Chalk full of arts: I Madonnari returns to the Santa Barbara Mission

Space is ready for the I Madonnari Italian Street Painting Festival to begin today.STEVE MALONE/NEWS-PRESS PHOTOS
Space is ready for the I Madonnari Italian Street Painting Festival to begin today.


The 20,000 square feet of dark asphalt surrounding the Santa Barbara Mission will bloom into a rainbow of colors today as hundreds of chalk artists join in the 28th annual I Madonnari Italian Street Painting Festival.

Artists from Santa Barbara and beyond will turn the usually utilitarian surface into a patchwork of art works, created lovingly in chalk over the next few days, with the finished works presented on Monday.

Kathy Koury started I Madonnari in Santa Barbara to benefit the Children's Creative Project, which receives all proceeds from vendor sales at the festival.
Kathy Koury started I Madonnari in Santa Barbara to benefit the Children’s Creative Project, which receives all proceeds from vendor sales at the festival.

All proceeds of the food, drink and goods vendors will benefit the Children’s Creative Project, a nonprofit art education program of the Santa Barbara County Education Office.

The program is the brainchild of Kathy Koury, the CCP’s executive director, who returned from a 1987 trip to Italy with strong memories of the chalk paintings she had seen in the piazzas there, especially in the village of Grazie di Curtatone, which has its own mid-August festival.

Twenty-eight years later and Ms. Koury’s idea for a fundraiser has grown into longtime Memorial Day weekend tradition, an essential part of Santa Barbara life, and spawned similar festivals all around America.

That’s also resulted in a small band of artists who follow the street-painting circuit, creating some of the best works each festival can display.

“It blossomed pretty quickly and after the first year it kind of took off,” says Ms. Koury, who maintains a modest outlook about the whole thing. “We were the first and now there’s like a hundred festivals like it around.”

Artists transform a series of sponsored squares on the ground, from a friendly 4-by-6 feet to an master-artist or group-sized 12-by-12 spot.

Some artists create replicas of old masters, others have their own designs, and many find a spot between realism and graphic art.

As artists began on Friday, a faint reminder of the previous year’s festival could be seen on the ground, a sign that not a lot of rain has been by in the last 12 months to wash it all away. I Madonnari, based on the art of Italian street painting, is supposed to be a temporal art.

No matter, however, because the new coat of chalk will cover over the previous year’s work quickly. There’s a section just for kids with boxes of chalk to buy and ground to work on; 2-by-2 squares are $10 each) Many Santa Barbara businesses sponsor a space in which to create art as well.

At the steps of the Mission, visitors will find this year’s featured artist Jessea Gay Marie, having her last hurrah. Now retired, she’s moving to Belize after 18 years in Santa Barbara and 16 years creating works for I Madonnari.

Her centerpiece this year is a recreation of sorts of a Chumash cave painting, including a view of the Channel Islands before. The work honors the original inhabitants of Santa Barbara and the workers who built the Mission.

Also, she said, there’s an intriguing parallel between rock painting of centuries ago and the street painting of today.

Today, between 6 and 7 p.m., the Quire of Voyces will present a program of Russian sacred music in the Mission sanctuary.

Also, this year’s poster features work from last year’s artists Ann Hefferman and Jay Schwartz, and is quite colorful indeed.

The CCP board of directors manage all the food booths for the festival in order to raise money, with no outside vendors.

“A lot of people know I Madonnari, but most don’t know what it’s for,” Ms. Koury said. “They don’t know that if they buy lunch or a T-shirt or a poster or a box of chalk, that money goes straight to the CCP.”

Last year the festival raised between $65,000 and $70,000; Ms. Koury hopes to raise more this year.

“I’m amazed by the extremely talented and generous artists that come out to do this unique art form and how hard they work,” she said. “It’s a marathon, not just creatively but physically. They love doing it and they’ve made great friendships doing it.”

Hours for the festival are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. through Monday. For more information, visit

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