Street painting has been part of the artistic canon since the middle ages.
In 16th-century Europe, artists would create temporary works of art with chalk in public spaces, such as in front of a church or fountain. It was a way for underemployed artists to hawk their skill and attract commissions — or simply earn some tips to pay for a meal.
Although street painting died out as an art form as time went on, it began a comeback in the 1970s as a form of public entertainment. And in 1999, it came to Happy Valley.
Holly Foy, coordinator of the Downtown State College Italian Street Painting Festival, said the project got its start when Philip Walz, then-executive director of the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts, visited California in 1998. He was inspired by the street art at the Youth in Arts Italian Street Painting Festival in San Rafael.
“He was at one of the largest street painting festivals in the world and thought, ‘wouldn’t this be cool?’ ” Foy said. “Most people here had never heard of a street painting festival.”
The centuries-old tradition came to central Pennsylvania the following summer. It featured only a few images by local artists turned novice street painters. Now pastel paintings cover two full blocks in downtown State College.
Foy said several of the painters have been around since the event’s inception. Many started out as Foy’s students when she taught art at State College Area High School and the Delta Program.
Out of more than 25 participating artists, all but five are students or former students. Foy encouraged her promising pupils to show their work in the festival’s infant years.
Nearly 20 years later, many of them still come back. Two artists, Graham Curtis and former student Abby Cramer, will be returning for their 19th and 18th years, respectively. Both were featured in the debut event.
“It’s kind of a homecoming of friends and ex-students,” Foy said. But it’s not all fun and games — the painters take their work seriously.
Street artists must cope with the elements, the crowds and the furtive knowledge that their work is only temporary and will soon fade away.
“It takes a huge amount of dedication to create a work of art with an audience on 100-degree asphalt,” Foy said.
Although each year brings remarkable works of art to the streets of downtown, Foy said she wanted to make the street painting event extra special in honor of the 50th anniversary of Arts Fest. This year there is an “element of comedy” on the streets.
Artists were invited to mimic the work of Steve Melcher, a writer and blogger who retitles famous works of classical art to give them a humorous spin.
An example of Melcher’s work is a painting of the mythological Narcissus, gazing intently at his reflection in a pool of water. Melcher titled it, “Narcissus hopes like heck that his cellphone is waterproof.”
Visitors to State College’s street painting festival can expect to find that kind of wry, intellectual humor in many of this year’s works.
“If you glance down you’ll see great art — but then you see the titles and you’ll have a good laugh,” Foy said.
While adding a modern comedic component to the 2016 festival, the street painters are also looking back toward their roots with a traditional Italian event.
The “passeggiata,” or evening stroll, is a feature of Italian urban life. It’s a see-and-be-seen event, a “leisurely walk in smart clothes.”
This year, the painters will host their own Friday evening passeggiata. There will be Italian music, a 12-foot gondola for a Venetian photo-op, a fleet of Vespas and “the best street painting docents this side of Florence.” Artists will put down their pastels to chat with visitors for a little show of Tuscan nightlife.
“We will have kind of a special taste of Italy that night,” Foy said.
For those inspired by the art or the Italian scene, Foy said there is a special opportunity to become part of the process.
The Young Artists Alley provides artists of any age and ability with the opportunity to add to the festival. For $5, aspiring painters can purchase a 12-pack of the same brand of pastels used by the featured artists. Armed with the new pastels, patrons are free to create their own work in a 14-inch square.
Foy said the Artists Alley has led to some inspiring works of art — and two proposals.
“We are an institution,” Foy said. “We make beautiful images and we also make new families.”
Street painters will be on-site Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.