The Chalk Bandits

This is a story from Audrey Mantey, artist, teacher, mom, vet, mentor, and cherished friend. -SG

BY Audrey Mantey

I received an email from the mother of one of my students last week, directing me to a news story involving her son. He and two other area youth created a mural in downtown Mount Clemens, in a public space by a fountain. They used sidewalk chalk - the chunky kind that you'd buy for a child's birthday party; the kind that washes away with plain water. While they were working, bypassers were commenting on their work. The students encouraged them to take part. The people who joined them came from all walks of life, including, at one point, a member of the Mount Clemens Downtown Development Authority. It was one of those rare unplanned, unannounced occurrences where, for a brief time, a community came together to create something, just because they could.

I've taken part in similar actions with my students. Once, in the early hours of the morning, we blanketed the streets of Ann Arbor in chalk silhouettes as part of The Shadow Project, in remembrance of Hiroshima. The following year, we did a similar project in Detroit with cornstarch and water. People we didn't know picked up brushes and joined us. Last year, we helped plan a "Chalk and Talk" at Wayne State University, inviting people to write something or to grab our bullhorn and step onto our soapbox to speak. The soapbox is a crudely painted recycled wooden crate that belongs to another of my students; she hauls it to various public events in Detroit. It's nothing fancy - when it's not being used as a soapbox, it holds her music collection. She doesn't require people to clear their words with her before speaking. She simply wants them to express themselves, to tell each other what they are thinking. She wants to create dialog.

There's a street in Detroit, Heidelberg Street, where a local artist has taken over the sidewalks, vacant lots, and a small children's park. Tyree Guyton started The Heidelberg Project over 20 years ago, painting polka dots across the landscape, and building sculptures from recycled materials. The project draws over a quarter of a million visitors each year. There's no charge to enter; it's just a public place that has been transformed through his vision into a gathering spot. Strangers there talk to each other.

Twice, the city of Detroit has bulldozed sections of the project, claiming it was a blight on the city. Twice, Tyree has rebuilt, and he continues to expand it with the help of area school children and adult volunteers. Across the street from the project are vacant buildings that need to be torn down, but the city hasn't removed them. The folks from the project occasionally mark vacant buildings throughout Detroit with a large circle of paint, the iconic polka dot which has caused so much distress to our public officials.

Drive through the city and you'll see these dots - a sort of cultural short-hand for "This one here needs tearing down, why don't you bulldoze this?" I suspect the answer is that they're not FULL STORY