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Creativity Bubbles Up in Libraries Throughout Wisconsin’s Capital

by Kate Mothes

A person in an apron directs two people working on a craft with pom poms in a room decorated floor-to-ceiling in colorful art.
Photo Credit: Beth Skogan / The Bubbler at Madison Public Library
Bernie Witzack (center) of bernie & zuzu, in residence at the Pinney Public Library in Madison, Wisconsin.

The Bubbler at Madison Public Library brings art and creative experiences to the community, including a local artist residency program and youth media programming.

In January 2012, Madison’s Central Library emptied out and shut its doors for a major renovation. To mark the occasion, artist Trent Miller and a team of librarians organized a huge project to celebrate the transition to a new era. Artists were invited to make the most of a huge space with installations and performances, welcoming the community to a one-night art party called BOOKLESS. It was a roaring success. A long queue of visitors wrapped around the building that night, and Miller knew he had stumbled upon something big.

When the library reopened in 2013, another extravaganza called STACKED formally ushered in a brand new program for the Madison Public Library system: The Bubbler. Named for what Wisconsinites affectionately call a drinking fountain, the program emphasizes the exchange of ideas through a diverse range of creative lenses, allowing creativity to “bubble up” from within the community. Now in its tenth year, a dedicated team of “Bubblerarians” builds upon hundreds of exhibitions, residencies, workshops, and community outreach projects facilitated in collaboration with artists and organizations.

A crowd of people assembled in an alley, with several colorful murals visible.
Photo Credit: Jennifer Bastian / The Bubbler at Madison Public Library
Mural Alley in Madison, Wisconsin, is one of The Bubbler’s many public art projects in the city.

Minding the Maker Movement

Miller, who is an artist and has long been interested in how exhibitions can be participatory and social, had been following the emergence of the maker movement in the early 2000’s and saw vast potential to incorporate a maker space into the library’s new design. A distinguishing facet of the maker movement is the focus on collaboration and community-building across diverse activities and disciplines. The Bubbler emphasizes arts, culture, and hands-on learning opportunities for people of all ages, in all of the city’s libraries, plus neighborhood centers, senior centers, shelters, schools, and juvenile detention centers.

A teen in a basketball jersey looks at a piece of art in a gallery show.
Photo Credit: The Bubbler at Madison Public Library
An exhibition of teens’ artwork in Central Library in Madison as part the Teen Bubbler program.

During the initial brainstorming sessions, discussions circled around resources and interesting opportunities for teens, especially those for whom traditional classroom learning is a challenge. “You won’t find many of the Teen Bubbler workshops on the public calendar because library staff are committed to bringing these limited resources to targeted groups,” says Teen Services Librarian Jesse Vieau, who spearheads Teen Bubbler and its Making Justice program, which offers incarcerated and at-risk Madison teens an introduction to the basics of animation, screen printing, music, painting, podcasting, or video game design—just to name a few! Workshops are organized to reach teenagers in collaboration with youth-serving partners throughout the city to reach teenagers, introducing participants to a variety of local experts who share their talents and physical resources.

Shaped around storytelling, The Bubbler aims to spark conversations and expand access through hands-on learning and a safe space for creative expression. The residency program, which invites local artists to work in studio spaces within the library, has inspired similar initiatives in other venues. Neighboring Sun Prairie Public Library recently introduced a new artist-in-residence program; Bayview Foundation’s exploration of a residency forms part of a major, multi-year community center renovation; and an artist/educator-in-residence program has evolved through One Water Madison, empowering connections to water.

Over the past 10 years, The Bubbler has become a model for other libraries and community organizations. “Sharing our findings, experiences, and best practices continues to be part of our jobs,” says Bubbler Program Administrator, Carlee Latimer. “On average, annually maybe about four to six libraries or community spaces across the country reach out to us about this kind of thing.”

Making resources and research available to fellow educators and librarians is a significant element of The Bubbler’s ongoing work, including professional development workshops and creating assessment tools, like an app currently in development called LIB Toolkit. A collaboration between Madison Public Library, Waupaca Area Public Library, and Skokie Public Library, LIB Toolkit aims to provide librarians a way to make data-based assessments of hands-on library programming and allow them to measure the success of programs like residencies, workshops, and much more.

“I loved working with people and encouraging them to participate, to get over the ‘I can’t make art’ hump.”

A zine spread with a graphic reading, "libraries create the future."
Photo Credit: The Bubbler at Madison Public Library
‘Our Town Everywhere’ zine by the Little Book Project. Designs by Rita Salm in collaboration with M Sweetnam, Emily Julka, Rachel Werner, and Christine Holm.

Stamping a Self-Portrait of the City

Starting earlier this year and continuing through Spring 2024, The Bubbler’s main focus has revolved around a community-wide project called Our Town Everywhere: A Self-Portrait of Madison, which invites people to make self-portraits using stamps. During pop-up events at local festivals, community centers, school field trips, and more, people are invited to sit down with a small mirror and ink their likeness.

Our Town Everywhere is such a beautiful project. It creates unity while honoring individual differences—such balm for our current times,” says artist Maria Schirmer Devitt, who participated in the project by leading workshops and creating interactive projects during a residency at the library. “I loved working with people and encouraging them to participate, to get over the ‘I can’t make art’ hump.”

“I love that anyone, at any age, at any skill level, can create a wonderful portrait of themselves,” says Alicia Rheal, an artist who has been leading the logistics of the project. “I am always amazed at how different each and every portrait is.”

The Bubbler recently launched a new website with a comprehensive archive of their projects, and “Team Bubbler” continues to work on building more resources for educators, hands-on projects, and more ways for community members to get involved. Madison Public Library is currently in the process of building a brand new branch, which will factor public art commissions into its design, along with creative spaces for community use and areas to exhibit art.


20 colorful prints hang by binder clips in a grid pattern.
Photo Credit: The Bubbler at Madison Public Library
A selection of Our Town Everywhere portraits on display during an exhibition in Spring 2023.