McKnight's 2018 Distinguished Artist: Wing Young Huie's camera helps us all see more clearly
ST. PAUL — With a camera hanging on a strap around his neck, close to his heart, Wing Young Huie stands in his art gallery and thinks back to the beginning of this partnership.
"I went to journalism school to be a reporter," Huie said. "But then I took a one-week workshop from Garry Winogrand, the legendary New York street photographer. I was 23 and that's when I decided I wanted to become a street photographer like Garry Winogrand."
That was more than 40 years ago. Now 63, Huie has become, in a way, Minnesota's street photographer. Through his work — including chronicling life on University Avenue in St. Paul and Lake Street in Minneapolis — he is like an anthropologist who is moderating an ongoing conversation about the block-by-block evolution of Minnesota.
For this and more, the McKnight Foundation, a Minnesota-based family foundation, has selected Huie to receive the 2018 McKnight Distinguished Artist Award. The award, which comes with $50,000, is given to one Minnesota artist a year. Huie is the first photographer to receive the honor in the award's 21-year history.
And yet, his work transcends the label of a medium.
"He's an expert photographer, but he's also an expert in engaging," said Vickie Benson, arts program director for the McKnight Foundation. "His work starts with a photo and continues with a conversation with people."
Although Huie has connections to St. Paul with his work in Frogtown and on University Avenue, his own Minnesota story begins in Duluth, where he was born and raised.
"I didn't grow up in an arts culture," Huie says. "My immigrant parents never uttered the word 'art.' "
It's a topic that Huie explores in his upcoming book, "Chinese-ness: The Meanings of Identity and the Nature of Belonging," which will published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press and available on Nov. 1 — with a related photo exhibit debuting at the Minnesota History Center on Sept. 11.
It was a 2010 trip to China that prompted this book, his seventh.
In a section of the book entitled "I am you," Huie writes: "Going to China for the first time made me wonder What If? What if my father had never left China, and I had been raised in China? Would I have turned out differently? Or what if I had not gone to college and ended up owning a Chinese restaurant like my father? Or what if I had not been the youngest and had to work 60 hours a week while going to school like my older brothers? Or what if I had turned out like my mother really wanted, married to a Chinese woman with Chinese kids?
"To get an inkling of these personal projections, I decided to wear the clothes of Chinese men whose lives I could have had if circumstances or choices had been different. Often I would photograph them, then don their clothes and give them the camera to photograph me, but not everyone wanted to be photographed."
The book — which is described as "part documentary, part meta-memoir and part actual memoir" — includes interviews and photos of others, as well as Huie's own story. It is a project that has occupied him for the past eight years, but the narrative encapsulates his entire life.
"The hyphen in 'Chinese-ness' is very important," he says. "As a hyphenated American, it took me quite awhile to understand how much weight that little hyphen carried."
Though Huie describes it as "my most personal book yet," the book also includes the photos and voices of more than 100 other people. It also illustrates Huie's style of combining documentary-style photography with interviews and thought-provoking observations such as, "You can look in the mirror every day and never really see yourself."
"It's not about culture or racial politics," Huie said of the book. "It's about the things that fall into the recesses of the mind, the things that people don't always talk about."
The book includes his signature "chalk talk" photos — where people write revealing statements on chalkboards in response to open-ended questions like, "How do you think others see you? What don't they see?"
Huie's body of work began on a personal note: After graduating from the University of Minnesota in 1979 with a journalism degree, Huie combined his self-taught photography skills with his training in interviewing, reporting and writing to publish his first piece, a 3,000-word article and photo essay on his father for a Duluth magazine.
"It gave me the chance to ask my father questions I'd always wanted to," he says.
He wonders why he needed the excuse.
"Who knows why we don't ask the questions we want to ask the people we are closest to," Huie said.
Huie began building a career in photography for practical reasons.
"It's easier to make a living as a photographer," he said. "Back then, they paid 10 cents a word — and I'm not sure it's much more now."
It was a steady gig as a photographer for a local business publication that inadvertently launched his art career.
"I was their only photographer and it was great to have the work, but I was getting a little burned out," he said. "What I really wanted to do was be a street photographer."
After getting fired, he finally could.
"It was the firing that freed me," he said.
