Chalk It Up to Tradition

A slew of artists will this week prettify the pavement of downtown Lake Worth with chalk pastel images that, to the traditionalist, would seem more secure on paper or canvas. It just so happens, though, that impermanence is what the age-old practice of street painting is all about. "The beauty is in the act of creating it, not the finished product," according to Maryanne Webber, coordinator of the tenth-annual "Lake Worth Street Painting Festival."

Street painting dates back to 16th-century Italy, where roaming craftsmen bedecked the steps of churches with chalk images of the Madonna. Their choice of subject matter earned them the name madonnari. These artists sought the applause of spectators and perhaps a coin or two for their daily bread. The first known festival to promote street painting took place in the Italian village of Grazie di Curtatone in 1972, and now the tradition has, shall we say, hit the streets all over the world.

For this year's festival, four city blocks on Lake and Lucerne avenues, between Federal Highway and Dixie Highway, will be closed off to make room for two tons of chalk and the modern-day madonnari. Five hundred participants, including elementary-school children and professional artists, have reserved sections of lusterless pavement (ranging in size from four-by-six feet to 12-by-12 feet) that they plan to transform. Some perform solo while others co-create in groups of three or four to produce original artworks or classical reproductions.

The event is so popular that even the standby list is tapped out, but last-minute amateurs can just show up and draw at the Children's Meadow or the recently added Creative Space for teens and grownups. Last year's offerings included everything from landscapes and wildlife to cartoons and famous portraits. The buzz this year is about a 12-by-25-foot "surprise" performance by a group of California artists who wowed that state's San Rafael festival with a "chalk dance" of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling. Sources are pretty tight-lipped about this year's selection but allude to an original work in 16th-century Renaissance style. Accompanying them on Featured Artist Row is this year's poster artist, Adra Brown.

Whether any purists in the bunch will actually re-create the Virgin Mary remains to be seen. But thanks to a few regulations prohibiting any political display, you won't have to endure a visual catharsis of the Democratic primary or Dubya kind.

While soothing music and crowds of onlookers served as muses in the days of the madonnari, Lake Worth's festival will incorporate a variety of local sounds including Latin rhythms, classical guitar, blues, jazz, and the Banyan Street Jug Band. Streetside cafés and bistros will be open, as will a festival food court. And when it rains and the streets return to their normal hubbub, remember it's all about the process. "And also camaraderie," Webber adds.

The street-painting festival takes place Saturday, February 28, and Sunday, February 29, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. in downtown Lake Worth. The event is free. Call 561-582-4401, or visit --

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Michele D. Omenson