• “The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.”
      ~Mitch Albom

      An artist draws a photo with chalk

      Artist Shuji Nishimura applies the finishing touches to his mural of Paul McCartney at Pasadena Chalk Festival ’23 (Photo – Brian Biery)

      In an age of virtual and digital communication, opportunities for building caring relationships are rather elusive. With much of our lives taking place scrolling newsfeeds, text messages, chat rooms or gaming platforms, where is there space for true human connection?  And how do we build community in a time of sound bites and video clips?

      By Brian Biery

      True community is about sincerely caring for others.  The ‘blessed community’ that MLK Jr. envisioned manifests itself in towns all over the country for brief periods of time around cultural and social events.  Festivals often inspire us to be our best selves as we collaborate to bring joy and excitement to the people of those places.

      One such unique festival is centered on creating magnificent works of art out of a piece of chalk.  Born from the tradition of I Madonnari street art in Italy, the Pasadena Chalk Festival has beautified its civic center for more than 30 years.  Incredible chalk artists draw masterpieces on the rigid surface of cement, asphalt or concrete in the span of 48 hours.  Only to have their work erased a couple of days later by building maintenance teams.

      Aside from the event itself, which brings thousands of art lovers to the city to observe the amazing process of drawing chalk art murals and then appreciating the beauty of the final products, there is a unique atmosphere of support and camaraderie between the artists.  In a society that prides itself on its competitive spirit, artists work collaboratively instead of racing to defeat one another’s artistic creation in the public judging contest that is a feature of the festival.

      As the date of the festival nears, artists communicate with one another in excited messages about how eager they are to reconnect and share the creative experience once again.  Notes of enthusiasm for one another’s artistic visions permeate the airways with muralists encouraging each other’s anticipated designs as they are developed.

      There are dozens of chalk festivals throughout the country each year and each one has its own essence and rituals.  The Pasadena Chalk Festival is unique because of the caring community that it has developed over the years.  With some artists returning every year since its inception, the event has become a tradition for many families who now have intergenerational art teams that paint amazing and unforgettable murals together.  According to artist Gus Moran he entered the festival as a part of his healing process for getting sober.  “We were walking through the festival (20 years ago) and my kids said ‘we gotta do this!’  So I made a promise to them to enter and for the first time in a long time we kept it.  We have been coming ever since.”

      An artist working on a chalk mural

      Artist Arlou Somo completes his mural, 2023 (Photo – Brian Biery)

      Even artists who work individually are generally supported by friends and family who stop by their sites numerous times over the course of the weekend to cheer and celebrate their loved ones.  One artist who has been at the festival since its inception, Lori Antoinette, describes it this way: “It is a community event from which I have lifelong friends.  We have grown up together.”  As a result of those connections Lori and her best friend artist Jacques Keith Dubois were inspired one year to start an artist collective known as the ‘Chalk Mafia’.  According to Lori, the group’s essence is to ‘kill ignorance with chalk’.  Tragically, Keith passed away three years ago losing a battle to cancer.  Nevertheless, Lori says that “…he is always here” with us each year at the festival in spirit.

      That feeling of support transcends the lines placed on the cement that separate the artists as they check on each other’s progress; assist with the moving of the burdensome shade umbrellas; loan a towel to wipe the sweat from a brow scorched by the blistering summer sun; share bottles of water; welcome first year artists who seem overwhelmed by the task of mural creation; and give pieces of chalk to colleagues who have run out of a particular color.  Artist Shuji Nishimura describes the experience this way, “What I have found through the years…it is collaboration, not competition…if someone needs help I will help them.  And they will help me.”

      If building community means, as Albom suggests, devoting yourself to the people around you, then this special moment in time certainly displays that level of generosity and kindness.  And if the process of forging that community requires that it be done through a creative process that has purpose and meaning, then the Pasadena Chalk Festival is a model for this type of human endeavor.

      A man uses chalk on cement

      Chalk artists use a variety of techniques to apply chalk to the cement in creative ways (Photo – Brian Biery)

      Light Bringer Project’s Executive Director Tom Coston describes the ethos of the festival in this way, “Certain things have a life of their own and they are meant to be.  Certainly, we have the pleasure and opportunity of organizing it, but this festival has a life of its own.  I can imagine that if there wasn’t a LBP, there would be another LBP that would organize itself.  Artists will continue it even if we are not here anymore.”

      When we contemplate happiness in all of its elusiveness and transitory nature, it is the moments of human connection that persist in our psyche.  The forging of human bonds enable us to savor the emotions that arise during the action of creating art in community.  What better way to be spiritually activated than painting a mural simultaneously with 300 of your best friends!

      We yearn to be seen, to be valued, to be listened to, and to be appreciated.  When chalk is applied to cement as in this case, artists are recognized in a way that does not happen in any other forum or venue.  An artist’s life is often one of toil and focus in isolation.  At the PCF there is certainly effort and sacrifice on the part of the artists, however it is done in a communal way.  It is an environment that provides the opportunity to feel one another’s presence.  To actually hear other artists as they apply tape to their squares, to listen to their breath as they labor over their murals, and to celebrate together the achievement of the creation of a unique piece of art that will inspire and beautify, if only for a few vanishing days.

      Pasadena Chalk Festival
      Saturday June 22 and Sunday 23, 2024
      10:00 am - 7:00 pm
      Pasadena Convention Center
      300 E. Green St.
      a hand holding a chalk next to a drawn eye

      For street chalk artists the process of completing a mural in 48 hours is a laborious, painstaking process (Photo -Brian Biery)

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