Child Development and Family Council of Centre County, Inc.
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 culture.
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 community members-turned-artists.
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.
Locations of the Book Benches are available here. Each bench is displayed in a public location that offers visibility and access to all sides of the bench. A sign accompanies each bench, detailing the bench’s theme, artist, and pointing the visitor onward to visit the other Book Benches of Centre County.
Many community partners came together to make this amazing project a reality:
Special thanks to Centre Foundation for the grant award and their support throughout the project; to the State College Borough for storing the benches for us and their help with loading and unloading benches; to Dan Pellow for his pickup and delivery of benches all around the county; to Tom & Sara Songer and Blake & Linda Gall for providing a temporary home for finished benches while they awaited installation; to the many townships, boroughs, Tommy Frank, and Landscape II who helped to complete the installations.
Thanks to Ann Walker of CDFC for her passionate dedication and persistence in making this project a reality; to Elody Gyekis for her invaluable expertise and artistic vision; to Christa Hosterman from SPE Federal Credit Union and Sue Swain for the initial idea of fiberglass book benches and assistance with the project; to Mike Hurley of Fiberglass Farm Animals in Maine for the custom bench design and production; to Jeff Mathison and King Printing for the map; to Chuck Fong for the photos; to Curt Woodcock of Graphics and Design for the website; to Brian and Gavek Graphics for the signs.
Thanks to Mount Nittany Middle School, Bellefonte Middle School, and Bald Eagle High School and their art teachers for their involvement in hosting the Community Bench painting sessions; to the Old Gregg School and Windy Hill Village Retirement Community for hosting Community Bench painting sessions in their communities; to all of our community painters; to the churches, townships, boroughs, local and state parks, libraries, retirement homes, and private businesses who gave approval for a bench to be located in their community; and finally, to each of the professional artists who gave generously of their time, vision, and talent.