Growing up in his native Guatemala, Balam Soto wanted to create art, but his family could not afford supplies. The determined child saved money for a year to buy paints.
Soto knew it would take years more to save enough to purchase other supplies so he improvised using wood scraps from his grandfather, a carpenter, to build a frame, cutting his bed sheet and stretching that fabric across the frame to serve as his canvas, and cutting some of his own long dark hair to make a paintbrush.
His world -- a small village in the Central American country -- was worlds away from modern technology. Not until he came to Connecticut to marry the American woman he fell in love with in the rainforest, was he introduced to his first computer.
Today, Soto fuses "existing and custom digital technology with artistic concepts and aesthetics to create exploratory works." With help from Westport Library patrons over the next month his latest project will combine hands-on quilting traditions with 21st century technology, to create an interactive art installation.
Soto, an award-winning new media artist, is the library's first maker-in-residence funded through a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
"I love to use technology in my art, use technology in a creative way. You see technology in a specific way," Soto said, mentioning iPhones and computers as an example. "I see it more as an artistic medium, as paint to a painter, as a creative expression."
Soto, who lives in Hartford, spent Saturday afternoon at the library sharing plans for the community digital quilt project and recruiting helping hands and minds. The quilt will be 7-by-7 feet with 16 panels. Soto and his team of volunteers will embed LED lights into five of those panels.
"The quilt will have an open design with a theme running through it: technology and community," Soto said. The electronics will be sewn on top of the finished quilt. "We're going to try to make the wires part of the design," he said. Library patrons will be able to interact with the finished quilt via a wireless touch-based remote control.
Soto said he likes the idea of creating a communal piece of art by melding low and high-tech methods. "When you work on a quilt people talk and share stories. It's an old tradition and I would like to add to this beautiful tradition by including technology," he said.
"Today, people are so busy staring into a computer screen or iPhone, but here you can be interacting with people while you create and learn new things. It's technology bringing you together rather than isolating you," said Karen Gustafson of Weston, who will create a panel.
The project has already attracted adults and children; an electrical engineer, a family and individuals including artists and an art teacher.
"The idea of a digital quilt, that can light up en masse, or by section, via a remote control, is a clever 21st century electronic twist to an ancient art," said Mari-Eleanor Martino of Westport. "I take my three sons, Matthew (age 6), Joseph (age 6) and Andrew (age 3) to the children's library quite frequently. I thought making a section of the quilt with my family would not only be an enjoyable family project, but an enjoyable community project as well," she said.
Soto will facilitate the digital quilt project every Saturday, noon to 4 p.m., in the library's Great Hall through Dec. 21. He encourages people to bring textiles or tee-shirts to incorporate into the project.
The program is free and open to the public. All ages are welcome, but children must be accompanied by an adult.
For more information visit www.westportlibrary.org