Perhaps the biggest honor for a Minnesota artist, the McKnight Distinguished Artist Award rings of “lifetime achievement.” But at 63, this year’s winner, Minneapolis photographer Wing Young Huie, considers himself to be at midcareer.
For all of his accomplishments, he maintains a humble profile. One of his ongoing projects is his gallery, the Third Place, located on a quietly gentrifying strip of Chicago Avenue between 37th and 38th streets. Inside the high-ceilinged, white-walled space, there’s a Ping-Pong table — the last thing you might expect to find in a gallery. But this isn’t just a place for showing art. This is also a meeting place, a space to air neighborhood concerns, screen films or stage spoken-word performances.
That sense of surprise comes naturally to Huie, who embodies a refreshing, community-oriented ethos in his photography practice. In essence, he brings people together through the shared act of seeing themselves through other people’s lenses in ways that feel respectful and honest. Often, Huie asks the people he photographs to write their thoughts or feelings on a chalkboard, which they hold up in front of them.
He views the McKnight award (which comes with a $50,000 cash prize), announced Monday morning, as an honor, but also sees it in practical terms.
“My three main goals have been to keep producing, be relevant and make a living — not in that order,” he said. “So I think this definitely helps Number 3.”
That sounds oddly like the way Huie describes his father’s decision to move from China’s Guangdong Province to Duluth, where he opened a Chinese restaurant, Joe Huie’s Café, in 1951, shortly before his son was born.
Huie says his dad was a pioneer. He moved to a place where his family would be culturally isolated, but business would be great because there’d be hardly any competition. And he was right.
But Huie’s parents mostly spoke English to ensure assimilation. The little Mandarin Huie acquired was lost. At one point, he could barely communicate with his mother. He felt a cultural shame and didn’t think he could talk about it with his family.
This confusion led to his latest project. Huie puts a magnifying glass on his cultural identity in “Chinese-ness,” a book due Nov. 1 from Minnesota Historical Society Press that he describes as part memoir and part documentary, and an accompanying exhibit, “Chinese-ness: Photographs by Wing Young Huie,” opening Sept. 11 at Minnesota History Center.
In this project, Huie turns the camera on himself for the first time. It was inspired by a 2010 visit to China, where he really felt the clash of cultures. He took it upon himself to investigate, exchanging clothes with a few Chinese men and imagining the life he might have lived if his parents hadn’t left China.
“My American-ness, or non-Chinese-ness, seemed evident to all, not just in language, but also in my gait, attitude, dress, mannerisms,” he writes in the book. Yet in America, he also felt an otherness, which is how he discovered his “Chinese-ness,” as he refers to it. “My Minnesota-ness overwhelmed my Chinese-ness to the point that my own parents often seemed exotic and foreign to me.”
The book also includes stories and photographs of other Chinese-Americans living in Minnesota, and Chinese people he met in China.
Huie has built his career around large-scale photo projects in which he becomes a part of communities — at the heart of it all, his artwork is about connecting with others.
It’s something that Carla McGrath, executive director of Highpoint Center for Printmaking in Minneapolis, noticed immediately upon meeting him, back in 1982. She and Highpoint co-founder Cole Rogers nominated Huie for the McKnight Distinguished Artist award.
McGrath was struck by his “Lake Street USA” project. Huie moved into an apartment in the community, and from 1997 to 2000 photographed everyday life on 6 miles of the Minneapolis thoroughfare, from economically depressed areas to trendy pockets.
He displayed the 675 photographs in more than 300 businesses, bus stops and what was then the biggest boarded-up building in Minneapolis — a former Sears, now Midtown Global Market, not far from Huie’s gallery.
Huie’s photography, McGrath said, doesn’t “scare people away — it’s very accessible. … He has this incredibly broad view of the world around him, and can see different communities from perspectives that are very open- minded.”
She admires “the care and sensitivity with which he can do a project about people that inspire him in ways that then allow us to be inspired.”
From 2007 to 2010, Christine Podas-Larson, the now retired founder of Public Art St. Paul, worked with Huie to produce the “University Avenue” project, photographing the St. Paul neighborhoods connected by this busy street. He displayed the 500 photos in store windows and on buildings, along with an outdoor installation where photos were projected onto billboard-sized screens at a former car dealership.
When she heard that Huie had won the McKnight award, she cried.
“And then it was just pure joy,” she said. “He bets his life on his art. He has this kind of enduring vision that is so good for all of us.”
As she sees it, the award is for everybody who has participated in his projects.
“It’s tens of thousands of people,” she said. “It is about anyone who has every cared about anything he’s done.