How librarian Stokley Towles brings meaning to workplace mundanity

Stokley's head popping out of a manhole in the street

 

“I get fixated on little things,” Stokley Towles, Evergreen library faculty member and multimedia performing artist, said. Towles has undergone adventures as a photographer, storyteller, and performance artist, and now integrates his affection for art with his research role in Evergreen’s Daniel J. Evans Library. However, his educational one-man performances expand much further than the library walls into the larger community of the Pacific Northwest.

Towles wonders if his interest in stories stemmed from listening to his father in his formative years. As a boy, Towles listened to his father, a banker, tell stories about the characters he worked with, including details about everyone from executives to emissaries. Now, Towles gives presentations about organizations to make them as real to the public as his father’s friends at work were to him.

Towles has honed his interviewing and performance skills throughout his decades-spanning career as a storyteller. He has a knack for researching what it’s like to work in what many would consider mundane fields and locations, such as a construction crew or a water processing plants. He began as a photographer, and even went to graduate school for photography, but discovered that the stories he tried to tell with a photograph weren’t all getting told. “The picture wasn’t enough. I needed to add words,” he found.

While studying at the central branch of the Seattle Public Library in 2002, Towles discovered that he could integrate his visual storytelling with a newfound love for interviewing. He interviewed several people at the library, and many of them expressed an interest in his findings. Towles’s breakthrough took place when he said to himself, “I can actually just interview people at work as part of my artwork. I could gather their stories, I could learn about their work. People have very particular ways of seeing the world because of the things they do.”

Since he began working at Evergreen in 2010, Towles has been presenting workshops about community researching and interviewing, as well as helping students one-on-one in the library. “I can rely a lot on my own research to help inform my teaching,” he said. “Often I’m running into the same problems that students are, so it’s not, ‘hey, I’m the expert and you have to learn,’ instead it’s ‘I ran into this problem yesterday.’ It can be more like we’re fellow researchers.”

The work isn’t only about people—it’s also about space. In addition to an installation he built inside of the Seattle Public Library in 2002, Towles has turned a public transit bus into a theater and a trailer into a talk show. He expresses what he learns from following people through their day-to-day lives with monologues and photographs presented in these spaces. “I take all those interviews and turn them into stories and somehow tell the story of that place or what it’s like to be in that place.”

Producing the immersive art piece at the Seattle library is what really inspired Towles to take the path that lead him to Evergreen. “I thought, ‘Libraries are really cool, and I research there all the time. Why don’t I work there?’ So I went back to graduate school and got a librarian’s degree, and then applied for this job.”

An ultimate goal for Towles is to expand where he conducts his projects. Recently, Towles’s art has taken him journeys through Calgary, Alberta, Canada, and Germany. Right now, he is applying for grants to work in Liverpool and Fort Worth, Texas.

As for the significance of his projects, Towles said, “I think there’s something about saying, ‘Hey, what if we just slow down for a second and look at this?’ And then inviting someone to see the world through that, so when they walk around they might see a little bit differently.”

Find more out about Towles’s work at http://www.stokleytowles.com/