Art-covered Little Free Library stands up to hate

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When State Street resident Addy Smith-Reiman installed a Little Free Library in her front yard three years ago, she never imagined the journey it would take her on.

The first twist in her ownership of the community bookshelf came two years ago when someone tagged the structure with their signature. Smith-Reiman was able to remove the graffiti, and contemplated painting over it herself.

But then she had an idea.

“My husband teaches at (Maine College of Art), and I teach at MECA, so it was like, here’s a really great opportunity: let’s think of ways that we can encourage a mini artist residency,” she said.

This Little Free Library on State Street has been vandalized twice with white supremacy graffiti. Addy Smith-Reiman plans to keep the artwork up for two years, and then commission another artist from her neighborhood to create a different piece. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)

The plan finally came to fruition through the work of Portland artist Ashley Page last November. 

Page created an exhibit of posters, titled “In Memory of Those Taken,” that hung in Congress Square Park last summer as an ode to people who died as a result of police brutality and racially motivated violence. Portraits of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and several others were featured, surrounded by flowers.

Smith-Reiman said she was “really struck” by the exhibit, and also loved other works of art Page had created around the city, so she asked her to be the inaugural artist for the Little Free Library. 

Page ultimately created a collaged, pared-down version of some of the portraits featured in Congress Square, and applied them to the exterior of Smith-Reiman’s library. This version, however, features only the subjects’ eyes.

“It’s so intimate and that’s what makes the beauty of this piece,” Smith-Reiman said last week. “All of a sudden you’re confronted and you’re really forced to stare at them and they’re staring back at you; that intimacy is so extraordinary. For me, daily, that’s what I see.”

But now the Little Free Library has been vandalized twice since the piece was created, most recently with white supremacy symbols. After a board member of the Parkside Neighborhood Association told her colleagues about the incident, they advised Smith-Reiman to call the police.

Officers informed Smith-Reiman about the connection to white supremacists and suggested she put up surveillance on the Little Free Library, which she opted not to do. She said the structure is something meant to “invite the public in” and it would be “awkward” to use cameras.

The second time it was tagged, however, left more of an impact.

“I felt so violated the second time,” Smith-Reiman said. “Because I didn’t know the first time that it was a white supremacy symbol and it was the police officer who told me. Then I just kind of went cold.”

The question of hate, she thinks, is one that needs to be “peeled back” and examined. She noted other recent hate incidents that have happened locally, such as the hate letters mailed to residents with rainbow flags on their property last fall, and the woman of Asian descent who was allegedly attacked last week and told to “go back to her country.”

Two weeks ago, white supremacist flyers were also posted in the West End.

Portland residents, Smith-Reiman said, can sometimes take for granted that they tend to travel in circles that are “exceptionally progressive.” But there exists a “hidden hate that is very upsetting,” she said.

Fortunately, the graffiti could be covered and the artwork remains. Although the act was “antagonizing and exceptionally uncomfortable,” Smith-Reiman said she is “not scared” and used it as a teachable moment for her young son.

The impact of the Little Free Library has also been felt by her neighbors throughout the coronavirus pandemic. Smith-Reiman initially closed the structure for three months last year, because she was unsure if the virus could travel from person to person on books.

When she reopened it, she received letters in the Little Free Library from strangers expressing their gratitude. 

“It was a beautiful, silent community celebration,” she said.

In the three years that she has owned the structure, she said, she has never had to contribute her own books. Users keep replenishing it through what Smith-Reiman called “beautiful community stewardship.”

As for the artwork, Smith-Reiman said she was also surprised the piece held up so well through the winter. She now plans to commission a new artist on a biennial basis, keeping each new piece up for two years, which was a decision partially inspired by the recent hate incidents.

“It encouraged me to keep it up longer,” Smith-Reiman said. “After that, I was like, ‘forget it, we’ll do it every two years.’ It’s beautiful, I don’t want to lose it.”

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