Photos by Lauren Thomas
Cordoned off from the hustle and bustle of Water Street Market in New Paltz, up on the hill, a group of artists scratched away at the pavement — shading, preening and tweaking their chalk art until it was just right.
Some — like Thomas Gould, who recreated a spot-on duplicate of Vemeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” — sought inspiration in the art of the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Others found more whimsical topics.
Michael Las Casas, of Palm Beach, FL, was hard at work sharpening details on a chalk drawing of Japanese monster movie icon Gamera. Of course, the invincible giant turtle stomped through a scene battling Army tanks.
Las Casas works as a professional artist and graphic designer. He got drawn into the chalk art world during the 1990s. Sarasota Chalk Festival — a 10-day event in the Tampa Bay Region — is considered one of the country’s largest chalk art festivals. Many of the great chalk artists hail from Florida or California.
“I heard about it about 20 years ago. The moment I heard about it, I just had to do it. I couldn’t imagine not doing it, being an artist,” he said. “It was at that time a new medium for me. I fell in love with it the first day I did it.”
Impermanence has an appeal for the chalk artists, who realize their artwork might not last any longer than a day. But it also has a great interactive community-building aspect to it too.
“I think the biggest part is when people come up and see the process. They don’t realize that it’s not about the finished piece. It’s more about the process — how do we do what we do,” Las Casas said. “Nobody ever really gets the opportunity to go to an artist’s studio and watch them paint. With chalk, you see exactly how it works.”
Chalk art also fosters a tightknit, collaborative environment. The 15 professional artists, who came from Florida and California, shared easygoing smiles with one another. They talk technique with anyone who’ll listen. And they batten down the hatches communally, pulling plastic tarps over their artwork when the rain threatened to fall.
Amanda Lipstein helped set up the Hudson Valley Chalk Festival, now in its second year. She got inspired to bring an event to New Paltz after seeing the chalk festivals in Florida.
“We go down there every year and we see the artists. New Paltz is obviously such an artsy community, that they appreciate that kind of stuff,” Lipstein said. “Last year, when we first did it, we didn’t know if we wanted to do it annually. It was just kind of a fun thing to bring here.”
But the 2012 Hudson Valley Chalk Festival at Water Street brought in about 4,000 people. It got a huge response. The artists liked New Paltz. They appreciated the warmth they got from the Mid-Hudson region.
Part of the success of Chalk Fest has been spreading the love and tradition of temporary chalk art to new people. Las Casas said he loved that more established artists were inspiring people.
Chelsea Calnan, from Slate Hill, is a fledgling chalk artist back for a second year. Instead of finding a competitive environment where the talented guarded their secrets, she found a group of encouraging experts with years of experience there to coach her.
“I really loved it last year. It was addicting. So I decided to do it this year,” Calnan said. “I’m so much more prepared this year than I was last year. Last year, I don’t think I really knew what I was getting myself into.”
Calnan, who attends Boston University, wanted to show solidarity with the marathon bombing victims by drawing a traditional symbol of American resilience. Her portrait was of Rosie the Riveter flexing her arm in front of the words “Boston Strong.”
Chalk Fest wrapped up on July 14, but organizers are already planning for next year. Learn more about the event and the artists at https://www.facebook.com/HVchalkfestival and www.hudsonvalleychalkfestival.com.