June 4th and 5th brought 200+ artists to Larimer and 14th Streets for the Denver Chalk Art Festival. In its simplest form, this a festival inviting artists to use chalk as media and the street as canvas. If you haven’t checked it out, mark your calendar for next year.
Aside from the street fair nature of the weekend, there is so much more to appreciate about the event. While the art certainly isn’t high brow (although there WAS a tent offering wine), it contains qualities of site and time restraint, scale and color attributes that any designer or creative type can truly appreciate. Its dependency on meteorological cooperation gives one a healthy appreciation for our Colorado climate. The energy and respectful nature of the people attending is just as important as the enthusiasm and talent of the artists, and the temporary nature of the “canvas” is nothing short of incredible. Start laying down color on a Saturday at 8am and “pencils” down on Sunday in time for judging. All this followed by a spectacular hose down from the fire department.
It’s not too much of a stretch to parse out some interesting architectural corollaries. With the ever present budgetary concerns in our current economy, we are being asked to do much more with far less. Consider the cost of a piece of chalk versus the cost of an equal weight of the highest quality oil pigment. Each one is capable of being wielded to amazing effect in the hands of the right artist. Close to zero budget design can still be exceptional design. The success of the design relies on the strength of the initial concept, sensitivity to the surrounding environment, and a skillful, high quality execution of the design concept.
If your site happens to include the architectural equivalents of discarded chewing gum, a manhole cover, or a crack large enough to swallow the family lapdog, close investigation of this year’s art showed any number of successful ways of negotiating the obstacle. Some chose to meticulously color it in order to camouflage its existence; matching its color and textural appearance with the surrounding material. Others chose to incorporate it into the scene as the object itself. Imagine a river scene drawn on the sidewalk being drained of its water because someone left the cover off of the manhole. In my experience, architecturally challenging sites lead to interesting structural systems, unique programming and massing options and purposeful manipulations in section, just for starters.
I also love the idea of being slave to the clock. “Produce a piece of sidewalk art X’ by X’ in 18 hours.” I recently passed on this advice to a student who “didn’t have a portfolio” to show potential summer employers. I told him to take an entire Saturday and devote it to documenting his work and process to date. Whatever he had at the end of 8 hours was his portfolio. I’m sure it wasn’t the most polished thing he ever created, but he had a catalyst for a conversation with an employer. Given the economy, he doesn’t yet have a job, but he does have the foundation of a great portfolio.
In closing, I think it’s important to remind ourselves that we might not always get what we want out of the client, the budget, the site, or our studio or job assignments. Yet, examples of great design are not hard to find. Chalk it up to great designers.