Huie's star began to rise with his work documenting daily life in Frogtown. In 1995, the Pioneer Press wrote: "Once a stranger with a camera, Huie eventually became The Photo Guy, invited into people's homes to witness, photograph and make audiotapes of Frogtown life stories. His work includes pictures of a Hmong shaman's ritual and a Pentecostal church service; kids goofing off in an alley and elders in a beauty shop; a black family gathered close on the front stoop and a group of white guys wearing pythons around their necks.
"From 300 rolls of film and 30 cassette tapes of interviews, Huie culled an exhibit of about 170 photographs and selected quotations. Rather than show the work in a gallery or cultural center, however, he has put it up in a most accessible location: a parklike vacant lot at University Avenue and Dale Street. This way, Huie figures, none of the neighbors will have a reason not to feel welcome. Since the lot was once the site of a porn theater, the show also underscores the neighborhood's continuing transformation. The photos are pinned to reinforced Styrofoam panels, suspended between metal fence posts and shrink-wrapped; artist Owen Exley, who designed the exhibition, calls the presentation 'ultra-vulnerable.' It could also be called a public art experiment."
The public art experiments continued on University Avenue and Lake Street, which can be viewed in the resulting books, including the two-volume set, "The University Avenue Project: The Language of Urbanism: A Six-Mile Photographic Inquiry" (published by the Minnesota State Historical Society Press in 2010) and "Lake Street USA" (published by the University of Minnesota Press in 2001). This is in addition to the historical society's 1996 publication of Huie's work in St. Paul, titled: "Frogtown: Photographs and Conversations in an Urban Neighborhood."
More recently, Huie has brought his work off the street and into other venues.
"I make a living by giving presentations," he said. "I've given over 1,000 presentations to schools, from K-12 to colleges, and to nonprofits and corporations. In a sense, I make a living talking about what I do, versus doing it."
In addition to providing educational resources like " What Do You See?" Huie helps other artists by hosting events at the Third Place Gallery, his studio on Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis.
It's not your typical art gallery.
"I think of it as an artist incubator space," he says. "The basic idea is, 'How do you have an art event that is not about wine and cheese?' "
An event might begin with artists presenting or discussing or displaying their work, followed by questions from the audience and wrapping up with pingpong and karaoke.
Earlier this year, when nominations opened for the McKnight Distinguished Artist Award, Carla McGrath — the executive director and co-founder of the Highpoint Center for Printmaking in Minneapolis — looked over the list of past winners.
The award — received in the past by poets, actors, painters and composers — recognizes artists who have chosen to make their lives and careers in Minnesota; artists who have made a difference by helping and inspiring others in our communities; artists who create thought-provoking art.
"I thought, 'Well, Wing definitely falls into this wonderful category,' " said McGrath, an acquaintance who follows his work and one of the people who nominated Huie for the award.
Eleanor Savage, an artist and program director at the Jerome Foundation, was on McKnight's selection panel that considered about 50 nominations this year.
"What we were looking for is an artist who has a lifelong, lifetime commitment to creating art in Minnesota," Savage said. "We were provided with a list of descriptors — 'extraordinary, inspirational, influential, innovative, significant to others ...' and Wing is really strong on all those descriptives.
"In a way, I see his work as a community practice. He teaches people how to be in community with one another."
Kate Wolford, president of McKnight, said in a statement: "With his powerful photography and compelling public art projects, Wing Young Huie has been documenting Minnesota's changing cultural landscape for more than 30 years in images that ask us to focus on people and places that are often overlooked. Whether he's talking to a class of college students or turning entire city blocks into a public gallery space, Wing has a rare gift for challenging assumptions and inviting conversation through his unique artistic vision. We couldn't be more delighted by the selection committee's decision to honor a photographer who really has transformed our image of what being Minnesotan means."
Huie was in his gallery in July when he found out he was the next distinguished artist.
At the time, Huie was preparing for a meeting — until a group from McKnight walked in (a fake meeting had been made to reserve Huie's time for the surprise).
Huie was handed a piece of paper.
"The first sentence was about me receiving the McKnight Distinguished Artist Award," Huie said.
It took a moment to absorb the news. When he did ...
"I got emotional," said Huie.
"I feel very honored at receiving this award," Huie said. "There are a lot of people out there who are deserving. I'm lucky that I'm an artist in an accessible medium."
Also, the money helps.
"I'm a self-employed artist," Huie said, "and $50,000 is a big chunk of money. I can continue doing what I'm doing with a little more security."