SOLON– Two talented artists, seven dedicated Friends and 18 beautiful images add up to one big vision for the Solon Public Library.
It’s a vision now permanent and abiding, and the Friends of the Solon Public Library are excited to share it with the entire community.
The Friends have sponsored the creation of a wall poster detailing 18 alluring images from library window displays arranged by Solon’s Antonia Russo. The poster’s photography and design work were donated
by nationally-renowned photographer and artist Bob Campagna, formerly of Mt. Vernon.
The idea for the poster began when Campagna, now living in Colorado but still working frequently in his hometown area, needed a project for the digital design class he was taking as part of his ongoing work with school children. Campagna’s past school workshop experiences have produced compilation posters like the Doors of Muscatine, Barns of Iowa and Windows of Linn County. For this project, he envisioned a similar collection of photographs showcasing the library displays.
Campagna had already documented almost all of Russo’s library window displays done during the past five years. He had plenty of raw material, the desire to practice his design skills and some time on his hands. That’s how the poster came to be.
“The way I see the windows is almost like they are, life-like and life-size,” said Campagna. “What I tried to portray on the poster is a series of photographs that you feel like you could almost walk into, and become a part of, as the viewer.
“I think that’s what she does with her displays is to make people want to walk into them– physically, intellectually and emotionally. ”
Campagna speaks as if he has taken an image from within Russo’s own mind, and words from her heart. She reflects on her process for creating the display windows with identical sentiment.
“We are doing a little suspension of disbelief. The windows are a little bit street entertainment, a little bit theater, a little bit diorama. It’s also a parallel universe. We are successful if you look at the window, and you want to slip through time and space and go into this world to experience it,” Russo said. “It’s not make believe. It’s genuine. It presents what went on before and the things that are here that we want to keep with us.”
That’s how the idea for the windows began in the first place. Russo was asked in 2006 to co-decorate the display case with the Solon Garden Club. Arranging seeds, blooms and gardening books into an exhibit that highlighted the Garden Club’s activities gave Russo the chance to dig deep into her own roots. As a very small child, she spent occasional hours being looked after by a nun who cultivated the convent’s kitchen garden. Those early experiences grew into a fervent love for flowers and plants, especially the ones fashionable urbanites now tout as “heirloom,” and trendy, but that Russo values as the mainstays of Midwest gardens since the Victory Gardens of World War I and World War II.
The garden display was so lovely that Russo was asked to do another exhibit. This time she used a variety of antique cake plates and pedestals, invited local Women’s Club members to the library for a cake-sampling, recipe-sharing event, and added a guest book for viewers to sign. Around 400 people came to see that display, said Library Director Kris Brown.
The occasion to share her passion for the connection between the past and present was the beginning.
What followed in the Solon library was a Christmas display designed after the holiday windows of the late 19th century, when large department stores like Macy’s and Marshall Fields and even Cedar Rapids’ own Armstrong’s store drew crowds of shoppers, passers-by and biannual farm family visitors with their grand and opulently-decorated windows. This time, Russo listened as older visitors to the library harkened back to their own childhood visits to town during the holidays. Children were enchanted by the simple but still-charming toy trains, planes and baby dolls. And everyone marveled and smiled and reminisced and wondered at the dozens of worn and shiny and life-size and tiny objects they discovered within the window.
Friends board member Sue Ballantyne, a library volunteer since before the new library building was constructed 10 years ago, began to notice the way the windows appeal to viewers with very disparate interests.
“Seeing the enthusiasm of the community as people came to see the cake plate display was really amazing,” said Ballantyne. “The variety of themes Toni can pull together and the variety of people she can draw in– like the Road Trip display and the motorcycles and Route 66– brought in a whole different crowd of people that aren’t frequent users of the library. So it brings new people in and we can show them what other great things we have to offer.”
From the cake plate exhibit forward, whenever it was time to transition to a new display, Russo looked into every empty window and saw an opportunity for a message, an experience, a way to unite worlds, time and people in a thousand different ways.
Russo has, by now, created about 25 themed displays, each dedicated to an individual, an important event in history, or a group of history-makers. Every window incorporates some commonalities Russo thinks essential: a nod to the seasons of the earth, a collection of significant literature, and realistic-looking food that represents both the sustenance we humans need and the indulgences we love. Motifs range from the fanciful– Jack Frost, Harry Potter and the Nutcracker Ballet– to the honorable– Flander’s Field, a tribute to our nation’s war veterans, or Mardi Gras, in remembrance of the devastation of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. Whatever the theme, there is also a mix of intent in every window; they are evocative of the past and a reminder of what is important today, with an occasional political message tossed in, just subtly, so that Russo might delicately remind us to be mindful of both.
To that end, Russo uses vintage and antique objects whenever she can, striving to be authentic to every era of history she portrays.
“New things don’t have depth. They have no aura, they have no history to them,” she said. “The things that come in have not only their own uniqueness and antiquity, they also have meaning to the people who bring them.”
The people who bring items for the different displays are as much a part of each window as the objects themselves, she added, and their memories of and connections to the objects translate into what each window is trying to say.
“Increasingly, people are entrusting us with their valued items,” Russo said. “The windows are about meaning. They are bringing forward things that are beautiful and have meaning that we are losing.”
But it’s not a stroll down memory lane that Russo is after, she explained.
“They are not nostalgic and sentimental; they’re very much relevant to the present. We’re not showcasing the past; we are showing things from the past, including the people and activities and literature, that we want to preserve, and doing it in a way that’s fun and interesting.”
Campagna titled the poster “Of Time and Place,” he said, because he sees in her work “the meticulous detail to create something universal and timeless. When I photograph it, I try to do it in a sense that it doesn’t give a clue that it isn’t real. The net result is, I hope, it appeals to people who create their own worlds.”
In keeping with Russo’s objective of creating compelling worlds filled with timeless treasures, Ballantyne said the Friends’ objective for printing and now selling the posters is to market the unique treasure Solon has in its wonderful library, its elaborate window exhibits and in Russo herself.
“Toni is a unique gem of Solon, with a unique artistic vision,” said Ballantyne.
Proceeds from the sale of the posters will go into the Friends’ general fund that goes to library programming and materials, but Ballantyne said they also hope to raise enough to be able to offer a stipend for the cost of display materials, which Russo has always paid out-of-pocket.
It’s also a way to say thank you, Ballantyne added, for the displays that fascinate young and old alike, that are incredible teaching opportunities for children without being digitized and sanitized, that are always evolving into the next spectacular thing.
“The poster is a great way to remember some of these wonderful windows she has done in the past years,” Ballantyne said, “and what a tremendous resource this is for our community.”
Though the official unveiling will take place at the Friends of the Solon Public Library holiday sale the first weekend in December, framed posters are currently on display at the library, Solon State Bank and Bridge Bank. Cost is $10 for unframed posters, with discounts for multiple orders, or $25 for framed posters. Order by emailing SolonLibrFriends@aol.com  or call Sue at 319-624-2632.