It wouldn’t be Memorial Day, and Santa Barbara wouldn’t be the American Riviera, without I Madonnari, a three-day festival that brings approximately 400 artists to the plaza in front of the mission to create more than 200 artworks out of pastel chalk, preparation, and hard work. With spectators swarming the mission courtyard and adjacent park, music playing in the background, and dozens of artists in big straw hats toiling away from morning until night, I Madonnari is like a picture postcard come to life. But although the event has become, in many ways, emblematic of the city, it is not always fully understood, either in its scope or its ambition. Our street painting festival-now one of more than 50 such worldwide-was the first North American event of its type, and, in its concept and organization, it remains the original for the vast majority of other street painting festivals across the continent and beyond. With its charitable goals, community orientation, and open attitude toward subject matter, our I Madonnari set the pattern that is now followed from Texas to Japan.
The Italian street painting tradition, dating at least to the 16th century, is called “street painting” because of how closely the pictures can resemble the oil paintings the artists use as their models. The street painting tradition was nearly lost during World War II, when itinerant artists were forced to give up this centuries-old nomadic practice, and it was only through the intervention of the Italian Ministry of Culture and the church at Grazie di Curtatone that, in 1972, that a new tradition was established of celebrating the Feast of the Assumption on August 15 with a competition for street painters. Through this festival and competition, street painting was preserved, and the remarkable craft of creating ephemeral artworks was handed down to another generation.
For Kathy Koury, who brought the idea to Santa Barbara, the connection was to arts education. Brainstorming ideas in 1987 for an event that would benefit the Children’s Creative Project, a nonprofit that brings arts education to county schools, Koury hit upon the formula we still have today. She had seen the festival at Grazie di Curtatone, and she felt that, as a fundraiser for arts education, “this just made perfect sense. Like arts education, it is more about the process than the final product. There is a kind of magical relation there, and people have responded to it.”
Among those who have responded most dramatically are Delphine Louie and Jane Portaluppi Durand, Santa Barbara artists who have not only been longtime participants here but who have also traveled to compete at the original festival in Curtatone. Koury estimates that at least 10 Santa Barbara artists have made the journey and refers to it with a laugh as “Mecca-for street painters.” In August 2007, Louie was awarded the first prize in the Semplici category, joining a number of tri-county artists who have won in Italy. Louie’s entry, which took her nearly 20 hours to complete, involved a risky strategy that paid off in the end. At Curtatone, the I Madonnari is run according to strict rules. Each artist has only 24 hours to complete his or her work, and only one helper is allowed. In addition, all works must reflect the original religious subject matter of the Italian tradition-the Madonna and Child. For “La Belle Asian,” as Louie titled her work, she adapted a famous Italian Madonna and Child to a 21st-century subject-her sister and her niece.
Louie tells the story extremely well herself, saying, “I started with the ‘Madonna of the Goldfinch’ by Raphael, but I scrapped baby John the Baptist, and the goldfinch, because what I liked was the composition, especially of the Christ Child. I also got rid of the Christ Child’s penis, because I didn’t want to embarrass my niece, who I knew would be my model. So I took the Raphael and pared it down to the essentials, and then I brought in the images I had of my sister, Serena Louie, and her daughter, Donna Chou-Louie. There is a detachment in Asian art, a lack of visible signs of affection, that I also saw in the Raphael, or at least I saw that it would work there, with that pose. I had the idea ready and the picture planned out about three weeks in advance.
“At certain points I became nervous, because the competition is very strict about everyone using proper religious subjects, and I was afraid that mine could possibly be disqualified. But in the end I just knew that if I did something that meant something to me, it would be worth it no matter what. I figured, ‘Well, I’m not going to win, so I might as well express myself and my identity and my relationship to Christianity because, you know, I might not get this chance again, to go to Italy and compete.’ It felt like I was going to the home of Christian art, and why should I try to duplicate what they already have there? So I brought my version of Christian art: The Asian Madonna and Child.”
Jane Durand was there, and remembers well the moment when Louie’s name was announced. “It was the highlight of my trip to see her win,” Durand said. “It was just so emotional. She really took a risk with her program, and once she started, there was no guessing how the Italians would respond. I honestly wondered if they were going to be able to handle it, it was such a bold attempt. And after 24 hours without sleep, in brutal heat-it was 98 degrees that day-we were already emotional and disoriented. Then, to hear her name and to realize that the Asian Madonna had actually won-it still makes me teary-eyed.”
Both Louie and Durand will be at our festival this weekend, along with featured artists and longtime I Madonnari regulars Laura Wilkinson and Blair Looker, all of them spreading the joy of this most perishable and pure of fine art forms. In front of the Mission, amid the happy children, live music, and festivities, the world’s best street painters-so many of whom live and work here in Santa Barbara-will be at home.
I Madonnari takes place between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m., Sat.-Mon., May 24-26 on the steps of the Santa Barbara Mission. Admission is free. The festival benefits the Children’s Creative Project and is sponsored in part by the Loreto Plaza Shopping Center, The Berry Man, and The Dreier Group. For more information, call 964-4710 x4411 or visit imadonnarifestival.com.