Student Spotlight: Lauren Zawie
By Nick Hawks
As the second day of the annual Cleveland Chalk Festival unwinds, Lauren Zawie feels blisters and calluses developing on her fingertips as she frantically grinds her chalk against the limestone. She is approaching her eighth hour of working on her art, but it is not yet done. She takes her right index finger, covered in black dust, as are all of her fingers, and shades in the eyelid of a skeleton figure. She feels the calluses, but at this point, the only thing on her mind is finishing her art.
“I have calluses on the bottom of my fingertips by the end of the weekend,” Zawie said. “I’m basically rubbing, like pretty hard, this chalk into the limestone over and over again.”
Noticing she’s being recorded, she glances up at the camera and smiles, with more black dust smeared across her cheek and clearly exhausted.
What Zawie didn’t know at the time was that her father, who has, “like 26 followers on Instagram,” would tag the official “Phantom of the Opera” Instagram page, which would go on to share it. Before she knew it, she had thousands of likes and shares around the country, and even in Europe, on chalk art that she made at the festival, which took place on Sept. 14 and 15.
“There were a lot of notifications on my phone,” Zawie said. “One of the actors from the actual show shared and commented on it.”
The video shows the final work of art, which includes a white skull, a rose, and vibrant red colors. Creating the piece was particularly challenging this year because, for the first time since Zawie has been doing this festival, it rained, so she had to constantly correct the parts that got smudged.
Looking at the empty limestone could be intimidating, but Zawie went this year with a plan. She traced a grid onto the sidewalk with a thin pencil and outlined what she wanted her piece to be. That alone took her three hours.
One of the biggest challenges of completing a piece of this magnitude is attention to detail. The difference between a piece that looks good and a piece that looks rushed are the layers of vibrant colors and the use of different techniques that she has developed over the years.
“You have to put in the work if you want it to pop off the cement,” she said.
She may just now be achieving internet fame for her work, but for Zawie, a junior at Cleveland State University double-majoring in graphic design and theatre, the chalk festival has been a staple in her family for the past 15 years.
“That day is set in our calendars,” Zawie said. “You cannot mess with the chalk festival weekend.”
Zawie’s parents discovered the festival by accident when she was just seven years old. They fell in love with the stress-free environment it provides for people to socialize. Zawie, who also runs track at Cleveland State, is drawn to the competitiveness that the event brings out in her. She finds the hard work and meticulous process appealing .
Like a boomerang, something that keeps coming back into our conversation is Zawie’s work ethic. She mentioned her “Type A” personality on three separate occasions, making her seem almost robotic in her insatiable work ethic.
“If it’s not benefiting you, what is it doing for you?” Zawie commented. “Hearing it out loud, you don’t ever say that, but that’s just the way that I work.”
Despite her work ethic being near robotic, she is in fact human, proven when she sustained a knee injury last year that required injections and sidelined her for the season. It was her first major injury.
Not dwelling on the negative, she went through a summer of physical therapy and rehab. She returned to the track at the end of summer to resume practice. She made a pun about “hitting the ground running.” Her face lit up when talking about re-joining her teammates in December, when indoor track season will begin.
Zawie once again circled back to talking about family and how much they have meant to her in every aspect of her life. She had no intentions of speaking about them so much, but they have been so impactful in every aspect of her life. For example, her mother keeps notes of what techniques work best for her at every one of her festivals. She brought a piece of thin chalk from last year’s festival for Zawie to use, remembering how much it benefited her. Her parents are supportive in that way, encouraging her to pursue her dreams no matter how ambitious.
That ambitiousness has lit a fire under her. If it doesn’t benefit her, Zawie won’t do it. She spends all of her time as a means to improve. It is with that mindset that every year, she is able to overcome the physical and mental challenge of competing in the chalk festival.
“You start off kind of intimidated by the chalk, and you start light, and by the end of it, you don’t even care,” Zawie said. “Your hands are destroyed, but you’re like, ‘I’ve got to get this in.’”