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Library shows must go on, but without Katie Chaffee

<i>Phil Pfuehler photo</i> Katie Chaffee's office looks out onto the public library's basement gallery that reflects exhibits that she brings in, designs and sets up. The current one, called the All-School Art Show, has local K-12 grade artwork from public and private schools running through May 27. More students than ever are taking part, with 423 exhibitors compared to the 215 when Chaffee started the school show years ago. She says interest in the library gallery has grown along with its reputation.

During a job interview more than six years ago, Katie Chaffee was asked why she deserved the newly created position of event coordinator for the lower library gallery.

She replied, "Because I've been waiting for this job longer than anyone else. It's what I've always wanted to do...I envisioned this job when they first built the library (in 1997)."

In April 2004 Chaffee got her dream job. She left the Journal, where she was a reporter. Before that she was elected mayor of River Falls.

Now, in a few weeks, the 62-year-old Chaffee will prepare her final gallery show called, "Into the Garden," opening June 7.

While it's time, she concedes it's hard to go.

"There's a fair amount of creative energy and inspiration that's needed to stage these exhibitions," Chaffee said. "I get excited and revved up trying to produce spectacular shows.

"It's a bit like being an artist, and I'm feeling drained. I keep going back to the well for new ideas, but the well's a little dry.

The gallery's diverse shows include last fall's mental health exhibit called, "The Art of Coping," sponsored by the local affiliate of the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI). It featured artwork, from paintings to sculpture, done by those with a mental illness.

Another popular one that drew more than 650 people and got valuable input from the River Falls police was called "CSI: RFPL."

There was another on the affects of climate change called "Paradise Lost" that came from the University of Wisconsin's Biology Education Department.

Other exhibits have had topics on the Civil War, World War II, logging of northern Wisconsin pine forests, the Great Lakes fur trade, America in the 1920s and '30s, and local history.

Chaffee said River Falls is lucky to have a beautiful place like the lower library to stage such exhibits and adds, "We are also fortunate that there is a civic commitment from our city to pay for me to do this kind of work."

Chaffee admits to feeling pride when gallery visitors react favorably to a particular exhibit.

Public Library Director Nancy Miller, who oversees Chaffee, said, "Katie has been a great asset as we developed the lower level programming and gallery...I'm going to miss her because we discovered we think alike. There's a real synergistic energy when we start talking and planning, and we're both willing to go with the idea that just about anything is possible.

"It's a little scary sometimes, mostly to other people who think we're crazy. But it's been fun. The ideas just pop, one on top of the other."

As a retiree, Chaffee won't idle in a rocking chair.

"My goal is to live more the way I think we're going to have to live in the future -- reducing our carbon footprint," she said. "I want to get around more by walking and biking, growing more of my own food in a bigger garden at home, adding chickens (if the city passes that new law) and just spending more time with the (three) grandchildren."

Chaffee also will get more involved in the expanding community garden movement, wants to teach herself to spin wool into yarn to knit and sell sweaters, and perhaps get appointed to the city's Plan Commission.

"If good things are going to happen locally, someone has to take charge and do them," she said. "I have a lot to do in retirement, though maybe not the usual things. I won't be bored."

Read more of Katie's story in the May 13 print edition of the River Falls Journal.