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Chalk It Up: Penn State Senior’s Unique Art Project Goes Viral

Chalk has largely become the tool of a bygone era, especially in the time of computers and smartphones. Those who had chalkboards in our grade school classrooms remember the corporal punishment of the screeching sound it made. But for John Auerbach, a senior studying math and physics, the sound of chalk represents something entirely different: an outlet for expression. 

Auerbach discovered his hobby while he was stressed out during finals week last spring. When he was taking a break from studying in the Thomas Building, he decided to do something “fun and artistic” to pass the time. He ended up spending several hours drawing a picture of actor and comedian Danny DeVito on the board. 

Courtesy of John Auerbach

“I had virtually no free time that semester,” he recalled. “My more creative side that wanted to do something other than math or physics [cried] for help.”

Auerbach put more effort into his second drawing, this time of the actor Robin Williams.

“The second, I was like, ‘Let me try to actually draw a circle for the face,’ I looked up how to do that…it didn’t turn out that well,” he said. 

Auerbach solved the problem by bringing in a technique he learned from a cartography class in middle school: drawing a grid over an image and filling it out one chunk at a time.

“If I’m having trouble with the proportions, I try to grid everything out. I tried that and it worked a lot better,” Auerbach said. “Once you actually look up close, you realize that 90% of the hard part is just getting the proportions right. If you can grid it out, you just have little boxes where you’re copying patterns.”

Courtesy of John Auerbach

Auerbach’s third drawing, which he assumed would be his last, was of Martin Luther King Jr. However, he felt his hobby drawing him back in while he was taking summer classes on campus, leading him to wonder “what if I tried to go even bigger?”

Auerbach did precisely that, mapping out a new project that would cover an entire classroom-size chalkboard. It was an ambitious endeavor that he knew would take months to complete.

“When I originally started it, I emailed the facilities coordinator just to let them know,” he said. “The next email I got was, ‘We actually do have a class there, but we’re gonna move it.’ I was like, excuse me?” 

Courtesy of John Auerbach

A few professors eventually held classes in the room but were able to preserve Auerbach’s masterpiece by using a second chalkboard that slid over his work.

Auerbach’s project began to take shape by the first week of classes in the fall, and people began to notice. One day, Barstool posted a video of the creation on Instagram, where it received over 100,000 views. Soon, students were coming into the classroom to watch Auerbach at work. Most of them were impressed with what they saw, but some wondered why he would spend so much time on something so trivial. 

“Half of it was because it was funny, and the other half was that I wanted people to think about the possibilities…that’s not something you expect to see at your 9 a.m. summer class,” he said.

Unfortunately, Auerbach came down with food poisoning, keeping him away from his chalk-marked canvas for a few weeks. When he returned, he found that someone had erased his work.

“That kinda sucked, but it was going to happen anyway,” he said with a smile. “I did not expect for it to last as long as it did.”

Auerbach wants to continue to explore his newfound love for chalk art, despite his project’s untimely demise. His parents gave him a large chalkboard for Christmas, which he currently stores in his car. While he expects to be busy this semester, he already has ideas for what he’ll do in the summer.

“It’s one of those things that I’ll need throughout my life because I plan on going into some kind of industry doing research. Ideally, I want to have the time to do all of these drawings,” he said.

In the end, he chalks up his success to sheer persistence.

“With chalk, you can completely erase something and redo it 50 times if you have to,” he said. “It’s just a product of how much time you put into it.”

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About the Author

Adam Babetski

Adam Babetski is a senior double majoring in communications and medieval history, and is one of Onward State's associate editors. He's from the only part of Virginia without tractors and southern accents, except Richmond (reportedly). You can follow him on Twitter @AdamBabetski for hot takes about sports. For serious inquiries, email [email protected]

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