Chalk it Up! I Madonnari Street Painting Festival Persists During Pandemic

By Steven Libowitz   |   May 21, 2020
Jennifer Lemay's collaborative street painting from a few years back

Street painting artists have been compared to masochists, in that their hobby of drawing with chalk on the sidewalk has become an obsession, back pain and sore knees ignored in a mission that is exhibited annually on the pavement in front of the Santa Barbara’s Old Mission during the I Madonnari Italian Street Painting Festival held every Memorial Day Weekend.

This year, of course, that endeavor had to be canceled in deference to sheltering in place to combat the coronavirus pandemic. But all is not lost. Instead the assorted artists will have to display their drive and determination to mix colors and pastels to render huge images on the ground on the driveways of their own homes.

“I love the festival at the Old Mission, but that just wasn’t possible this year,” said Children’s Creative Project Executive Director Kathy Koury, who created the festival and the concept of sponsored street paintings as a fundraiser for the nonprofit and produced the first local festival way back in 1987 after seeing a street painting competition in Grazie di Curtatone, Italy, the village where the nearly 500-year-old tradition still thrives. Early Italian street painters were vagabonds who would arrive in small towns and villages for Catholic religious festivals and transform the streets and public squares into temporary galleries for their ephemeral works of art, often of the Madonna, which gave the tradition its name.

Santa Barbara’s event – which also features three days of nearly nonstop music on a temporary stage on the lawn of the Mission’s plaza as well as food booths and crafts sales along the perimeter – has spawned similar festivals in more than 200 cities throughout the Western Hemisphere, but this year, the progenitor of the process has had to move to an online presence only. The way it works is that festival artists will use chalk pastels to transform their pavement canvases into compositions painted from photographs or their own imagination, while visitors can view the daily evolution of the street paintings on the festival website, Instagram, and Facebook by following the hashtags #imadonnari, #iMadOnline2020 and #ChildrensCreativeProject.

This year’s featured street painting – which usually occupies “center stage” just beneath the steps of the Mission – will be a reproduction of a piece by Thomas Hart Benton. The 12’ x 50’ painting will be created by longtime I Mads artists Sharyn Chan, Ann Hefferman, and Jay Schwartz, with the assistance of Emily Hefferman, in a secret location off-limits to the general public. A new “Chalk for Kids” event will let children create drawings on their own driveways – or the sidewalk, if they’re bold – and also share their creations on Instagram using #ChalkOn2020. Through the sponsorship of Village Properties, free chalk will be distributed via social distancing between 9 am and 1 pm on Saturday, May 23, at the drive-through parking lot at the corner of State and Micheltorena Streets.

Those who like to see silver linings among the clouds might consider that the ephemeral nature of chalk drawings – which are at the mercy of the elements as well as foot traffic – might be even more poignant this year as the COVID crisis has brought the fragility of our existence into the forefront of the mind. Then again, this year’s drawings will live on forever in cyberspace.


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