Dayton chalk artist has his day in the sun (with video)

Dayton artist Ben Huwe draws for the first time on the sidewalk in front of City Hall. City Council members recently drafted a policy to allow residents to create chalk art downtown.

Dayton artist Ben Huwe draws for the first time on the sidewalk in front of City Hall. City Council members recently drafted a policy to allow residents to create chalk art downtown. Photo by Joe Tierney.

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DAYTON — It really did take a village to get Ben Huwe to this sidewalk spot on a recent, hot Saturday afternoon.

Huwe, 25, is a Dayton artist who lives with developmental disability and severe visual impairment. He is known locally and beyond for his whimsical depictions of youngsters and nature, mostly drawn on greeting cards with felt-tip markers.

Video

Dayton chalk artist Ben Huwe

Huwe, with business license in hand, creates and sells those at Elk Drug downtown four days a week.

His preferred canvas, however, is concrete — as wide and open as possible. His favorite medium is sidewalk chalk.

Sherri Huwe, Ben’s mother, says the knees on at least half of her son’s pants are worn out from doing chalk art.

He feverishly took to the art form when a fifth-grade teaching assistant discovered drawing was better than medicine for him, said Elena Riggs, house manager of a program that helps Huwe live somewhat independently.

Care providers and art instructors in his life have helped him refine and add variety to the cards and bookmarks he produces.

Eventually Huwe wanted to draw his depiction of life larger and more in the public eye, his mother said.

“We were thinking it would help keep him busy ... and it’s beautiful,” she said.

Riggs discovered that taking her client outside to draw on his grandmother’s driveway and walkways after dinner helps Huwe expend excess energy. So why not let him take his art to the masses downtown, she thought.

Wanting to color inside government lines, Riggs approached Dayton’s Main Street businesses to seek permission for Ben to draw on sidewalks. While the response was good, someone suggested she talk to the City Council.

That’s when the picture got a bit fuzzy. After discussions about safety and appropriate art, Council members proposed a four-page policy with guidelines for all potential chalk artists.

City Planning Director Karen Scharar got busy researching chalk art and chart art festivals, plus the environmental impact of the medium, Riggs said.

In late July the Council approved a slimmed-down resolution with six main components, designed to keep people safe and conflicts to a minimum, according to then-Dayton Mayor Craig George.

Huwe wasn’t concerned with government details this recent Saturday. He was ready for the generous canvas the sidewalk in front of Dayton City Hall offered.

When asked how long he planned to draw — with the temperature hovering at 100 degrees — Huwe’s reply was succinct:

“As long as I want.”

At the appointed minute, he selected his favorite blue, yellow and white from the plump cylinders of chalk, purchased or donated by the case.

Those are the colors he sees best, explained Sky Walker, Huwe’s care staff worker. “He’s legally blind.”

Singing softly to himself — “Bom chicka wah wah” — the artist went at his task with a sure hand.

“I’m really, really good,” he observed. “I love drawing blonds.”

The blonds he draws most are his younger sisters, Etta and Rowene, now 17 and 20. In Huwe’s work, however, the two are forever children, wearing dresses, anklets and bows in their hair. Their smiles are wide, taking up the bottom third of their round faces.

Huwe recently became an uncle and now, on occasion, a well-swaddled baby appears in some of his pieces, Riggs said.

Eyes are always blue, and drawn with simple, quick dots.

As Huwe works, he keeps up a running monologue of anecdotes about the mishaps his sister encountered as little girls. Plus a past bee sting of his own. “Etta said I was brave,” Huwe said.

After completing a scene, Huwe asks Walker to write a word or two above. In return, Walker encourages his charge to sound out the word and form the letters himself.

“One thing cool about Ben,” his mother said, “he’s a conglomeration of what everyone has put into him.”

As City Council debated the sidewalk matter, people let it be known their vote was “yes,” she said. “And now the (Dayton) artist guild has gotten behind him, and they want him in their October art walk.”

By 5:30 p.m., Ben is done and headed home for supper, having filled up 48 feet of sidewalk with eight-foot pictures in 90 minutes.

“Can I do this tomorrow,” he asks Walker as Walker wipes clean Huwe’s chalky face and very blue hands.

By city ordinance, the art must be washed away with water by 8 p.m.

“But he’s not going to see that part,” Riggs said with a smile.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

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