Art Term Tuesday: I Madonnari

Kaitlin Binkley, Marketing Coordinator

With Chalk Walk just around the corner, I decided to delve deeper into the art of street painting and its long history around the world, beginning in Italy with the I Madonnari!

In the 16th century, traveling artists in Italy moved from town to town following festivals. During the festival they would create images on the pathway using chalk, paint, charcoal, or colored stones! Often creating images of The Madonna, thus earning them their moniker, passersby would toss coins onto the images and the performer would then use that generosity to sustain themselves until the next festival. These festivals were often in celebration of a religious holiday, so drawing religious figures was a great way to entice people to drop coins as an offering. They were not comparable to the grand Renaissance painters of the time but more like folk artists using primitive materials and repeating the same iconography.

Italy was not the only place street artists appeared, as they also popped up in Great Britain beginning in the late 1800s. Artists would create advertisements and public announcements on the pavement, reflecting the time and current events of the day. Remember Bert from Mary Poppins? He was a chimney sweep, a jack-of-all-trades, and a street artist, or screever, too! He, Mary Poppins, and the children all jumped into his drawing for “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!” In fact, the first official street painting competition was held in London in 1906.

As with many things, street painting declined during the World Wars, but began to revive in the 1970s. American artists discovered street painting and brought the art form back to the States. “Sidewalk Sam” was the American-born artist Bob Guillemin who, in the 1970s and 80s, began to paint the street and sidewalks of Boston with reproductions of masterworks he saw during his time as a student in France. He would recreate paintings that people may have only seen in art history books on the busy sidewalks people treaded upon every day.

Another transformative street painter is Kurt Wenner, who, in the 1980s, began to combine street painting with optical illusion techniques. His work became known as anamorphic art or 3D pavement art, where the illusion can only be seen from one point. This is a similar technique to trompe l’oeil, or “deceive the eye”, where the artist tries their best to create the optical illusion of objects in 3D on a flat surface.

Since the 1990s, street painting and festivals have gone hand-in-hand, with one of the largest festivals happening in Lake Worth, Florida where over 100,000 people come to see 250 works of art by 400 artists created over a weekend. There now seems to be a street painting festival in every major US city at least once a summer, including here in Fort Wayne! This weekend, street artists will descend upon Main Street to chalk out their creations, with many people having participated year after year. Be sure to check out our interview with Aarti and Cary, two chalkers who have been coming to Chalk Walk for 11 years!

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