Every morning, Rilla Alexander goes on a run through South Pasadena that takes her down Mission Street. One day, a wooden box with a glass pane broke up the usual scenery.
The display, roughly the size of a breadbox, housed miniature artwork. Looking at the artwork were figurines of people, scattered about. Alexander was looking at the Museum of Free Art, a miniature museum conceived by South Pasadena resident Jessika Fairbanks.
Since then, Alexander has contributed countless drawings — all of frogs — and taken a few pieces of art from the miniature museum, as well.
“It’s something I want to do for fun, but I also just love the idea of putting that there and somebody discovering it,” Alexander said. “I think that’s quite magical.”
Similar to the Little Free Library concept, museum “patrons” are encouraged to donate art that they create and retrieve pieces that others have made that pique their interest.
Fairbanks got the idea for the Museum of Free Art from a gallery owner in Seattle, and was inspired to create her own by the interactions she saw in her Buy Nothing Project Facebook group, as well as the surge in public art that began when museums closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
She also needed something to keep her 3-year-old daughter, Dahlia, entertained during the shutdown as interest in daily walks and routines had started to wane.
As everyday life became more solitary for families during the pandemic, Fairbanks became active with Buy Nothing Project, a series of localized Facebook groups that encourage sustainability and community- building through the exchange of everyday goods.
“It really became kind of like a lifeline,” said Fairbanks, whose artistic background includes a film degree from ArtCenter College of Design. “Especially in feeling isolated … so that feeling of wanting to bring community [together] and really trying to reach out and see how other people are doing — I thought, ‘Oh this is perfect.’”
She developed a design and her husband executed it, using his woodworking skills to build the museum and the post that it stands on. The museum was erected in May at the corner of Mission and Montrose Avenue, and has become one of the tiniest but most impactful forces of public art in South Pasadena.
Since that time, micro oil paintings, jewelry and crochet animals from as far away as Joshua Tree have graced the museum. Fairbanks also places art supplies among the artwork every Friday. Everything is documented on the Instagram page, @museum_of_free_art.
“It’s not just people who are professional artists contributing to it, it’s everybody,” said Alexander, who illustrates children’s books. “It’s such a nice community thing and I like the fact that there aren’t any rules and it’s really purely for fun and something that the community is doing together. I think that is quite beautiful.”
There’s been only a few mishaps with the museum. A used drinking straw was left inside and one of the hinges broke, which could possibly be attributed to a child unintentionally being a little rough while opening the glass door.
About half the pieces left in the museum are signed, while the other half are done by anonymous artists. Young and old have contributed, showing an importance of artistic expression in times that can be stressful.
“Everyone feels something,” Fairbanks said. “And if you can feel something, you can create something, whether it’s with your own hands or by some other means.”