Sarasota Int'l Chalk Festival

The Sarasota Int'l Chalk Festival is run and managed by volunteers and benefits the Avenida de Colores 501c3 Cultural Arts Organization. 

Once-a-year, spectators are afforded the opportunity to become an integral part of the fine art creative process. From start to finish, you can witness the largest gathering of renowned pavement artists perform using the road surface as a canvas to develop oversized masterpieces in chalk.

This performance art form, as we know it today, is thought to have originated in Italy during the 16th century even though people have been making markings on the ground forever. These Italian artists called “Madonnari,” went into remission after the Second World War. It wasn’t until the 1970’s that the remaining small number of Madonnari got the recognition they deserved with the start of the International Madonnari Festival in Grazie di Curtatone in Northern Italy.

In the USA, Robert Guillemin, known as “Sidewalk Sam,” became inspired by the Italians and took to the pavement in Massachusetts during the 1970’s. He remained passionate about the art form until his death last year.

In the 1980’s, 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 the art into a worldwide phenomenon.

Starting in 2010 and every year since, the Chalk Festival features the largest gathering of 3-D pavement artists and their creations in one location. Also in 2010, it became the first international pavement art festival in the USA.

The artists who create these 3D pavement paintings invite visitors during the festival to step directly onto their artwork--becoming a part of illusion in photos. These artists come up with intricate ideas that make images and the ground appear to dip inward or rise above when viewed from a particular vantage point.

In addition to the pavement artists who travel from all over the world, the festival organization invites anyone, of any skill level, to sign up as an artist and work alongside the professionals, creating their own pavement paintings. No other cultural organization mixes the most renown with beginners better than this festival, giving novice pavement and student artists a truly unique opportunity.

Other performing artists are invited to sign up and help enhance the theme. Other activities include the Pavement Music Festival, Food Trucks, Beer Gardens, Vendors, and family fun interactive art areas inspiring the 'Young and Young-at-Heart' to create impromptu mini-masterpieces or scribbles while visiting the festival.

The Chalk Festival is celebrating its 18th season. After six seasons in Burns Square, a historic district in downtown Sarasota, it moved to Venice in 2014. Managed entirely by volunteers (even the director, Denise Kowal, is a volunteer), this 501c3 non-profit organization strives to bring a global community of culture enthusiasts together who value the work involved to make and share memorable experiences.

Winning Sarasota Magazine’s Readers Choice Award for Best Event in Sarasota County 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017 and SRQ Magazine’s Readers Choice Award for Best of SRQ Local 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2022 it is no surprise that during any given year, the festival attracted upward of 200,000 visitors during its 6+ days of festivities in Sarasota and  upward of 50,000 visitors during its 4 days of festivities with an estimated economic impact in the millions.

Check out our Artists

History Of The Festival

Denise Kowal, President of the Burns Square Property Owners Association, held the first Chalk Festival 'Avenida de Colores' in Burns Square, Sarasota in November 2007 to inspire community, culture and commerce. Themed 'Movies' the Children’s Chalk Playground, run by artist Jill Hoffman-Kowal, was the most popular area.The festival welcomed 22 artists and attracted 5000 visitors over two days. Of the 22 artists, only 3 had street-painting experience; Lori Escalera, who was our featured artists from California, Kitty Dyble-Thompson, and Mike Kasun. These artists were all instrumental in the progress and development of the festival. Both Lori and Kitty have participated in the Festival since inception.

The second festival themed 'Goddess Flora/Springtime' went from a local event to a national event, held in May 2009. It expanded on the 2007 model considerably with over 75 street painters attending and attracting 30,000 visitors over six days. Many of the artists that year were experience in street painting and traveled to Sarasota from all over the country. At that time, various fringe events began to pop up to complement the street painting. There was a stage that featured non-stop performances by local bands, and professional Sword Swallower, Johnny Fox. The festival engage with the local community and a local children’s magic camp, Camp Cigma, and music camp, Let's Rock, performed at various points throughout the festival as well as poets, dancers, and models. 

2010 was a big turning point, with the festival becoming the First International Street Painting Festival in the United States. Themed 'Halloween/Fall,' it evolved into its own 501c3 Non-Profit Avenida de Colores and names the Sarasota Chalk Festival, and with over 250 artists in attendance it was fast becoming an important fixture in the annual events calendar of Sarasota. Featured events included 'Hallowscreen' a horror film festival, Sarasota's first 60' fashion show runway with professional models featuring french designer Engles and a pumpkin carving contest. Attracting over 60,000 visitors the SCVB professional report estimated it was bringing in 3Million dollars of economic impact to the region. That year, three artist teams created over-sized 3D street paintings; Street painting group, Anthony Cappetto; Tracy Lee Stum from California created mousetrap that is still an internet favorite; and German artist, Edgar Mueller. Mueller debuted the first day/night pavement painting using photoluminescent paints. The festival featured the largest display of 3D pavement art in the USA. The 2010 festival was met with such positivity that the city of Sarasota requested that roads remain closed for an additional day to give the public more time to view the finished works.

