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Chalk of Fame: Mission steps burst with the color of the I Madonnari festival

Chalk artists are hard at work Saturday in the I Madonnari Italian Street Painting Festival at the Santa Barbara Mission. The festival continues through Monday. KENNETH SONG/NEWS-PRESS PHOTO

Chalk artists are hard at work Saturday in the I Madonnari Italian Street Painting Festival at the Santa Barbara Mission. The festival continues through Monday.
KENNETH SONG/NEWS-PRESS PHOTO

“I’m impressed with the crowd already,” said Kathy Koury, the organizer of the I Madonnari festival that opened Saturday at the steps of the Old Mission. “I’m happy but tired!”

It takes a lot to put together I Madonnari Italian Street Painting Festival, now in its 29th year. By the end of the three-day Memorial Day weekend, the entire blacktop outside the Mission will be covered with beautiful works of art. Some are originals, others are copies of old masters, and some challenge the eye with tricks of forced perspective.

Featured artist Blair Looker's creation is appreciated by viewers at the street painting festival. Ms. Looker's work will feature Saint Barbara, Father Junipero Serra and the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Featured artist Blair Looker’s creation is appreciated by viewers at the street painting festival. Ms. Looker’s work will feature Saint Barbara, Father Junipero Serra and the Virgin of Guadalupe.

The festival is a fundraiser for the Children’s Creative Project, a nonprofit arts education program of the Santa Barbara County Education Office.

Ms. Koury has been in charge of the event since she conceived it back in the 1986 after a trip to Italy. She now has it down to a science: businesses and individuals sponsor squares from 4-by-6 up to 12-by-12 feet, with a separate area where parents can buy squares for the young’uns to have a go at art. There’s music, food, drink and a chance to buy I Madonnari merchandise.

“There seems there’s more people working on larger squares this year,” Ms. Koury said. “It evolves. People start small, grow and practice, and they want to be challenged.”

Each year the festival elects a featured artist to create a large work at the base of the steps outside the Mission doors, with the stipulation that it must somehow tie in to the history of the Mission.

This year, Blair Looker, with 25 previous I Madonnaris under her belt, has earned the honor and has been working since Monday with two assistants to create a triptych.

On the left she features Saint Barbara, the city’s patron saint, running away from her father who would later behead her rather than have her convert to Christianity. Her father is seen in the distance being hit by a lightning bolt.

On the right is Father Junipero Serra who founded the California mission system.

In the middle is a rendering of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico, which brought both the indigenous and Christian cultures together in the 1500s.

She marks the new and old worlds coming together in harmony.

Ms. Looker got the idea last year after a trip to Mexico with other chalk artists to check out a street art festival in Puerto Vallarta, Santa Barbara’s sister city. It’s a major work for her.

“I’ve spent a whole year thinking about this piece, and so it represents a lot more depth on my part, and more effort too.”

The trips made to Mexico have been reciprocated. Santiago Hernandez has come from Guanajuato, Mexico, where the city hosts its own street painting festival every December.

It’s slightly different, he explained, as it’s a competition and every artist works on a same size canvas.

For I Madonnari, he is creating an anamorphic work — a three-dimensional-looking drawing — that portrays a modern Mayan person arising from the broken ground and a spiral, blowing into a conch shell.

“It’s a rebirth of a new generation of the Mayan people in Mexico,” he said. “The spiral is a universal sign in many different cultures.”

I Madonnari runs from 10 a.m.-6 p.m. today and Monday. At noon Monday, the organizers will briefly honor the sponsors, introduce Blair Looker, and thank the other artists.

For more information, go to www.imadonnarifestival.com.

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