Jessea Gay Marie was hard at work Thursday afternoon under the two bell towers of the Santa Barbara Mission.
As this year’s featured artist for I Madonnari, the 28th annual Italian Street Painting Festival, she was working solo on a 12-by-16-foot space directly below the Mission steps. Above her dark clouds threatened rain – and would later sprinkle all over Santa Barbara – but she was ready.
If bad weather was coming, she had a thin plastic sheet and plenty of tape to secure her asphalt canvas and its chalk drawings. In the meantime, she was surrounded by various earthen shades of chalk and a large Chumash cave painting to replicate.
“I’m worried about getting done too soon,” said Ms. Gay Marie, “because this is so organic. It’s not like reproducing a masters where you have to be exact.”
Her drawing depicts a Chumash wall painting on an overhanging rock, as if viewers are in the cave itself looking out. Beyond, at the bottom of the drawing, is an ocean view and on the horizon, the Channel Islands.
The featured artist spot is not only the largest in the festival, but traditionally has had some tie to the Mission’s history, either historical or spiritual.
“I wasn’t even sure they would approve this, but it was my first choice,” said Ms. Gay Marie. “And luckily the fathers liked the idea.”
She met with two Chumash elders and they both told her that reproducing a particular cave would be considered disrespectful. But doing a representational cave, taking elements from several caves, would be OK.
So she took pictographs from several caves back in the hills. When asked about the particular meaning of the elements beyond the easily identifiable human figures, Ms. Gay Marie said she didn’t really know.
“Nobody actually knows,” she added. “It’s all archeological guessing at this point.”
She chose the Chumash, Ms. Gay Marie said, because they are the original inhabitants of the area and did the majority of the work building the Mission.
“We have Old Spanish Days, but we don’t honor the original inhabitants to the level that I’d like to see,” she added.
Jessea Gay Marie has been creating art locally for 18 years and has taught digital art at Santa Barbara City College.
Years before her move to Santa Barbara, she started as a watercolorist, then dabbled in acrylics, then transitioned to sculpture. Getting her hands in clay felt a bit like massage therapy, which she also did, Ms. Gay Marie said.
It was when she came to Santa Barbara in 1996 that she first saw I Madonnari. The next year she volunteered to work on somebody’s drawing and that person “took a break and never came back,” she laughed.
The following year she helped a friend draw but found herself secretly “fixing” her friend’s work on her break.
Finally, in 1999 she got her own square and has drawn every year since then, making her way into the small but enthusiastic chalk-painting community, traveling to various festivals in California, other states, and down to Santa Barbara’s sister city Puerto Vallarta.
Until recently she was working as a graduate advisor for UCSB’s Global and International Studies program.
She retired this month and this I Madonnari will be her last, she said. In three weeks she’s packing up and moving to Belize, where she will manage a bed and breakfast and work on her art full time.
“I told my friends somebody has to escape to the tropics; everybody talks about it.”
However, she loves Santa Barbara and said this festival is one of the best because the weather is so nice.
“I’ve worked at festivals where it was so hot it was like drawing on an oven. This is perfect weather. And the other thing I like is that everything goes back to the Children’s Creative Project, bringing arts to the schools.”
By Sunday, the full chalk painting will be done, marking her 40th or 50th work, a nice capper on a part-time career.
“Rock painting is similar to street painting,” Ms. Gay Marie noted. “You’re talking color or pigment and putting it on the ground or rocks. It makes a nice parallel to what we’re doing here.”
The I Madonnari Italian Street Painting Festival runs 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday through Monday at the Santa Barbara Mission.
Along with 150 chalk paintings in front of the Mission, the festival will include live music and an Italian market. About 25,000 visitors are expected over the three days.