Katy Thompson, Associate Director of Education
If you so happened to take a walk down Main Street last weekend, enjoying the annual Three Rivers Festival with Lemon Shake-Up and Elephant Ear in hand, you probably saw this:
Chalk Walk, held annually since 2000 in conjunction with the Three Rivers Festival, is based on the Italian tradition of street painting, i madonnari, that dates back to the 16th century. Street painters use chalk pastels to reproduce existing artworks or create their own design in their designated square (8×8′ or 4×4′). The largest community art project in the region, this three day event challenges artists as they incorporate street blemishes and uneven pavement into colorful, imaginative artworks. Contending with Midwestern July heat, the ever-present threat of rain, and the ogling public, Chalk Walk lends a new meaning to creating en plein air.
One thing we notice with this event, year after year, is the amount of questions we get about the medium, chalk. How do the chalkers create these masterpieces out of the same thing kids use to draw Hopscotch courts? Are they allowed to paint on their square, I saw someone with a paintbrush!? What is chalk?
Many art materials were something else in their original form, for example, glass is formed from sand. Chalk, before it’s chalk, is limestone! An abundant rock here in Indiana, the FWMoA building is part limestone and Dale Enochs, a local artist based in Bloomington, makes his relief sculptures out of limestone. Chalk is a form of limestone composed of calcite, a mineral formed deep under the sea. Soft, white, and porous, it was so common in the Cretaceous marine beds that the Cretaceous Period (between 99 and 65 million years ago) was named for it! Deriving from the Latin creta, meaning chalk, deposits are mined both above and below ground for various industries like building (quicklime and bricks) and agriculture (it raises the pH in soils). Most likely, though, the first time you met chalk was standing at the blackboard in your elementary classroom.
Traditionally used in recreation and field sports, powdered chalk marked the boundary lines for playing while in gymnastics, rock-climbing, and weightlifting it’s applied to hands and/or feet to reduce slipping by removing perspiration. Just one of its many, multi-faceted forms, chalk also takes the shape of colored chalk, sidewalk chalk, and pastel chalk.
Most Chalk Walkers use a mixture, relying heavily on chalk pastels because they are brightly colored and create thicker lines than their sidewalk chalk cousin. Paint isn’t allowed, but some paint the background of their square (see above) white or a color that complements their artwork while others (below) rely solely on the chalk. All dependent on their design, it may take a participant a few hours to a few days to complete their artwork. Also made of limestone, chalk pastels are compressed into stick form and, when blended with water, create a “painterly” aesthetic with minimum dust. Creating realistic and intricate street artworks using chalk and chalk pastel is difficult as most street artists are using anamorphic drawing, meaning they are not necessarily drawn to be observed face-on but from multiple directions.
Many street painters employ a device called trompe-l’œil, French for “fool the eye”, to create the optical illusion that their picture exists in three dimensions.
Other artists choose to take a participatory angle–while you can’t touch or freely interact with the art in the museum, you can with the art in the street!
A reminder that creating art doesn’t necessitate expensive materials, chalk is an accessible medium with which to begin your artistic journey. Be sure to join us next year for Chalk Walk 2023 but, until then, you can check out the winners from this year on Facebook.