Jo Lalonde’s first introduction to chalk art was in high school, where a motivational guest speaker managed to transform a group of students’ negative thoughts into an artistic picture.
“[The guest speaker] spent 20 minutes turning [those experiences] into a beautiful masterpiece out of chalk and when I saw it, I thought that chalk looked like a really fun material,” Lalonde said, “and I started playing a lot more with it.”
Lalonde, 24, also known as Chalkchick, has spent the past seven years as one of the few full-time performing female chalk street artists in Toronto. Throughout her years in high school, she found that while many people gravitated more towards paint, she was drawn towards chalk.
“There is something really immediately gratifying with working with chalk,” she said. “You don’t have to wait for it to dry-it’s just bada-bing bada-boom. You have the product that you’re creating… It’s a lot more like dealing with a pencil crayon than dealing with a watercolour painting.”
Street performing artists, such as Lalonde, dedicate their lives to the community by creating visual interest on the streets of Toronto. Chalk street art has the potential to create a difference, whether it’s by portraying a message or bringing a smile to a person’s face.
“I’m just trying to make the streets a bit of a happier place and a place where people feel comfortable bringing their kids and having a sense of community, where they see new and fun things every day,” Lalonde said.
David Johnston, 43, also known as Chalkmaster Dave, has mentored many female chalk street artists in Tornto and has been a street performing artist for 20 years. He says the messages an artist conveys through his or her art, in public, is a lot more effective in sharing the message to the community than paintings that are hung in art galleries.
“Initially, when you’re sitting in Yonge and Dundas for one week, approximately a million people will walk by,” Johnston said. “That’s hundreds and thousands of people that walk by every week, and if you’ve got a message to put out there through your art, then you’ve got a massive audience. Massive. No gallery in the entire country has a million people go by every week right? So to reach people is incredible.”
Professional street art in Toronto, says Johnston, started in the early 1970s, but the performance of street chalk art is a 500-year-old tradition. According to Kurt Wenner’s ‘The Art and History of Street Painting’ (2011), this form of art first originated in Italy during the 16th century with the Italian madonnari. They were street artists who painted the Madonna (St. Mary) or other religious pictures on pavements using chalk, charcoal or coloured stones and lived purely on the pocket change tossed at them while performing. Throughout the years, this tradition grew into a worldwide phenomenon.
Kathryn Tarver, 33, also known as Concrete Katie, first came into contact with chalk when she met Johnston for an artist assistant position. For three years, she helped and partnered with Johnston in creating chalk street art until almost a year ago, when she decided to create her own art.
“While you’re doing your performance, you’re doing it in that instant. Being a chalk artist is different…because the art occurs at the moment with the public, through time; time and space make up art, so these shapes are forming in front of these people.”
Tarver describes the creation of her art as a way of interacting with the public. As they watch her perform and then see the final product, they offer her comments, compliments and even criticism, she says, which makes her a better artist.
But chalk art is not only for the artist’s passion; it also affects the community. Although many chalk artists draw with the intention of portraying a particular message, all chalk artists portray a hidden message.
“The fact is everything, at least from your perspective when you die, goes away, so I think it’s OK throughout life to accept a part of that and with chalk art that’s a perfect way to do it,” Johnston said. “You’re creating something, you watch it grow and finally it starts to pass and it fades away. Kind of like what we do. It’s really kind of cool.”
– Vida Korhani