Each day as members of the MIT community cruise down Charles Vest Student Street in the Stata Center (Building 32), they are greeted with a message in chalk. The message is usually a simple note, like “Happy Monday!” accompanied by smiling characters or doodles. The messages, which are never signed, are there nearly every day, and junior Benjamin Chan knows why: He’s one of the chalk artists.
Like many things at MIT, the chalk art began as the result of research. “A friend had just finished an experiment to determine the most effective chalkboard in Stata,” Chan says, “but the chalkboards are always so empty, yet so many of my friends walk by it every day.”
To help fill up the chalkboards, Chan came up with the idea of chalk art and messages to uplift fellow students. “It started informally as my way of giving back to the MIT community,” he says.
Beginning last spring, Chan made it his mission to draw something each day to bolster students. However, as his own course load piled up, he needed support to keep going. Naturally, he advertised for help on the same chalkboard he used for art.
“I noticed something along the bottom of his drawings saying ‘If you want to help me chalk, email me,’” remembers sophomore Kelsey Chan (no relation to Benjamin). As a fan of the chalk messages, Kelsey reached out to Benjamin and soon began helping him out. Like Ben, her reasons for creating chalk art are about giving back to MIT.
“A lot of artists don’t care what people think, but for me if no one looked at it or no one cared about it, I would spend my time doing something else,” she says. And a lot of students do care, as the messages created by the duo are often trailed by notes of thanks. “One day, someone wrote next to a chalk drawing ‘Who does this? Thank you so much’ and then there was a huge chain of thanks after it,” she says. “It was great to know I could make a difference in so many people’s days.”
Benjamin and Kelsey coordinate to make sure the chalk art is up each day, stopping by in the morning to write a happy note and add some art. Some days there is a third artist: Ford Professor of Artificial Intelligence and Computer Science Patrick Henry Winston ’65, SM ’67, PhD ’70 scrawls notes for students on the way to his artificial intelligence class.
Both Benjamin and Kelsey both hope the positive messages continue after they graduate and they plan to bring on more artists. “I guess we’ll just leave a note for it on the chalkboard,” she says.