EAST GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Library patrons at the Kent District Library’s East Grand Rapids branch may notice new artwork on the wall.

The four-canvas artwork, titled “Help One Another Learn To Fly,” was installed at the library on Aug. 27, taking up wall space that connects the downstairs children’s area with the upstairs adult section. Patrons may recognize the distinctive style from local artist Reb Roberts’ other work throughout Grand Rapids, found on canvases like an electrical box outside of Wolfgang’s.

"Help One Another Learn To Fly" by Reb Roberts at the East Grand Rapids library. (Sept. 5, 2023)
“Help One Another Learn To Fly” by Reb Roberts at the East Grand Rapids library. (Sept. 5, 2023)

“So much of the artwork that I’ve done is on the street,” Roberts told News 8. “… On the street things, they evolve in a different way. Sometimes they disappear, sometimes they become vandalized, sometimes they fade away or peel away. … Nothing’s totally permanent, but it’s very transient. It’s really nice to have a place for the artwork to live and to breathe and to give something to other people.”

His unique style starts with broad, black lines, which are filled in with bright colors. Roberts leaves white space between the lines and the colors, something he explained started as laziness but evolved into a key part of making his pieces pop.

He has a variety of characters that can often be found throughout his work. Some of those characters can be found in the new piece at the library.

“I really feel that art makes a space, it creates an environment. … It has a place to rest and to live,” he said. “… So the characters are many of the characters that have shown up in my artwork before. But they’re interacting differently, just for this space.”

The bottom canvas has a person, the “master of the waters of Reed’s Lake,” Roberts explained, teaching the creatures of the artwork — chickens, fish, rabbits — how to fly.

“And if they can’t, he’s throwing them up in abandon. Like, ‘You’re going to learn to fly,'” he said.

The artist explained there’s recently been a lot of talk about people taking things away from each other, instead of helping one another.

“The reason the person’s in the center here is that as human beings, we’re in a position to help all of it. Or we’re in a position to not help all of it. So it’s just that simple choice: Can we help each other to fly?” he said.

"Help One Another Learn To Fly" by Reb Roberts at the East Grand Rapids library. (Sept. 5, 2023)
“Help One Another Learn To Fly” by Reb Roberts at the East Grand Rapids library. (Sept. 5, 2023)

Bringing the art piece to the library was a project of the Friends of the East Grand Rapids Library. Kyle Watson, a board member of the volunteer organization that helps the library with things like funding and projects, met Roberts while walking his dog along Reeds Lake during the pandemic lockdown.

He invited Roberts to create a piece for the library and showed him the previously-blank space between the two floors. Roberts, who frequents the library with his six grandkids, said he’d never noticed the spot before.

“It was like … it was created for this to happen,” Roberts said.

Watson said the artwork hangs over his kids’ favorite section of the library.

“I love the library, my family loves the library, and I came upon this one section that’s this architectural nuance and figured it needed some peace and love,” Watson said. “I’m friends with Reb and figured maybe he would want to create a neat piece for the library.”

His kids, in second and seventh grade, stopped by during the piece’s installation.

“They came in right at the end and … they just loved it,” he said.

Roberts took the time to explain the painting to Watson’s kids and answered all their questions.

  • Artist Reb Roberts with his painting at the East Grand Rapids library, "Help One Another Learn To Fly." (Sept. 5, 2023)
  • "Help One Another Learn To Fly" by Reb Roberts at the East Grand Rapids library. (Sept. 5, 2023)

Scott Ninemeier, a KDL regional manager for the East Grand Rapids and Amy Van Andel branches, said he’s seen many surprised faces since the painting was installed.

“It feels like it may have always been here, because it fits the space so perfectly, but they know that it’s new. And so they’re looking at it differently,” he said. “To have them come to this space every day and look at it differently is really fun. And hopefully they’ll find other things in the library that maybe they didn’t know was here before.”

Ninemeier said the library is “thrilled” to have the new artwork in the space.

“It’s incredible to have this breadth of color and to extend both areas, the kids area and the adult area. It really connects them in a way that we didn’t have in a meaningful way before,” he said.

For Roberts, bringing art to public spaces is a way of giving back to his community. As the paintings moved from a stack in his studio to their display at the library, he said the art went from having life to being given the “freedom to live.”

“To have art is something that many times people don’t understand the value of it until they encounter it,” he said. “And then sometimes, even if one person feels something and it changes something in them … I think that that’s the value of what we all bring to a project like this.”