The I Madonnari Chalk Art Festival is an event that I haven’t missed for the past 20 years.
While others are heading out of town, braving bumper-to-bumper traffic, crowded campgrounds and jacked-up prices for the Memorial Day weekend, I’m on my way just a few miles from home to the Santa Barbara Mission to spend the next few days with a group of artists who’ve gathered here to create some amazing works of art.
Armed only with a few pieces of chalk and using a quarter-acre of weathered asphalt pavement for their canvasses, in just three days some of the most amazing paintings will emerge that you’ll ever have the opportunity to watch being created.
I spotted John Danner almost as soon as I got there on Saturday afternoon. J.D.’s the guy you can’t miss no matter how many people are crowded around the paintings. Fully decked out in his chalk art gear: outrageously colorful shorts, a bright jersey, and orange Nike sneakers, he is impossible to miss.
I’ve known John for a number of years now and we have loads of fun sharing the street painting, though amazingly we’ve never spent time with each other outside these few days each year. They are preciously enjoyable days and I savor the opportunity of watching the art evolve each day and sharing good times with him.
On the simplest of levels, the I Madonnari Festival raises a good amount of money for the Children’s Creative Project, which provides a variety of art programs for children not normally exposed to the visual and performing arts.
The CCP, a nonprofit arts education program of the Santa Barbara County Office of Education, is an absolutely vital project given the paucity of funds in our local schools. It is something that its director, Kathy Koury, should be thanked over and over for developing and supporting since its inception in the 1980s.
But on a level much more important to me, the festival is a community event that brings together some of California’s best chalk art painters, providing them with the opportunity to create something powerful and enduring, and allowing us to share those moments with them.
What I’ve learned over time is that the festival is as much about bringing people together as it it is about the art. Many of the artists have been a part of I Madonnari for as long as I’ve been photographing the event.
For them, the event has become an annual reunion, a time to say hello, chat about old times and share each other’s art with one another.
I Madonnari is about a metamorphosis of sorts. Like a butterfly emerging from its cocoon, small pieces of the chalk art begin to take form on the otherwise dull black pavement. Small snippets of what will become something much bigger and grander provide a glimpse of what those who come on Monday night will see.
By Memorial Day evening, most of the paintings have been completed and the artists are slowly putting away their pieces of chalk and gathering up their belongings. Three days of knees bent and bodies crouched over the paintings have left most of the painters stiff and sore.
There’s a sense of relief that the work is done, and the smile on their lips and the gleam in their eyes connotes a sense of accomplishment that cannot be denied.
J.D. and I have made it a tradition to meet one final time early on Tuesday morning to photograph the finished art. To do that means getting up at first light.
I’m up a little after 5 a.m., hoping for early morning sunshine. But when I open the garage door I can see a heavy cloud layer overhead. No sun this morning. A bummer right then but later it turns out the cover provides a diffused light that is perfect for us.
I’m at the Old Mission at 6:15 a.m. with my camera in one hand and an 8-foot-tall bright yellow ladder in the other. J.D.’s already there, snapping away before I’ve gotten the ladder set up.
There are still only a half-dozen or so others out and about, so we have time to walk about, take pictures and do a bit of critical analysis of each of the paintings without getting into anyone’s way.
We naturally gravitate to some of the chalk art paintings. Some are brilliantly colorful; others are intricately designed; still others with subject matter that provokes emotion. Over the next several hours, John and I move from spot to spot, holding the ladder for each other, and in the process gradually narrowing down our list of favorites.
Once again I asked J.D. if he’s got a favorite.
“I’m still thinking there are at least five paintings here you could argue are the best,” he says. “But I’d be lying if I didn’t say there are at least another seven or eight that might be just as good.”
You can find a collection of images from I Madonnari 2017 in the slideshow above and at my website, The Nature Photographer.
If you had to pick a favorite, which one would it be?
— Noozhawk outdoor writer Ray Ford can be reached at email@example.com. Click here for his website, SBoutdoors.com. Follow him on Twitter: @riveray. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.