As the managing director of the nonprofit arts and education organization Light Bringer Project since its start in 1990, Patricia Hurley has been bringing arts programs to area schools and helping run one of America’s most unique events: the Pasadena Doo Dah Parade.
Yet it’s an entirely different kind of event that helped Hurley and Light Bringer President Tom Coston set a Guinness World Record. As the founders and heads of the Pasadena Chalk Festival, they were at ground zero when a team of Guinness fact-checkers named the fest the “Largest Display of Chalk Pavement Art” in world history.
That feat was accomplished with 550 artists in action, covering the sidewalks along the Paseo Colorado with hundreds of vibrant chalk paintings. The number of participants has continued to grow since then, along with crowds that have swelled to 80,000 attendees.
More than 600 artists — officially known as “Madonnari” — are expected next weekend, June 17-18, when the fest celebrates its landmark 25th anniversary.
“People love it because every mural is different because it’s brand new, and you have to be there to experience it because photos just aren’t the same,” says Hurley. “People like to see the process, see the murals start and see that it’s totally different on the second day. It’s a fun thing to come both days and see the progress made on the murals, and the golden hour is around 4 o’clock on Sunday when the sun is going down in the atmosphere and makes the murals look really radiant.”
The festival started in 1993, after Light Bringer intern Nancy Siegmund returned from a backpacking trip in Europe and told Hurley and Coston about a street fest in Italy that featured artists creating chalk paintings on sidewalks. While the practice dated back to the 16th century in Italy, with the artists termed Madonnari because they often recreated images of the Madonna found in the nation’s cathedrals, the tradition exploded after World War II with the first official festival launched in 1973 in Mantua, Italy.
The Light Bringer trio realized that this would be a great way for the relatively new project to bring together the local arts community, and the fest began as “Chalk on the Walk” at Pasadena City Hall’s Centennial Square.
More than 150 visual artists participated that first year, with all proceeds donated to community arts programs and HIV/AIDS resources. Over the next three years, the fest moved to Mercantile Alley, West Hollywood and Universal Citywalk before returning to Pasadena for good in 1998.
From 1997 through 2005, the event was called the Absolut Chalk Festival due to being sponsored by Absolut Vodka, but it was rebranded the Pasadena Chalk Festival in 2006 when the city of Pasadena’s Cultural Affairs Department stepped in with arts grants funding. The other biggest change came when the fest outgrew Centennial Square and moved to the Paseo Colorado in 2004.
“City Hall had told us we had to move the festival and we were nervous, but the Paseo’s former marketing director Jodi Taylor-Zens invited us and said we’ll make it worth your while,” Hurley recalls. “They carried half the weight in production aspects and that helped a lot, so we could focus on the artists and the art.”
The move really paid off in 2010, the year the fest set out to enter the Guinness record books. Paseo Colorado, which is now called simply The Paseo, helped Light Bringer fly out an official from Guinness’ headquarters in Ireland and arrange for community volunteers to adjudicate the headcount of participating artists.
The adjudicators asked artists’ names and recorded how long they were working on their paintings to ensure they were there throughout the official drawing hours. Light Bringer then had each artist sign a banner assigned for each painting, and then hung all the banners on a wire across the top of the festival artspace, ultimately totaling 188 banners gracing the air above the Paseo plaza.
“Jodi loved pomp and circumstance and hired the people who blow the trumpets at Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle to come out,” recalls Hurley. “Every time we passed a milestone number as the Guinness officials counted the artists, they would blow their horns. That was really fun and we were really proud to reach that pinnacle of success.”
The fest continues to grow each year, allowing new artists to apply for the right to participate by paying a $35 first-timers’ fee and submitting a drawing of their proposed image. After the first year, painters can return for free.
The event now includes workshops, as well as a dedicated section for paintings by professional animators from Nickelodeon and other major cartoon outlets and tribute paintings to famous cartoon characters. Special attention is also placed on artists who create 3D effects, and a gallery sells traditional paintings that each artist or team is asked to create in advance and bring to the festival with them.
Putting it all together takes a lot of work, but for Hurley, seeing the positive response makes it all worthwhile.
“A lot of people don’t go to museums and are intimidated by that and paying for it,” says Hurley. “Chalk art is very non-intimidating, it’s on the streets and free, and you can bring your dog and stroller, with all ages able to walk through and see it.
“The art is being created right there in front of them, which is exciting, but then they also get to see another piece of art the artist has done in a painting,” she continues. “It all benefits more art in the community and draws everyone in from young ages on up.”
The Pasadena Chalk Festival takes place from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. June 17 and 18 at The Paseo Colorado, 300 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. Admission is free. Visit pasadenachalkfestival.com.