University Avenue Project melds public art, social consciousness.

Public Art St. Paul commissioned local artist Wing Young Huie to take on the six-mile inquiry.

Jay Boller

WHAT: The University Avenue Project âÄî Project Launch WHEN: May 1, 8 p.m. WHERE: 1433 University Ave. TICKETS: Free University Ave. Project, Volume 1 AUTHOR: Wing Young Huie PAGES: 128 PRICE: $12.95 Most students donâÄôt think about or care where the route 16 bus came from as it careens down Washington Avenue; itâÄôs just a means to cross a bridge and enter downtown. But the 16, prior to its jaunt through campus, just went down University Avenue âÄî a thoroughfare as rich in history and vibrant in makeup as any expanse of road in the Twin Cities. With the University Avenue Project, local artist Wing Young Huie and Public Art St. Paul are zeroing in on the storied inter-city artery in an ambitious attempt to detail the diverse, thriving, troubled and oft-misunderstood humanity that occupies it. Starting at the KSTP tower and ending at the capitol âÄî a six-mile stretch âÄî the University Avenue Project speckles photographs by Huie in 70 storefronts and large murals, culminating in its âÄúProject(ion)âÄù site âÄî a large-scale projection screen that will illuminate over 450 images of life on University Avenue throughout the summer. In addition, hoards of local artist have contributed to the project’s soundtrack, one that includes Cloud Cult , Martin Devaney, Swahili Choir at Holy Trinity, The Mad Ripple and many more. The ambitious piece kicks off May 1 with a celebration at 1433 University Ave. The end result is an open-air, massive gallery that works both during the day with the storefront photos and murals and at night with lit-up projections. The seeds of the University Avenue Project were planted when Christine Podas-Larson , president of nonprofit Public Art St. Paul, first worked with Huie on a project at University AvenueâÄôs Dickerman Park in 2005. From there, the duo âÄî both of whom are University of Minnesota graduates âÄî won a $50,000 grant from the Joyce Foundation for their current undertaking, one where Huie was commissioned by Public Art St. Paul. With grand ambitions come sticky funding snafus. The original budget of $100,000 ballooned to more than $250,000, Podas-Larson said. But thanks to volunteer efforts from a local PR firm, an architecture company and a crane operator coupled with a $50,000 grant from 3M , the project was able to become a reality. âÄúIt takes a village âÄî itâÄôs a trite phrase, but itâÄôs meaningful,âÄù Podas-Larson said. For Huie, who Podas-Larson calls one of the most important artists in America, the University Avenue Project is about revealing the true identity of Minnesota, one that is often lost in Lake Wobegon lore, he said. âÄúIâÄôm trying to create a new iconography that accurately reflects the realities of hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans,âÄù Huie said. Finding pockets of immigrants from Mexico or Southeast Asia is common throughout the country, he said, but to have an area as complex and globalized as University Avenue is unique to Minnesota. HuieâÄôs photographs are intimate portraits of University Avenue residents, representing a vast swath of the areaâÄôs makeup âÄî an area with a backdrop that ranges from ethnic grocery stores to enormous Wal-Marts . The photographs are in both color and black-and-white, and many feature their subjects holding a chalkboard that reads a revealing detail of their lives. ThereâÄôs a portly black teen with a chalkboard boasting âÄúI used to fight a lot it was fun. Now I am a Teddy Bear.âÄù A young mother bottle-feeds her child with a painfully telling chalkboard that reads âÄúWait to make a family b/c itâÄôs hard to support them.âÄù The examples are numerous and captivating, all executed from a tactful, respectful perspective, Huie said, claiming itâÄôs a thin line between earnestly representing and exoticizing. âÄúWhat IâÄôm doing is really collecting photographic bits of reality and holding up a mirror to the avenue and beyond,âÄù Huie said, adding that heâÄôs nervously optimistic about the grand scope of the project. Podas-Larson, while equally frazzled with last-minute to-dos, is less reserved in her excitement. âÄúIt builds community to a very strong level,âÄù she said. âÄúWe need to understand and celebrate our fellow citizens. This is the emerging American experience.âÄù