Chalk the Walk

Artist Ray Valdez gets on his knees and gets his hands chalky during a chalk art demonstration.

Artist Ray Valdez gets on his knees and gets his hands chalky during a chalk art demonstration.

Photo By Nick Higman

Around Reno, artists have spent weeks getting their bodies into tip-top shape. Hopefully, they’ve stocked up on gloves, sunscreen, hats and knee-pads. Because they’re about to spend three days performing a labor of love for the second annual Chalk the Walk Street Painting Festival.

As founder and director Erika O’Malley explains, street painting is an Italian Renaissance tradition in which artisans (madonnari) painted religious depictions on the streets in front of city churches. Street painting has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years, due in part to successful events like Santa Barbara’s I Madonnari Street Painting Festival. After O’Malley, an art historian and native of San Antonio, Texas, moved to Reno a couple of years ago, she came to believe such an event could succeed here.

“We have so many talented artists here, and they’re always looking for ways to get their art seen by the public,” she says. “And we have great weather.”

After securing a sponsorship from the Reno Rodeo, several prominent regional artists were commissioned, and by the summer 2007, the inaugural Chalk the Walk kicked off at the City Plaza downtown.

This year’s festival runs three days, June 19-21, and will take place at Harrah’s plaza. Portions of the nearly 12,000 square feet of chalk-able space will be allotted to six commissioned artists, with the remainder being available to anyone who wants to participate, from accomplished artists to families looking to get outside together. Public plots range from 2 feet to 8 feet across; commissioned spots are 8-feet-by-12-feet. Always a western-themed event, this year’s festival celebrates “Where Art Meets West,” honoring artists of the American West, such as Georgia O’Keeffe and Ansel Adams.

Several commissioned artists are returning this year, including Genna Panzarella, an acclaimed international artist and teacher whose street paintings won top prize in a 2002 international competition in Italy. Also commissioned are Reno’s Youth ArtWorks organization; Wes Lee, a local artist and UNR instructor; Derrick Jackson of Sacramento; and Larissa Soklova, a Reno-based artist whose 3-D illusions have earned her two awards at the Tahoe Arts Festival Street Painting Competition.

Additionally, local artist Ray Valdez will return. With more than 30 murals throughout Nevada and a successful fine art gallery in Reno, Valdez is a certified art instructor who recently led a free pre-festival workshop on basic street painting techniques.

Street painting, Valdez explains, takes enormous physical stamina. It involves hours upon hours, knees on cement, with the hot summer sun beating down on your back as you sit hunched over.

“It’s hard work,” says Valdez, “You’re gonna get beat up a bit. I’ve seen artists use gloves, but when it gets down to it, your fingers are best. So they’re gonna get raw.”

Such physical issues, as well as artistic tips, were subjects of the workshop.

Valdez himself has been planning his own piece for weeks, intending to complete it before the morning of Saturday, June 21, and the Reno Rodeo Parade. The idea of such a grueling task makes one wonder: Why invest so much time and energy on something that’s only temporary?

To illustrate, he likens street painting to the Native American tradition of ceremonial sand painting.

“For ceremony, they grind the stone by hand to get those vibrant colors, and that’s even more work. But then, after they pray on it, they give it away. It doesn’t hurt to let it go. It’s about the experience, and it’s not meant to be permanent. It’s about the process of giving of yourself.”