The 2011 festival focused on “Pavement Art Through the Ages’ and attracted a whopping 200,000 visitors to downtown Sarasota, giving the local economy an estimated boost of $6-$10 million. With over 250 artists participating, the festival was the most important contemporary street painting venue in the world. That year saw Leon Keer and a crew create a giant 3D chalk representation of China’s Terracotta Army with Lego figures. The piece went viral and is still hailed today one of the best street paintings of all time. Ego Leonard, a large lego man, washed up on Siesta Key and had to be taken into police custody. Ego went viral and after three months was released into the care of Denise Kowal. The first chalk Opera ‘set’ debuted by artist Michael Kirby for the Sarasota Opera to perform Madame Butterfly. Anthony Cappetto created the first Augmented Reality street painting that allowed viewers to enter and interact with it through technology. This year the festival featured the largest display of 3D pavement painting in the world and has done so since. Lectures and workshops were performed by the world-renowned innovator of 3D pavement art, Kurt Wenner, who returned for the first time to a festival after 15 years. A gallery show of Wenner's 3D illusions was held at the Ringling College. Melanie Stimmel created a mermaid sanctuary while artist Kumpa Twornprom provided live mermaids. That was also the year the festival went ‘vertical’ and invited over 25 international mural artists to decorate the walls of Sarasota City. Eduardo Kobra a 4-story photorealistic mural of lower main street in the 1950's and MTO created 'Fast Life' that went viral, creating a debate about what is acceptable where a movie by the artist was created. The artworks were created with the co-operation of the artists, the city, and the owners of the properties whose walls were painted. ‘Going Vertical’ also featured the U.S. debut of a new kind of vertical art called ‘Cellograff’. This is a temporary form of mural art in which images are sprayed onto big sheets of cellophane that are wrapped between two trees or lamp posts, the result of which can be quite breathtaking. 

Creating a circus was the 2012 theme. 'Circus City, USA.' A tribute to the rich history Sarasota shares with the circus. Hundreds of artist turned the streets into a 'Museum in Motion' creating oversized masterpiece of circus images. The festival featured artists. Kurt Wenner, created the world's first several tier street painting illusion, 'The Circus Parade' with the assistance of 25 experienced pavement artists. Sarasota's homegrown daredevil Nik Wallenda performed with his wife Erendira on 60' high sway poles. Hundreds of artists shared their talents with the community and circus performers from Ringling Barnum & Bailey, Circus Sarasota, Sailor Circus, and others danced, played, and entertained the crowds. Lions and 'Chance the Chimp' attended from Big Cat Habitate and PITA protested creating a viral outcry and attack on the festival. Kumpa crated life-sized elephants to welcome attendees and Ireland silk aerialist Aisling Ni Cheallaigh traveled to perform from the sky. The festival brought out the child in everyone and was the Greatest Festival on Earth for ten days! 

Honoring Veterans, inspiring patriotism and embracing freedom with the theme 'Legacy of Valor' was the focus of the 2013 festivities. The theme was a struggle for Kowal to reconcile with the seriousness of the subject and the playfulness of the event. All worries faded, however, once the planning got underway. A replica of the Statue of Liberty, reaching 31' into the sky, was created and graced the center of the festival for 6 days where taps was played at sunset each evening. The 'Thoughtful Reflection,' started out quite controversial but Kowal saw the vision of recreating a portion of the Sarasota National Cemetery to honor fallen veterans. The area was made interactive and graced with a fire torch, with the Sarasota Military Academy standing guard. It was one of the most honored and heartfelt locations at the event. Seasoned artists chalked side-by-side with veterans to create beautiful masterpieces, and the student and children's chalk blocks welcomed thousands. A indoor show 'Reimagining Sarasota Chalk Festival Artists' featuring the artists studio work was added and shown at the Ice House on 10th Street for two weeks. The show featured multi-wall 3D and 4D illusion installations. A dinner for 500 veterans was served at the Chalk Festival followed with a show and dance. The festival spanned from Burns Square all the way to 1st street through downtown.

