Fleeting Art, Lasting Impact
For more than a decade, Susan Melton’s sidewalk chalk project has spread positivity and mental health awareness
By Kierstin Gunsberg | Jan. 20, 2024
“It was totally a plan,” says Susan Melton of her first time creating sidewalk art. On a sweaty day in late May of 2011, she set out to spread good vibes with a rainbow of chalk. “I planned that morning to grab a bucket of chalk and go chalk. I think I ended up parking at the library and just [started] walking along the TART Trail.”
With the early summer blooms rustling in the breeze off of Boardman Lake and a steady hum of bike bells and joggers, Melton knelt at a crossroads along the trail, somewhere she knew lots of people would be passing through, to write the words “Dream Big” in bold, pastel hues.
Then, she says, “I went downtown and I did three more.” When curious onlookers asked what she was up to, she simply responded, “Just putting some positivity out there.”
A Sense of Purpose
At first, Melton, program director and afternoon personality at Big Country 102.9, only intended to create her cheery public sidewalk art from Memorial Day of that first year until Labor Day. She posted photos of each colorful message to her Facebook, hoping it would uplift her followers over those summer months. But when that last day came, she couldn’t put the chalk down.
“I realized that by constantly looking for messages to chalk and the act of chalking and then posting them, I was really making a difference in my mental health. So I kept going and never looked back. It gave me a sense of purpose,” she says.
More than 12 years, thousands of inspirational chalk messages, and many, many buckets of chalk later, what was once just Melton’s summer pastime has grown into the nonprofit Sidewalk Chalk Project, which raises mental health awareness through positive messaging like, “When in doubt, love more,” and “No feeling is final, just keep going.”
“You just never know who’s gonna walk past something and see it and go, ‘OK, that was awesome. I needed to see that,’” says Melton when we asked why keeping the project going across northern Michigan sidewalks and Facebook feeds across the world is so important to her, even after all of these years.
This past December, Melton chalked her 5,000th sidewalk, an ombre message of “Hold on to hope today and every day” in downtown Cheboygan. In a Dec. 9 video commemorating the occasion, she thanks her 16,000 followers for their support and reminds them to check in with themselves. “A lot of people go through struggles, depression, anxiety,” she says as pop music rises in the background. “And there’s help out there. Don’t ever, ever forget that there is help.”
Dealing with Big Feelings
Reaching out for help is something Melton wants to destigmatize both through her chalk project and her radio platform. “I’m very open about it on the air, just to make sure other people know that they’re not alone,” says Melton of her own mental health journey and learning to cope with depression that started when she was in high school.
Even with the help of resources like professional counseling, she says that she often felt isolated by the stigma of depression, but when she started connecting with others through her Sidewalk Chalk Project, she began to understand that, just as she reminds her followers, she wasn’t alone in her struggle.
“I have received messages from many people around the world thanking me for specific chalkings that helped make their day better,” she says, including folks from around the country whom Melton has bonded with as “Chalk Sisters.”
Over the years, Melton’s artwork has been featured on local coffee packaging and sold as framed art to raise money for mental health programs. Even her elementary-aged granddaughter has been known to pick up a neon stick of sunset orange or macaroni-and-cheese yellow and hit the pavement alongside Melton. “We’re trying to teach her as a family that it’s okay to have big feelings,” Melton says.
The Sidewalk Chalk Project has also created connections with other nonprofits like Kiersten’s Ride and Breanna’s Ride, local suicide prevention organizations that aim to advocate for and offer mental health resources through community and youth outreach. KFF, formerly the Kaiser Family Foundation, concluded that in 2023, half of all young adults in the U.S. ages 18-24 reported anxiety and depression symptoms, a statistic that Melton keeps in the back of her mind as she draws. Educating young people on emotional and mental health is an important motivator for her project.
“When I was growing up, you didn’t talk about the bad stuff, you didn’t talk about the bad thoughts or whatever,” she says. “And I just think that it’s so important for kids to understand that it is totally okay to talk about that and that they should talk about that, especially if something is really bothering them.”
Don’t Give Up
Like feelings, Melton’s artwork is fleeting—“it’s meant to wash away,” she quips, adding that her style has evolved over the years but that she doesn’t get too caught up on concepts or even techniques. “I remind myself that it’s not about what it looks like—it’s the message it holds.”
As for the ice, snow, and wind that dominate so many Up North months, Melton isn’t deterred. She carries an ice scraper and towel throughout the wintertime to clear enough sidewalk space for a fresh message, but says, “The really hard days are the really windy days, and when it’s bitter cold because my fingers start to hurt.”
Despite the sometimes frigid weather, Melton doesn’t have any plans to stop creating her art and has only ever been shooed away from a sidewalk twice over the years.
Thinking back to completing her 5,000th sidewalk over the holidays, Melton reflects on what she was feeling during the milestone. “It just made me feel really good that I didn’t give up at any point, that I didn’t give up, that I kept on going, that I’m still looking for the next positive thing. So I was just really proud. I just felt really content in my purpose.”
What’s next? Melton hopes to chalk her way across the country while raising money for mental health and suicide prevention programs. “After that, I think chalking in every country would be amazing too!”