Brooklyn Heights library unveils new illuminated gravity-defying sculpture


The impressive new Brooklyn Heights branch of BPL has recently managed to merge memorable sculpture with borough-wide reading habits and a piece of Brooklyn’s history. Each leaf of a sculpture they described as “gravity-defying” contains data on each of the BPL’s 58 branches and describes the most popular book checked out in the year that branch opened.

Marking more than 125 years of library service to Brooklyn, the sculpture incorporates used denim and old technology donated by librarians and patrons, Jean Shin’s Something Borrowed, Something Blue —an illuminated and inverted hanging tree with roots at the ceiling—is visible from all sides and every level of the new Brooklyn Heights Library. At night, the sculpture resembles an intricate glowing lantern. During daylight hours, the contours of the leaves form the map of Brooklyn with each leaf representing a neighbor- hood where Brooklyn Public Library has a branch. Shin worked with Aurora Lampworks on the lighting design.

“With Something Borrowed, Something Blue, Brooklyn-based artist Jean Shin pays homage to public library service in Brooklyn, to the countless individuals who have walked through our doors seeking knowledge, and to more than a billion books borrowed over the last 125 years. Moreover, this beautiful and imaginative piece of art will inspire and uplift a new generation of library patrons for years to come,” said Linda E Johnson, President and CEO, Brooklyn Public Library.

Shin’s work draws on the symbolism of the tree, noting trees are inextricably linked to the history of knowledge via the production of paper and advances in the printing press, preceded by the tree as a sacred symbol of knowledge in many ancient cultures. In the present moment, the sacred symbol of the tree of knowledge is refracted through our awareness of the shared biological world being upend- ed by our own human activity.

“What an honor to create a unique sculpture for the Brooklyn Public Library. Brooklyn has been my home for the past 30 years and I love its libraries. They are truly special public spaces integrated within each neighborhood, nourishing the curious minds and hearts of our community. I am proud to contribute this work along the rich literary traditions and creative force that defines Brooklyn,” said Shin.

The canopy of leaves in the sculpture are made with denim-wrapped metal and light components. Electric cords wrapped in long strips of blue denim jeans and other deconstructed clothing are coiled with old electronic wires to form the tree’s root structure, trunk, and limbs. Shin invited librarians and library-goers to donate worn jeans, as well as their old technology—including cables and cords—to be used in the sculpture.

Blue denim references the body, people, and the community with egalitarian and workerist associations and speaks to the mission of the library to serve the public, providing equity, access and overcoming the digital divide. The sculpture also draws on the traditional rhyme “Something borrowed, something blue, something old, something new.” The adage, from English folklore, details what a bride should wear on her wedding day for good luck. In this context, the artworks’ title speaks to the social contract embodied by public libraries. With it, she alludes to the circulation of books (“something borrowed”), the colors and materials of the artwork and the BPL logo (“something blue”), outmoded forms of technology (“something old”) and emergent forms of knowledge and technology (“something new”) that define the library system and our world.

The topside of the sculpture’s leaves, visible from the mezzanine level, offers “something blue” in the form of indigo patterning. The ancient Indigo color that comes from plants, has been largely re- placed by synthetic dyes used in today’s denim. The indigo textiles were altered using traditional Japanese shibori resist technique to dye natural Indigo fabric. Shin tightly tied the cloth with the donated cords, plugs and devices to create these unique designs on each of the leaves—another suggestion of the echoing imprint of technology. To Shin, the transformative process this fabric undergoes speaks to the lived experience of generations of immigrants that come to define and redefine Brooklyn.

In addition, each of the leaves is inscribed and illuminated with the title of the most circulated book in the year that the respective branch opened. Some of the titles have subsequently been banned in some parts of the country. In 1923, the year the Washington Irving Branch opened, The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran, was the most popular book. In 1952, the year Sheepshead Bay branch opened, it was Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury. In the momentous year of 1969, Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar was the mainstay of Brooklyn readers. In this way, Shin captures the history of the Brooklyn Public Library system and of popular culture and literature.

Just as a tree’s growth is recorded in rings, Something Borrowed, Something Blue renders the data of the last 125 years of BPL book borrowing into a living record, a longitudinal snapshot of the communities of Brooklyn.

The sculpture is the final addition to the new Brooklyn Heights Library, which opened to the public in June 2022. The 26,000 square-foot Library is the product of a redevelopment project, mark- ing the most important moment in rebuilding in 125 years and providing revenue for much-needed repairs at nine additional libraries as well as 100 affordable housing units in the borough.

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