Sarasota Chalk Festival

Celebrating Earth Day, we will dedicate this article to the most environmentally friendly form of street art – chalk art.  Drawings on earth have a long history and thought to be originated in Europe during the 16th century. Italian street painters Maddonary, named after their practice of reproducing images of the Madonna (St. Mary), lived from the coins tossed next to their drawings. They traveled between festivals painting religious pictures directly on the beaten earth or paved public squares, using chalk, brick, charcoal and colored stones as their medium. Street painters also appearing in London in the mid-1800s. These artists were called “screevers”. The term refers to the messages that were included with their drawings. In America, however, this art form has a fairly limited history. Robert Guillemin, known as “Sidewalk Sam,” became inspired by the Italians and took to the pavement in Massachusetts during the 1970s. The year when Earth Day was first celebrated (and now includes events coordinated globally by the Earth Day Network in more than 193 countries!)

The Garden of Wonders by Lorelle Miller and a team of artists inspired by the experiences traveling around plein air painting at various Botanical Gardens

The first chalk festival in Florida was founded in 1995 by a small group of Lake Worth residents led by Erin Allen and Maryanne Webber. In addition to murals that we covered in our travel to Lake Worth, the city hosts Lake Worth Street Painting Festival each February in its third decade now. Another event in Florida,  Sarasota Chalk Festival, was established later in 2007 but claims to have over 200,000 visitors versus 100,000 in Lake Worth each year. Since the beginning, Sarasota’s Chalk Festival vision was not only demonstrated local, national, and international talents but also educate local artists and children. In 2010 during its third season, the Sarasota Chalk Festival became the first international street painting festival in the United States of America, inviting artists from around the world to participate, setting a unique theme for each year. 

Sarasota Chalk Festival

The GNV URBAN ART attended the Sarasota Chalk Festival 11th, Garden of Wonders season. After six seasons in Burns Square, a historic district in downtown Sarasota moved to Venice in 2014. There we invite you to join our virtual tour. 

Sarasota Chalk Festival 

In the 1980s, an American artist named Kurt Wenner, while trying to make a living studying classical drawing in Italy, became the first American madonnari. He went on to invent the 3D pavement art which was documented by the National Geographic Society in 1985. He started the first festival in the USA, and along with the festival in Italy, was instrumental in transforming art into a worldwide phenomenon. Starting in 2010 and every year since the Chalk Festival features the most 3D pavement paintings ever created in one location. Also in 2010, it became the first international pavement art festival in the USA.

Lost World at theVenice Municipal Airport Fairgrounds.

The festival worked with notable Guinness World Record holders Edgar Mueller from Germany, Leon Keer from the Netherlands, and Tracy Lee Stum from the USA. Kurt Wenner was also one of the most honorable invitees. The Lost World painting created by Kurt Wenner in 2014 at the Venice Municipal Airport Fairgrounds, was the largest 3D art of its kind reaching the size of two football fields. The Megaladon Shark has been restored in 2019 with the help of 58 artists and a new kind of illusion invented by Kurt Wenner.  Lost World depicts the Pleistocene era, which saw the extinction of the megalodon shark and many of the other animals. Since Florida is the best source in the world for Pleistocene mammals, the artist thought to highlight that to fit the 2019th year’s Chalk Festival theme Garden of Wonders

I had so much fun inventing an entirely new kind of perspective to create a never-seen-before illusion. I love challenges, and figuring out how to construct an original image with the beloved megalodon shark was just the push I needed to come up with something over-the-top. Because the shark is so colossal, to capture all of it, you need to be on an 18′ high platform. So that was my starting point. I then designed the art to envelop the shark by attaching a panorama image to the scaffolding, where the camera was mounted.” – says Kurt Wenner on his website

Winning Sarasota Magazine’s Readers Choice Award for Best Event in Sarasota County 2012- 2017 and SRQ Magazine’s Readers Choice Award, the festival builds the local economy in tens of millions. 

Sarasota Chalk Festival

In 2010, the Sarasota Chalk Festival opened the Little Chalkers area that became a huge success. Free of charge, over 2,000 children were attracted to participate. They were provided with pastel, good quality chalk that has more bright color comparing to regular chalk and is sold in professional art stores. Beautiful colors inspired children to create.

Little Chalkers Area

The ground is not always conducive to painting and, of course, you can’t take it with you. Artists always find creative solutions and that’s how drawings on plywood panels were invented. Easy to build and transportable, the panels can also be repainted next year. The Sarasota Chalk Festivals arranged an area for street artists and muralists.

In 2011, horizontal paintings on pavement literally “went vertical” through a mural extension of the project. We talked with Denise Kawal, the founder of the Sarasota Chalk Festival in 2015.

Sarasota Murals: Going Vertical 

Sarasota’s Truman Adams painted a mural at Growlers Pub, Jane O’Neal decorated Short Stop Market, and Eduardo Kobra of Brazil portrayed a 1940s photograph of lower Main Street in Burns Court Villas. Over 45  artists participated in Going Vertical in 2011-2012, including: Kobra, Astro and Kanos from France, Entes and Pesimo from Peru, Pixel Pancho and 2501 from Italy, MTO from France, and many more. 

