Richmond artist provides community spaces for free books

Ramsey utilizes his workshop to construct the free libraries, as well as other custom designed woodwork, metalworking and paintings. Photo by Enza Marcy

Ebonique Little, Spectrum Editor

Richmond artist Keith Ramsey said he found himself at a “literal crossroads” one day in 2013 on his way to work. He was heading toward Artspace Gallery to visit his personal studio space as normal, when he noticed an open door to a welding class.

“The universe was like, ‘See what’s over here,’” Ramsey said. “And it changed my life — literally.”

After “developing his own style” through sculpture, Ramsey said the welding class at Art Works elevated his sculpting skills, allowing him to combine 3D objects without screws and nails. He learned how to weld within the next week and continued from there.

Today, welding and sculpting have become Ramsey’s full-time career. His passion has been thrown behind his series of “Not-So-Little Free Libraries,” where people can take books that spark their interest and provide some for community members, as well.

“It’s not asking for anything. It’s a give and take. So I think that’s a little bit what the world needs right now.” — Keith Ramsey

Ramsey was initially struck with the idea of making the libraries by a friend who wanted one of her own. The artist utilized scrap material in his friend’s garage, with a dollhouse serving as his inspiration.

The 1998 VCUarts graduate has completed three free libraries thus far and looks to complete his fourth one soon.

Keith Ramsey’s free libraries house two shelves of books and are painted to reflect their surroundings. Photo by Enza Marcy

“I think it’s a great thing where people put what they feel like is a great book into these things because you get a hodgepodge of what people like and enjoy,” Ramsey said. 

The libraries, which resemble a miniature house, take him about 24 to 30 hours to create depending on the design. 

The artist starts by making a wooden box to create the interior, and then designs the roof and provides insulation so it’s watertight. Ramsey follows this step by incorporating shelves, designing the door and adding a plexiglass window. The process concludes once the exterior is painted.

His latest and most elaborate library is located at 1625 Hull St., next to the Mending Walls mural “The Power Is In The Will,” by Richmond artists Heide Trepanier and Chris Visions. 

Ramsey said he enjoys painting the libraries in different colors based on the location it will be placed, which is determined by the individual who asked for a library.

On the side of the library, steam spiraling from a locomotive is rendered in vibrant shades of blue, orange and green. The painting nods to the rushing blue waves seen in the mural. The library is also adorned with quotes about the importance of literature from authors such as Dr. Seuss and Ray Bradbury.

Painted in purple curved text, the Dr. Seuss quote reads, “The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”

With a garden surrounding the library, Trepanier said Ramsey’s library complements the space and furthers the artists’ mission of providing recreational spaces and parks to residents of the Blackwell and Manchester neighborhoods.

“By building a little library in there, you’re able to have a place where people can sit down, a place where people can look at the garden that was planted,” Trepanier said. “And then they can look at the mural, and then they can pull out a book and keep it.”

Trepanier said it was important to her to contact Ramsey in particular because the central figure in the mural is a Nigerian goddess named Yemaya, who stands for strength and community. Trepanier wanted to continue developing the space through the use of Black art.

“I think that that was super important to allow artisans and artists and Black voices to be heard,” Trepanier said, “and it was kind of like a unifying force.”

Ramsey’s work itself is influenced by Melvin Edwards, an African American abstract metal sculptor. Like Edwards, Ramsey finds scrap materials and repurposes them for art.

“They could be anywhere from the junkyard out in Chesterfield or on the street in the Fan,” Ramsey said. “It might show up in a piece of work.”

The artist said he has always admired people who created dollhouses. With his first version of the structure using materials he found, Ramsey wanted to make a more practical use for it.

A quote from author Toni Morrison decorates the exterior of one of Keith Ramsey’s libraries. Photo by Enza Marcy

From there, Ramsey said the project “snowballed” into a greater cause.

“I think it’s important because it’s a way to share experiences through books,” Ramsey said. 

Those who request Ramsey to construct a library will typically help provide the books for the public as well. 

Ramsey likes the libraries’ ability to spark new ideas, especially for those who may lack access to a library or bookstore.

From comic books to novels, Ramsey said there is something for everybody, and the libraries serve as a great method to share something nice with others.

“It’s not asking for anything. It’s a give and take,” Ramsey said. “So I think that’s a little bit what the world needs right now.”

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