I spotted John Danner almost as soon as I got to Santa Barbara’s Old Mission on Saturday. John was fully decked out in his chalk art gear: outrageously colorful shorts, a bright jersey, and a subtle chalk art red pair of sneakers.
JD is a San Francisco city firefighter by profession but his passion is chalk art. John not only spends the weekend here photographing the art but at other festivals throughout the state so he not only knows the artists but has a much better sense of Santa Barbara’s niche in the world of street painting.
I’ve known John for a number of years now and we have loads of fun sharing the three days of street painting Santa Barbara style, though amazingly, we’ve never spent time with each other outside these few days each year. They are preciously enjoyable days and I savor the opportunity of watching both the art evolve each day and sharing good times with JD.
As is our custom, throughout the weekend we talk in short bursts, comparing notes in between periods where we wander through the crowds and talk with the artists. Last year was a bit different for both of us in that as the days passed we began to work up a list of what we considered 2008’s best chalk art paintings. We weren’t necessarily judging them so much as building a collection of what we thought represented the 2008 festival.
It’s important to note that everyone’s painting was fantastic. I Madonnari is not about awards or recognition: It is about participation and making connections, to the art and to each other. It is a community event that touches everyone who comes and especially the artists themselves.
Emerging Art: Saturday at I Madonnari is about a metamorphosis of sorts. Like a butterfly emerging from its cocoon, small pieces of the chalk art begin to take form from the otherwise dull black pavement. Small snippets of what will become something much bigger and grander provide a glimpse of what those who come on Monday night will see.
Chalk art is unique in that each artist picks a starting point and then begins to work outward from it due to the nature of the medium: If you can’t reach a section of the painting later, too bad – you’re stuck what you’ve done. So the art comes forth in full detail from that starting point and then begins to flow outward toward the edges.
So Saturday at the festival consists of quick glimpses of what the art will become. I’m particularly taken by the face that Melanie Stimmel has created in her depiction of the Butterfly Fairy. The face is almost perfect, an oval shape with fully formed red lips and haunting eyes surrounded by pavement blocked out in squares to help guide the rest of the painting.
Next door, Julie Kirk’s Raising of the Cross is equally haunting, the body of Jesus fully formed, eyes already looking heavenward, as he strains against the nails that bind him to the cross. Amazing. As John and I walk around we catch glimpses of other art emerging from the ground. A fireman, seagull, Trojan horse, Old Spanish Days flamenco dancer, sea creatures, fantasy worlds, and religious figures.
Saturday is a day of promises of what will come. We are both intrigued by what we see and know that Sunday will provide answers to many of our questions as to what the art will become.
Sunday Afternoon Magic: I’m not able to get to the festival until after noon and by then many of the chalk art paintings that had just begun to take on shape and form are now able to be seen as almost finished pieces. Though parts are still missing, the sense of what they will become is much clearer. Two particular paintings strike me immediately.
One is by Sharon Namnath and Tracy Lee Stum entitled El Fletchador del Sol, a painting based on the legend of a Mixteca hero who showed that the strength of will and love for his homeland made it possible to defeat the enemy stronger than anyone could have. The detail and power of the art’s central figure is stunning. Though not nearly finished, many are already talking about this being the best of this year’s paintings
The other that I find enchanting is Pavonia by Delphine Louie. The pose is simple, a dark-haired woman framed in lacy peacock feathers looking back in thought. Though much simpler in detail, the painting evokes something as equally powerful as El Flechador in the view of what appears to be a troubled woman through the emotions expressed in the set of her face and the look in her eyes.
These are but a few of the many absolutely incredible pieces that are turning the promise of yesterday into today’s reality: This year’s chalk art is really good.
Monday Evening Finishing Touches: By Memorial Day evening, most of the paintings are finished and it is time to reflect on the sum of what has been accomplished over the past three days. On the most simple level, a good amount of money has been raised for the Children’s Creative Project, the beneficiary of this and the San Luis Obispo chalk art festivals. On another level, perhaps 25,000 people have come together and shared a few days with each other. New connections are made and others rekindled.
But on a level that is most important to me, a handful of artists, coming from many different places, have joined hands to create something powerful and enduring, sharing both their talent and visions – bits and pieces of their worlds – with us and for that we are all richer.
A few of the local artists have captivated me most. Though often overlooked, the art in the children’s section of the festival is especially inspiring. Ten-year-old Eva T’s Otter is an absolutely superb example of this year’s Kid Art.
At the far north end of the Mission parking area is a long row of paintings along a stone wall that always seems to be reserved for those with colorful designs. The flamenco-style dancer by Mary Carol Kenney shouts out Old Spanish Days. There are so many more that it is impossible to mention them all but you’ll find many of them in the galleries I’ve added below.
Last year, JD and I were blown away by the painting of a newcomer to the festival, Joy Davis’s Newar Mother and Child. The inspiration came from a photograph Joy took while staying in Bhaktapur, Nepal, in the Kathmandu Valley but it might have been in one of many places around the world. What is exceptional about the painting, though, is the expressiveness in the mother’s face as well as the love that is evident in the way she holds her infant child – truly a different type of Madonna – as Joy explains, a new take on a very old tradition.
This year, Joy’s painting is no less inspirational, two Tibetan refugees talking to one another with Boudhanath Temple in the background. The sense of character amidst the subtlety and simplicity of the background is perfect. As with last year’s new Madonna, there is a sense of wanting to know more, yet the all-seeing eyes in the temple’s spire provide little in enlightenment, at least for me. The figures in the painting are refugees, two of more than 20,000 who have escaped to Nepal. Their faces say to me that they know much, have perhaps suffered much, and yet they appear to have retained a dignity that seems to characterize Joy’s work.
Early Morning Rising: The alarm sounds off way too early and far too loud. It’s 5:30 a.m. and I peek outside, hoping for sunshine. No luck. I get the coffee brewing, gather my camera gear, and haul the ladder over to the back of my Toyota Tacoma. I’m on the road by 6 a.m. and at the Mission not too long afterward. JD pulls up a few minutes later, a bit more bleary-eyed than me but his cheerful self nonetheless.
“You know, Joy wasn’t finished when I left last night,” JD tells me and he hotfoots it off to see if she got done. He’s back in a flash. “Yup, she got it done,” he adds. Later Joy tells me that she wasn’t finished until 9:30 p.m. and only then because two youngsters held flashlights while she added the last of the chalk to her painting.
While there are a few others at the Mission at 6:30 a.m., this is a beautiful time to be here. It is quiet and it is almost like we’ve got the paintings all to ourselves. The ladder is eight-foot tall, a necessary item to have along if we want to capture the chalk art in their entirety. Quickly JD ticks off 10 or 12 of the paintings he thinks are exceptional and I add a few others.
Before we begin the picture-taking process we walk throughout the art, refreshing our memories and revising our list. There are so many really good paintings. The colorful ones like the flamenco dancer or El Flechador stand out immediately; others like Joy’s Tibetan women or Delphine Louie’s Pavonia also pop out for their expression and the emotion they provoke.
John and I spend the next several hours moving the ladder from spot to spot, and as last year, sharing good times while we narrow down our list of favorites. These are but a few that we both found special, but there are many more in the galleries listed below.