The click-clack of chalk summons memories of mixed emotions. The nostalgia for childhood is joined by the anxiety of writing on the board in front of a classroom of peers. These powerful memories first enticed two accomplished Maine artists to experiment with the dusty medium in their studios. Years later, their blackboard artwork has culminated in “Chalk,” a collaborative exhibit by Luc Demers and Peter Precourt open through Saturday, Oct. 29, at the Harlow Gallery, 160 Water St. in Hallowell.
“This [exhibit] started out from a place of friendship — wanting to do a project together,” said Precourt. “We worked side by side, and our friendship made the creative process more enjoyable.”
Precourt of Winthrop and Demers of Falmouth have forged a strong bond over four years of sharing and critiquing each others’ artwork as colleagues at the University of Maine in Augusta. Coincidentally they both have been working with chalkboard imagery for years, separately and in different forms.
Precourt started using chalkboard imagery in his paintings in 1998 to express ideas of masculinity, alcoholism and lessons learned inside and outside classrooms. Demers first started photographing chalkboard drawings three years ago after collecting slates from the old Brunswick High School, which since has been torn down.
But over the past year, they’ve been working together so that every art piece in “Chalk” is a joint effort.
“When I was struggling along in the studio and was thinking, ‘What am I going to do to fix this?’ It was really refreshing to hand something to Luc and say, ‘Make this better,’” said Precourt.
“And vice versa,” added Demers.
The hardest part of the project was scheduling time to work together in the studio.
“We set up play dates for our kids, but it was really play dates for dads,” said Demers, laughing.
On the larger pieces, such as the 12-foot-long moonscape, they literally worked side by side. And because of the temporary nature of chalk on blackboard, the moonscape and most of the other works were transformed into high-resolution photos with a digital SLR camera. The framed photos are on sale at the gallery (prices ranging from $95 to $1,100).
In addition to their own works, the artists set up a community blackboard on wheels for visitors to add drawings to all month. And to break the ice at the exhibit opening, they strategically handed the first piece of chalk to a 3-year-old.
“I always notice people’s faces on the street when they walk by a gallery, unsure if they can go in or can’t go in,” said Precourt. “Hopefully they will walk by, look through the window and see someone on the board and know it’s a public space — a place for them.”
As assistant professor of art, Precourt teaches all levels of painting and drawing in addition to contemporary art history and 2-D design. Demers, an adjunct instructor, teaches color photography, 2-D design and digital imaging.
Though they have their own artistic styles and strengths, both are fascinated with the materials they’re working with — in this case, chalk, which is made of calcium carbonate. Its history can be traced back to cave paintings in prehistoric times.
There are plenty of things that chalk is used for. Gymnasts rub it on their hands before spinning around the high bar. It’s helpful to rock climbers, weight lifters, construction workers and pool players, and forensic teams carry chalk to outline corpses.
It wasn’t until the 1800s that it was used in classrooms. Today, many blackboards have been replaced with dry erase boards and projector screens.
“Before I was an art nerd, I was a science nerd,” said Precourt. “I was born in 1970, and blackboards were a part of my education. I learned a lot about science and the natural world on blackboards.”
Equations, diagrams and human elements make their way into the artworks in “Chalk,” in addition to astrological images — rockets, the stars and an eclipse.
When Demers began working with chalk, he drew the night sky, photographed the drawings, and enhanced the board’s velvety black on his computer to fit his childhood memories of an inky black surface.
“Light takes so long to travel that when we look at the stars, we are seeing the past, just as a photograph isn’t a representation of what is, it’s a representation of what was,” Demers said. “And the images on a chalkboard are so temporary … I really like all of these things coming together.”
But with every medium, there is a learning curve.
“You think you know chalk because you remember it in school, but you know you can only put so much on the board and then you start to remove lines,” said Demers.“Over time we found it to be more versatile. When you cease to worry about chalk communicating language-based information, you can hold it any way you want to.”