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Local photographer wins $50,000 Distinguished Artist Award

Posted on 24 September 2018 by calvin

Wing Young Huie was recently recognized for his body of work with a $50,000 McKnight Distinguished Artist Award, the first photographer to ever be a recipient. (Photo by Jan Willms)

Wing Young Huie also releasing a new book, “Chinese-ness: The Meaning of Identity and the Nature of Belonging”

Minneapolis photographer Wing Young Huie has spent his 30-year career going out in the world, getting people’s stories and taking their photos. “And I’m always juggling projects,” he added in a recent interview in his studio, The Third Place, at 3730 Chicago Ave.

“This is my office more than a retail art gallery,” Huie explained. He has his photos on display, some windows along the back wall and a Ping-Pong table in the front.

“I’m a self-employed artist with no staff, so I am open at irregular hours or by appointment,” Huie said. “We do have events here, and I play Ping-Pong every once in a while. It’s a lot of fun.”

Huie is renowned for his photos of strangers, often holding a chalk-board with a word or phrase describing their innermost thoughts. He has had these photos of everyday people displayed along Lake St. in Minneapolis and University Ave. in St. Paul.

His photos have been displayed on billboards and walls, as well as on 4×6 photo paper.

He was recently recognized for his body of work with a $50,000 McKnight Distinguished Artist Award, the first photographer to ever be a recipient. “You have to be nominated for it, so it’s kind of like a career achievement award,” Huie noted.

Huie will be releasing his latest project a book called “Chinese-ness: The Meaning of Identity and the Nature of Belonging,” on Oct. 30 at a book launch party at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul.

“It was really eight years ago that I conceived of this idea,” Huie said. He is the youngest of six children, and the only one in his family to be born in the United States. He had never been to China until he was invited there in 2010 by Arts Midwest, an arts organization that works with an international artists’ exchange program.

“They collaborated with the US embassy in China and brought me over and put together an exhibition from my different projects that toured through 12 cities in China,” Huie said.

“Being there for the first time, it made me wonder what if? What if my family had never left China? It made me look at all the ‘what ifs’ in my life, and so I decided to start this project ‘Chinese-ness.’”

He said that since 2010 he has made four trips to China and photographed people there, as well as people in the Twin Cities, Worthington, and other towns in Minnesota and other states, collecting a perspective on the definition of “Chinese-ness.”

“My idea was that you don’t have to be Chinese to experience Chinese-ness,” he concluded. “Many of the photos are of ethnic Chinese, but not all of them. I really look at identity through the filter of Chinese-ness.”

Huie said part of this book (his seventh) is memoirist. “I write about my experiences and collect other people’s experiences. In one way it also describes how my Chinese-ness collides with my Minnesota-ness and my American-ness.”

Huie calls this book his most personal of all his books, and also the one with the most writing. “One-third of it is text,” he said, “most of it written by me. I conducted conversations with people telling me their stories, to accompany their photographs.”

He added that another difference in this book is that he photographs men in China that he could have been. For example, he writes about a photographer and his wife who have a studio in China. “Had my parents not left China, I could have ended up being him,” he said.

“I also carried the idea a little farther,” Huie stated. “After photographing a Chinese man, I asked to wear his clothes. Then he photographed me. So the two photos are side by side, and I would write how I could have been him. I did that maybe a dozen times, in the book.”

As part of the “Chinese-ness” project, Huie also worked with the Minnesota History Theatre regarding a play about the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first time the United States targeted a big country of people coming here. The act banned all immigration of Chinese laborers. “The play was about immigration, and I photographed the descendants of people who came over as paper sons and paper daughters. That is also in the book,” Huie said.

Paper sons and daughters were defined as Chinese people who were born in China and came to the United States by purchasing fraudulent papers stating they were blood kin to Chinese Americans who had citizenship in the United States.

“The Chinese Exclusion Act definitely speaks to what is happening right now,” Huie said.

While gathering information for “Chinese-ness,” Huie also completed a project in 2017 called “What Do You See?” working with White Bear high school students and in conjunction with the White Bear Center for the Arts. Through a variety of mediums, he showed the students his process for interacting with strangers. “You photograph them, get interviews with them or pieces of their stories,” he said.

“They photographed each other, did chalk talks.“ He said that students in a pottery class made two different cups that represented different aspects of who they are. In some cases, the students made drawings, two different portraits that showed their fellow students shifting identity.

He sometimes gave an assignment to a class to just go out in the hallway and talk to someone they had never talked to before, and come back with a story. For the chalk talk, Huie would ask the students some questions. They would write a statement on a chalkboard.

“Questions are a way to start a conversation,” Huie said. “I had them pair up with a fellow student who they did not know. I provided the questions, which were very open-ended, such as ‘Who are you? How do other people see you? What advice would you give to a stranger?’ After we have this conversation, we write something on a chalkboard that reveals something about ourselves.”

Huie said he told them they could write whatever they wanted as long as it was real. It could not be their favorite saying, something they had heard in a movie, read in a book or heard in a song.

The students completed this assignment by ultimately writing something on black construction paper, then photographing each other.

There was an installation of the photos in the hallways of the two branches of the high school, and an exhibition at the White Bear Center for the Arts. The Center for the Arts also created a book of the photographs and reflections of the students.

“Basically, I just went out and showed them what I do,” Huie said.



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