Why Chalk is the Talk of the Town

Pasadena's Chalk Festival brings hundreds of artists to their knees.

6 mins read
chalk artwork
Cempaxochitl and Cempasuchil are the Nahuatl names for the marigold, traditionally used on altars for Dia de los Muertos because the flower’s spicy aroma is believed to reach loved ones on the other side. Artist Karla Navarro drew this portrait of a marigold-ancestor for the 2023 Pasadena Chalk Festival. Photo: Kat Ward

Hundreds of artists will create more than 200 works of chalk art on the pavement of the Plaza at the Pasadena Convention Center on Saturday, June 22 and Sunday, June 23, in celebration of the 31st annual Pasadena Chalk Festival. The Festival is sponsored by the visionary Pasadena-based arts advocacy nonprofit Light Bringer Project.

The artists will wield more than 30,000 colorful chalk sticks generously supplied by Blick Art Materials during the 2-day event, which is free to the public between 10:00 AM and 7:00 PM on both days.

An estimated 20,000 visitors are expected to attend. Equally important, the Pasadena Chalk Festival sponsors a silent auction, raising funds for numerous public arts programs which enrich the lives of underserved youth in the greater Pasadena area, including the Omega Sci-Fi Awards.

The Omega Sci-Fi Awards is a science fiction short story writing competition for high school students in Los Angeles County. The program gives the students a chance at publication in LA Parent Magazine and the Nature Nexus Institute newsletter, and winners are eligible for cash prizes. 

Light Bringer Project is also the organizing force behind a visual arts network of student-driven creative studios called Room 13, and an educationally minded literary journal called Locavore Lit, as well as two other major community arts events, the annual LitFest in the Dena and the internationally beloved, wild and wacky Pasadena Doo Dah Parade.

We caught up with Patricia Hurley, Managing Director for Light Bringer Project, who describes the Pasadena Chalk Festival experience as “…a museum without walls. There is no theme given to the artists, so the subject matter is entirely personal and eclectic. This is a free, family-friendly public event, with food concessions and a DJ. It’s an accessible way for the community to experience art in a very immediate way, far beyond the traditional museum or gallery setting.”

While you may think of murals as wall art, the Pasadena Chalk Festival uses the smooth expanses of pavement around the majestic 1932 architecture of the Civic Auditorium as its canvas.

“The pavement has no cracks, no oil spills,” says Hurley. “The concrete is clean and perfect, pristine and ideal for chalk drawings.”

Artists may work singly or with a partner, with each entrant utilizing an 8-square foot section of the pavement. The artists begin their work around 9:00 AM on Saturday, and work until dusk. The following day, the process resumes around 9:00 AM, “…and most of the artists are done by 3:00 PM. People often come by around the golden hour, you know, just as the shadows lengthen and the sun begins to set,” says Hurley.

She explains that the participating artists also are given a one-foot square canvas and asked to create a painting which will be entered into the silent auction to benefit Light Bringer Project’s many public art programs.

Regarding the chalk art entries, Hurley says, “The artists vote amongst their peers on several categories at the end of the day Sunday. The categories are 1st, 2nd, 3rd, Best Reproduction of a Masterpiece, Most Colorful, Most Inspirational, Best Animation Style, Most Humorous, Most Contemporary, Best New Artist, and Best in Silent Auction — meaning the highest bid. The votes are counted by volunteers, and the winners win an assortment of gifts provided by area restaurants and stores.”

This year is 16-year-old Kelly Sellman’s first opportunity to participate as an artist in the Festival, since her late-June birthday falls immediately after the event date. We spoke with the La Cañada High School junior who exclaimed, “I’m so excited. I’ve seriously wanted to be part of the Chalk Festival for years, so I’ve been waiting a long time!”  

She shares that her first entry will be of a butterfly extending its wings into expanses of brilliant orange native California poppies. She says, “Art has always been something that I find so relaxing, so freeing. My parents did a great job with me and my sister, always making sure that we had art supplies and craft projects. I love getting my hands dirty!”  

Sellman says that she plans to pursue a career in environmental science, adding that “…the beauty of California is a source of constant inspiration to me, because it’s something we all need to protect as well as enjoy.”

At the other end of the timeline is professional artist Lori Antoinette, who has participated from the beginning, with this year marking her 31st entry. Her introduction to the then-new Festival through a roommate’s cousin seemed random, but proved prophetic.

chalk artwork
Chalk Mafia co-founder artist Lori Antoinette has participated in the Festival from its inception 31 years ago, and created this bubbly, beatific drawing for the 2023 Festival. Photo by Kat Ward

Year after year, she would choose a spot directly in front of the Civic Auditorium building, where she was immediately joined by a gentle-spoken man named Jacques Keith DuBois, who had cerebral palsy. Antoinette recalls, “He’d sit down, and we’d be chatting, and after a while, I said to him, ‘Listen, dude, if you’re gonna be talking to me and distracting me from doing my drawing, pick up a piece of chalk and help out.’ Keith said ‘Really?’  And I said, ‘Oh, absolutely.’”

