I Madonnari: Chalk it up

Rachel Ashley of Templeton draws a lion Saturday at the I Madonnari street painting festival in downtown San Luis Obispo.
Rachel Ashley of Templeton draws a lion Saturday at the I Madonnari street painting festival in downtown San Luis Obispo. jmellom@thetribunenews.com

Santa Barbara artist Blair Looker doesn’t mind getting her hands dirty. In fact, she enjoys it.

“I love working with my hands,” said Looker, who uses handmade chalk to create large, colorful street paintings.

“(The painting) comes right from your heart, through your arms, into your hands,” Looker continued.

Looker is one of about 200 artists braving sunshine, sore knees and aching backs at this weekend’s I Madonnari Italian Street Painting Festival, an annual fundraiser benefiting the Children’s Creative Project.

Now in its 21st year, the two-day festival, which continues today in downtown San Luis Obispo, is co-presented by the Central Coast chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

According to Kathy Koury, executive director of the Children’s Creative Project, I Madonnari draws artists from as far away as San Diego and the Bay Area.

Looker, this year’s featured artist, first put chalk to pavement about 25 years ago.

“I was just struck down with jealousy” the first time she attended I Madonnari’s sister festival in Santa Barbara, she recalled. “I knew I had to be a part of it.”

Since then, Looker has participated in street painting festivals in San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and Toba City, Japan, inviting passers-by to be part of her artistic process.

“Children want to squat right down and pick up the chalk and join right in,” she said. “They see passion and react.”

This year, Looker and her daughter, Portland resident Rebecca Ridenour, will create a 14-by-17-foot portrait of a Guatemalan mother pouring water for her young son.

Looker said the image, located in front of Mission San Luis Obispo, was inspired in part by Johannes Vermeer’s “The Milkmaid.”

Baywood Park artist Carolina Van Stone, meanwhile, is working on an 8-by-12-foot image of an ephemeral figure with flowing hair on the beach.

Past subjects have included a flamenco dancer, a fairy and a mandala from Carl Jung’s famous “Red Book.”

Though she spends hours perfecting each inch, Van Stone said she appreciates the fact that the chalk paintings aren’t permanent.

“It’s just this plain old street, and all of the sudden … there’s all these colorful images that come to life on the pavement,” she said, “And then it’s all gone.”

Van Stone described I Madonnari as a “fun, joyous event” for all.

“You’re just immersed in art,” she said.

More photos of I Madonnari chalk paintings »

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