Chalk the Walk festival will celebrate Cinco de Mayo by covering Mount Vernon with chalk art

Chalk the Walk festival

Mount Vernon, Main Street — Saturday, May 5 at 10 a.m.

Chalk the Walk attendees unveil the festival’s 2016 community centerpiece: a chalk recreation of Norman Rockwell’s “Dugout.” — photo courtesy of Joe Jennison

Mount Vernon is embracing street art — at least the kind drawn in chalk.

The city’s 13th annual Chalk the Walk festival will be held May 5 and 6. From 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. both days, 500-plus artists will turn more than half a ton of chalk into temporary sidewalk art, spanning roughly three city blocks.

Chalk the Walk is Iowa’s largest Madonnari festival. “Madonnari” is an Italian word referring to chalk artists or street painters (so named because Italian street artists would often depict images of the Madonna, a practice dating back to the 16th century; the British call pavement artists “skeevers”). Over the centuries, Madonnari art has been used for religious festivals, political protests, performance art and, as in the case of Chalk the Walk, public art competitions.

Bryce Cox’s winning chalk piece from the 2017 Chalk the Walk festival. — photo courtesy of Joe Jennison

Joe Jennison, director of the Mount Vernon-Lisbon Community Development Group, a co-organizer of the festival, said all 160 8-by-10-foot segments of sidewalk have been claimed by artists, who began signing up in March. The artists can chalk whatever they want in their rectangle, competing for $1,325 in cash prizes. Judges for the competition are Alisa Dodge, creative director at Iowa Public Television, and Alex Carls, visual arts teacher in the Springville Community School District. There will also be prizes for the people’s choice and artists’ choice pieces.

The main prize is $500 — $250 up front, $250 for returning the following year as the featured artist. Sure enough, last year’s champion, Bryce Cox, will serve as the featured artist at this year’s Chalk the Walk.

Non-competitive chalk enthusiasts will have ample opportunity for artistic expression as well. The public is invited to help recreate “Cinco de Mayo,” a painting by New Orleans-born, California-based artist Robert Rodriguez, as a 34-by-44-foot mural on Mount Vernon’s Main Street. The centerpiece was chosen to coincide with this year’s Chalk the Walk theme, Cinco de Mayo. The image, depicting two traditionally-garbed Mexican dancers, was the basis for the 1998 Cinco de Mayo stamp jointly issued by the U.S. and Mexican Postal Services.

“The Wizard of Oz” inspired the 2010 Chalk the Walk community centerpiece. — photo courtesy of Joe Jennison

Chalkers of all ages and abilities may contribute; a $10 donation to the festival buys a box of chalk and a two-foot square of the community mural.

“Of course, all of Mount Vernon is open to anyone to chalk on that day,” Jennison wrote in an email. This includes streets, sidewalks and parking lots — just not historic buildings. “If someone purchases the $10 chalk, we ask them to do one 2’x2’ square on the main piece and then they can be creative anywhere in town that isn’t already spoken for.”

If you want to keep your knees off the concrete and your hands dust-free, festival-goers are invited to attend piñata demonstrations at 11 a.m., 1 p.m., 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. both days. Children 10 and younger may sign up to take a whack at a piñata and earn candy and prizes.