The Storyline Project fosters creative connections

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Participants in the Charlottesville Parks & Recreation summer camp program connect the dots through The Storyline Project. (Photo by Greg Kelly) Participants in the Charlottesville Parks & Recreation summer camp program connect the dots through The Storyline Project. (Photo by Greg Kelly)

Monticello Road is an odd part of Charlottesville. It was once literally the road to Jefferson’s house, but the construction of I-64 and Route 20 have truncated it to a short stretch that cuts through southern Charlottesville’s Belmont neighborhood. Though it’s only a mile in length, Monticello Road is a cross-section of residential homes, fancy restaurants, corner store bodegas, a gas station, an elementary school, and even a factory. This spring, photographer Peter Krebbs documented the people he met on his daily walks along the street in “The Monticello Road Project,” and the resulting photographs showed a broad range of individuals, a reminder of all of the different types of folk who make up a community.

This summer, Krebbs walked the road again, this time with 35 kids and a handful of mentors and volunteers as part of The Storyline Project. Now in its fourth year, Storyline is a collaboration between a half-dozen local organizations, led by The Bridge PAI and Piedmont Council for the Arts. For the project, a group of rising fourth through sixth graders from the Charlottesville Parks & Recreation summer camp program walked the length of the road over the course of four days, stopping along the way to draw what they observed and listen to presentations from those who live and work along the street.

The trip took them from Jefferson’s Monticello itself to places as varied as Lazy Daisy Ceramics, the Virginia Institute for the Blind, tapas restaurant Mas, and the so-called Belmont Mansion, the house that gave the neighborhood its name. The journey ended at the Free Speech Wall on the Mall, where the children spent the day drawing a chalk mural that represents their experiences.

Pete O’Shea, one of the landscape architects responsible for designing the Free Speech Wall, helped start the Storyline Project through his work with the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Preservation of Free Expression. “It’s my favorite project of any kind that I’ve ever worked on,” O’Shea said. “I’m used to finishing a project and just putting it away, but this has been a way of maintaining a relationship with the community.” With the program’s upcoming fifth year, O’Shea hopes that the project can be expanded, possibly by working with multiple groups, and offering the template to local schools as a teaching tool.

Local poet and teacher John Casteen IV has volunteered with Storyline since the beginning. “The group of campers for the first Storyline Project came from the Tonsler Park area,” said Casteen. “I grew up in that neighborhood, and I found it startling that The Bridge was making connections with neighborhoods like Tonsler, and with kids in places like Westhaven and Fifeville. In my life, I had not seen any outreach going on in those neighborhoods. When I talk to white, middle-class people in Charlottesville, they’re not even aware that places like the Southwood Trailer Park exist. To give the kids who are from those neighborhoods access to local history is to give them a way to make themselves politically aware.”

As the kids gathered around the Wall, with buckets of chalk at the ready, there was a wave of creative energy waiting to be unleashed. Rowdiness is the default setting at this age, but once the project was underway, they were fully committed to covering every inch of the Wall with chalk.

Some of the children had impressive technical skills, while others were just finding ways to move beyond basic stick-figure representation, and the chalk mural gave everyone a chance to try things and mess up without the pressure of permanence or the intimidation of working alone.

“If you ask a group of kids this age who’s good at drawing, they’ll all point to one or two kids,” O’Shea said. “But if you ask a class of kindergarteners who can draw, everybody’s going to raise their hand. We learn to draw before we can write, and it’s not until we get older that we start to become self-conscious about it. Adults have the hardest time with it, actually—by the time we’re adults we’ve already raised so many barriers for ourselves, and told ourselves what we are and aren’t good at.”

As the mural neared completion, it unmistakably resembled the work of children, and in fact it may already be washed away by rain by the time this column sees print. But the goal of the project is the process, not the results, and seeing the children work with each other and the volunteers seemed like a small success. At one point, a middle-aged woman held a tiny child aloft so he could trace the towering outline of a VIB employee who had stopped by to help out. Once the kids had their hands covered in chalk, several began painting it on their own faces as well —until a volunteer showed them a photo of what they looked like and they squealed in delight and horror. A hula-hoop materialized seemingly out of nowhere, and, most impressively, when a dozen pizzas arrived, the kids were too busy working on the mural to notice.

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