JANESVILLE—They called them “madonnari.”
Starting in the 1500s, these traveling artists wandered from city to city earning whatever money they could drawing images of the Madonna or other saints on stone walkways outside churches. People entering and leaving the services often would toss a few coins their way.
But that was then. On Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 7-8, the amateur and professional descendants of the madonnari will gather in downtown Janesville for the city’s annual Art Infusion. Participants can either draw on the sidewalk for fun or enter a contest for prizes in one of two age categories (7-12 or 13 and older).
Leigh Alfredson, who studied graphic design at Madison College when it was called Madison Area Technical College, returns as the event’s featured artist.
“I got a great education there,” she said. “Back then, graphic design degrees required students to learn to work in all of the different mediums.”
Students had to work in oils, pastels, pen and ink, charcoal pencil and a variety of other styles before moving on to designing logos or advertising, Alfredson said. She remembers getting a “D” in pastels, a medium for which she is now known.
In 1995, Alfredson’s father begged her to participate in his Rotary Club’s first sidewalk art festival in Orlando, Florida. After initially resisting (she reminded him of that “D”), she entered and won Best in Show.
Since then, Alfredson has collected dozens of awards. In 2013, she began working as a paid professional or “featured artist” at festivals.
She has also moved on to doing more teaching. During her visit to Janesville, she will teach at the schools and the Boys and Girls Club. She recently accepted a part-time position as an art assistant at her local Boys and Girls Club in Florida.
So what about that “D” in pastels? Alfredson thinks the teacher wanted a work that displayed what the medium could do.
“I think she wanted something more wispy,” Alfredson said.
Alfredson likes vibrant colors—bold yellows, upstart reds and impudent oranges—that practically speak out loud.
For Janesville’s Art Infusion, Alfredson and Franklin Middle School teacher Sharon Gaver will create a work featuring the downtown area during the Janesville Town Square Grand Prix bicycle race. The background of the piece, which will measure 8 feet by 8 feet, will feature the artist Jeff Henriquez’s mural of Chief Black Hawk along with the unique architecture of several surrounding buildings.
Alfredson encourages people of all ages to try chalk art, whether it be as part of the contest or just for fun. She offers these tips for beginners:
- Commercial sidewalk chalk doesn’t work well for competition because, “It tends to be too oily,” she said. That said, it’s fine for “fun” use.
Those who enter the contest at Art Infusion will be given a set of pastel chalks as part of their entry fees.
- When you put down the first layer of pastels, rub it into the sidewalk with your fingers.
“It’s important that the chalk get into all the little pores in the sidewalk,” said Alfredson, who wears latex gloves for this part of the creative process.
Another technique involves rubbing the chalk into the sidewalk using a cut-up pool noodle.
- Pick a large, single subject for your work. For example, fill the entire frame with a large flower or a face.
- This is about the pleasure of creating, not permanency.
“People always want to know what happens when it rains,” Alfredson said with a laugh.
Well, the art goes away—for the most part.
“They usually have to use a power washer to get it all off,” Alfredson said.
Sidewalk chalk artists recognize what they create is temporary, she said. Often, the event is more about the interaction between the artists and the public.
“It’s not as much about a material art as it is a performing art,” Alfredson said.