I Madonnari festival opens today at SB Mission

Featured artists at this year's I Madonnari are Wayne and Cheryl Renshaw. The artists have been preparing their chalk works for the opening of the festival today. MIKE ELIASON/NEWS-PRESS
Featured artists at this year’s I Madonnari are Wayne and Cheryl Renshaw. The artists have been preparing their chalk works for the opening of the festival today.

Lovers of street painting, the weekend you’ve been waiting for has arrived.

The 20,000-square-foot area in front of the Santa Barbara Mission will be turned into a walkable art gallery starting today when the I Madonnari chalk art festival returns for its 27th year.

The festival of the traditional Italian art form was the first in the U.S. and is an inspiration to others that have appeared since.

From kids having a go at their own masterworks to skilled pros creating trompe l’oeil, the finished asphalt canvas draws thousands of tourists and locals starting today and ending on Monday, when some of the larger works are finally completed.

This year marks several important dates in I Madonnari’s history, one of which is the five-year anniversary of the passing of the Rev. Virgil Cordano, the pastor of St. Barbara Parish who gave the green light to festival creator Kathy Koury’s dream back in 1987.

It’s also the 300th birthday of Father Junipero Serra, who founded the first of the California missions.

The festival is dedicated this year to Marilyn Zellet, who has coordinated and developed the festival’s Italian Marketplace on the Mission lawn.

Unlike other festivals that bring in vendors, Ms. Zellet has kept all the booths homegrown. As she steps down to spend more time with her grandchildren and family, she will guide Bryan Kerner, her replacement.

One of the 150 squares being created this year will feature a portrait of Ms. Zellet, who was once president of the Children’s Creative Project, the nonprofit arts education program that has presented the festival since its inception.

This year’s featured artists are Cheryl and Wayne Renshaw, and their story shows the influence of the festival beyond the boundaries of Santa Barbara.

Santa Clara residents, the two came to Santa Barbara 14 years ago at the behest of a friend to help a group color one of the festival’s 8-foot-by-8-foot squares.

After three years of working in their group, the two decided to do a square on their own.

“We’ve never looked back,” Cheryl says. “We never had even heard of the festival before this. But now it’s a serious hobby for us. We did nine (chalk) festivals last year in total.”

Wayne Renshaw keeps a thick binder with a history of their work from I Madonnari and other festivals. They’ve gone from very simple ideas to the imitation 3-D work they’ve been commissioned to do for this year.

Ms. Koury asked the Renshaws to create the featured space, right in front of the Mission’s steps.

A 12-foot-by-12-foot square, it’s the biggest work they’ve done for the festival, and takes in the commemorations of this year: the Rev. Virgil Cordano stands next to Father Serra, Saint Clara and St. Francis of Assisi stand on either side, while children, angels and a cocker spaniel frolic in reverse oculus that looks like one is peering down into an underground world.

In their day-job world, Wayne Renshaw works as an architect while his wife is in landscape design. “It keeps us in cornflakes,” joked Wayne as he worked on a meticulous section of green leaves.

Although they work for free, the festival looks after them as it does with all the artists, making sure they take breaks, hydrate and have time to take in the Mission and surroundings.

Working alongside them is their friend Alice Crittenden, who, like Cheryl Renshaw, sports wild colors in her hair.

“It’s a street artist thing,” Ms. Crittenden said. “Not punk.”

All three are sitting on custom-made (by Wayne) seats that keep them off the hot asphalt. Behind them on the steps are tray after tray of chalk, sorted into a rainbow of colors.

Some of the chalks have been handmade by Wayne, after he powders two different colors together. The Renshaws say that people take as many photos of the trays as they do the art.

Other essential ingredients for working on this piece: rubber gloves to preserve the skin and a 2-inch square of carpet to help in blending colors.

Ms. Koury contacted the couple in February to tell them they would be the featured artists and gave them some outlines for subject matter. They’ve tried to keep it a mix of traditional and modern, not aping the Renaissance, though their technique of putting down their outlines come from Michelangelo.

This marks a very special weekend for the couple.

“We’re very honored to be chosen,” Cheryl said.

“Santa Barbara has always been special for us because it’s where we got started,” Wayne said.

Cheryl agrees. “It’s our second home.”

Although there will be plenty of Santa Barbarans among the 300 working at the festival, I Madonnari attracts plenty of artists like the Renshaws.

It’s a small community, they said, with everybody checking out each others’ works and learning new techniques. The Renshaws have their own ways of getting to know everybody.

“We come with a box of chocolate chip cookies that we’ve made,” Wayne says. “That’s your icebreaker. We’re the cookie pushers!” In fact, if you want to send valentine cookies, you know where to get them.

This year the festival includes an expanded area for children to work on their own paintings. For $10, one can purchase a 2-foot-by-2-foot square and a box of chalk, and let imagination take over. A total of 600 kids’ squares will be available.

Entertainment includes free evening concerts, from 6 to 7 p.m. with seating on a first-come basis. The Quire of Voyces performs on Saturday and the Adelfos Ensemble on Sunday. The Italian Marketplace includes roast chicken, pasta, pizza, calamari, gelato, coffee, and more.

Another first for this year: at 10 a.m. today there will be a “Blessing of the Chalk” for all the artists, similar to the blessing held in Grazie di Curtatone, Italy.

For more info: www.imadonnarifestival.com

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