1940s photograph of lower Main Street in Burns Court Villas painted by Eduardo Kobra

Following the festival in 2011, the city held a reception atop its dramatic new parking garage on Palm Avenue to celebrate the murals that had been painted on each of its five floors as part of Going Vertical. The garage murals were funded through a public art fund that is created with donations required of the developers of new buildings in the city who do not provide public art for their project.

The project was nearly denied. Sarasota City Commissioner Paul Caragiulo initially expressed concern about the project, which calls for the expenditure of $25,000 in public art funds to create the first downtown public art murals. “I’m a huge fan of this building,” Caragiulo said of the garage. “But I’m having a problem visualizing the continuity of how this coincides with other downtown public art projects,” according to the article

MTO, garage mural

Caragiulo had support from Vice Mayor Terry Turner and Commissioner Shannon Snyder. As a majority, they turned down the project. Mayor Suzanne Atwell, however, disagreed with them. “Now is the time to do this,” Atwell said. “I think this will breathe life into this gorgeous building. This is a stunning idea that will draw people to this structure.” Two designers of the building also saw murals as something that makes their building complete. Eventually, the project was approved. 

The garage project concept was to paint different themes planned for each floor of the garage. For example, a dance theme for the second floor, a film theme for the third floor, a music theme for the fourth floor, a theater theme for the fifth floor and an opera theme for the sixth floor.

Eduardo Kobra, garage mural

While murals are gaining their popularity all around the world, some communities are resistant to “change”. In the first-ever edition of Going Vertical, street art turned to be “controversial” and gave people a reason to rally.  The earliest known murals existed in the Paleolithic era and were discovered in caves in southern France, circa 30,000 BC. Although murals are one of the most ancient forms of art, the contemporary look and message behind spur conversations or even protests. Thus, one of the first murals by French artist MTO at the Tube Dude building on Central Avenue was painted over shortly after its creation. People in the neighborhood read a  “gang-related” message in the mural although the artist had never meant to send such. 

According to the article at Herald Tribune, MTO wrote in a translated critical statement that “…this city is sick. Sick because of its navel-gazing, its excess of money, its chloroformed moral, its avidity, its political correctness, its latent racism, its anti-youthism, its desire that nothing never moves.” 

Go, Go, Denise, Go! by MTO

Denise Kowal, the founder of Avenida de Colores, Inc and both Sarasota Chalk Festival and Going Vertical, had to “fight” with negative responses and did not give up on the project. Some of the murals, such as Kobra’s 1940 photography realistic mural became iconic. Depicting a historic scene of the busy downtown in Sarasota has become the background for photographs of the main events and primary drawings of each succeeding festival. “Sarasota is not used to being challenged much, and we’re a little white-bred when it comes to art,” Kowal said. “We’re never going to grow as a community if we don’t allow other processes to happen. That’s how children grow. They need to be challenged with things that make them think. Stereotypes brew when you’re not given the opportunity to look at different perspectives.”

In response to the skirmishes in which Denise acted to defend the street artists when a few people criticized the cutting-edge-street-art nature of some of the artwork, MTO painted Denise Kowal’s portrait depicting the strong woman as a boxer. Go, Go, Denise, Go! was painted in December 2013 with the following documentary movie, produced by MTO. FL: unpremeditated movie. Read more about this story in our interview with Kowal published in 2015. 

Denise, is an inventor and innovator, constantly conceiving amazing ideas that beautify, culturally, and financially develop her Sarasota community. The most recent idea was 3D Illusion Museum.

3D Illusion Museum 

As part of Going Vertical, Berlin-based duo (at that time) JBAK was invited to create a mural at The Ice House. A former warehouse that supplied all the ice and beer for the city of Sarasota for years.  The building has been many things since those days but the locals have always referred to the building as “The Ice House”.  JBAK decided to keep the old Ice House vibe alive and painted the future contemporary art gallery and now museum with an icy mural melting in the hot south Florida sun. 

JBAK at The Ice House, 3D Museum of Optical Illusion

Officially opened on March 6, 3D Illusion Museum almost immediately had to temporarily close its doors due to COVID-19. However, it can be open by private appointments. You can get your tax-deductible tickets HERE and contribute to the fundraiser. 

The museum promises an interactive experience with over 35 illusions created in collaboration with world-renowned Chalk Festival artists. Each illusion is a hand-painted original work of art that you are encouraged to step onto and become a part of the illusion petting a tiger, holding off an alligator, kissing a huge frog, chased by a T-Rex, or in a fish tank to name a few.

Explore Sarasota’s Chalk Festival next season, visit the 3D Illusion Museum and try to find all the hidden murals in town! 


If you missed our stories about MiamiFort Lauderdale, St. Petersburg,  and The Palm Beaches, click on links and take your free virtual mural tour made possible by Florida Division of Cultural Affairs.


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