I always knew I'd go back to Italy -- it just never occurred to me it would take more than 25 years -- and a ton of chalk to finally get there.
As a humanities major in college, I was drawn to the art and history of the Italian Renaissance, and through that wide-eyed infatuation with the culture, I was fortunate enough to study at Florida State University's Study Center in Florence, Italy in 1978. For six months, I devoured the art, architecture, literature and language, and of course the food, there in the cradle of the Renaissance. I wept when I had to leave my adopted home, and vowed to return as soon as I could. But life intervened. Preparing Italian food frequently and watching Fellini films helped, but I never got over my love of the art and culture of Italy.
Years later, I came across artists working at the inaugural street painting festival in Lake Worth, and I was captivated by the sweeping grandeur of the work and the proximity of the process -- it's quite literally a visual performance art. Instead of simply gazing at the finished piece, you stand next to the artists as they work and watch everyday asphalt as it's transformed into spectacular art.
At the next year’s festival, I tried a street painting of my own -- from the Italian Renaissance, naturalmente -- Fiorentino's “Angel Musician.” It wasn’t Italy, but standing on a street with an Italian painting at my feet felt pretty good. And I've been at it ever since.
Along the way, I learned that 16th century Italian artists created chalk portraits of the Madonna because many believed images of the Madonna could work miracles. These artists became known as “madonnari,” although with time, the subject matter has broadened to include just about anything, from reproductions of classic masterpieces to original concept pieces and trompe l'oeil, which are realistically rendered paintings that "trick the eye" by creating the illusion of three dimensions. The concept worked for me.
Several more street painting festivals, and a carload of chalk later, I met Tracy Lee Stum and Jane Portaluppi, world class street painters from California, at the Lake Worth (Florida) festival, who told me about the street painting festival that started it all: the Incontro Internazionale dei Madonnari, the international street painting festival in the tiny town of Grazie di Curtatone in -- where else? -- ITALY!
The work I’d done at other street painting events as well as professional street paintings for The New Yorker Festival in New York City (to recreate classic magazine covers on the sidewalks outside festival venues) was sufficient experience to get me accepted into the Grazie event, and I was finally headed back to my beloved Italia. If I’d known it would take becoming a madonnara to get back, I’d have picked up chalk and dropped to my knees a lot sooner. The trip was a dream.
My partner in travels and in life, Michael, and I drove through the sunny Italian countryside in a tiny Smart car, looking for a village so small it wasn't on the map. When we finally found the village and the festival, we stepped into a joyous, multi-lingual community of artists, and I felt like I was home again. Following a brief ceremony to "bless the chalk" as well as the artists, our creative work began.
And it all started with Lake Worth's Street Painting Festival. It can happen for you, too. Bring the people you love, and your dreams, to the festival. Walk around and talk to the artists. With over 400 artists, I guarantee that you’ll find something that stirs your senses.
Ci vediamo. See you there.
Jeanie Burns is a freelance graphic designer, street painter and artist from West Palm Beach.