Chalk! It Up

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At commencement last year, I spoke about the thousands of rush hour commuters on a Washington DC subway platform who never noticed, much less stopped, while world-famous violinist Joshua Bell played Bach. Yet here, on the Seventh Avenue sidewalk outside FIT—at almost any time of day or night—busy passersby are stopping, or at least slowing down, as they notice our walls. What captures their attention is our Chalk! project—the large-scale exuberant images that run in a single, head-high band along the exterior wall of Pomerantz—all produced by our senior illustration majors and alumni in brilliantly colored chalk. I must say, it is pretty hard to miss, even if you have your nose pressed to your Smartphone.

Chalk!, which is overseen by illustration Professors Dan Shefelman and Richard Elmer, is now in its third year. From the start it was a great success and so it has become something of an end-of-semester FIT tradition. As FIT’s proud president, one of my favorite aspects of Chalk! is that it demonstrates to passersby the serious, rigorous work that goes on inside our walls—and allows them a glimpse, as well, into the sometimes vivid, colorful and surprising nature of that work. I occasionally linger nearby and watch people enjoy the mix of work the project puts on display. The colors are intense, almost leaping off the stone. The range of styles is wide, including everything from the abstract, to the comic, to representational portraiture.

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According to Professor Shefelman, the entire senior illustration class (about 45 students) submits images, and he puts out an open invitation to alumni as well. Once the images have been approved, the artists reproduce their work on the Pomerantz walls using a grid system or simply by eye. And people love it, he says.

I can see that, and I’m not surprised. Chalk! is arresting and powerful, and while I am puzzled as to why busy people did not stop and listen to Joshua Bell in Washington, I am delighted that busy New Yorkers stop to examine and enjoy the talents of our students. Perhaps there are social scientists somewhere who will want to explore the elements that lead to such disparate behaviors.

In the meanwhile, I hope that anyone reading this who has not yet seen the project will wander by. Chalk! is just made from chalk, after all. And eventually—unfortunately—chalk fades.

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