T Q&A 

On April 30, muralist and public-art advocate Leia Maahs plans to turn the sidewalks of downtown Tucson into a sidewalk chalk canvas. First, the artist must draw an outline of the original painting in proper proportion using a chalk pastel. After a trace has been sketched, the artist begins to lay the base of colors. I Madonnari uses a variety of colored chalk pastels. Gradually, the artist layers the chalk by blending the colors to create shadow, contrast and depth. Three local artists--Gwynth Scally, Ciat NiSiomon and Ignacio Garcia--will join with Maahs and three youth apprentices chosen from Art in Reality. I Madonnari is supported by the Downtown Alliance, Tucson Arts District Partnership, Rio Nuevo and small businesses including the Monkey Box and Biblio. For more information, e-mail Tucsonimadonnari@yahoo.com.

What is I Madonnari?

Going back to 16th century Italy, artists began transforming pavement into canvas using chalk. This form of art was named after the Italian translation of Madonna. In Italy, street painters are called madonnari after their historical practice of creating chalk paintings of the Madonna. Upon arriving in a town or city, the madonnari would go about their business of creating paintings directly on the sidewalk or public square using chalk as their medium. They survived from the money they received as alms and from small commissions. The tradition was revived 400 years later in 1972, when the Italian village of Grazie di Curtatone hosted the first known festival of street painting.

How'd you become interested in chalk?

In the 1980s, I participated as a youth apprentice in the I Madonnari festival in San Luis Obispo. I was only 12 years old, had taken a few art classes but was never exposed to the intimate experience of producing art publicly with an artist. I was given the simple task of shading the sky and poppies. That experience was inspiring and years later contributed to my involvement with public art.

What's your art background?

I was studying fine art and anthropology in San Francisco. My mural arts training started with an apprenticeship with Susan Cervantes, director of Precita Eyes Mural Art Center. Three years later, I was running Precita Eyes Children and Youth Art Center and teaching art classes and workshops. I've traveled through Europe seeking traditional mural art forms and most recently participated in the National Academy of Arts Abbey Mural Fellowship program in New York City, which was a fantastic experience in the examination of public art and murals today.

Do you have any local murals?

I do. At Ward 2 City Hall, there's the past-to-present mural. "Yoeme Pride," about Yaqui dance traditions, is at the Old Pascua Yaqui Community Center, and at the Northwest Community Center, "Roots and Community." I work privately in traditional Italian methods of mural painting also.

Do you consider sidewalk chalk murals for the ground?

Yes. However, the ephemeral quality of chalk lends itself to being categorized as a temporary piece of public art more than a mural, which in my opinion is the beauty of the medium. In the traditional practices of Madonnari, artists would create their drawings within public courtyards, often times followed by musicians and surrounded by votive candles, and then leave once their art work had been completed, almost like a poetic performance.

So, will the sidewalks be aglow with candles?

Not this time around, because there are so many other activities going on, but that's quite an image, isn't it?

What else will be going on?

Each of the three artists and their apprentices will be working on a 4-by-4-foot sidewalk chalk mural that is inspired by the Italian tradition, adding their own ... twist. You can find it happening along the route from the Fox Theatre, which will be celebrating its 75th anniversary, to the dia de los niños/kids' day activities at the library plaza and the Tucson Folk Festival. The I Madonnari is creating a gateway from one event to the other.

Can anyone participate?

Everyone is welcome to participate in the large-scale interactive chalk mural facilitated by me under the red sculpture at the main library beginning at 11 a.m.

How long do they last?

Up to two weeks, depending on the weather

What would it take to get an international sidewalk chalk festival in Tucson?

It would take sponsorship, supportive organizations and many volunteers. ... I'd like to see it held at the new depot. It's a tradition to bring public art to a transportation center.


More by Karyn Zoldan


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