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Chalk artists embrace the fleeting nature of their work


Kara Hoblin of Greenport is professional chalk artist known as "The Chalk Girl" who spends countless hours on illustrations for everything from menu boards for restaurants to self-portraits. "It allows you the ability to let go," Hoblin says of the ephemeral medium in which she works. Credit: Randee Daddona

Maddy Bartolo is responsible for the menu patrons see at the Harvest Moon Deli in Ridge, but it is a feast for the eyes only, because hungry stomachs can’t handle the main ingredient — chalk.

Bacon, orange slices, strawberries, ham, eggs and vegetables share the chalkboard with script and cursive letters describing Monte Cristo and Italian Stallion heros, omelet and wrap selections like the Hungry Girl and the Amigo, and a breakfast bowl devoid of cereal and milk.

Bartolo, 29, of Riverhead, who has a young son and works in marketing, does chalk art in her free time. She said she draws inspiration from social media. She grew up doodling with a love of typography and got her start about three years ago, after creating a chalk piece for her sister’s wedding.

The wedding planner took photos of it, and the piece was so well received that Bartolo said people began requesting her contact information.

“It’s not just something in a classroom anymore,” Bartolo said of chalk-based art. “People are using it in so many different ways.”

In residential applications, chalk paint in different colors has grown popular in children’s bedrooms and in kitchens, where doors and walls become surfaces to jot down errands and grocery lists. Retailers have used it in advertisements and on circulars, and chalk typography in particular has graced magazine and book covers, and is being used for posts on Twitter and Instagram.

On the streets of Long Island, chalk art enlivens the pavement, especially 3-D creations of superheroes, animals, waterscapes and other scenes that seem to emerge from holes in the asphalt or sidewalk. Chalk art is not only the star of festivals held annually in Riverhead and weekly in Long Beach, but it’s making its way into restaurants, such as First and South in Greenport, vineyards and on seating charts for weddings and party invitations for children.

Using chalk to create art dates back to the Stone Age. It was popularized in sketches in 15th century Europe by Renaissance artists, among them Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Rembrandt, and became a common tool to create art. Today, several U.S. artists draw upon this history by creating chalk renditions of Renaissance paintings at festivals across the country, including California, Wisconsin, Florida and Indiana.

Kara Hoblin, 27, of Greenport uses chalk to design pieces ranging from chalkboards the size of a 15-inch laptop to sidewalk artworks measuring two or more king-size beds. The photographer-turned-chalk artist started using chalk after meeting Sarah Phillips, owner of First and South restaurant in Greenport. When Phillips learned more about Hoblin’s background and that she painted while growing up, she asked Hoblin to design the 25-foot chalkboard in her restaurant.

Hoblin redoes it every month. One board for the holidays used a cursive script and depicted Santa and his reindeer flying overhead, and another featured a ship on the water with a setting sun.

Phillips said the restaurant’s previous owner had the chalkboard and that she decided to keep it.

“I thought it was a really great way to show seasonality . . . the ability to change with the season the same way we change our menus,” she said.

Hoblin, known as “The Chalk Girl,” has a range of clients, including companies and other restaurants that want menus or welcome signs, and a man who commissioned her to create a chalkboard with a surprise wedding proposal (the bride-to-be accepted), she said.

“I’m glad it randomly came into my life,” Hoblin said of her chalk endeavors.

Though her menu board at First and South has a long shelf life, other artists’ chalk creations are not made to last. Many are drawn on sidewalks or the pavement at street festivals, in front of businesses and in private driveways. Footprints, tire tracks and inclement weather can wipe away hours or days of tedious work. Onlookers and fans of chalk art bemoan the ephemeral nature of the pieces more than those who create it.

“It allows you the ability to let go,” Hoblin said. “Chalk is in natural form inviting to change and to acceptance.”

Street painter Katie Better, 29, of Glen Cove uses chalk to create pieces that measure at least 8-by-8 feet on public surfaces where anyone can see and interact with her work. She said chalk allows artists an opportunity to release and let go.

“One of the kind of unique aspects of street painting is that the real art for us is making it, and when it’s done, we snap a picture and walk away,” said Better. “We leave it to the elements, to the world, for whatever to happen to it to happen.”

