Although it’s been around since 1999, the street painting exhibition (formerly known as the Italian Street Painting Festival) has remained one of the best kept secrets of the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts. That’s because this “festival within a festival” was always held on Hiester Street, several blocks away from the center of the action. This year, thanks to construction on the site of the former Garner Street parking lot, street painting is moving from the fringe of the festival to the heart of it, at the intersection of Foster Avenue and South Allen Street.
The change will bring more visibility to this year’s 18 participating artists, allowing passersby to observe the process from start to finish as the street painters create large, lavish drawings on the pavement using artist-grade pastel chalk.
Artist Olivia Gennaro hopes the new location will spark more interaction with the public.
“It’s a performance art,” she said. “I want people to stop and talk to me and ask questions. That is a big thing for me. ... This is an interactive experience and we want you to talk to us. That’s why we’re there.”
Most of the artists will be given a block of the pavement canvas measuring 4 square-feet by 6 square-feet, with two featured artists, Graham Curtis and Abby Gleixner Cramer, working on even larger pieces. Curtis and Cramer have both been involved in the street painting festival since it began.
According to coordinator Holly Foy, who has also been with the street painting festival since its inception, the artists begin working on their pieces on Thursday morning, with most of them finishing up by Saturday.
“It’s really a very grueling process for the artists,” she said. “Imagine it being 90 degrees, the pavement is radiating heat, it’s biting into your knees… You may have hundreds of people watching over your shoulder. If you make a mistake, the chalk is not forgiving. If it rains, you have to jump up, quickly cover things up with tarp, and wait until the pavement dries a little bit. Then you go back to it.”
“The hardest part about it as I’m moving along in years is my body is not enjoying getting up and down so much. I’m always trying to figure out a comfortable way to be,” said Curtis. “It’s a bit of an issue, I suppose, but the funny part of that is once I get into doing what I’m doing, that all disappears; the physicality of it is not so much of a bother until later that night, when my body says, ‘Hey — remember me?’”
Gennaro said this will be her fourth year as a street painter. She thinks the biggest challenge is simply getting started.
“You have to plan ahead: ‘Which colors should I use first?’ ‘Where can I kneel?’” she said. “It’s just very different from the type of artwork you’re normally doing. You’re not normally laying on top of a piece of art as you do it.”
Even so, there are similarities between street painting and one of her favorite art mediums, said Gennaro, an art teacher in the Southern Huntingdon County School District.
“I think oil painting is actually the closest relationship to sidewalk chalk art in technique,” she said. “Oil painting literally takes months to fully dry, so you can continuously work on it, day after day, and as long as it doesn’t get wet, chalk art is the same thing. So as we’re working over the course of three days, you can take a break for a little bit and come back and keep editing it. That’s what I like about it . ”
The artists choose their own images and submit their ideas to Foy at least a month in advance. Curtis said his piece this year will have a "Game of Thrones" feel, while Gennaro will base her piece on an image taken by a Philadelphia photographer.
“All of our artists have different tastes, so it really is a museum on the street with something for everyone,” Foy said. “This year, we’ll have an astronaut, a few classical pieces, a few modern pieces, some people will honor another artist, so it’s going to be very diverse as always.”
Copyright law allows artists to recreate famous works of art older than 50 years old. When the artists choose to do this, they are working in the tradition of the original street painters of 16th century Europe, who often sought to bring masterpieces to the masses by replicating famous pieces of art that they may have encountered in their travels.
No matter what each artist draws over the course of the weekend, each piece will have one thing in common — its impermanence.
“I actually kind of find the ephemeral side of the artwork rather intriguing,” Curtis said. “One of the questions we get asked a lot is, ‘Why would you put so much time into something that’s just going to disappear?,” and there’s no real answer to it, but if it didn’t disappear, then we wouldn’t have a surface to work on the following year. ... To be honest, by the time I’m done working on a piece, after I’ve been down on my hands and knees for a few days, I’m quite happy to walk away from it and go home, have a beer, and let mother nature or a street cleaner take care of business.”
Street painters began Thursday and will be on-site Friday and Saturday between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m., and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., weather permitting. Members of the public can give street painting a try for $5, which includes a box of high quality pastel chalk and a small section of pavement to draw on.
Above photo: Featured artist Graham Curtis poses with his finished drawing in 2018.