Hundreds of artists flocked to the 23rd annual I Madonnari Festival this Memorial Day weekend to transform the sidewalks of the Santa Barbara Mission into works of art.

First held in 1987, the festival celebrates the tradition of Italian street painting and attracts artists from around the world to use pavement as their canvas for chalk art. In addition to the sidewalk designs, the event featured live music, Italian food and a children’s art space.

The festival’s name derives from the common Italian title for street painters – “madonnari,” or “Madonna painters” – and the practice has been a tradition in western Europe since the 16th century.
The popular event – which typically draws 25,000 people – benefits the Children’s Creative Project, a local Santa Barbara non-profit organization that funds education in the arts for over 60,000 students in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties. According to CCP board member Mark Livance, the chalk-art fundraiser was originally conceived as a way to bring art to Santa Barbara.

“We wanted to do a celebration of Italian street painting and chalk represented the perfect medium for bringing artists and their art to the community,” Livance said.

The idea, festival coordinator Marilyn Zellet said, has proven to be a major success and this year’s celebration was the biggest yet.

“We expect easily 30,000, maybe even 35,000,” Zellet said. “All the money raised by the festival goes directly to arts programs for county schools.”

The event was largely sponsored by local businesses and non-profits that purchased squares on the pavement outside the mission. Artists were then invited to create images in each space with the names of sponsors displayed above their squares.

In addition to sponsored artwork, the festival also reserves a large square for a featured artist. Jennifer LeMay, a street artist and UCSB alumnus, received the honor for this year’s event.

In her square, LeMay drew a picture of the Pacific Ocean with images of seals and seaweed beneath the waves.

“It’s been really fun doing an underwater ocean scene of the Santa Barbara Channel,” LeMay said. “[I want to] get people thinking about their local community.”

The chalk artwork routinely draws tens of thousands to the festival and Livance said the mission is key to the festival’s success.

“Without the support of the mission, none of this would be possible,” Livance said. “They really are largely responsible for the festival being so successful.”

Until they fade away, the designs will remain on the pavement outside the mission for public viewing.