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They'll Be Painting
The Town Red -- and Every
Other Color, Too

May 16, 2006; Page D6

Santa Barbara, Calif.

If you think performance art requires a stage or nightclub, envision a mass of contorted limbs crouching and bending over hot asphalt. Add to that some chalk pastels and inspiration from the Renaissance and you've got another kind of performance art -- street painting.

In Santa Barbara, I Madonnari, a street-painting festival, is held every Memorial Day weekend in front of the Old Mission church. Tracy Lee Stum, last year's featured artist, says she loves "being able to share the creative process with people who would normally not be able to see this." Another Madonnari regular, artist Jane Portaluppi, says: "Normally you want to present something finished; you don't want anyone coming along while you're working. But in this medium, the process and the interaction with the audience is the emphasis." And over the coming holiday, some 25,000 people will gawk and hover as Ms. Stum, Ms. Portaluppi and 400 other artists, some donning rubber gloves, most wearing huge straw hats, rub three-inch pieces of multihued pastels onto the pavement.

[Street paint]
Chalk it up to experience: Every Memorial Day weekend since 1986, the parking area in front of Santa Barbara's Old Mission church has become a temporary canvas.

Street painting is said to have originated in Italy in the 16th century, when madonnari (so named because they painted the Madonna) would travel from village to village for religious and folk festivals. As time passed, these itinerant artists would expand their repertoire to other religious icons as well as reproductions of the old masters. But their payment, coins thrown onto their "canvases," remained their only compensation.

A few centuries later, in 1972, the practice was revived when the small northern Italian town of Grazie di Curtatone began the International Street Painting Festival, which takes place every Aug. 15 on Assumption Day. Santa Barbara resident Kathy Koury attended the Grazie event in 1986.

Ms. Koury heads up the Children's Creative Project (CCP), a local nonprofit that brings art to local schoolchildren. "For 10 years I'd been trying to think of a unique fund-raising event for CCP that would relate to what we do as an organization," Ms. Koury says. Two weeks after returning home, she got a call from a neighbor who was on the committee to celebrate the mission's bicentennial. The neighbor wanted to exhibit children's drawings there, but Ms. Koury had another idea. Hastily she gathered up a few snapshots of the Grazie festival and made an impromptu 15-minute presentation. Her idea was approved. Father Virgil Cordano even agreed to repave the mission's parking area -- piazze are hard to come by, even in Santa Barbara -- into what would become the town's biggest canvas.

I Madonnari began the following May. And though the medium is the same as in the Italian festival, the American version is decidedly different. Rather than being a judged competition that requires artists to stick to Christian imagery and to work all night to finish their pieces, I Madonnari gives street painters three days to complete their work, whose subjects must only be "appropriate for public viewing."

But what really sets the Santa Barbara festival apart is its dual purpose. Besides functioning as a community art event (with food stalls and live music), I Madonnari also raises money. Each of the approximately 150 artists' squares (ranging from 4 by 6 to 12 by 16 feet) is sponsored by individuals and organizations at a cost of $125 to $600. A number of 2-by-2 squares are also set aside for children. And though purists might wince at the big block letters with sponsors' names that appear above each image, the money ($60,000 raised last year) helps cover a major performance for county schoolchildren. Past events have included the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.

Artists' subjects over the years have included a convertible perched on an ocean bluff, a Technicolor Mickey Mouse, a Warhol-inspired Jackie Kennedy and a black-and-white portrait of Einstein with a galaxy spinning over his head. Ms. Koury herself appeared in a 2002 painting. Unsurprisingly, there have also been countless renditions of the mission façade. And, naturally, reproductions of paintings by Raphael, Michelangelo, Da Vinci and Titian have all graced the pavement.

More intriguing, perhaps, are the images that blend past and present. Consider Ms. Stum's painting from last year, an original concept she called "Medici Garden." "I tried to imagine Lorenzo di Medici talking to Sandro Botticelli and his model for Venus," she says. But they weren't discussing Botticelli's next piece. A hint to their conversation topic can be found in the future-filled crystal ball Medici is holding in the palm of his hand. It contains Stum's self-portrait with the ever-present mission in the background.

With its four topiary trees that appear to be standing straight up from the pavement, the painting is a perfect example of anamorphism -- a striking three-dimensional effect that pops up (pun intended) frequently at the festival.

This year's featured artist, Melanie Stimmell, will be creating a novel work to commemorate I Madonnari's 20th anniversary. The 12-by-16-foot painting will depict the history of street painting by incorporating Pompeo Batoni's "The Allegory of Art" along with figures from other Italian and French paintings in Renaissance, Classical and Baroque styles.

And just below, a team of artists will tackle the festival's largest-ever creation, inspired by the cultures of Santa Barbara's sister cities, Toba, Japan, and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. The 24-by-36-foot piece will be divided into two sections. One side will emulate woodblock print to portray a Japanese folktale based on a story of the Sun Goddess, Ama-terasu. This will morph into a depiction of Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca from the Aztec myth "The Five Suns." On Monday, May 29, the mayor of Toba, Kusuichi Kida, will help close out the festival, which culminates in a Japanese folk dance by the group Soran.

Street painting has clearly gone global. Festivals have been held in Geldern, Germany; Utrecht, Netherlands; and Istanbul. In this country, festivals can be found throughout California, as well as in Colorado, Florida and Pennsylvania. Yet no matter where it's done, challenges remain. For beyond needing a supple, flexible body to stoop and kneel on the pavement, street artists must always be ready to battle not only the broiling sun but the unexpected deluge.

Showers or not, these are ephemeral pieces -- an inescapable truth these modern masters must deal with. Participating at the Lake Worth, Fla., festival two years ago, Ms. Portaluppi and other artists painted their images directly on a temporarily car-free Route 1. Once the festival ended, skid marks quickly replaced sketch marks. "It was the strangest sensation to have spent two days on the ground like that and to see cars go over it," she says.

While the highway here in Santa Barbara is reserved for vehicles, the street paintings at I Madonnari eventually fade away, too. But for three days each Memorial Day weekend in front of the "Queen of the Missions," it is creation, not destruction, that holds center stage.

Mr. Cooper is a free-lance writer in Santa Barbara, Calif.

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