by Cassie Stephens, Art Teacher, Johnson Elementary | Photography by Tiffani Bing

The history of sidewalk chalk festivals, or, for those of you in the know, street painting, surprisingly goes back to sixteenth-century Italy. The Madonnaro were homeless artists who created lavish images of the Madonna, their namesake, in front of cathedrals in hopes of earning spare change from passersby. From this, Madonnari, or street painting events, evolved all over Italy. Twenty years ago, street painting made its debut right here in the US, and it’s been growing into a movement of performance-meets-fine-arts since.

I was fortunate enough to host Madonnaro Lee Jones at my elementary school for two days. Lee has traveled to Italy to participate in Madonnari events as well as working right here in the States. You can often find her chalking her elaborate designs for Disney in her hometown of Orlando as well as street painting events near and far. Her largest street painting to date? A massive 25-foot image of Marvel super heroes in 3D.

When Lee agreed to come to my school, speak with my students, and engage my second-grade artists in a street painting event, I was ecstatic. My students often learn about artists who are dead dudes: from van Gogh to da Vinci, they can name them all. But to introduce a contemporary female artist was a thrilling thought—not to mention one that was a performance artist, as the art of street painting is one part performance. What more authentic and unique experience could I provide?

And then, I looked at the projected forecast: RAIN. Lots of it. What to do? After some big-time brainstorming, I came up with the idea of the children chalking on ceiling tiles. We have removable ceiling tiles in my school, as most do, which have a surface and texture akin to that of a sidewalk. So with the help of our incredible custodians and parent volunteers, we got enough ceiling tiles, chalk, and supplies for eighty second-grade students to create their very own chalked butterfly masterpiece. Butterflies play a big part in the second-grade curriculum, so this was a big hit with the children and their teachers alike.

While the children worked on their masterpieces, which will be permanently installed in the ceiling of our schools, Lee worked on her image of our school mascot, the tiger. What an incredible memory Lee provided for my students—all of us working with the same supplies and a common goal: completing a chalked masterpiece. We all became Madonnaro on that day. And rain, no shine, it was an experience they won’t soon forget.

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