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Meet the Maker: Carolyn Kassnoff

Carolyn brings the art of neon-bending and illustrations to the Maker Lab, helping Library users make our city glow with custom lanterns!

When in doubt, go to the Library. That’s what Carolyn Kassnoff did when she moved to Chicago in 2009 without a job or a community in the city. “Moving to a new place in the middle of a recession with no career guidance was tough, but the Library was very comforting for me,” she says. “It’s a nice, quiet oasis full of so many online resources to help you apply for jobs and research.”

Originally from Rochester, New York, Carolyn studied photography and neon-bending. Post-college, she moved to the Midwest to begin her art and illustration career—but really, her maker journey began even farther back.

“I had a babysitter who was an art teacher during the day. She had us do these elaborate coloring projects, which I loved,” she says. Further instilling in her a love for illustration were cartoons and comic book characters like Calvin and Hobbes.

So, how exactly did she settle on neon-bending? “I thought neon was exciting because you can make lamps! Unlike glass blowing, it’s more drawing-based and requires less heat.”

Of Neon, Puns & Illustrations

Carolyn’s neon background led her to do a few apprenticeships where she made or fixed neon signs like the beer signs you see at bars. During this time, she also began freelance illustration under the moniker It’ll Glow On You – a nod to her neon and lamp work.

Her art consists of greeting cards, mugs, prints, and jewelry, which are all heavily animal and geography themed. “I love that you can create an entirely new world with objects from your daily life through drawing.” Carolyn’s 2014 series, “Chicago Dog”, paired line-drawn animals with punny takes on Chicago neighborhoods and landmarks like “Pawlaski Park” or “Lickin’ Square.” And her custom pet-portraits personify animals, placing them in unusual situations such as a Ricky Martin music video.

Regardless of the medium, it’s clear Carolyn puts a lot of focus and detail on her subjects—and incorporates fantasy and humor wherever she can.

“Drawing gives you space to add imagination and humor, which can be a nice distraction from darker things,” she says.

One of Carolyn’s lanterns featuring a design of her apartment building.

Lighting Up the Library

Carolyn combines her two passions as the 2022 Summer Maker-in-Residence. She, along with hundreds of Library users—whether transplants or lifelong Chicagoans—are lighting up the branches with custom lanterns highlighting the things that make the city their homes.

Step One: Carolyn walks you through how to wire a lamp using tape and lightbulbs. Step two: you get to designing. “My initial idea was to share the architecture of the city, like the different apartment buildings,” she explains. “But people wanted to showcase other parts of their life in Chicago in creative ways.”

Step into one of the Maker workshops and you’ll see lamps consisting of bungalows, hot dogs, elements from neighborhood parks, the skyline – all which tell a part of Chicago’s overarching story, which fits nicely with the Library’s “City of Stories” summer theme. You’ll also see Library users grinning from ear-to-ear as they work on their creations.

“I’m always amazed at the projects we do here. I always come expecting something small because it’s free but it’s always bigger and more wonderful,” says Lisa Rothman, a frequent Maker Lab user. “I really appreciate having the Maker Lab and all the various ways to be creative through the Library.”

Stop! Collaborate and Listen

For the first time since the Maker-in-Residence program launched, the workshops are taking place not only at Harold Washington Library Center but at the Sulzer Regional, Legler Regional, Woodson, and Edgewater branches, making it easier for Library users who can’t make the trek downtown.

Stencils of CTA train cards Carolyn made for Library users to add to their lanterns.

Carolyn’s favorite part of being at the branches has been the collaboration and community. “I talk with everyone one-on-one and check in on their process, help them figure out how to draw specific things like skyscrapers or houses. Or we just bounce ideas off each other” she says. “I like that about the smaller class sizes of 4-10 people—it makes it easier to connect with one another.”

And as for her final project? Carolyn will highlight Chicago’s iconic architecture and landmarks—a bungalow, the Navy Pier Ferris Wheel, and others—with three big lanterns (each 36 by 36 by 9 inches) that will cover the windows outside of the Harold Washington Library Center. “I really wanted to show these Chicago icons because I think I can call Chicago home now and these things feel like they embody that feeling of home.”

Carolyn’s final project is currently on the windows facing State Street through Fall 2022.

The Maker Lab, the only FREE maker space in Chicago, is a donor-powered program where Library users can experiment with state-of-the-art technology such as design software, electronic & laser cutters, and 3D printers to make a creative project, business idea, or design prototype come to life. This program is made possible thanks to our sponsors: Comcast, Andrea Saenz & John Bracken, Chicago Community Trust, and generous donors to the Library Foundation.

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