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Chalk Talk Kenosha

Generating Community Dialogue Through Photography

Photo credit: Patricia Briggs/Chalk Talk Kenosha
In the photograph a young woman holds up a sign that reads, “A man robbed me and put a knife to my kid’s neck.” With her hair pulled back in a practical ponytail and chips evident in her brightly colored fingernail polish, the young woman poses purposely for the camera. But is her message a plea for help, some kind of message the viewer is supposed to act upon?

Written in chalk on black construction paper, this chilling statement is a response to seemingly simple request: Describe an incident that changed you. The request, stark response, and subsequent photograph are all part of a “chalk talk” workshop conducted at the Kenosha Literacy Council. This young woman is one of dozens of participants who had their photographs taken as they shared ideas about life, self-identity, and the things that really matter to them for a project called Chalk Talk Kenosha.

Chalk Talk Kenosha is a community art project inspired by the documentary photography of Minneapolis artist Wing Young Huie. Huie is known for public exhibitions of photographs that document the socioeconomic and cultural realities of contemporary American society. His images often appear in storefront windows, on buses, or spread across the sides of buildings in the neighborhoods near where they are captured.

In November of 2011, a selection of Huie’s photographic works were exhibited in the new University of Wisconsin–Parkside Fine Arts Gallery at the opening of the Rita Tallent Picken Regional Center for Arts and Humanities. The artist was a great fit for UW– Parkside, which draws students from the urban corridor between Milwaukee and Chicago.

Huie pioneered the chalk talk technique as a way of allowing his photographic subjects to express themselves beyond the typical portrait. He begins the process with a blank slate, some white chalk, and a set of provocative questions for his subjects:

What are you?
How do you think others see you?
What don’t they see?
What advice would you give to a stranger?
What is your favorite word?
Describe an incident that changed you.
How have you been affected by race?

Working one-on-one with people while shooting in neighborhoods or in workshops, Huie’s chalk talk questions illicit quick responses that, whether philosophical or playful, are downright remarkable.

During a three-day residency at UW–Parkside that ran in conjunc- tion with his fall 2011 exhibition, Huie shared his collection of photographs and facilitated chalk talk workshops on campus, at the local Boys and Girls Club, and at three local high schools. After Huie’s visit to Bradford High School, Tremper High School, and Harborside Academy, inspired teachers decided to create their own chalk talk assignments for students to do during the winter and spring. Over the next few months the participants in all of the related programs generated the one hundred fifty photographs that are today known as Chalk Talk Kenosha.

The photographs for Chalk Talk Kenosha produced by students working in pairs remind us that high school is a time for philosophical thinking. One young man wearing headphones holds the message, “I am what I make of myself.” Another tells us, “I am much more than laziness will let me be.” A girl poses behind her bicycle, giving the impression that she is behind bars. She holds a message that reads, “Sometimes I feel like I’m in jail.”

Many of the high school students captured people they encoun- tered on the street in their portraits. These chalk talks are special because they document positive encounters between people who are strangers, reminding us that art can expand personal bound- aries and create a stronger sense of community.

The Boys and Girls Club teens found the project to be an oppor- tunity to speak seriously about their lives. Among the most moving images in Chalk Talk Kenosha comes from a boy wearing glasses in response to the question, What are you? “I am a rook in the chess- board of life.” Barely in his teens, the young man is beginning to exert control over his own life, while understanding that there are many forces that are still beyond his control.

All these images would have been at best an exercise in self reflection had it not been for the efforts of Francisco Loyola and ExposeKenosha, an independent art showcase that provides local artists with alternative ways to promote their works. ExposeKenosha helped bring the images into the community by arranging exhibition space in downtown Kenosha.

Printed as laminated 18-by-24-inch prints, the photographs were taped inside the street-side windows of over forty businesses in downtown Kenosha, including coffee shops, restau- rants, clothing stores, and more. The Kenosha Public Museum, Kenosha Journal Times, and Kenosha Area Business Association all participated in this community exhibition as well.

By challenging children and teens to reveal the depth of their awareness and intelligence, the community’s assumptions about these young people are in turn challenged. In this way, Chalk Talk Kenosha reflects both literally and figuratively the mix of social, economic, ethnic perspectives found in Kenosha’s diverse population. This is perhaps the most moving aspect of this collaborative endeavor because it effectively illuminates the racial and socioeco- nomic disparity that is a part of everyday life in the city.

“Chalk Talk Kenosha represents a powerful visual representation of the core mission of the College and the new Rita Tallent Picken Regional Center for Arts and Humanities, which is to creatively bring members of the campus and community together around engaging educational, artistic, and cultural events,” says UW–Parkside College of Arts and Humanities Dean, Dr. Dean Yohnk.

The Chalk Talk Kenosha photographs were displayed on the walls of the UW–Parkside Fine Arts Gallery during the summer months, and a selection of the photographs are now exhibited in the hallways of Bradford High School, one of the participating schools. Designed to be a flexible exhibition that is easy and inex- pensive to show, many of these photographs can be seen at the new senior citizens home in Kenosha. The project is attracting some attention that will bring the photographs beyond the city limits as well. Expect to see a selection of Chalk Talk Kenosha photographs exhibited at one of the Wisconsin State Capitol gallery spaces during the winter of 2012.

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