Great art will endure forever, or at least until the next time it rains. That’s the reality for artists whose media is chalk and whose canvas is a sidewalk.
From October 21 to 23, sidewalks along Clearwater Beach will become temporary canvases for local artists, student’s and artist’s groups, as the City’s 5th annual Chalk Art Festival will join the list of about 60 similar festivals hosted each year in the U.S. – many of which take place in Florida.
This very popular art form is flourishing in our country but it is also a very new phenomenon here, only a few decades old. The original street artists were the visual equivalent of travelling minstrels, in 16th century Italy, and were called “madonnari” because their subjects were most often images of the Madonna or other religious icons. They were often employed to produce art works for great cathedrals and subsequently earned their living by travelling from one church festival to another, reproducing their work with chalk, charcoal or colored stones in public squares, often surviving only on the coins tossed on their images by onlookers.
Around the same time, pavement artists called “screevers” began to appear in Britian. Their work was part art and part political or moral commentary, often accompanied by poems or writings on current events. Germany also has a tradition of street painters called Strassenmaler, and the act of drawing on the ground is an ancient art form that can be found throughout the histories of indigenous peoples everywhere.
Public chalk art made its first significant appearance in the U.S. in the early 1970s when artist Robert Guillemin, known as “Sidewalk Sam”, began reproducing the art of European masters on the streets of Boston and Cambridge, much to the delight of passersby who would fill his bucket with change. He later organized numerous chalk drawing festivals and other participatory art events in Boston and internationally. And in the 1980s American Kurt Wenner gained an international following and became famous for his invention of 3-D pavement art, a favorite in many festivals.
Today, chalk artists can be “copyists” who reproduce famous paintings, “free artists” producing original two-dimensional images or 3-D artists whose work is often very realistic and anamorphic. In Florida there is even an association – the Florida Chalk Artists Association (FCAA) – that offers support, education and promotion of the art, as well as a certification program with levels from apprentice to master artist.
Just because the chalk artist’s final creation will eventually be washed down the storm drain doesn’t mean they are any less skilled and talented than other artists. They search out the best soft or chalk pastels and examine their “canvas”, knowing that the quality of the sidewalk, every crack and varying textures, can determine the clarity of detail in their work.
If you’ve ever been to a chalk festival, you know the results can be so astonishing and remarkable that it makes you almost weep to think that the work is temporary and will soon be washed away. There is likely no other kind of festival where more photos and videos are taken; everyone wants to capture the masterpieces for posterity in the only ways possible.
Soon the sidewalk that runs along Clearwater Beach will be transformed into an open air gallery, laid out at your feet. Bring your camera and prepare to be amazed and inspired.