Chalk It Up To Experience

how to win votes and fill asphalt at the Providence Street Arts Festival

by by Marguerite Preston

illustration by by Doug Poole

Remember when you were a kid and you could spend hours sprawled on the sidewalk outlining flowers and dogs, drawing big-headed stick figures standing under spiky suns and bulbous clouds? Remember how satisfying it was to scribble big patches of color and smear around the dust into smooth, soft-edged shapes? Think of that, only with artistic talent and cash prizes. In other words, better.

On September 29 the Providence Rotary Club held its tenth annual Street Art Festival. Each year on a Saturday in early fall, Providence families show up in force to create masterpieces in sidewalk chalk. They register weeks in advance to get one of the 8x8 or 4x4-foot squares outlined in rows on the street. They spend all day filling it with a drawing they hope will bring home the prize.

The festival is basically for amateurs, and there are plenty of school groups and families doing it just for fun. But the high concentration of local artists accounts for the festival’s real competition. They come prepared with plans and reference photos. They come equipped with all kinds of special rags and pieces of cardboard and spray bottles to get just the right effect with their chalk. They map the whole drawing on a grid and outline it in painter’s tape to keep the edges clean. They wear knee pads.

Do your research
This year was my first time competing in the festival, but my co-artist Danny Valmas (B ’11) has been participating since he was in sixth grade (he’s from Pawtucket). This was good. To do well, it helps to know the ropes. This year they started charging $25 a square and we wanted our money’s worth. For each age division there are two prizes: People’s Choice and Judges’ Choice. First prize for People’s Choice is $400 and from the judges is $300. We started our preparations by studying previous winners, which tended towards the corny: big pictures of cute animals seemed to be a theme, as did pictures of movie characters like Captain Jack Sparrow and Frodo Baggins. It’s not hard to figure out what both the people and the judges like: anything involving animals, close-ups of faces, famous characters, fantasy or any combination of those things seemed to have a pretty good shot at winning. It should be easily recognizable, nothing too complicated or abstract or busy. Realism is tough to do in chalk, so people will always be impressed if you can draw something that looks true-to-life. It’s also to your advantage to do something as cute or as clever as possible. Everyone likes cute and clever.

In the past Danny and his mom always did something spontaneous, with lots of color and flowing shapes. So we started by looking in my garden for ideas. The scraggly greenery there was decidedly uninspiring.

“Maybe we should forget the whole cathartic Earth Mother thing,” I suggested. Obviously an animal was the way to go. It was simple, it was recognizable, it was cute. Perfect.

“But we are not going to do one of those cheesy close-ups of an animal’s face,” Danny said.

“Right. And no majestic stallions.”

I suggested one of those weird deep sea creatures, like in Planet Earth. “No one will know what that is,” we said, looking at a picture of the Dumbo octopus. But what about a regular octopus? People like octopuses. My art professor told me freshman year that tentacles were “in.” So an octopus it was, and, for good measure a jellyfish too. And why not make it a battle, tentacles on tentacles?

“This can’t look like some anime thing,” Danny told me, “or like the Little Mermaid.” We scoured Google Images. We YouTubed “octopus attack” and “jellyfish attack” for some live action inspiration. In the end we were armed with a good two-foot-square mock-up and some printouts for the finer details.

Rise and shine
We got up early. The festival opened at 8:00 am. Our 7:00 power breakfast at Bagel Gourmet Ole turned out to be a 7:20, breakfast, but we were downtown by 8:30. At the last minute the festival had been moved to Westminster Street and for a couple blocks it was just tents and people and chalk. First we had to register at the main tent, where they gave us our square’s number, a big set of chalk pastels (way better than Crayola), and a cheap t-shirt with a picture, mysteriously, of last year’s second rather than first place drawing. Then we got to work.

Many artists had already started. One guy at the end of our street was already half done with his drawing of an eagle swooping down on a fish. A group of students at the square next to ours was already taping around the edges and laying down the grid lines. I started tracing the curves of the octopus’s legs and Danny set to work on the bulbous body of the jellyfish. “Wait,” shouted one of the members of the group next to us, “you guys are doing an octopus too? That’s what we’re doing!” Luckily, no jellyfish in theirs. Their octopus was attacking a bridge, facing off against some sort of insect villain. Like I said, tentacles are in.

We kept working, clutching our printouts while we scribbled our pastels down to stubs. Only six hours until judging. The wind was whipping down the street fiercely, funneled between the buildings on either side. The sun shone on the sidewalk for probably no more than a couple hours. The rest of the time the looming buildings obscured it, casting long, cold shadows over us while we worked. We were drawing on the asphalt of the street itself, and it was rough and dirty, a far cry from the smooth cement of the skating rink. We were just lucky we didn’t get one of the squares where there was a huge crack in the road. It was hard to get any fine detail out of the surface and it made the chalk crumble and your fingertips raw. At one point I thought I even hit a few flecks of broken glass. But being on the real street was also more fun. The wind was kind of invigorating, and we were working so furiously that after a while my fingers got numb. Plus, our epic battle scene was starting to take shape. We had gotten some neon pastels in our set, so the jellyfish really did sort of have that glowing, translucent look to it. The octopus, in dark greens and blues with a yellow, cat-like eye and neon suckers was equally fierce. Things were going well.

Know your audience
The chalk festival has all the elements of your basic local street fair. At the grilling tent they dole out hamburgers, potato chips, and cans of soda. The wind blows gusts of meaty charcoal smoke down our street and every now and then a stray paper plate skitters across the sidewalk. A cheesy band plays vigorous, family-friendly songs. Clusters of people mill around the streets. They meander through the drawings, cameras in hand, exclaiming and taking pictures as they tiptoe around the edges of the squares. All the competitors have little blue buckets on the curb next to their squares. People buy tokens for fifty cents, and if they like our drawing they drop one in the bucket. The drawing with the most tokens wins the popular vote and the $400.

Our drawing seems pretty popular. People like the neon brightness. We get a lot of comments like “Oh cool, octopuses! No wait, that one’s a...what do you call it? Oh a jellyfish! Yeah, one of those things. Awesome.” One girl squeals “Wow, an undersea mushroom!” It doesn’t matter if people know what the drawing is, as long as they’re enthusiastic. Our drawing is especially popular with the little boys, who stand there open-mouthed while their parents point and say “Look! What’s that? See the octopus?” We ask the boys which one they think will win. Some of them are too shy and just smile, but most of them say the octopus.

Our drawing also seems to be popular among some of the crusty, lone guys wandering around. They’ve all got grubby baseball caps and creased, toothy grins that have clearly smoked a lot of cigarettes. They seem like they might have been hanging around here even without the festival. But anyway they really like our drawing. “Man, this is great,” they tell us. “You guys art students or what? Is that like a Man o’ War? Man, I love this one.” These guys don’t have tokens, but I like that they like us.

We’re basically done by 2pm, but we work on finishing touches for another hour or so. We both feel like we could go on forever, but finally decide enough is enough and step back. Our hands are black with chalk. Danny’s face is covered with smudges. Mine probably is too. We decide to go home, clean up, and come back when it’s time for judging.

But when we return, they’re taking down the sound stage and packing up the grills. We’ve just missed the announcement. We find one of the organizers and ask her for the results. She flips through her list and reads us the winners. Number 222 is not on the list—too bad. The winner? A giant owl face. To be fair, it really was good. And pretty cute with those big round eyes. It’s hard to be disappointed for long. Making a giant drawing out of glorified sidewalk chalk is not a bad way to spend a Saturday. Plus we got free t-shirts.

Next year MARGUERITE PRESTON B’11 is going with the majestic stallion.