Beautiful Ephemera: Chalk Festival Street Painting

I am an artist, and I know that making art, while enriching and enlivening, can also be an intensely solitary process. Think of a painter in her studio who mixes and dilutes the oils for her next canvas; or take a sculptor who carefully removes just-fired pieces from a kiln and neatly arranges them on a shelf to cool down; last, perhaps recall a drawing class whose students quietly sit and study a still life or the human form. These are three modes of artistic expression among a myriad others, not even counting digital art. And if it at all relates to analog art, I have tried or want to try a hand at it.

Yes, I have enjoyed making art my whole life, but until I attended a chalk art festival for the first time a number of years ago, using chalk pastels had never really occurred to me. It was a bright and joyful day in Pasadena, and I had gone out to watch a movie and have something to eat. There I was delighted to see artists at work among so many happy visitors. It all reminded me of the childhood pastime: they were using chalk to draw on the ground. The colors of these pastels and the vibe of the crowd pervaded everything: images –really large ones- gradually took shape, and the hues were smeared on the hands and clothes of the artists who were making fabulous images; the chalk rose, floated in the air like magic dust. I was part of this great group of onlookers - we were strolling, gathering, picture taking, remarking to one another, then repeating the process until we’d run the gamut of the festival. Sometimes we became awed at something we’d seen and we lingered. Some artists, as they sat, knelt or crouched in whichever way they needed to work, looked up to recognize us while other artists were rapt with focus. The artists seemed to be inspired by all manner of subjects: movies, food, old masterworks, literature, cartoons, you name it.

I thought, “I’m an artist- I can do this, too!” And after a number of years of doing chalk murals at festivals, I’ve learned that street painting has it challenges (time constraints and adverse weather conditions being but two), but I can also remark on what a lot of street painters will cite as their favorite aspects of this “great outdoor undertaking of artmaking,” and exactly what it is that makes them return to festivals year after year. Here are just a few of them:

It's An Amazing Medium

The colors are breathtakingly bold, and the array of prepared hues is dizzyingly comprehensive.  Besides this, 10 out of 10 pastel artists will tell you that they love how easy it is to blend the colors.  Also there are no extra solvents or liquids or brushes necessary to get pastel onto the ground, and you don’t have to wait for pastels to dry like you would for, say, oil paints.

Cabalu and his 3D crayons
A.J. Cabalu poses with his team's 10x20 ft. 3-D chalk entry, "Going Cray," at the 2016 Pasadena Chalk Festival.


Arlou Somo chalk art
Arlou Somo's chalk art provides an excellent example of crosshatched blending.

As an artform, doing chalk festival art has intrinsic qualities

For one, some things are better when working at a larger scale. Details become easier to manage, and you can even play with people’s imaginations and execute things like 3-D illusions! Kurt Wenner is one master of this type of art. If viewers ask if we are bothered that our work is merely going to be washed away after a week or so, we tell them not to worry because we’re used to it. A fellow artist not-so-ironically put it well: “Sometimes you just need something that won’t last.” The work somehow becomes more poignant if you look at it that way.  And obviously, if something isn’t going to last then you don’t have to find a place to store it (except in your heart and mind, of course), which is a good thing because some of these chalk murals, as I mentioned, are huge. To see some excellent examples, view the chalk art of anamorphic illusion master Kurt Wenner on his website:

Most importantly perhaps, PEOPLE are involved throughout the whole process

There is no way to be lonely or 100% introverted when muraling. Chalk artists enjoy the performative and discursive aspect of the art: the back and forth with onlookers and describing the process with others is high on any street chalk muralist’s list. The organizers of these events are some of the most passionate about and supportive of artists. The Pasadena Chalk Festival has two of them in Patricia Hurley and Tom Coston, for example. Last but not least, artists love artists, too. We learn from one another and share ideas at events. And when we compete in some of these festivals, we push one another and improve together! There is a lot else to say about how great this medium is, but if you ask any street painter, these are the three that come up the most, with our being able to connect with others as the overwhelming number one source of inspiration. A few sticks of chalk- a simplicity we might remember from grade school- in the right hands and on the right surface become a masterful work of art in a manner of two or so days. How cool is that?

- A. J. Cabalu

Bookstore chalk drawing
P.M. Lab (clockwise from left: Michelle, Ben, Lisa, Peter and A.J.) pose around "Mr. Bemis' 24-hour Bookstore," 10x20 ft., chalk drawing at the 2015 Pasadena Chalk Festival.


Lucy at the Fair chalk drawing
A.J. Cabalu with chalk drawing "Lucy at the Fair."


A. J. Cabalu is a chalk artist whose work is featured in the exhibition, Art in the Street: 25 Years of the Pasadena Chalk Festival. His work can also be viewed on his website: and on Instagram @appojax.

Free Gallery Admission Father's Day Weekend

PMH will be offering free gallery admission on June 17 & June 18 in celebration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Pasadena Chalk Festival.