The first time Graham Curtis took up pastels to paint the town he wasn’t sure if he was going to like it.
It was 1999. Philip Walz, then-executive director of the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts, had just returned from a street painting festival in San Rafael, Calif.
Inspired, Walz had a vision of bringing the centuries-old tradition to Happy Valley.
He flew in a street painter from California to show local artists the tools of the trade. Curtis was among those invited to try it out and have “a muck around with a bit of chalk” in the Nittany Mall parking lot.
“I gave it a go, and I thought it was fun,” he said.
Curtis, owner of Curtis Signs and Graphics in Petersburg, said he did professional work for Arts Fest “back in the day” before Walz approached him to try his hand in the impermanent world of street art. But he had first experienced street art as a child growing up near London.
“I saw people doing this on the streets outside the National Gallery in London when I was a little kid,” he said. “What I remember is being hurried along by my mother … because these guys were filthy, covered in chalk … and part of me is still rebelling 50 years later.”
Curtis first put chalk to pavement himself during the inaugural Italian Street Painting Festival in 1999, part of Arts Fest.
Curtis’ debut pastel painting was a 3-D depiction of a man surfacing to street level, reaching out from beneath a manhole cover. Although that painting was “small and easy to do,” it still had many doing a double take at the chalk man emerging from the street.
And although the debut event was welcomed with pouring rain on the first day, he and the other artists shouldered on, undeterred, hunched over their work until the blocks of Hiester Street were filled with art. Thus began a tradition that has spanned nearly two decades.
To this day, Curtis isn’t afraid to get a little dirty for the sake of art. Now he is one of the event’s featured artists.
‘Old and new faces’
This year, Arts Fest’s 50th festival, the street painting festival got off to a gloomy start once again.
But although a sudden shower dampened the streets on the festival’s first morning, the rain didn’t dampen the spirits of the painters.
Curtis and about 25 other painters took over the entire length of Hiester Street to bring some extra color to an already vibrant Arts Fest.
Just down the road from where Curtis was setting up his workspace, Violet Sleigh, a high-schooler who was introduced to street painting by teacher Holly Foy at the Delta Program, was undeterred by the elements.
Armed with pastels and a protective tarp, Sleigh was one of the first to get to work despite the fickle central Pennsylvania weather.
Out of more than 25 participating artists, all but five are Foy’s students or former students. She inspired her students to try out the pastels during the event’s infant years. Many of them return year after year.
Sleigh quickly fell for the primitive art form: “It’s my favorite way of painting.”
Zoey Branford, a recent graduate of the Delta Program, said she saw Curtis paint when she was a child.
“I used to come and watch him, and I thought it was so cool,” she said.
This weekend Branford and her fellow Delta graduate, Cora Davis, were sketching out their designs mere feet from where Curtis was hard at work on his feature piece.
This social element of artists working close to each other — and to their ever-changing audience — is one of the most important aspects of street painting.
“It’s a little distracting,” Branford said. “I love when little kids come up and talk to me and watch, though.”
Curtis said the most fun part of public art is interacting with people.
The intrigued expressions on lingering passers-by indicated they also enjoyed the up-close-and-personal access to the art in progress.
“I love seeing old faces every year,” Curtis said. “And some new faces too.”
When artists become the art
Curtis said it is typical for street painters to choose to replicate a work by another artist.
Although Curtis has done his fair share of original works at Arts Fest, this year he chose to reproduce a John Collier painting of Queen Guinevere on horseback.
“I just came upon it, and I liked it,” Curtis said. “It had all the elements that make for a nice picture, and I like doing portraits.”
Although artists were encouraged to select works from blogger Steve Melcher’s comedic art blog, artists’ selections can also have a personal touch.
Sleigh is replicating a portrait of a woman by English painter Edmund Blair Leighton titled “Stitching the Standard,” selected from a book she had as a child.
“I look for something that I know will translate well to chalk,” she said, selecting works with colors that will pop in pastel.
Sleigh said it usually takes her about eight hours over a few days to fill the 4-by-6 rectangle of workspace.
“It’s a commitment,” Sleigh said. “Every line you do, you have to be sure it’s the right color, or in the right spot.”
Curtis said he uses the majority of the weekend to paint the 12-by-12 work, with occasional assistance by his 4-year-old granddaughter, Lillian.
Many wonder why one would take so much time to create a work that will be decimated shortly after its completion. Sleigh said that’s her favorite part of street painting.
“It’s my favorite thing that it isn’t permanent,” she said. “People ask about that all the time. But I think it’s really beautiful that it’s impermanent.”
Battling the elements can be frustrating in the middle of painting, she said. But once it’s done, the painters are satisfied to pack up their pastels and let the process be its own art form.
Curtis calls the process “ephemeral. Here today, gone tomorrow.”
As esteemed street painter Kurt Wenner wrote in his book “Asphalt Renaissance,” the impermanence of the artwork is a sign that its creation is part of “a larger cycle of tribute and ritual.” Eventually the painting is washed away, and the offering is complete.
The artists on Hiester Street understand that unlike many art forms, street painting is about the act and not necessarily the result.
“(When you’re painting,) you really have to think about why you’re doing this,” Curtis said. “But by the time I’m done, I have no regrets. I’ve got my pictures. I just walk away.”