Monticello Road is a community arts project in Charlottesville, Virginia. Through photography and a series of public events and conversations, we explore how an art can be an essential, integral and everyday part of a healthy community.

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Monday, August 5, 2013

Inspiration: Chalkville

Monticello Road is an in-depth exploration of one street in Charlottesville, VA. It asks how art can be a key, everyday part of a healthy and vibrant community. This blog normally focuses, as it should, on the people and places in that neighborhood but it also occasionally presents related examples and inspirations from elsewhere.

Elinor Slomba is an artist/organizer/agent/angel and a lifetime collaborator and friend of mine. I caught up with Elinor as she was catching her breath after the completion of Chalkville, a monumental chalk drawing on a high school parking lot in West Haven, CT and an excellent example of art-centric community organizing.

Tell us about Chalkville. What was it about and how did it go?

Elinor: Chalkville was a Guinness-approved world record attempt for Largest Chalk Pavement Art. The record we had to beat was 90,000 square feet of one unified chalk drawing, set by Mark Wagner of Alameda, California. After I got the idea this might be a good civic art project, we got seed funding from the Awesome Foundation, Connecticut Chapter. They give $1,000 grants to individuals for creative projects that benefit communities. That was enough for a little less than half of the chalk, but it enabled us to begin saying "we have funding for this." It wasn't just a crazy idea, we were certified Awesome!

My citycouncilman was supportive, along with a few friends and neighbors, and so we got a core team together. We reached out to Mark Wagner not as challengers, but as possible successors. He's a generous man, really wanted to help! The core team needed special advisers, including an Agile Coach to help with managing a project of such complexity under a tight timeframe.

We chose the West Haven High School parking lot because it was the place in town with the most contiguous paved area. We met with the Superintendent and everybody's eyes got to sparkling when we talked about going for a World Record. It wasn't simply art for art's sake, you didn't need to be sold on that angle.

My city...well, it's an inner-ring suburb of New Haven. It has a 2.5 mile public boardwalk on the Long Island Sound, but otherwise it's just not on people's radar for culture or quality of life. We wanted to change the conversation. We thought, if we can get people drawing with chalk together, politicians and families and groups of teenagers, side by side, from different parts of the city and invite the broader community to come and see what we can organize, well that's a huge positive.

In that respect, the project was successful. Eighteen different community groups participated, from Parks Rec day camps to students from the University of New Haven to Zumba dancers from a local gym, plus about a thousand individuals, and the Mayor delivered a proclamation about Chalkville as a demonstration of "creative problem solving."

Teachers contributed leftover chalk at the end of the school year and set up Chalkville collection stations in their classrooms. Some of the elementary schools with the fewest resources were able to contribute.

We weren't sanctioned by any particular organization. Chalkville was simply a group of people who became passionate about the idea of making this huge-scale temporary art thing happen. We wanted to create art together, and, in the process, create community. And to do that, we had the clear goal of the World Record to focus on. We cannot claim it this time around, too much rain got in our way, but that was our focus throughout.

When you were forced to change your plans, what opportunities arose?

We made a few pivots, and Richard Kasperowski, the Agile coach I mentioned, has reminded me of some not-so-obvious ones. First, we were originally eyeing downtown for where we wanted Chalkville to happen, but there just wasn't enough pavement. The site we settled on created an opportunity because it became a way to link with art students who already had an annual tradition of chalk drawing. The fact that their Senior Art Show had a strong chalk component was coincidental alignment, pure synchronicity. They had some beautiful photos to share. Teachers made great suggestions that informed our plans, such as "don't try drawing during the hottest part of the day." They had already tested that. I am really grateful to the high school and the Board of Ed for their support. The fact that we could occupy the whole back lot for six days and set up our own little camp there was extraordinary. That could not have happened downtown.

The design itself also kept changing until the very last responsible moment. We had set up a press event at the local library on June 3rd, and by May 30th we were still hashing out design elements. There were three things we wanted it to do: tell a story about West Haven as a place, be visually interesting, but also simple enough to execute technically. I honestly didn't know how it was going to come together.

It did because it had to. That's the amazing part about a team in which everyone is there only because they want to be. Watching everyone perform under high stress, because they care so much, beautiful things occur. The final design had three main elements: a horseshoe crab, waves and the silhouette of a small child drawing. The background was pixellated, made from people drawing circles around their bodies with a special tool we invented called "The Circle-Nator," basically chalk taped to the end of a broomstick. Each circle was filled in according to individual taste, but the structure created a unified whole. We were really pleased with that design solution as a way to represent the community's diversity.

