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Global Sidewalk Chalk Artists Create Temporary Masterpieces On Sarasota Streets

Chalk artists from around the world are coloring the walls and streets of downtown Sarasota this weekend with vivid imagery, classical style artwork and optical illusions.

Organizer Denise Kowal says 50 artists are flying in from places like Italy, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands and across the United States for the Sarasota Chalk Festival.

"We have literally the top talent in the world that is coming here to turn the streets into a museum in motion," she said.

The artwork will be done in historic Burns Square, returning to the location where the festival started in 2007. It’s been held annually about 20 miles to the south in Venice, and hasn’t been in Sarasota since 2013.

A picture of the sidewalk chalk festival
Credit Denise Kowal
An aerial shot of the chalk festival in 2013

The festival is run by a non-profit that Kowal set up about 10 years ago. It relies on volunteers and donations.

This year it cost about $200,000 to fly in all the artists, Kowal said.

Sidewalk chalk art festivals have grown in popularity around the world in recent years. What makes them special is that people can walk among the artists and watch them work, Kowal said.

"They are immersed into the world of the artist,” she said. “They get to see all the struggles and how they lay the artwork out, and the layers of colors they use to create a piece they would possibly see in a museum."

Many of the artists specialize in three-dimensional illusions that make it seem like objects are rising out of the pavement, or that a viewer is peering down into a cave or an abyss.

A key feature of this year’s festival will be a 3-D illusion room created by artist Kurt Wenner, who is widely credited with inventing three-dimensional pavement art, as well as reviving the sidewalk chalk art tradition in the U.S.

“The geometry of the room is my own invention. It kind of derives from a famous kind of room called the Ames Room where when people walk through the room they appear to grow and shrink in size,” he said. “But my geometry is more sophisticated than the original geometry.”

Artist Kurt Wenner
Credit Kerry Sheridan / WUSF
Artist Kurt Wenner will create a 3-D illusion structure at the Sarasota Chalk Art Festival.

Wenner was an illustrator for NASA in the 1980s, before the invention of today’s computer graphics. He drew depictions of the Voyager mission, Halley’s comet and US space agency missions to the Sun.

Wenner began holding sidewalk chalk festivals decades ago when hardly anyone in the United States was doing them. Now he says there are dozens nationwide.

"The (Sarasota) one is unique in the sense that no other festival even comes close to having the number of well-known global pavement artists in one place," Wenner said.

"It is one of the few opportunities people have to see a work in progress, to see how artists work. Aside from the fact that it is colorful and big and the images are fun for people generally."

Rainy weather could threaten the event. Forecasters say there's about a 20 percent chance of scattered showers this weekend. Kowal said organizers are equipped with tarps and plastic sheets, just in case.

She also tried to convince Sarasota officials to hold off the regular street sweeping planned for Sunday night, so the artwork might stay for a few days.

A Facebook poll on the matter drew overwhelming support from voters, but the county stood firm.

All the artwork will be washed away Sunday night, when the street sweepers pass through.

That’s fine by Wenner, who recalls that throughout history, pavement artists had to wipe away the old and constantly make new pieces to wow passers-by, because they worked for tips.

A chalk artists draws a woman;s face on the ground
Credit Kerry Sheridan / WUSF
A chalk artist draws a woman's face on the pavement in downtown Sarasota, April 6, 2019

“The artist relationship to the work is the act of working,” he explained. "The point being that the process of creating the art is as important as the finished piece."

The Chalk Festival gets underway Friday at 8 am and runs through Sunday evening.

Most of the art should be complete by Saturday afternoon. That evening, votive candles will line the streets so people can browse the art by night.

The festival runs until Sunday night. More information is at chalkfestival.org.

I cover health and K-12 education – two topics that have overlapped a lot since the pandemic began.
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