When I first moved to Seldovia, we didn’t have a drop box at the library. I guess there used to be one, but people kept putting trash and recyclables in it, so it got taken away. Our library isn’t open very many hours each week, so it’s handy to have a drop box. Eventually, the board decided to seek out a new one, but we are an all-volunteer library and don’t have a big budget. New drop boxes cost thousands of dollars, so that was out of the question. Library board member Dianne Gruber decided to see if she could find a used one, and got the word out via the Alaska grapevine until she found a vintage drop box out in the boonies somewhere. (I hope she’ll remember what town or village it was in, and let me know.) Not only could we get this old drop box for free, the local airline shipped it to Anchorage for free, and our local freight company brought it all the way to Seldovia for free, too! What a classic story of small-town cooperation that extends across the entire state of Alaska.
I happened to be in town when Dianne and crew brought the drop box to the library, and was absolutely tickled to see that it was shaped like a bird! I’ve never seen such a cool thing. And seldom do so many of my interests come together in one object: books, public libraries, birds… There was just one problem. It was painted like a Northern Cardinal. Most definitely NOT an Alaskan bird.
From the first time I saw it, I wanted it to be a Varied Thrush. Cousin of the American Robin, ubiquitous along the edges of the spruce forests around here, tuneful and sometimes harsh in its song. It’s certainly a Seldovia bird. Plus, it must be said, the old Cardinal paint job was looking a bit shabby.
Now, I only moved to town a couple of years ago, and doing public art feels like kind of a big statement. It felt a little scary. I guess it seemed like I’d be imposing my view of what the town should look like, without really asking anyone if they wanted it or not. So I hung back, eyed that Cardinal every gosh-darned day, wishing it would turn into a Varied Thrush… it was almost like there was a Varied Thrush trapped inside the Cardinal, trying to get out. Finally, in January this year, I asked the library board if I could take on the project. They whole-heartedly approved.
There’s still an old nameplate on the front showing the Kingsley Library Equipment Company in Pomona, California. I got in touch with them mainly to see what kind of paint I should use, but also to get the history on this unique bird-shaped drop box. I spoke with a woman named Evelyn, who told me, “Back then we were using automotive paint and those units were sold before my time. I should say before the time of the current employees. That was one of the original Jackson Manufacturers products designed beginning in the early 70s.” So, this Cardinal is probably over forty years old! Imagine the adventures it’s had. Imagine all those books getting dropped inside… maybe even bird books… maybe even books about Cardinals…
Library board member Jan Wyland and city manager Tim Dillon arranged it so I could have a heated work space at the Seldovia city shop. I got started the first weekend in March, and have been camped out in a corner of the shop for the last two and a half weeks, with many thanks to Tyler and Randy for putting up with having me in their space and letting me use their tools. I’d never been in the city shop before or really met those guys, and enjoyed seeing a part of town that otherwise would have remained unexplored territory. Lisa gave me a key so I could come and go as needed. It was great to be trusted and to have the run of the place.
While I was sanding it, I found some interesting scratches on the top of the head. They almost looked like claw marks. I’m hoping to hear that the Cardinal was stationed up at Barrow, and occasionally would have run-ins with hungry polar bears.
Laura Haskins, the director of the library, happened to be in Homer at just the right time to buy the paint for the Varied Thrush. Her husband Alan helped pick out the right kind of caulk for the seams. Painting begins!
I did the final touches this morning, rebuilding a safety catch so the top of the box doesn’t slam backwards all the way if opened too far. Walt lent me some tools and gave me a length of trolling wire left over from his fishing days. Using the trolling wire, I also fixed up this nifty spring-loaded mesh platform that’s on the inside, and catches the books as they fall in. I like that there is some kind of fishing-related material involved.
If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll see that there have been lots of people involved in this project – some of them I can’t even name because they’re out there in Alaska somewhere, hopefully not missing their bird-shaped drop box too badly. I thank them for sending it our way, and giving me the opportunity to combine some of my favorite things. Not just books, public libraries, and birds, but art and community, too.