We also changed plans about how much chalk to buy. We were waiting for the chalk to arrive and got concerned. Turned out, the shipping company had lost the shipment, a thousand pounds of chalk disappeared! I was thankful the supplier could fill a second order and point it toward West Haven in time, but then figured the universe might be telling us something interesting about how much we needed. The original truck surfaced and we decided to purchase that shipment too. As it happened, this was good insurance, because the rain washed away our first set of drawings, and we were still able to keep going over the weekend. An actual ton of chalk got used, over two thousand points, plus whatever people brought to donate. We just kept going until one last final absolute drenching downpour became a definite signal that we wouldn't be able to capture an adequate aerial photograph of our work which is required for Guinness.

So out of that, we ended up with a wonderful video archive, and comments from witnesses. The Guinness requirements kept us rigorous about documenting every drawing session. Now we can cull and edit and make an exhibition. The community was happy to be seen. That in itself is the biggest opportunity, to make the power of artmaking - in and of itself - more visible.

The amount of advance work must have dwarfed the actual mural—big as it was. What did you get out of that earlier, thankless, part? What about the community?

It wasn't thankless so much as practice. We considered each meeting to be a rehearsal. We walked through the whole thing from set-up to clean-up, from the point of view of the participants. From a "lean management" standpoint, all we really needed was enough chalk, enough participants and a safe place for them to draw. So we focused on the participants and how to make them feel awesome and get others involved. We worked to amplify everyone's enthusiasm.

We made a huge Scrum Board full of post-it notes on my living room wall. (For more info about Scrum as a project management framework, see www.scrumalliance,org). We made a timeline and put all the tasks in order of priority. We met every Sunday night. What we got from "walking the board" and talking everything through over and over was a deeper understanding of each other's strengths and what we could offer, who else we could bring to the table. We iteratively built a great team. We became more and more aligned each week, with deeper trust.

This eventually extended to the Fire Chief, the Fire Marshall, the Deputy Police Chief, the head of Public Works, the director of Parks and Recreation, the Buildings and Maintenance people at the High School, the Traffic Sargent, everyone involved in logistics during the actual event. It was highly orchestrated, everyone had their parts, like the cast of a huge live production. Neighbors with backpack blowers prepared the pavement before we even laid a stick of chalk down. We even had the director of the street hockey program getting the hockey families involved. He came down and drew with us, and so did the Mayor! The trust allowed for spontaneous problem-solving, like when someone called the owner of a construction company and asked for a paint roller, a big piece of heavy equipment you need a license to use. They had the idea we could use it to crush up chalk to apply with brooms to make things go faster. This was brilliant. He said yes, no problem, brought it over and it worked! He has offered to help again in the future. Our planning process spawned this epic sense of purpose.

What are the enduring results of such an ephemeral project?

The Mayor cited "increased support for the arts and an open door to collaboration around big ideas." I would add the number of people who now view themselves as artists. And we have a solid alliance of enthusiastic, connected people who want to work on other projects, and email lists of participants who want to stay informed about art happenings. My Community Outreach Lead, Angela Reynolds, is already working on plans for a flash mob she'd like to direct, and she'd be great at it.

One of our witnesses sent in this note: We will think of you and Chalkville every time we see chalk drawings, but we'll especially think of you and call on your spirit and tenacity, every time things don't go as planned. Earlier on, and this really touched us, a woman from Massachusetts reached out about a one year old who had died suddenly, doctors didn't know why, and his favorite thing to do was draw with chalk. She contributed in his memory - he became the child silhouetted in the drawing. Those memories won't be easily erased. They can't be. As another witness put it, "Spirit can't be washed down a drain."

Will there be a Chalkville II?

I think so, because we can't claim the Guinness record yet but people are still motivated. Just a few days after Chalkville, the principal of the high school invited us back. My citycouncilperson is all set for a rematch with Mother Nature. The Mayor said as much in our local press. I think it's cool to see the kind of place-based competitive passions people usually reserve for sports coming out in a civic arts project. People are commenting on Chalkville's Facebook page about "Westies' fighting spirit" and everyone so far says they want to seek another attempt. I mean, it's been intense, and I'm tired. But how could we not want that?

You can learn more about Elinor and her projects by visiting http://artsinterstices.wordpress.com/.

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