Set against the gorgeous Santa Barbara sunshine and the picturesque charm of the Old Mission, the 20th anniversary of the I Madonnari Street Painting Festival this weekend was a treat. It is rare to see art celebrated in such a casual and welcoming setting. Using chalk as their medium and the sidewalk outside the mission as their canvas, artists gathered in the open air setting to create works of splendor, inviting visitors to take part in watching their creative process at the same time. The festival is a fundraiser for the Children’s Creative Project (CCP), a nonprofit arts education program.

Appropriately, I Madonarri was brimming with youth, families and elders all enjoying the festivities. CCP Program Consultant Maria Slavin said CCP Executive Director Kathy Koury created the festrival after she traveled to Italy and saw a similar street festival. The festival truly captures the essence of Italy. The setting of the was enough to make one get up and say, “Mamma mia.” The rolling hills that surround the mission are reminiscent of the Tuscan coast, and with a cone of gelato in hand, it was easy to forget that this was actually Santa Barbara.

Unique this year, among more than a 150 street paintings drawn on the pavement, was a Japanese-inspired square. Slavin said that the festival brought artists from Santa Barbara’s sister city in Toba, Japan and for the first time several artists worked together to create one of the main pieces of art. What was also remarkable about much of the artwork was the “trompe 1’oiel” or the fooling of the eye, which these artists utilized by creating three-dimensional images on extremely flat surfaces.

“Madonnari” in Italian means the practice of reproducing Madonna, and many pieces of the art radiated the Renaissance theme. What made the experience of the festival so unique was the interactive quality of being so close to the art and the artists, as well as the outdoor setting. In addition to being invited to observe the awe-inspiring street art, visitors were able to take part in the Italian theme market, featuring “antipasto,” a “pizzeria,” “gelati,” a “pasticceria” and a variety of live music. The lively energy of not only the participants and visitors but also the dedicated volunteers made the festival throb with excitement.

I Madonnari only comes once a year, but it is worth it to start planning to go next year right now. Do not miss out on the opportunity to celebrate art and community next Memorial Day weekend – since both admission and parking are complimentary, I Madonarri is like a rare chance to fly to Italy for free.