Last weekend I participated in the annual Denver Chalk Art Festival. I applied for it on a whim thinking it’s something new to try, submitting a drawing of a kestrel I had done the year before, and didn’t expect in a million years that I would be accepted. When I was however, I immediately panicked and started worrying about everything that could go wrong. I’d never really tried to draw in chalk before. I’m physically limited and doing an 8x8 foot drawing on the ground seemed terrifying. I don’t like crowds. I don’t like people watching me. What did I get myself into?
The night before the event I took full advantage of the opportunity to check in early and get started on my square. I found out that I had been sponsored by one of the major sponsors of the event, Pure Leaf Tea. I felt honored! I immediately got to work gridding out my square into manageable 1-foot squares with the help of my husband. I drew in the basic outline of my drawing, and then noticed that everyone around me seemed to be priming the asphalt with paint.
Oh no! Have I already screwed up? I knew using tempera paint was an option but I didn’t think most people would use it. I approached a young woman to find out about it and she kindly filled me in on what it was and why it’s helpful. She even offered me some paint to try out. Rather than priming the whole surface and covering the work I had already done gridding it out, I just painted the background area, which was meant to be all black anyways. So the first thing I’ve learned about chalk art is that Tempera paint can be a HUGE timesaver.
When I got to a good stopping point and was thoroughly exhausted I went home. The next day I arrived somewhat early in the day and got right to work. I forgot to put sunscreen on even as I was so amped up to start chalking. The crowds were already busy by Saturday morning and everyone was just getting started. There were a lot of displeased comments overheard about how it was lame since there was no art yet. So a tip to all chalk art festival-goers – if you want to see nearly finished art, probably don’t go first thing on the first day.
My husband helped as much as he could. He didn’t have the confidence to just dive in since he’s not a professional artist and was afraid of messing it up, but I would line out sections and tell him what chalk to use where much like a paint by numbers. It was incredibly helpful and I’m so appreciative of him breaking his back and knees to help me out.
I figured I would wear latex gloves to keep my hands clean and give them some protection, but within minutes of wearing my first pair I had ripped them open on the asphalt. Another problem is they were making my hands sweat like crazy, so when I ripped the glove, sweat literally poured out onto the street. Lovely right? My next plan to save my fingers was to use rags I had brought along to use to smear/blend the chalk. This worked all right, but it also picked up so much chalk that I couldn’t go from one area to another without sprinkling other colors of chalk everywhere. Shortly I just gave up and started using my bare hands.
A quick lunch break I got back to it and was joined by some friends who came to visit. We visited only a short while before the first drops of moisture fell from above. Before we knew it, it was pouring rain and everyone’s work was being washed away.
You’re not allowed to use tarps or tents to cover your work as it violates the spirit of the festival, but we attempted to cover a couple areas of detail with the carpet squares we had been kneeling on. Some people’s work was destroyed much more than others, and the fact that I had used Tempera for only the background turned out to be a lifesaver as it didn’t wash away as much and left a clearly defined area showing where to re-color. In the end mine wasn’t too too damaged. The people next to me however had all their meticulous detail washed away and had to start from scratch. You could see their hearts breaking as the rain cleansed the street and they knew they couldn’t do anything but watch and wait.
Eventually the rain subsided, the sun came out and I got back to work. My artist friend Sam who had come to visit joined in and majorly helped recoup our losses. We discovered that drawing on slightly wet pavement was actually nice because it made the chalk nice and creamy like oil pastels. Maybe a tip I would try in the future is moistening my chalk before getting to work.
At this point we’re wet, hot, and sore, and generally feeling like crap. Being down on the ground and physically straining didn’t help my neurological conditions so my head was throbbing and I felt like I was going to vomit. We left at about 6pm even though artists are allowed to keep on working until 10pm, with the plan of coming back early. However that night it really hit us and we could hardly move without pain. My husband and I both slept in and rolled in at a comfortable noon on Sunday, both feeling like we had been hit by a bus.
When I arrived on Sunday the crowd was twice as big. It was just a sea of people that you could hardly walk through. People were even walking over sections of my work. I plopped down and got back to it, rubbing my hands raw on the ground. By this time large bruises had cropped up on both my knees from all the kneeling, and I had started to five myself carpel tunnel from supporting myself on my left hand while awkwardly reaching into the center of my piece to draw.
At the artists station they gave you the option to trade in unused chalk for different colors. It turns out that black, white, and brown, the three colors I was using the most of, were a real hot commodity. Primary red, blue, and yellow however were available by the bucketful. I traded in several shades of blue and managed to snag the last of their black and white. I finished my piece just as the skies grew dark and it started to rain again. Luckily my husband got the final photos before the whole thing was ruined once more. Between the rain and everything else, I had a major migraine brewing and left before the judging commenced.
It’s frustrating to see your hard work get washed away by the elements, but at the same time you go into it knowing that chalk is a temporary medium and it becomes more about the act of creating. It’s almost like a performance art. In the end I met some really cool fellow artists, educated people about what I was painting – It’s a kestrel, not a parrot – saw some really cool art, did something new, created a portfolio piece, and challenged myself artistically, socially, and physically.