Unexpected Art: At the Library, Look up Wherever You Are

Bookhead Egghead
Robert Arneson's "Bookhead" Egghead sculpture greets visitors before they even enter the library. There is much more art inside. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)

See art in many forms in this study, research space

Paintings, photographs, prints and sculptures: the works of art at the Shields Library vary in size and genre, and come from former students and faculty alike.

This blog post is written by Leigh Houck, UC Davis Media Relations Intern

For this episode of Unexpected Art, you’ll have to appreciate the art using your indoor voices. UC Davis’ Shields Library is a campus and community hub not only for research and studying, but for art as well. Shields is home to more than 80 paintings and sculptures. Most of the artwork in Shields was created by former UC Davis faculty and students, says Jessica Nusbaum, the library’s director of communications and marketing.

Visitors can enjoy one of the library’s most recognizable pieces before even entering the building. Robert Arneson’s “Bookhead” is located in front of the main doors to Shields, and is one of seven total Eggheads scattered across campus. Arneson was among the first-generation art faculty at UC Davis in the mid 20th century. The popular sculpture is a large ceramic head positioned face down in an open book. Legend has it that “Bookhead” is good luck: students who rub the sculpture’s head before finals are sure to pass their exams. Nusbaum says that the sculpture is not only “emblematic of student academic experience here,” but also represents “a certain offbeat, quirky personality of campus.”

The First Floor

            Once inside the library, art abounds. The area to the left of the entrance opens into a large room where spacious white walls are covered with colorful prints created by Aggies. Nusbaum says in addition to faculty art, the library loves to include student art. The library receives over 1.6 million visitors per year, and 93 percent of people who walk into the library are students. Students can see themselves and their peers in the posters by TANA (Taller Arte del Nuevo Amanecer) that hang in room 193. Student art is also displayed in the 24-Hour Study Room.

Library visitors who veer left through the white corridor that runs along the courtyard will find themselves surrounded by old black-and-white photographs. The photographs feature people decades ago in the process of farming; workers are pictured tilling the land and harvesting mountains of produce. The California Historical Society donated these prints to represent the rich agricultural tradition at UC Davis.

Visitors who veer right will quickly realize that library art is not solely the purview of art faculty. A large, colorful painting hangs on the right side of the library between the Circulation Desk and the computer lab. “Power Glove and Game Boy Meet”was created by George Longfish, artist and UC Davis professor emeritus in Native American Studies. This piece is especially relevant this year, on the 50th anniversary of the UC Davis Native American Studies Department. A temporary exhibit by the main entrance, “Interdisciplinary, Hemispheric, Sovereign, Indigenous: UC Davis Native American Studies at 50 years,” celebrates the history of the department and looks toward the future.

Once at the back of the first floor of Shields, a large, 3D painting hangs on the wall. Many people say that art is meant to provoke an emotional reaction. The black and gold behemoth “Black Assemblage,” by Daniel Shapiro, definitely meets this criterion. Shapiro, a former professor in both the Art and Design departments at UC Davis, created the 84-by-315-inch mixed media using fabric, lace, ropeand even pieces of shoes. Visitors to the library seem to have a love-hate relationship with the work, says Nusbaum. Some viewers find the big, dark painting oppressive. Others find its texture, with its variety of everyday objects, fascinating. Nusbaum says it's interesting to hear peoples’ reactions at a “personal aesthetic level” to this particular piece.

The Courtyard

The California Funk Art Movement, pioneered by the UC Davis Art department in the 1960s, is well-represented at Shields Library. Art in the library makes sure the legacy of this period endures today. A funky Roy De Forest piece, the self-explanatory “The Dog Bench,” resides in the interior courtyard of the library’s Sunken Courtyard. Guests can sit down and relax with their reading while supported by two yellow-eyed dog sculptures, tails frozen mid-wag.

The Lower Level

What would a library at UC Davis, the No. 1 veterinary school in the world, be without an homage to animals? Just pop down a flight of stairs to the library’s lower level. The bottom floor features a permanent dog art exhibit housed in glass cases. The pieces in this exhibit are rotated annually, most recently in December.

The Second Floor

Art at the library ranges in composition and size, from the smallest sketch to the largest painting. The largest piece at the library, David Hollowell’s 120-by-240-inch--oil on hardboard painting “La Galleria,” is located in the Main Reading Room on the second floor. Nusbaum says they put the most high-profile pieces in the most-trafficked areas: the Main Reading Room is the most popular study area in the library. Students who look up from their books will see towering ballerinas posed between depictions of classical sculptures.

In addition to traditional paintings, the second floor is also home to abstract art. The Sally Porter Reading Room, a gateway to the Main Reading Room, features paintings by artist Hassel Smith. The large canvases hold abstract scenes composed solely of bright colors and geometric shapes.

Want more from the man who brought you the Eggheads? Still on the second floor, the Nelle Branch Reading Room is home to two-dimensional art created by Arneson. The wild-haired man depicted in the “Son of Sam” lithograph suggests a self-portrait of Arneson. Arneson’s “Cherry Pie” lithograph entices even the most diligent students to take a study break for snacks. Eagle-eyed art observers might notice that Arneson’s “Jackson and Me” lithograph depicts an eye that is similar to the eye on his Stargazer Egghead outside of Mrak Hall.

So head over to the Shields Library for a dose of unexpected art. The vast majority of artworks are permanent fixtures of the library. With approximately 100 total pieces, you’re sure to find a piece that speaks to you. For art enthusiasts in the library, Nusbaum has one piece of advice: “Look up, wherever you are.”

UC Davis Shields Library Hours here

Self-Guided Tour of the Art Collection in the Peter J. Shields Library here

Subscribe to the Arts Blog

Primary Category