Chalkboards once were a classroom staple. They could be black or green, but always dusty all over with the dregs of algebra problems, history dates and homework assignments.
Occasionally, someone might scrawl a wisecrack, or draw a rude stick figure. But they inevitably were ratted out and sentenced to writing a repeated repentance at the scene of the crime — a punishment now enshrined in the opening of “The Simpsons.”
Today, amid texts, tweets, snapchats and Instagrams, some people are reviving this retro means of communication, putting chalk to chalkboards to write messages that may be poignant, practical or descriptive of tonight’s pork special. Even as the dry-erase boards in classrooms are being replaced by “smart boards” that perform like computers, chalk-wielders may marvel at the opportunities they have to express themselves.
Among the most interactive chalkboards are those in the “Before I Die” project, which offers a “fill in the blank” format for aspirations. The result is a sort of communal bucket list that, judging from several boards in the Twin Cities, turns out to be more selfless than some might expect. For sure, some want to see the Vikings in the Super Bowl, but more want to improve the world.
Restaurants are discovering chalk’s utility, posting menus on blackboards to save printing costs, while exploiting chalk’s gritty-chic vibe.
Booths in Blue Door Pubs in Minneapolis and St. Paul have blackboards, especially welcomed by families with kids. The Royal Grounds coffee shop at 4161 Grand Av. S. in Minneapolis encourages sidewalk artistry. (Coffee drinkers who recall how Mary Poppins jumped into the chalk drawing have to wonder why life isn’t more like the movies.)
In a similar vein, customers entering the bland foyer of a St. Paul coffee shop are invited to pick up a piece of chalk, choose a brick and write their favorite word. Within the resulting grid: Bubble. Thunder. Collaborate. Oatmeal. Whoop.
Also: Penis. “I’m constantly erasing that word,” said Anne Mayers, who manages Fresh Grounds, 1362 W. 7th St. “There’s some teenage boy who thinks that’s very, very funny.”
Her exasperation is tempered with laughter, and the knowledge that even wannabe anarchists can’t resist being given permission to express themselves.
“It’s just tremendous fun,” she said. “Each little brick means something to someone.”
At Northeast United Methodist Church in Minneapolis, Pastor Sarah Lawton hung an outdoor chalkboard this spring near the church’s community garden, where passersby pick what they need. “This was sort of the logical next step, to let people enter another space to think and talk.”
Sometimes, she’ll write a prompting question such as: “If you followed your heart, where would it take you?”
“I’m a professional talker, but what I aspired to do was not for me to be the talker, but for us to get talking,” she said.
“I mean, I look at my Caribou coffee cup and it has all these really profound sayings like, ‘Be the first to apologize,’ and, ‘Stay awake for life.’ But it’s just me and my coffee cup. We interact about shoes, and Miley Cyrus. Why not about the more powerful and deepest parts of life, too?”
Granted, she said, “a chalkboard isn’t always an immediate interaction with life, but it’s a ‘hold’ space for it. It doesn’t just disappear when you hit ‘Send.’ You get to walk by it again, and again.”
She’d lucked into the slab of slate when a school threw out its blackboards, which solved her idea’s biggest challenge.
“It’s really hard to find a chalkboard.”
Information and artistry
A few people even seek to earn a living drawing with chalk.
Max Holmgren is the artist behind Bear Fox Chalk in Minneapolis. He’s chalked artistic signage for the Macy’s flower show, for weddings, for Land ’O Lakes, for coffeehouses and various events. Chalk art wasn’t something he’d seen as especially viable “until people started freaking out about it,” he said, laughing.
He’d done some signs for his wife’s wedding photography booth at a bridal fair last year. “When people started asking as much about the chalk stuff as her photography, that got our wheels turning a bit,” Holmgren said.
Some installations are destined for erasure, such as the art Holmberg does every couple of weeks at the Urban Bean coffee shop at 2401 Lyndale Av. S. He tries to document as many drawings as possible, and even has some time-lapse videos of his process at www.bearfoxchalk.com.
Other works are more permanent, drawn with a special chalk pencil made in China that resists erasure.
As to chalk’s renaissance, he’s as surprised as anyone. “I mean, Pinterest and social media certainly have made chalk art more visible. I do think chalk is kind of classic, like blue jeans. There’s a nostalgic, romantic feel about it.”
What are you waiting for?
A couple of years ago, Candy Chang, an artist and community activist in New Orleans, was mourning the death of a loved one. She decided to paint the side of an abandoned house with chalkboard paint, then stenciled: “Before I die I want to … .” A bucket of chalk encouraged people to share their aspirations.
On her website at http://beforeidie.cc, Chang wrote: “People’s responses made me laugh out loud and they made me tear up. They consoled me during my toughest times. I understood my neighbors in new and enlightening ways, and the wall reminded me that I’m not alone as I try to make sense of my life.”
She created a “toolkit” so others could create walls. Today, more than 350 “Before I Die” walls are in more than 50 countries, and a book about the project is due this fall.
Several walls have been created in the Twin Cities, the first last year in the Whittier neighborhood, although that wall’s prompt now is about neighborliness. In July, a wall in the skyway of the Alliance Bank building was installed to shield some renovation work and attracts a steady stream of desires.
Michelle Nichols saw that wall, loved it and wanted to replicate it when clothier Martin Patrick 3 began remodeling its store at 212 3rd Av. N. in Minneapolis. Nichols, who manages the building for the Cassidy Turley real estate firm, ran the idea by the contractor, Brian Elliot of the Bainey Group in Plymouth.
“Typically, we’ve put up vinyl wallcovering as a construction barricade before the big reveal,” Elliot said. “For the impact that it’s made and how little it cost — some plywood and chalkboard paint and a stencil — this has been a great way to get the community involved, and it’s more interesting than plywood.”
The renovation project now is completed, so Nichols is looking for a new location for the wall.
She said the wall’s message struck a personal chord because of fundraising work she does for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. “You hear all the stories and realize, who wants to wait until something bad happens?” she said.
With a few strokes of chalk, a private aspiration goes public, which prods you to start thinking about how to make it happen.
Chalk it up to fate.