Chalk Narratives, Altered Streetscape

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Energized by impermanence, chalk art is a visual voice set in the world’s greatest public stage — the streets. In putting pastels to pavement, the skills and imagination of a chalk artist sub-culture find a most varied and engaging outlet of cultural expression.

“There’s a relationship that develops between artists and the public,” says Wesley Fawcett Creigh, participant in the third annual Park Place Chalk Art Festival held last month.

Creigh was on a coral reef conservation project in Mexico when her illustrations for the project inspired her decision to pursue art. Creigh then worked as a muralist and sign painter along the Caribbean coast, maturing her creative process from the Yucatan in Mexico to the Bay Islands of Honduras, before moving to Tucson in 2005, on the advice of a cousin.

“Chalk allows you to experiment with art as a form of storytelling and social commentary,” she says. “Sometimes I can be very focused on conveying a sense of what I am feeling, other times I am more interested in portraying aspects of my physical environment, and oftentimes it’s a mixture of the two. I believe this fits into the timeless tradition of street art, which has often been used for communicating specific narratives in times of social or political revolution as well as times of artistic evolution.”

Chalk artists have a long history, as descendants of master European craftsmen “whose marble mosaics embellished streets intended for bare or sandled feet only” (Rudofsky, Streets for People, New York: Doubleday, 1969, p. 275). Some European chalk artists were vagabonds, moving from city to city, following the minstrels. The artists created images on paved streets or earth, their drawings a homage to the Madonna or local devotional objects, hence, the name “Madonnari” in Italy. In England, they are called “Screevers,” and in Germany, “Strassenmaler.”

“The value of the work is in the process of producing it in this intimate environment with total strangers, who in that moment in time are not as strange or removed from one another,” comments Leia Maahs, founder of the Tucson Madonnari Festival downtown (2006-2008), now community cultural coordinator with Tucson Pima Arts Council.

Creigh created an 8-by-6-foot mural during this year’s Park Place Mall Chalk Art Festival. Her focus was to juxtapose desert ecology with the pavement of the shopping mall, and she rendered a saguaro cactus in bloom with a hummingbird. In another chalk festival, in a Tempe mall, her desert mural featured a devil’s claw and gourd pumpkins intertwining as cultural symbols of harvest.

Hummingbird and saguaro chalk art
Hummingbird and saguaro chalk art by Wesley Fawcett Creigh,
in the 2014 Park Place Chalk Art Festival

The artistic process taking place is inspiring for artists and onlookers, says Creigh, who also works in painting, drawing, printmaking, and comics. “It is not uncommon to have people sit down and watch for a long time, or come back continuously throughout the day to check on progress. The transformation of a blank substrate into a colorful mural is magical.”

The chalk medium presents certain challenges, and is physically demanding, she continues. Creigh starts all chalk murals by drawing a grid of squares over her sketch, then duplicating that grid proportionally over the sidewalk surface. Then she transfers the sketch to the surface, square by square, creating a base, slowly filling in texture and dimension to the outlined surface.

“We go into the festival never being quite sure about what our surface will be like, but I always walk away with something new learned and benefit from watching other artists approach it in their own ways,” she says.

“Street Art’s impermanence is a powerful symbol that reminds us as artists to be more invested in the moment as we work, because more than anything it is a process we engage in with the public.”

Adds Maahs: “Chalk has a playful connotation, because the medium will wash away with the first rain of the season or a summer monsoon. There is an element of impermanence that allows viewers and participants to engage deeply in the process of creative place making for this one moment in time.

“The images themselves have a story that is understood differently by each viewer as they evolve in public space,” she continues. “Ephemeral works also tell a story about the experience, how a moment of celebration and collective expression gives the public permission to say, ‘I belong here.'”


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