A beautiful Memorial Day weekend brought larger crowds than ever to the I Madonnari chalk-painting festival held in front of Old Mission Santa Barbara. “Everyone was really happy to be back out together in person. It was packed,” said Kai Tepper with a note of awe in her voice, as she sat on the Mission lawn on Tuesday, watching a continuing stream of visitors peruse the chalk drawings, which will remain on the pavement until wind and weather wash them away.

Tepper, the new director of the Children’s Creative Project — which originated the event under founder Kathy Koury, who retired in 2021 — said an estimated 35,000 people attended over the three-day weekend, some coming after sundown to view the colorful drawings.

I Madonnari, named for the 16th-century Italian street painters whose subject was often the Madonna, is the major fundraiser for the Children’s Creative Project.

“A lot of youth artists, as well as youth performers, were here all weekend,” Tepper said. Though many professional artists had drawn some of the striking pictures that were in squares sponsored by organizations and companies, youth artists also participated, such as those from the Turner Foundations after-school art project. 

Many tourists intrepidly crossed the busy streets to the Mission all weekend, but there were also a lot of Santa Barbara residents who hadn’t viewed the I Madonnari festival before in its 35-year history, said Tepper. The popular food booths manned by project volunteers were supplemented by Dave’s Dogs, Rascal’s Vegan Pop-Up, and the United States of Espresso this year, who chipped in a percentage of their proceeds to the Children’s Creative Project.

Tepper said they will definitely be back next year, pandemic willing. (During the two COVID years, the festival went online in photographs and onto the artists’ sidewalks instead.) Tepper and her staff will continue throughout the year to sponsor artists of all stripes — from painting to storytelling — in schools around the county.

Correction: The headcount was for the long weekend, not daily, and the name of the coffee truck has been corrected.

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