They formed a strong friendship over the years, to the point where Antoinette chuckles, “Keith knew me better than my husband.” In 2018, the pair decided to get matching chalk-themed tattoos to celebrate their unusual bond, and settled on “Chalk Mafia” as their more-than-skin-deep signature. 

Today, the resulting organization, Chalk Mafia, has more than 600 members, all Chalk Sisters and Chalk Brothers associated in some way with the world of chalk. DuBois was named The Chalk Father, and when he passed away, Antoinette was entrusted with his remains.

Her artistic entry in this year’s Festival will be dedicated to the memory of her departed friend, and to the extraordinary tribe that the chalk continues to sustain. “I don’t think I’d be the artist I am today if it were not for that first time I heard about the first Festival, and figured, hmmm, oh, okay, why not, I’m in.”

The Pasadena Chalk Festival as a community happening blows the dust off any notion of elitism associated with a conventional arts experience.

Just as newcomer artist Sellman finds art freeing, the Pasadena Chalk Festival as a community happening blows the dust off any notion of elitism associated with a conventional arts experience.

A quick scan of last year’s entries reveals the dizzying breadth of interests and ideas here in the Dena. Earnest political messages and religious images proliferate among depictions of Spiderman, Super Mario Brothers, the Power Rangers and Hello Kitty.

Sad, scary clowns may make an appearance alongside sentimental portraits of deceased family pets, and renderings of celebrities mingle with street-style tag-inspired abstracts.

And, reassuringly, the participating artists demonstrate a range of skill. Some entries, like the stunningly photographic black and white portrait of Sir Paul McCartney drawn by Shuji Nishimura, last year’s Third Place winner, represent formidable talent. Others are less technically proficient, but may be equally compelling emotionally.  

chalk art
I Wanna Hold Your Hand. Shuji Nishimura’s portrait of Sir Paul McCartney took Third Place honors in last year’s Festival competition. Photo: Robert Jensen

In the end, the great equalizer is perhaps the fleeting nature of this art. As Kobayashi Issa wrote more than a century ago, “We live in a world of dew.”

The impermanence of the chalk art suggests the sand mandalas which have been created grain-by-grain by Tibetan Buddhist monks for centuries. Their exquisitely complex circular patterns require weeks to complete, manifested from the center outward in intricate detail.

But rather than trying to preserve their creation, the mandala is only considered complete when it is ritually dismantled. In the ceremonial destruction process, each symbolic design element is removed in a specific order, until in the end the sand is swept into jars, wrapped in silk, and entrusted to moving rivers or sea-waves in order to disperse the healing powers of the mandala out into the needing cosmos.

Likewise, after the months of dreaming, planning and sketching, the hours of arduous physical work,which may inflict blisters and sunburn on the artists, the good-natured competing, the judging, the viewing, the o-o-oh-ing, the a-h-h-h-ing, all come to a gentle end.

And after three or four days on public display, power-washing hoses are used to dissolve and erase every last trace of the 200-plus drawings, until the pavement surrenders its coat of many colors and is and once again is devoid of form, cleansed, blank, a bell ringing in an empty sky.

We reached out to Nishimura to discover that he first entered the Festival in 2008 and has returned every year since, making 2024 his 16th consecutive year of participation. The artist comments via email, “Why chalk? You can never take the art(mural) away. Everyone has to be there to enjoy it. And we all know it will be washed and gone. Never been kept. Some people say those murals should be kept by applying some kind of coating, but I don’t agree with that at all. It’s just like fireworks or cherry blossoms. Beauty in a moment. Never lasts long. But there is one way to keep it forever. There is one place to keep. Your heart. Memory. That is why I always try to create something that people can’t forget.”


31st Annual Pasadena Chalk Festival
A production of Light Bringer Project
Produced by the Pasadena Center Operating Company
Saturday, June 22 – Sunday June 23
10:00 AM – 7:00 PM, both days
Plaza at the Pasadena Convention Center
300 East Green Street
Free to the public

The short URL of this article is: https://localnewspasadena.com/xsyq

Victoria Thomas

Victoria has been a journalist since her college years when she wrote for Rolling Stone and CREEM. Victoria describes the view of Mt. Wilson from her front step as “staggering,” and she is a defender of peacocks everywhere.
Email: [email protected]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Latest from Arts & Lit

Accessibility Tools