of the new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles. Working with artist John Nava, Farnsworth developed a computerized method that, in the words of Magnolia Editions’ website, “blends old-world weaving processes with the newest digital possibilities.”
In a conventional tapestry, each time a new color is introduced, it’s necessary to cut the yarn and tie in another piece. With Magnolia’s unique technique, the weft-weaving (the movement of the yarn across the vertical yarns of the warp) is continuous. For each work, Farnsworth uses a computer and a spectrometer to create a customized palette. As with pointillistic art, what viewers perceive when they look at a Magnolia tapestry are colors that arise from a complex, optically blended mosaic.
The final, woven product honors the artist’s vision and, inevitably, transforms it. So, for example, I asked Farnsworth why colors in the tapestry version of Kaleidoscope are more muted than what Kleven calls the “paintbox colors” of her watercolor/collage. He pointed to two factors. First, the Belgian weavers chose colors for their loom’s warp that would help them approximate the subtle shades of antique tapestries. Second, tapestries are by their very nature “hilly”; their woven texture creates shadows that don’t occur on paper’s flat surface.
Farnsworth made a “pixelated” weave file for Kaleidescope and sent it to be woven on Flanders Tapestry’s electronic Jacquard loom in Belgium. The Belgian weavers sent back a six-foot-long sample. Klevens, Neidorf and Overmyer liked what they saw—“It knocked us out,” says Overmyer—and gave their okay to go ahead.
The tapestry was completed in November and then installed over the Story Room’s fireplace. On Jan. 28 it was dedicated in a moving public ceremony attended by about 125 people, including authors, authors’ friends, Neidorf’s friends and library patrons.
Kaleidoscope is a testimony to the fruitfulness of private-public collaboration, the generosity of its patron and the talent and commitment of all who were involved in its production. The Berkeley it depicts is a place full of joy, of freewheeling exploration and possibility, a child-friendly world inhabited by caring adults (there are a few grown-ups in the picture). It’s a sensuously pleasing place built to human scale. And it’s a place where the value of books, of reading and of culture is celebrated—indeed built into the very townscape. Would that Kaleidoscope inspires us to make the real Berkeley more like the place it portrays.
The tapestry version of Kaleidoscope may be viewed when the Story Room is open for public events. Elisa Kleven’s watercolor/collage can be seen whenever the Central Library is open to the public. For library hours and for information about events in the Story Room, call 981-6224 or see the Berkeley Public Library’s website at berkeleypubliclibrary.org. More information about the Magnolia Tapestry Project is available at magnoliaeditions.com.
Image: A detail from Kaleidoscope, a tapestry based on the artwork of Berkeley children’s author and illustrator Elisa Kleven which hangs in the Berkeley Public Library’s fourth-floor Story Room.