By: Justin Lafleur, Lehigh Sports Media Relations
9/11/2014 1:23:00 PM
Lehigh men’s lacrosse sophomore Chester Toye has a love of art and photography. Through this passion, he has visions of making a difference in the Lehigh community like few others ever had.
Toye is in the midst of a project called Lehigh in Focus. He’s combining his passions of art and photography to capture images of students then present them in creative ways.
Toye’s ultimate goal is to unify the student body.
“You walk by so many people every single day and never really stop and think about them as a person,” he said. “I’m asking people to express their personality through one face. You can see a bunch of different glances into peoples’ personalities really quickly.”
Everyone is unique and there’s no right or wrong personality. Toye looks to highlight the differences in each student, all while presenting the images in a unifying way.
“Having one similar black and white composition with a bunch of different students behind the images creates a unifying theme,” he said. “There are so many different kinds of students, so I feel it can be used to showcase the diversity on campus at the same time.”
The idea began in Toye’s Two-Dimensional Design class last spring. For a final project, he needed to pick an artist to replicate and put his own spin on.
“Chester scheduled a meeting with me to discuss the possibility of creating a public art project for the university,” said Jason Travers, Toye’s professor last spring. “His initial concept was to create a mural, but after discussing the logistics of such a project, we decided that a project which capitalized on his photography skills might be more effective and feasible. With his primary motivation being the ongoing diversity discussion that was prevalent on campus during the school year, I was able to provide him with information on notable artists that tackled social issues through public art installations.”
Travers suggested researching JR, a French photographer and recent recipient of the TED Prize who gained notoriety as his large scale installations began to span the globe.
“Chester was inspired by JR’s Face2Face project, which alternated photographs of both Israelis and Palestinians sharing similar facial expressions to break down the barriers that separated them,” said Travers.
“JR installs large black and white portraits of the locals in different communities,” said Toye. “He uses his photography to help unite various communities while also illustrating similarities between different conflicting groups.”
Last spring, Chester took 20 portraits for his final project. It was a great project, but only scratched the surface. Toye became extremely interested and wanted to continue (and expand) his project to something greater. He wanted to use those images for a greater cause, to help unite the student body and show that everyone is a Lehigh student, no matter one’s race, gender, sexual orientation, fraternity/sorority affiliation, etc.
“A huge issue on college campuses across the country is a lack of tolerance in regards to the many social differences that exist within a university community,” said Toye. “In many cases, these intolerances occur due to a heavily divided student body. During my time away at school, I learned that different people (teams, fraternities/sororities, racial groups, majors, etc.) for the most part only socialized and associated with members of their respective groups as opposed to everyone mixing and mingling as one cohesive student body.”
This isn’t only an issue at Lehigh. Go anywhere and you see similar people gathering together. If you are placed into a room with strangers, with whom would you likely convene? People you’re familiar with. It’s human nature.
Chester hopes to put portraits around campus as reminders to students that everyone has their own identities, yet deep down are the same.
“I plan to install portraits in high traffic public areas in a variety of sizes, and mediums,” he said. “The addition of this art around campus will hopefully lead students to realize the diversity around Lehigh, be accepting of all kinds of people, be curious about those who are different and understand that we are all Lehigh.”
After his final project last spring, Toye worked with Professor Travers over the summer in an independent study, putting the ideas into a tangible outline, including a purpose, vision statement and more.
“Professor Travers said he liked the idea and I explained I’d like to try and take this to the next level,” said Toye. “We chatted over the summer, went back and forth on the phone and through email. I put together a proposal which included getting some mock-up images, doing some more research and getting in touch with different departments at Lehigh.”
“This is probably one of the most ambitious public art projects I’ve seen proposed by an individual student and it has potential to be one with great positive impact on the campus community,” said Travers. “With the success of his portrait project, we both realized that the project could have a positive impact on the campus environment with its optimistic message. The concept was presented to Lucy Gans, the chair of the Art, Architecture and Design Department, and received enthusiastic support from several other campus organizations as well.”
Toye’s vision statement for his project is as follows: “My vision for this public art project is to transform our divided student body into a unified group of accepting students. I also hope to inspire my classmates to explore public art ideas of their own. My wish is to return to Lehigh in a few years to a much more open-minded community and be bombarded by various forms of student expression.”
The ideas are in place, but implementing is the all-important next step. Exact launch date of the project isn’t finalized, but whenever the time, Toye will need supporters to make this happen. In his proposal, he lists 15 possible collaborators ranging from Student Affairs to LGBTQIA, the Women’s Center, Fraternity and Sorority Affairs and more. Those collaborators will play an integral role in the ultimate success of the project.
It’s important for students to know about the project for two reasons. First, when students see portraits around campus, they know the reason. Secondly, if they’re on board with the concept, they will be less hesitant to have their portraits taken. Having advocates for the project could take the initiative to the next level.
“It would be tough for just me to spread the word,” said Toye. “There becomes a snowball effect. People see everyone’s picture on campus and want to be part of it. The more students and staff I can reach, the better.”
The other role of collaborators is raising enough money to fund the endeavor.
“The financial aspect isn’t everything, but I can’t pay for this out of my pocket,” said Toye.
One of Toye’s advocates, Lehigh Director of Multicultural Affairs Tyrone Russell, plans on helping Chester in several ways.
“I am going to offer funding, student workers and promotion of the idea,” said Russell. “I will also continue to help Chester build links and connect him with the Council for Equity and Community (CEC).”
Toye has already spoken to several key administration at the university about his idea and so far, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.
“One thing I’m a little nervous about is that a lot of people are really uncomfortable with their image, which I’ve started to think about and investigate as a completely separate issue from just diversity on campus,” said Toye. “People are really uncomfortable with taking their picture to be seen by people walking around campus. Some people are uncomfortable, but like my idea so they’re willing to sacrifice their personal comfort to back a good cause.”
One of Toye’s first goals is hanging portraits in bus shelters. He has other visions, but it will take time. For now, he’s focused on starting small in these high-traffic areas and working towards other ideas like Girdler Gallery in the UC, backgrounds of computer, possibly even Instagram and other types of media.
What Toye is looking to make happen is extremely impressive.
“Coming from a student-athlete and from the lens of cultural change is very groundbreaking,” said Travers. “Not many of these initiatives are student-led and I am very impressed with the courage and knowledge it took for Chester to pursue this idea.”
“We at Lehigh want to feel inclusive and capture the many differences that exist,” said Russell. “We want to make all students who are accepted to the institution feel as if they belong and have a place. I think this project will serve as a reminder if done correctly. It brings several offices together for input then puts out a product that’s a reflection of our Lehigh community.”
Toye has developed an interest in photography and design, but this project reflects more than just Chester’s eye for photos.
“This project shows me that Chester is aware of his surroundings and doesn’t just sit and complain about the cultural climate, but seeks to be involved,” said Russell. “He has genuine pride in Lehigh and wants to see this campus function at the highest social and academic levels.”
“Initially, I had apprehensions about a first-year student taking on such an ambitious project,” said Travers. “However, Chester showed a maturity beyond his years, and the motivation and discipline that I have come to expect from Lehigh’s student-athletes. The fact that he’s taken a greater interest in larger social issues on campus, while many other students tend to be more concerned with their own individual pursuits, reveals quite a bit about his character.”
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