Florida chalk festival yields mind-bending art works


Chalk: it’s not just for blackboards.

On a stretch of asphalt in Sarasota’s downtown, dozens of artists from around the world are sketching, rubbing and painting chalk on the pavement. For hours they work, creating mind-bending images of whimsical cats, Renaissance beauties and surreal 3D images of spooky teddy bears. They’re here for the fifth annual Sarasota Chalk Festival, which is free and runs through Nov. 6.

Kurt Wenner, a former NASA space illustrator who studied classical art in Italy, is something of a rock star in pavement art circles because he invented 3D chalk art in the mid-1980s.

On Wednesday, he sat on the ground with a dozen other artists, talking about chalk technique, shading and hue. Wenner has a masterpiece at the festival; he and other artists worked on it feverishly Wednesday morning.

“This particular piece has a bit of a different geometry, in the sense that we’ve set the viewpoint up pretty high here at fifteen and a half feet,” he said. “And there’s going to be a second layer of art, suspended over the first layer of art, horizontally, and gives the appearance of a much, much larger drawing.”

Nearing completion, the sprawling mural looked to be a sepia-toned renaissance piece, with delicate women’s faces and fantastical animals, yet with a circus feel.

The theme of this year’s festival is Circus City USA — a nod to the city’s heritage as the headquarters for the Ringling Bros. Circus.

The world’s top street artists from Italy, Brazil and Japan were drawn to the festival to create these temporary works of art on the pavement. While the artists do use traditional-looking cylindrical pieces of chalk, many also mix the chalk with water and use paintbrushes to apply it to the asphalt.

Some pieces are classical, like Wenner’s. Others are whimsical, like the one by artist Bryan Moon of eight cats dressed as Wild West characters.

“It’s really quite hard work,” said Moon, who spent nearly 40 hours on his 30-foot-long kitty masterpiece.

Other works are mind-bending, surreal 3D images of futuristic robots and mechanical parts.

Denise Kowal, the founder of the Sarasota Chalk Festival, said that many of the artists also work on traditional canvas and it’s a treat for people to see them actually in action, “painting” on the ground.

“Artists always spend their time inside the gallery and this is so awesome because the public really gets to be there and see the whole creative process and what goes in it from beginning to end,” she said.

There are a number of pavement artists visiting the Florida festival from Italy, a country where street art is popular. In the 16th century, Italians who painted the Madonna and other images from inside cathedrals in chalk on the streets were known as Madonnari.

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