Twenty small, bronze sculptures of finches reading pages from published books are scattered around the Mustang Library and the adjacent Mustang Transit Center near the roundabout on 90th Street.
It’s a public arts project that took six years to complete; and on May 17, Scottsdale Public Art celebrated the opening and dedication of “Birdie Umwelt” by local artist Mary Lucking.
In addition to Lucking, Scottsdale Mayor Jim Lane, city transportation Director Paul Basha, Scottsdale Public Art Board Chair Chris Irish and Scottsdale Arts President and CEO Gerd Wuestemann attended.
“Public art sometimes lives at a large scale, visible from afar, like the highway art or the piece up at the SOHO development. And sometimes public art can be small and poetic, something that you have to discover when you spend a little time. I think this is one of those pieces that inspires poetry, that makes us think a little bit more about life and how we relate to our environment,” Wuestemann said.
The “Birdie Umwelt” installation also includes a birdhouse inspired by the architecture of the nearby Mustang Library and a series of bird and feather images sandblasted into walking paths along the connecting greenbelt.
“‘Umwelt’ is a German word for ‘environment’: ‘Um’ is what surrounds us, and ‘welt’ is our world. So, it really is the world that surrounds us. And I think that’s a wonderful part of this extraordinary piece,” Wuestemann said.
Lucking, who specializes in projects that include art incorporated into urban and rural walking and biking trails, public transit stations, college campuses and neighborhood parks, was inspired by the birds she frequently spotted nesting around the library.
She said she wondered what books in the Mustang Library the birds might find the most compelling.
Thus, Lucking’s concept became: What would birds read?
“I come to every project with an open mind, working with the community and design team to create a piece that responds to the specific qualities of the space,” Lucking said in her artist statement. “My aim is to delight, to intrigue and to invite people to look more deeply at what is already there.”
Books included Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” A. A. Milne’s “When We Were Very Young” and Helen Macdonald’s “H is for Hawk.”
Lucking solicited public input.
She also had birdhouse-shaped suggestion boxes placed in the library for patrons to propose books for the project.
Once Lucking pared down the suggested books, including her own picks, she handed off the list to Scottsdale Public Art to obtain permission from the publisher and/or author of each book in order to reproduce one page for each sculpture.
“I got to go through the entire library and explore all these different sections. We came home with a great big stack of books from the poetry section, in the science section, in the how-to section — sections I didn’t even know that were in the library,” Lucking said.
It took Scottsdale Public Art four to six weeks to obtain each permission, with one taking about five months.
“Scottsdale residents and library staff loved helping select the books that Mary then cast in bronze for her birdies to read,” Irish said.
“And I think when you wander around and see the different books and their titles, you’ll agree with me that our residents are very clever and have a great sense of humor,” Irish added.
Other books include “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!” by Mo Willems, “Outwitting Squirrels” by Bill Adler Jr., “Noah’s Favorite Animal Jokes” by Jennifer Hahn and 2018 Phoenix Visual Flight Rules Chart’s “Federal Aviation Administration,” among others.
The project was part of the city’s Mustang Transit Center capital improvement project, which included new transit amenities, pedestrian and bicycle improvements, a new signal and a roundabout.
“This intersection has changed. Whether you’re a lover or you hate roundabouts, I want you to know that this is responsible for this great public art,” Lane said, the audience laughing along.
Lane added: “As it’s been said, we have a great history in art, in general, in culture and public art. This is another great add to that collection and really so appropriately placed.”
The project began in 2013 with a national call for artists and artists, and once Lucking was chosen, the first 10 bird sculptures, the birdhouse and the sandblasting were completed November 2017.
“It is a very, very rare opportunity for an artist to be able to take a project they enjoyed and they loved and be able to do it again and more,” Lucking said. “I am so grateful for the opportunity; it was really lovely.”
The books, birds and birdhouse were fabricated locally by Bollinger Atelier and E2 Innovations.
“[Lucking] wanted to entice everyone to move from the outdoors into the library. So, she did enhancements along the walkways that you’ll also see of birds and feathers and related items,” Irish said.
The art was so well received, the installation was commissioned by Scottsdale Public Art to become part of the city’s Fine Art Collection.
The city expanded the project in 2018 to include 10 additional books and birds, all of which were added this spring.
“We’re very lucky in Scottsdale. Our mayor and city council understand the value that art adds to our quality of life, and they also understand how intricately art is tied to Scottsdale’s reputation as a world-class city,” said Irish, who is ending her term as chair of the Scottsdale Public Art Board.
Irish, who served for two years, said, “I wanted to publicly acknowledge that this has been one of the most rewarding volunteer experiences of my life. I’ve really, really enjoyed it. I’ve learned so much. I’ve met so many incredible artists, and I hope in a very small way, I’ve made Scottsdale a little bit more beautiful for all of you.”