Wing Young Huie once again turns real people into works of art


There is a show going on Wednesday through Sunday night at dusk starring more than 450 St. Paul residents and visitors. And it’s free!  

Once again award-winning photographer Wing Young Huie has aimed his creative camera at ordinary people doing ordinary things…and has turned each one into a work of art. This time he also asked them to write answers to several questions on a chalkboard.

Their answers, too, became part of the art.

It is all part of the University Avenue Project 2007-2010 conceived by Huie and Christine Podas-Larson, president of the nonprofit organization Public Art St. Paul. In 2007, she approached Huie to take on another public photography exhibit similar to his successful Frogtown 1996 and Lake Street U.S.A.1996-1999. It took some convincing for this was a major effort that would take several years and Huie was not sure he wanted to commit that much time, effort, and expense again. But, she assured him that this time with the organization’s management and funding, he could concentrate on his project vision and photography.

For the next three years Huie walked the streets and rode the buses along University Avenue in St. Paul from the state capitol building on the east to the KSTP tower at the city limits on the west photographing the people he encountered. He would also ask them, “What are you? How do you define yourself? How do you think others see you? What don’t they see? Describe an incident that changed you? What advice would you give a stranger? What do you think about race? What is your favorite word?” He then asked them to write their answer on a small slate and that, too, became part of the art.

“No honey
  No money
  No bunny” reads one slate.

“Interested” reads another.

“Live and  Let Others Live” says another.

Huie chose the avenue partly for its long history (dating back to the 1880s) and partly for the international community that lives and works there now. He also sees it as a slice of popular culture reflective of what we really are, and not what popular media portrays us to be. Growing up in a Chinese family in Duluth, Huie had a hard time finding Asian icons in the public media other than Kung Fu stars. So part of his photographic philosophy has always been to help us see each other and ourselves as individual parts of a complex society.

He selected 450 photographs from the collection to be shown Wednesday through Sunday at sundown at 1433 W. University Avenue in St. Paul on a massive outdoor rear-screen projection designed by Northern Lights and managed by Abraham Gleeson of Public Art St. Paul. More than 30 local musical groups are also featured on the show’s sound track adding the element of music to still photography. More than 2,000 people have already stopped by to see what is probably the largest such public art project in the country. It starts at dusk, runs for 90 minutes every night that weather permits and will be offered until October 31. The project also includes additional still photos in 70 storefront windows and on buildings along that same six-mile stretch of University Avenue.

Huie opens the show on Wednesday nights at 8:00 p.m., often with special guests and their own works of art. The project is also featured in a book “The University Avenue Project, Vol. 1” published by the Minnesota Historical Society and available in bookstores.

Huie continues to travel the University Avenue corridor taking photos to add to the collection. He once said he never saw a face he didn’t like, and his work shows it. He goes into barbershops and cafes, gets invited into living rooms, or just stands on street corners capturing the people with his camera. Some of the photos are haunting, like the young mother feeding her infant while her slate advises other girls to wait before starting a family. Some show the joy of people doing silly things; others, the timeworn faces of a lifetime of hardship. In Huie’s hands, the camera not only records us as we are, but shows our emotions and life around us. The harried mother riding the bus with her fussy child on her lap is just one of the indifferent riders around her sharing the same short journey.  Sometimes it is a single face in front of ornate architecture. Sometimes it is a whole sports team in matching uniforms. But, each of Huie’s photographs is a thoughtful glimpse into our life and times.

While the University Avenue Project 2007-2010 was intended to be a local public art project, it is already taking on an international scope. Huie was invited to discuss his work at an International Film Festival in Sophia, Bulgaria. This formerly communist country entered the European Union in 2007, is one of the poorest countries in the Union, and is coping with social changes occurring under its new democratic rule. It is also a country with a large number of Roma “gypsies” looked upon as second-class citizens who are not accepted by the majority of Bulgarians. When the Bulgarian audience saw Huie’s photos and the wide range of racial and ethnic heritages portrayed, they commented that this is not how they think of America….not how the popular media portrays Americans. His work also inspired students at Sophia University to photograph people in their own communities and create their own public art project.

In October, Huie will travel to Beijing, China, to discuss the possibility of presenting his work at the nearby Shang Yuan artists’ colony sometime next year. This will be his first trip to China, the homeland of his parents and siblings. He is the only member of his family born in the U.S. and the only one who has never seen his family’s native country. On the streets of China, his camera will surely find even more faces for him to like and immortalize.

Funding for the University Avenue Project 2007-2010 initially came from the Joyce Foundation with additional help from Meyer, Scherer and Rockcastle, LTD architects; Frattalone Companies crane operations; the 3M Foundation and many others. But, fundraising for the project is not over.

“We still need to raise $82,000,” said Podas-Larson, to reimburse the Public Art St. Paul coffers. Because expenses exceeded initial funding, the organization added this amount to complete the project and needs to replace the funds for other projects now in the planning stages.

Foundations, organizations and businesses along University Avenue are encouraged to donate to the project and to encourage their clients and customers to donate as well.

Viewers of the University Avenue Project 2007-2010 collection can also participate in this fundraising effort by purchasing photos. Prices range from $30 to $2,000 with all proceeds going to Public Art St. Paul. For additional funding information contact Public Art St. Paul at 651-290-0921. To learn more about volunteer opportunities with the project or to purchase University Avenue Project photos go to their website at