Before things get to that point, Better, who creates images in chalk at festivals around the country and at a weekly event in Long Beach, wraps her hands with athletic tape and grabs a kneeling pad as she begins working in the street or on the sidewalk. She said she is drawn to saturated colors and subjects such as eagles and other animals, as well as people of color.

She got her start with chalk art while working at a video game company in Tampa, Florida. A co-worker introduced her to the medium and taught her the basics.

“Chalking made sense to me,” said Better, who is a motion-capture animator for Manhattan-based video game company Rockstar Games. “Working with the color with my hands and blending it tangibly with my hands actually helped me understand color in a way that working with paint never could.”

Street painting is perhaps chalk art’s most recognizable form. The art is temporary, created outdoors and is often done on a large scale. It can take hours to create, as artists often use several colors and sizes of chalk, rely on water bottles to spray the chalk down and erasers to remove and blend colors.

Chalk also has become a way to build community and offer family fun and entertainment through local festivals, where people can see the creation of chalk works from beginning to end. Such is the case at the East End Arts’ annual street-painting festival on Memorial Day weekend. This was the 20th year of the event, which features dozens of enthusiasts and professionals creating squares of chalk art on Main Street in downtown Riverhead.

Patricia Drake Snyder, executive director of the nonprofit and founder of the Community Mosaic Street Painting Festival, said over the years the festival has grown to include a few hundred painting squares and about 5,000 visitors. She said she thinks more people are becoming aware of chalk art. The festival has remained a meeting place and starting ground for several Long Island chalk artists, such as Bryan Landsberg, 37, of Centereach.

Landsberg, who graduated in 2001 from LIU Post with a bachelor of fine arts degree in graphic design and fine arts, credits the festival as the reason he started doing chalk art in addition to the many other mediums he uses as an interdisciplinary artist.

“I just work with whatever I can get my hands on,” said Landsberg, whose work focuses on religious icons that are inspired by stained-glass work.

As more people become aware of chalk as a medium, artists are hoping that it translates into bigger and stronger chalk art communities on Long Island. Some are even taking steps themselves to try to promote these communities.

At her upcoming chalk art show, “The Art of Letting Go,” to be held Aug. 28 at Heron Suites hotel in Southold, Hoblin plans to collect signatures of support for a Long Island art collective that she hopes will lead to the establishment of a space where artists can work collaboratively.

Her show also will give non-chalk artists the opportunity to experience part of what chalk means to Hoblin and other artists — letting go. At the end of her show, Hoblin and attendees will erase all her work in a celebration of accepting life’s tendency to change and present challenges.

Better said she agrees Long Island needs more spaces for the growing chalk art community, and she hopes that if she and other artists continue to create, that community will materialize.

“I’m really happy to be here because chalking is finally being recognized on Long Island,” Better said.

A gift to viewers

Rod Tryon has spent decades traveling the world, creating 3-D chalk art that takes hours to complete but can’t stand up to a deluge of raindrops, footsteps or tire tracks.

And he’s fine with that.

“That makes it more special,” said Tryon, 62, who grew up in Pennsylvania and lives in Santa Barbara, California. “It’s just a gift to those who get to witness it.”

Tryon’s creations — a toucan perched on a branch resting on a bed of tropical leaves, a sorceress summoning a mass of blue butterflies — seem to rise out of the sidewalk or a hole in the street. Curious onlookers can stand next to the artwork and create the illusion they are on a cliff or in a hole. His works range in size but can be as large as 12 feet wide by 20 feet tall, or about the size of two king-size beds.

Tryon has been a chalk artist for 29 years and is now working with anamorphic 3-D perspective, which allows chalk art to appear 3-D in a photograph. Tryon, who majored in art at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania, ensures his pieces are 3-D by creating a sketch — the most important part of his process — of the 3-D dimensions and perspective using a camera and tripod as a guide. He then moves on to fill in the colors, shadows and highlights that make the rough sketch come to life.

Tryon said it takes up to 30 hours over a period of one to two days to create chalk pieces of this magnitude. He works by himself but said he assists other artists from time to time. Tryon said he sometimes gets paid for his work, but does it now mostly for fun.

The physical demand of crawling around on hot asphalt for hours has gotten harder over the years, Tryon said. But he continues because he loves working with audiences and influencing those who might not make it to an art gallery or museum.

“It’s . . . a lot of work, hard work, but fun,” Tryon said.

— Bailey Williams

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