For library volunteers, doing something artistic probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. But for two groups in the Teen Summer Volunteer Program at the Oak Park Public Library, arts were the focus as they transformed the walls of a room and put on a show that brought the audience into the action.

“Art can serve just as useful a purpose as any volunteer task,” said High School Services Librarian Rachael Bild, who facilitates the teen program. “The skills involved in making art lead to the critical thinking skills we want to develop in young people.”

Each summer since 2008, teens have had the opportunity to volunteer at the Oak Park library. This year, students could choose among four groups. STEM Investigators conducted science experiments then made them available to younger library visitors. Book Worms created displays and collected books for female prisoners, among other things. Volunteer Opportunities for Library Teens (VOLT) created a mural in the Young Adult Group Study Room.

Forum Theatre Troupe, made up of eight students, learned about the Theatre of the Oppressed, created by Brazilian Augusto Boal in the 1970s. These teens decided to tackle issues of bullying, including homophobia. They created characters and settings, but improvised the rest. As scenes are acted out, the audience changes outcomes by becoming “spect-actors,” stepping in for characters.

“Forum Theater is different than what we’re used to — it is designed for things to go horribly wrong,” said Library Supervisor Larry Nance, who headed up the group. “It’s up to the spect-actors to see how they may be able to make change. Every scene sparks a conversation.”

After each vignette, there was discussion. Forum Theatre’s final performance, at Hamburger Mary’s for the community, takes place on Tuesday, July 31.

In the Young Adult Study Room, having a piece of art from the library’s permanent collection was no longer practical because the room is often used by large groups carrying backpacks, according to Bild. But this opened an opportunity for a mural to be painted on the walls for teens, by teens.

Oak Park artist Tia Etu was invited to guide the process. Rising sophomore and VOLT team member Hunter Hogan designed the image with input from the group.

The painting includes a face, divided into quadrants — one is Korean, representing winter; one is Arabic, wears a hijab, and represents spring; another is a gender-fluid Caucasian who uses the pronoun “they” and represents fall; and one is black, representing summer.

“Everyone reads, no matter what your race, gender, sexuality, religion or age, and no matter the season,” Hunter said.

Seven students worked on painting in the outlines laid down in previous weeks. Some carefully mixed colors, especially to achieve the four different skin tones. Some painted leaves and branches, while others painted books, both of which spill over onto the adjacent walls in a dance of ideas. Origami birds flutter above. The teens worked closely, both in proximity to each other and in exchanging thoughts on colors and design.

Hunter moved to Oak Park two years ago and joined the program to make friends. He was also part of the Forum Theatre Troupe to get out of his “comfort zone.”

“I’ve become more social, more myself,” he said, about working with the mural team.

He hopes other teens see, “You are not different from everyone else. Everyone loves to read, so that brings everyone together. You are not alone, especially if you are gay or a different skin color or a different religion. You’ll make friends by reading.”

Another VOLT team member, rising sophomore Nya Swartz, said she hopes that teens notice the diversity in the painting while using the room.

“They should relax and be who they are and let that show through their own work,” she said.

Bild said she wanted the team to “create something people who use that space will value and recognize as part of their own community.”

“I love how inclusive the design is,” Bild said, “and how they really focused on celebrating the values the library has.” 

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