Chalk Festival artists prepare to make Venice their canvas

A celebrated group of world class artists will be in Venice for three days, creating images that challenge your imagination in scale and scope. And then they’ll be gone.

The latest edition of the Chalk Festival will be held at the Venice International Airport from April 1 through April 3, and guests will have a chance to stand back and survey the grounds as artists create works that can be the size of a football field. Or even bigger.

Denise Kowal, founder of the Chalk Festival, has presided over an event that has grown exponentially. It has set world records and it has reached an international audience of artists, and now, says Kowal, it has to come back from a COVID-related setback.

“It’s beyond what you can imagine,” she says of picking up the chalk again after a two-year absence. “It’s hard to describe what this event has become, but over the years it’s grown into the largest international pavement art event in the world. It’s kind of like a global family. This is really the festival where everybody gets to come together and see each other. It’s not just not getting to do the festival; all of these artists haven’t had contact with their incredibly good friends around the world. It’s emotional for some people that are coming.”

Kowal, who held the first Chalk Festival as a local event in 2007, has seen the event grow beyond its boundaries much like the art it intends to display. The first festival had just 22 artists, and only three of them had prior experience with street painting.

Two years later, in 2009, the event had already tripled in scale. The six-day festival attracted 75 artists and more than 30,000 visitors compared to 5,000 for the inaugural two-day event. The festival took off from there, and in 2011 it attracted 200,000 visitors to downtown Sarasota.

The festival has been held in Venice since 2014, and the increased size of the fairgrounds allowed the artists to create art unlike any other festival in the world. In 2014, for instance, the artists set a record by drawing a shark that took up nearly 19,000 square feet.

The shark is still there; in fact, it’s been enhanced and enlarged since then. But the work from this festival will be washed away immediately, and Kowal says that’s part of the point.

“This is a performance art event. It’s kind of like going to watch music; when the show is over, the music gets shut off and the players exit the stage,” she says. “This is very much like that. The artists are performing, they create the artwork and you get to see the artwork. And then it’s done; the performance is done. They’re not meant to be pieces that stay.

“They’re meant to be an ephemeral art form that you get to experience. That’s what we’re creating; we’re creating an experience for people. People are social and like to share things socially, so this is a wonderful event where people can have an experience for themselves, and they can also take these amazing pictures of these artworks and share them.”

Chalk Festival artists prepare to make Venice their canvas

What’s that mean for the visitors? That means if you attend on Friday or Saturday, you can stand over the shoulders of the artists as they work. You can walk around the edges of the art and imagine the way it might look when it’s completed. If you’re there Sunday, you can see it completely intact as the artist had imagined it. But the week after? It will be gone.

California-based artist Lorelle Miller has been doing street drawings since 1998, and she’s been part of the Chalk Festival here since 2009. Miller, who also works in paintings and sculpture, said that street art has sent her work into unforeseen directions.

“It’s really kind of changed my life,” she says. “It’s a public forum; that’s different than just working on your own. But it bloomed into this thing where you can travel. I’ve travelled all around North America doing this and even into Europe. I never really expected that.”

Miller said she cannot choose between her favorite mediums; that would be like choosing her favorite child. But there are absolutely aspects of street art that stand out for her.

“I think the immersiveness of a large-scale work is really exciting,” says Miller, who has worked on chalk two pieces that set Guinness World Records. “The process of experiencing it in the moment, I suppose, is the biggest thrill of it. That’s almost true of painting too; the act of making it is the excitement, and then it goes away or somebody buys it. It’s in the past.”

So what will be different this time around?

The festival will only be three days instead of four, and Kowal says there will be more three-sided immersion rooms for people to enjoy. With those drawings, they can step in and feel the art on the floor and walls around them. There will also be interactive spaces where visitors can try their own drawings, and Kowal says students will be invited to draw on their own squares on Saturday.

The chalk artists are coming from all over the world. Two familiar faces — Alex Maskiov and Tetiana Talanova — are not able to attend this year because they live in Ukraine. Their absence will be deeply felt, says Kowal, in this close-knit community of artists, many of whom have had to deal with their own adversity over the last two years.

“A lot of these artists have gone on to do different types of art forms to survive,” she says. “A lot of them are busy; a lot of them have struggles or families they’re taking care of. There’s a lot of elements that have added change to this type of art form. We pay for everything for these artists, but they’re donating most of their time to us when they come. And with all these things going on, it makes it difficult to relax and travel the world and give to events.”

Interestingly, the Chalk Festival won’t be the only event on the docket this time around. Kowal says that about 25 of the artists will stick around for a week to decorate sidewalks in Burns Square in downtown Sarasota, but this will be with paint as opposed to chalk. That work will go on from April 4 through April 10, and it’s meant to commemorate Sarasota County’s 100th anniversary.

Sarasota may well be the only city in the world with curated art on its sidewalks, said Kowal, and that work will be preserved a little longer than the chalk drawings in Venice.

“It gives people memories,” says Kowal of watching the process of chalk art expression. “It gives them something to talk about and something that’s pretty rare to be a part of.

“It’s not often that you can go and watch somebody create something from nothing from beginning to an end. This is a very unique opportunity for the public to be able to watch that whole process and then see the finished piece. And also they know that it’s not something you can buy; it’s something meant to be enjoyed just for that moment in time."