The 2014 Theme honored 'Extinct and Endangered Species' and moved locations from Burns Square in downtown Sarasota to the Island of Venice. It was featured in three locations. The Traditional works of art were located on West Miami Avenue. The large 3D works of art were located at the Venice Cultural Campus along with the Student Pavement Artists and the Children's Chalk Block. The largest anamorphic pavement art in the world, that was designed by Kurt Wenner and created by Julie Kirk-Purcell and a team of artists, students and volunteers was located at the Venice Municipal Airport. Kowal chose the theme because planet earth is in the midst of its sixth mass extinction of plants and animals - being the worst epidemic of species die-offs since the loss of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Although extinction is a natural phenomenon, it occurs at a natural “background” rate of about one to five species per year but we are now losing species at 1,000 to 10,000 times the background rate, with literally dozens going extinct every day - EXTINCT. It could be a scary future indeed, with as many as 30 to 50 percent of all species possibly heading toward extinction by mid-century. Artists created beautiful artwork. An exhibit featuring the artists studio work was held at the Venice Art Center. The Opening and Closing Parties were held at the Venice Community Center.

The 2015 Chalk Festival celebrated the theme 'Eat, Drink and Be Merry!' Was located in two locations. The larger 3D works of art were at the Venice Airport Fairgrounds and the smaller traditional pavement paintings were along West Miami Avenue. Kurt Wenner designed Bacchus to celebrate the theme and dozens of artists from around the world help to create the largest anamorphic figure. Classes and lectures where held at the Venice Art Center. Visitors could see both Bacchus as well as the Shark from 2014. Kumpa crated a large orange that was featured on the 2015 poster. The Pavement Music Festival featured local and regional bands into the night. 

The 2016 theme was all around LOVE & PEACE and the groove was on for 4 days at the Venice Airport Fairgrounds. Artists spread the love and peace through their images that were playful, joyous as well as some serious subjects. Eduardo Relero created a political satire piece with Trump featured, which drew some passionate discussion. Visitors dressed themselves in hippie clothing to enhance the theme. The Pavement Music Festival was active from morning till closing. Poets wrote poems around the LOVE & PEACE 3D sculptures by Kumpa. A video featuring some of the event and Eduardo Relero is located on our media page. 

The 2017 celebrated its 10th production with the theme was Evanescent, The first curated section was created highlighting the incredible talent and skill the pavement artists present at the festival. An interactive AR museum was set up to highlight each year and the amazing things everyone has accomplished volunteering together. The festival paid for a new paved section that enhanced the beautiful paintings in chalk.

The 2018 festival had to be postponed due to Red Tide. News that was devastating to all. 

The 2019 season held two festivals. The first will be April 5-7 at its original location, Burns Square, downtown Sarasota with over 50 artists. The second was at the Venice Airport Fairgrounds on Venice, Island, November 15-18 with over 150 artists participating.

The 2020 season the Chalk Festival 3-D Illusion Museum, a pop up museum with over 50 international artist painted 3-D illusions for public interaction in a museum setting. The Museum was open for 7 months in a limited capacity due to its open date of March 2020 right when the pandemic shut everything down. It was located at the Ice House in downtown Sarasota. 

The 2021 season we created the Avenue of Art a self-guided walking tour of 150 hand-painted sidewalks in response to COVID19. The tour celebrates Sarasota County Centennial with QR codes on the painting where you can read about interesting facts and stories about Sarasota County and the artists that painted and the sponsors that support the event. 

Brief History Of Chalk Art

Artistic expression is something that can be found in every culture from every point in history. Expression through creation is a fundamental part of the human existence, and is a powerful force for binding people together. Street painting and chalk art has a long and rich history and is thought to date back to 16th century Italy. Street artists there were called ‘Madonnari” and were vagabonds who traveled from festival to festival, often acting as the visual counterparts of minstrels. They made their living from coins tossed into a collection plate beside their artwork, a tradition that is continued at the chalk festival by placing containers beside the artists’ work. However, the difference here is that the money goes towards the festival’s survival, and the artist who collects the most coins receives our People’s Choice Cash Award. Traditionally, chalk drawings have a religious theme. In fact, that is where the Madonnari get their name; the word is derived from Madonna.

The traditional Madonnari traveled from town to town creating small-scale chalk drawing with limited materials. They used chalk, brick, charcoal, and colored stones as their medium, and earned a meager living. The arrival of World War II and the desolation it brought with it saw a great reduction in the number of Madonnari, and a greatly diminished number continued chalking up until the 1980′s. When the International Street Painting Festival in Grazie de Curtatone Italy started, the Madonnari finally began to get the attention and acknowledgement they deserved. It was then that their art became a worldwide phenomenon, and art students from all over Europe traveled to Italy to learn the art. In 1980, Kurt Wenner became the first American artist to join the ranks of the Madonnari and pioneered the creation of three-dimensional chalk drawings.