A young girl turns the pages in a book as she swings her legs over the edge of the bench she is perched on – a very special bench. The fiberglass bench has been molded into the shape of an open book turned on its side so that the bench rests on the enormous spine of the book. The girl sits between the pages of this oversized book, surrounded by vibrant colors that splash across every surface of the bench.
The bright colors were chosen by local artist, Sean Bodley, who painted the bench from his studio in Lemont. The girl is simultaneously enveloped in all four seasons – bright purple azaleas in spring bloom, a summer rainbow, the rich hues of autumn, and crisp winter snow. Best of all, the “nooks” of the book have been painted too and are waiting to be explored. Inquisitive onlookers can peer under the seat of the bench to find Bodley’s surprise – sets of eyes looking back at the viewer from their cave-like home.
It’s a hot day in July during Arts Fest and this young girl is
one of the very first patrons of the “Book Benches of Centre County.” Quickly, she is joined by more people as
children lead their parents over to explore the bench’s “nooks.” People take turns testing out the sturdy
benches and standing back to take in the hand-painted scene.
The “Book Benches of Centre County” was a collaborative
community project that began in the fall of 2014 with a $100,000 grant from
Centre Foundation’s Centre Inspires granting program. That year, the program
focused on transforming Centre County through community engagement in arts and
Inspired by the Book Benches of London, Sue Swain of SPE Federal Credit Union brought her idea to the Child Development and Family Council of Centre County (CDFC). Ann Walker, CDFC’s Executive Administrator, embraced the vision and foresaw 25 book benches spread throughout Centre County for children and families all over the community to enjoy. Walker joined the project as the required non-profit partner and oversaw the project’s execution. Christa Hosterman of SPE Federal Credit Union also helped bring the project to life, while local artist Elody Gyekis took the creative reigns as Artistic Director.
The project began with a series of community conversations to
provide a venue for community members to share local lore, culture, history, and
memories. The love of place resonated
throughout these conversations. From
Penns Valley to Philipsburg, Bellefonte to Bald Eagle, and in State College –
community members opened up during these conversations and shared their values,
family roots, and engaging stories.
These conversations were the catalyst for the professional artist community to synthesize themes and motifs for many of the Book Benches. Each bench features an artist’s unique interpretation of these collaborative community meetings. The benches portray chapters of Centre County, like the Native Americans who settled in Snow Shoe, the Victorian buildings of Bellefonte, the coal and textile companies that fueled Philipsburg, and the bountiful trout streams that flow through Penns Valley.
Other benches were completed through a different type of
collaborative experience. Four of the benches were painted by community members
through a paint-by-number process.
Gyekis facilitated the community conversations then used these
interactions to inform her bench designs. She created bench designs digitally
and then hand-traced them onto each bench. She coded each section of the bench
design to its corresponding color, blending the paint colors for the eager
Through this process, community members of all ages and from all corners of Centre County were able to bring these benches to life. With Gyekis’ guidance, these newly minted artists completed benches that feature friendly cows and other farm animals, intricate stained glass windows, wildlife in their habitats, and a rendition of artists’ tools.
Two other benches were completed by group effort. Residents at Foxdale Village painted the “Passages” bench, replete with radiant flowers. Students at Bald Eagle Area High School worked together to paint a bench brimming with school pride and inspired by the Bald Eagle Valley they call home.
Today, there are 25 Book Benches located throughout Centre County. While other cities in the United States have chosen to paint various types of animals, the Book Benches are believed to be the first of their kind outside of London. These interactive and functional benches invite people to sit, read, congregate, and engage others - promoting community spirit, art, and tourism.
A map of the Book Benches is available below and you can also learn more at website and Facebook page of the Book Benches.
Some favorite "nook" pictures: