Over the past year and a half, Minneapolis artist Julie Prairie has been brightening up the children's area of the Wescott Library in Eagan. First came little paintings on the walls, then pillars painted as trees, and finally a large mural: a map of Dakota County and the surrounding area, depicted in the pages of an open book.

Eric Austin, a senior manager at the library, said they chose the design because "a book opens the world."

Both Prairie and the Friends of the Wescott Library, the group that funded the project, will be honored during a meet-the-artist reception at the library at 6 p.m. Monday.

Prairie, a resident muralist for the Minnesota Children's Museum for the last two decades, started painting at the Wescott Library when the museum did community outreach to create "Smart Play Spots" in area libraries. As part of that project, the museum installed transportation-themed play areas, and she painted a series of paintings along the windowsill depicting transportation by land, water and air.

Then the library hired Prairie to paint the pillars as native trees, such as cottonwood, maple and red pine. The pillars also feature Minnesota animals, including a snowy owl and a woodpecker.

The map depicted in her final painting shows Dakota County surrounded by the lush, green Minnesota River and Mississippi River valleys, and the cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis off in the distance. The mural, finished in February, continues the transportation theme, with people traveling via motorboat, canoe, airplane, jet ski, even by log raft and hot air balloon. It also includes the Wescott Library and other well-known sights, such as Fort Snelling and the Pine Bend Refinery in Rosemount. Even Bob Dylan makes an appearance, trundling down Hwy. 61.

As often happens when Prairie works on murals, kids came up to chat with her as she worked. She also overheard kids interacting with other nearby paintings. For instance, a child said, "Hi, kitty!" to a lynx she had painted on a nearby pillar.

That is just what library staff were hoping for. The artwork isn't just decorative, but interactive, Austin said. He said that "books and artwork work together as a learning experience for the kids."

"It's playful," said Austin. "She's been doing this a long time. She knows what's going to be fun for kids."

Scenic art

Prairie worked as a preschool teacher for a decade before launching a career as a scenic painter and muralist. She painted theater backdrops for many years, and she has painted scenes in residential homes. In addition to working at the Minnesota Children's Museum, she also paints traveling exhibits for Twin Cities-based exhibit company KidZibits. Prairie has painted murals at other libraries, including the Great River Regional Library in St. Cloud and the Anoka County Library in Fridley.

She said the process of deciding what to paint at Wescott Library was collaborative.

"They came up with a lot of the ideas," she said. "I might throw out a couple things, but I'm all about pleasing the customer."

One idea came after Prairie painted the pillar to the left of the service desk. She had found a little divot in the concrete in the shape of a heart, and on a whim, she had painted it red.

"It turned out to be a really good thing," said Austin. When antsy children were waiting for their parents to check out books, the staff suggested the kids search for the little red heart.

Prairie remembered that when she started painting other pillars throughout the children's area.

"I started noticing heart shapes all over the place," she said. She painted a tiny heart on each pillar for kids to find.

John Elliott, president of the Friends of the Wescott Library, said he's seen many kids walk up and look at the paintings.

"They want to interact with them," he said.

The mural projects, paid for by the Friends of the Wescott Library, cost about $9,000 total, said Elliott.

Prairie was excited about having such a large canvas for the final project.

"Rarely do you get a space this big," she said.

Liz Rolfsmeier is a Twin Cities-based freelance writer. Her e-mail is lizannrolfsmeier@gmail.com.