At the end of the 2014 school year, Chester Toye, ’17, like many students, was conflicted about Lehigh’s campus climate and the overall issues of diversity facing the school.
Toye, initially unsure whether or not he even wanted to remain at Lehigh, eventually realized what he was going to do.
“I was debating, is this the right school for me?” Toye said. He then had a revelation.
“You can’t run away from your problems,” Toye said in regards to his decision to stay at Lehigh. “I wanted to make a difference in some way but had no clue where to start.”
As Toye contemplated exactly what he wanted to do to make this difference, he decided to dedicate his final project for his design class to the issue. The project required students to use an established artist’s work for inspiration. Toye chose photographer JR, who takes portraits of people in society and posts the photos around a given community to try and bring said community together. For his project, Toye initially shot about 20 portraits of Lehigh students. However, Toye contemplated what question he would ask of the subjects in the portraits before taking the photo.
“I came up with the pretty simple question, ‘Make a face that best describes your personality,’” Toye said. “I didn’t really think I was going to get much out of it (but) I got some really interesting faces — some really seemingly different people making really similar faces.” Toye said that he got great feedback on the final project from his mentoring professor Jason Travers.
The success of Toye’s final project seemed to create the perfect segue for his desire to create a public art project. Over the summer, Toye arranged an independent study where he worked with his professor on a formal proposal for a public art project to present to the school during the next school year. He eventually ended up with a 12-page document describing the vision and mission of the project, mock ups of photos, potential financial costs and other details.
The idea for the project received some interest from different departments on campus. Once the semester began, Toye received much more interest and potential funders. Now, his project is in the final stages with discussions of funding and approval being solidified.
Toye said the portraits will potentially be in the Lehigh bus stop shelters and advertised within the Lehigh buses, along with public places such as Fairchild-Martindale Library. Other potential locations for the portraits will be in The Brown and White and the Instagram feed @Lehighinfocus. A potential website is in the works, as well.
The scope of the project is planned to be in increments, rather than placing all of the portraits at once. When asked specifically when the Lehigh community can expect to see his portraits around campus, Toye said that people can expect to see pictures popping up before the end of the year but emphasized that he is still awaiting for final approvals.
In addition to Toye’s design professor, Tyrone Russell, the director for the Office of Multicultural Affairs, has also been a big proponent and resource for promoting the project.
“I just want to make people think,” Toye said, describing the mission and goal of the project. “I’ve always wanted to challenge people — kind of make them a little uncomfortable.”
Toye went on to explain that through the project, when subjects are asked to pose with their personality, it makes people think about themselves and figure out who they are.
“When I thought of the question I thought it was really simple, but I noticed every time I tried to take the picture, people said, ‘Oh wait, I don’t really know my personality,’” Toye said. “So, they had to stop, think about their personality, be comfortable with their image to let me take a picture knowing that a bunch of people are going to see it.”
According to Ryan Hafner, ’15, student sentiment around the project seems to be positive
“It’s an interesting thing to think about because some people put on a face to others but when you ask people to describe themselves you have to think about it,” Hafner said. “It’s unfortunate that you cannot always be ourselves all the time.”
Nick Gennuso, ’15, expressed similar sentiments.
“I think it’s really cool because it shows not only that people feel different things, but that people can express similar feelings in different ways,” Gennuso said. “It’s eye opening to see that the same sentiment is expressed.
Toye explained that he wants to break down social barriers on campus.
“You know people are in different social groups, frats or sororities, you know different races, they come from different places. […] I feel the more you see them the more you’ll get used to them and more comfortable,” Toye said.
Toye said he has 75 portraits now, but there is no limit to how many are possible.
“The more, the merrier,” Toye said.
Toye wants more people to pursue ideas they are passionate about. He said that he never thought his project would be this big as it has become, and he believes that people are motivated when they see his passion.