Sometimes the best way to make sense of current events is to leave everything behind and look down—if only for a little while. This weekend, from Oct. 28-31, you can do just that. Step out of the real world and into the 15th annual Chalk Festival, themed "A Spirited Museum in Motion."
Denise Kowal, founder of the Chalk Festival, along with countless volunteers and artists like chalk art pioneer Kurt Wenner, has dedicated the past two years to bringing the event back to its original glory. In 2020 and 2021, the event was modified for the pandemic with scaled-down and socially distanced exhibitions. This year should have marked a return to the festival's normal grandeur in size and scale. But when Hurricane Ian roared through the Gulf Coast, rendering the Venice Municipal Airport, the festival’s home, unusable, Kowal and her team went back to the drawing board.
“We’ve had to rearrange two years of planning in a manner of weeks,” says Kowal. This year's festival returns to its original home, Burns Square in downtown Sarasota, and will be set up like a giant outdoor art gallery. Instead of painting directly on the pavement, 25 international artists will create the 3D paintings on giant 35- to 40-foot-long canvases, that will then be affixed to the ground. Afterward, they'll be transferred to the Ringling Museum, where they can be viewed for one day only as part of the museum’s free Monday program on Oct. 31.
This time around, Kowal also has the task of rehoming a horde of zombie sculptures that will lurch into Sarasota just in time for Halloween, with faces cast from local residents. “Because space is now limited, about 15 to 20 of the festival's original 150 zombie sculptures will be placed around Burns Square. The artists are painting the zombies this week,” she says, adding that attendees can also expect to come face to face with an undead mermaid and Neptune, the Greek god of water.
Along with the rest of the zombies, other festival features have been postponed until April 2023. The debut of Floralia Infiorata, a collection of paintings composed of natural materials like flowers and seeds, is just one event that’s been rescheduled.
“This year’s experience will be different from any other that we’ve had before,” Kowal says. The Chalk Festival has refunded ticket purchases due to the loss of its venue and vendor cancellations, and will lose out on the income the event would have generated. Instead, it's now serving as a fundraiser.
While the pivot isn't ideal, it could benefit local art lovers wishing to infuse their lives permanently with the magic of chalk art. Each artist competing in the festival's sidewalk chalk art contest will draw on high-quality artist paper taped to the ground, and anyone with pastel experience is welcome to join the competition. This competition is separate from the large-scale canvas paintings and adds an exciting twist to the festival. Attendees can bid on the chalk works while supporting the festival.
“People who have seen and loved the work for years now have an opportunity to take home a masterpiece,” says Kowal.
Those who don't bid can take a self-guided tour of the permanent sidewalk art collection, Avenue of Art, a project that began as a social distancing initiative but is now a festival favorite event.
In lieu of tickets, attendees are encouraged to make a donation to support the Chalk Festival. Kowal also invites visitors to tag @chalk_festival when posting photos on social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook.
Despite the changes, the Chalk Festival is a reminder that art can serve as both an escape and a path forward in an uncertain world.
“Julie Kirk-Purcell, one of our returning artists, spent two weeks in Fort Myers helping victims alongside her search-and-rescue dog after the hurricane,” says Kowal. “I imagine that the experience might inspire her to create an impactful image.”
The Chalk Festival runs Oct. 28-31. The check-in station will be on the corner of South Orange and South Pineapple avenues. All events will take place at Burns Square, between Ringling Boulevard and the intersection of South Orange and Pineapple avenues, with the exception of the Ringling Museum display on Oct. 31. Admission is free, but a $10 donation is encouraged. For more information, click here.