A community stares at itself

University Avenue Project
One of the hundreds of photographs in the University Avenue Project.
Image courtesy University Avenue Project

Wing Young Huie wants Minnesotans to see their neighbors.

For the next six months, hundreds of his photographs of people who live along University Avenue in St Paul will be displayed in windows along that very street. It's a massive undertaking. Organizers working with Huie expect The University Avenue Project to change the city.

Wing Young Huie remembers something a woman said after seeing one of his pictures. It was of a man she knew by sight in Minneapolis. She said it allowed her to do something she considered rude -- and quite un-Minnesotan.

"Your photographs give me a chance to stare. And by staring somehow you know something you wouldn't know, or you understand something you wouldn't understand," Huie recalls her saying.

Wing Young Huie
Duluth native Wing Young Huie has trained his lens on communities in the Twin Cities, and around the country for two decades. His latest, and largest enterprise, is the University Avenue Project.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

The walls in Huie's Minneapolis studio are covered with hundreds of pictures, and again you're welcome to stare. They all show people who live along the 6-mile stretch of University Avenue between the Capitol building and the KSTP tower.

He fires up his laptop, and launches a slideshow with just some of the images. There are people of all ages, races, and occupations. Some are serious, others jubilant. Some are thoughtful. Some are sad.

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Some are holding chalkboards with answers to questions Huie put to them.

"'What are you?' A very open-ended question. Not 'Who are you?' 'What are you?'" Huie clarifies. "'How do you think others see you? What don't they see? What advice would you give a stranger? What is your favorite word? Describe an incident that changed you?' And the last question was 'How have you been effected by race?' And I would chose only one of the answers."

The pictures are curiously powerful and arresting.

"I guarantee you that people will remember that it was here for the rest of their lives."

"And it's amazing to me what people decided to reveal," Huie said. "I mean some of it is very personal."

Sometimes Huie got people who didn't know each other to ask the questions and then photographed them together. One picture shows a two women, one in punkish clothes, and the other in traditional Somali dress. Both hold chalkboards.

"One says 'People think I am Christian, heterosexual and rich. I'm none of those things,'" Huie reads aloud. "The other one says, she wrote 'I want them to see me as a normal person, someone who could be their daughter, their mother, wife, a human being.'"

There are pictures of students, evangelists, street people, capitol lobbyists, and Vikings fans. They aren't necessarily easy to interpret. Wing Young Huie likes that.

"I think the better the picture, the more interpretations are possible," he says.

Photographer Wing Young Huie asked some of his subjects to answer questions, then asked them to write their responses on chalkboards for inclusion in their pictures.
Image courtesy of the University Avenue Project

It's been 20 years since Huie first trained his camera on the people of the Twin Cities. A self-trained photographer, he's done many projects focused on specific communities, including the Lake Street project a few years ago. That's when he first displayed pictures in store windows. But he's never done anything quite as large as this.

In a vacant lot on University Avenue across the street from Walmart near the corner of Hamline, a crane begins swinging a freight container, from the back of a truck, into place. Steve Dietz who designed the installation watches.

"There's eight containers in all," he says. "We are basically making two towers that are three containers high."

The top of each tower features a backlit screen to display projected images. The final two larger containers form a huge screen at the back of the lot. That's where there will be nightly shows where local musicians supply the soundtrack to Huie's photographs.

Christine Podas-Larson is also keeping an eye on things.

Projection site
Workers move containers into place for the "University Avenue Project(ion) site." Every night the installation near the corner of University and Hamline will feature a two hour show of pictures and local music.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

"You know this is kind of like mega-Legos" she says.

Podas-Larson is the President of Public Art St Paul which is producing the University Avenue Project.

She is very excited that a grant from the St Paul Foundation will allow huge murals of Wing Young Huie's pictures to be placed on prominent buildings along University.

Podas-Larson and Dietz
Christine Podas-Larson and Steve Dietz watch the crew swing the containers in place.
MPR Photo/Euan Kerr

Volunteers are currently placing smaller photos along the Avenue. More will be added during the six-month life of the show, some 450 in all. She says there has been a tremendous outpouring of help from individuals, foundations and businesses.

"The actual cash cost of this would have been unaffordable. It takes a village, and you gotta have friends," she says.

Podas-Larson credits this to the way Wing Young Huie's work touches people deeply. She believes that the University Avenue Project will change St. Paul, both in the way people see public art and each other.

"The pictures I think not only are moving for those who see them, I think they are incredibly moving for those who are in them. That someone noticed, and someone cared about the reality in their lives," she said.

The University Avenue Project officially opens Saturday, with gatherings at spots along the Avenue. In addition to the nightly photo shows, the project will also feature monthly cabarets at the display site.

Podas-Larson likes to think big, but she predicts this will be really big.

"I guarantee you that people will remember that it was here for the rest of their lives."

Who knew that staring might be so significant?