May Day for Lemay

By Steven Libowitz   |   May 21, 2020
The image Jennifer Lemay is working from for this year’s painting

Festival artist Jennifer Lemay, who started street painting with chalk for I Madonnari in the festival’s second year in 1988 and has missed only a handful of I-Mads over the ensuing 32 years, is joining nearly 60 other artists in creating works in her own driveway to celebrate the Memorial Day Weekend event. We caught up with her last weekend to see how COVID might be changing her approach.

Q. So this is different, huh, doing a street painting festival from home?

A. This is very different. But at least we’re doing it. For a while, we thought that the festival would just be canceled. The prospect of not having it was sad, but then the staff at CCP came up with the idea of us doing it from home and having us take pictures, do some progress photos, tag each other on social media and post photo galleries. Everybody was like, wow, that’s a great idea. A lot of artists jumped on board and we’ve got quite a few sponsors, too. So we can still have art this year, and a festival that’s the main fundraiser for the year for CCP. Obviously it’s pared down, but a lot better than not having one at all.

Or maybe in some ways even better: You don’t have to drive anywhere, try to beat everyone for a place to park, nobody keeps interrupting you with questions, and your snacks and drinks and some shade are just steps away.

Yeah, in terms of conveniences for the artists it’s absolutely easier. All my stuff is here, my supplies. Anytime I want to take a break I can just hop inside. But of course it’s not social and you’re not seeing people and doesn’t have the whole festival feel.

So you’ll miss the camaraderie and crowds?

Oh yeah. It definitely won’t have that same energy, and we love when people ask us questions and come by and talk with us. But we’re trying to have as much energy as we can by posting online and commenting on each other’s photos and encouraging each other as things come together to recreate that feeling as much as possible. We’ll be checking out what everybody else is doing on Instagram or Facebook and making comments, tagging people. It’s kind of like the other years when we’d be hanging out on the Mission steps at the end of the day after painting all day, we’ll be at home doing the same thing, only remotely. At least, where I live I can sort of hear the Mission bells in the distance, so I will feel a little bit like I’m there.

What’s your design for this year? Can we have a sneak preview?

I’m working from a photo I took of Matilija poppies, those really tall white flowers that are indigenous to here and in Mexico. They look like a giant fried egg. They’re in full bloom right now all over the place, and when we rode our bikes down Channel Drive toward Butterfly Beach a couple of weekends ago on a gorgeous sunny day, we saw a lot of them with the ocean in the background. I took a bunch of photos with my phone – the bright white with a yellow center against the blue ocean. There are some other red flowers in the background, too. And of course there will be a hummingbird in there, which I’ve always done over the last few years.

How is it to think people will only see it virtually?

I haven’t really contemplated that very much. Of course it’s always more fun to see it in person. But I’d rather do something even if people will only see it virtually than not do it at all. The real thing of course is much better. You can walk around, take a look from different angles, see the progress in real time whenever you come by rather than just when I take photos.

What about live streaming? That would be closer to reality, right?

I don’t know. Maybe other people will do that. But it’s too much to think about. You have to worry about where the camera is situated, and the lighting, and the angles. I’m going to have an umbrella because our driveway is in bright sun, and that makes the lighting really tricky. It seems like it would be another layer of stuff that’s too complicated… But I am thinking about a time lapse series if we can borrow a GoPro camera which would capture more of the process.

I heard at one point there was the thought of putting out a map so people could drive around and see the drawings, but that isn’t happening.

Yeah. The whole point was to not have people congregating. So we couldn’t do that. But I have neighbors who know I’m going to be painting on my driveway and I imagine some of them and others who walk by might stand at the foot of the driveway and talk to me.

I noticed you say paintings instead of drawings even though chalk is the medium.

Some artists call them drawings but I do think of them as paintings because we’re pushing color pigments around too. There’s no liquid, it’s a dry medium. But it feels more like a painting when you’re done. But we’re still mixing colors and everything else.

One more thing before we go: I’m looking ahead to after the weekend, and I’m thinking you might be a little hesitant to go for a drive if it means you’re going to be the one to mess up your own painting this year. Sheltering in place is hard enough, right?

That’s a really good question. I was worried about it at first myself. But it turns out our driveway is big enough that I can do an 8×8’ square on the upper part by the garage door, and there’s still plenty of space in front of it so I can park in the driveway without having the car touch on the painting.


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