Begun twenty years ago as a simple celebration of chalk art, Midtown’s Chalk it Up Festival has grown to become one of the signature events of the Sacramento summer. Held each year on Labor Day Weekend, the three-day gala raises money to benefit children’s art education and draws tens of thousands of visitors to Fremont Park to listen to live music, mingle with friends and check out one of the largest Chalk Art Festivals anywhere in the world.
Over 250 sidewalk squares – each sponsored by a local business, person, or civic organization – will be decorated with chalk drawings created by area artists who donate their time and talent. Ranging from virtuoso realist portraits, to cartoons, to simple geometric designs, the illustrated squares shine like jewels from the pavement. The drawings take anywhere from one to three days to create, and many squares feature drawings that would be equally at home in most Sacramento galleries.
A separate area is reserved for the public to create their own sidewalk art and a Born In Sacramento area is set aside for native Sacramentans of all ages. Drawn with soft chalk pastel mixed with water, the art will not be removed until the end of the month so that it may continue to be viewed and enjoyed by curious visitors.
During the long weekend, local bands and other performers, all donating their time, will entertain the crowds of spectators. Vendors will offer short-order food and a beer garden supported by Lagunitas will supply beer served by the Sacred City Derby Girls. Music, food and drink, laughter and joie de vivre will be the order of the day.
Unlike corporate or official city-sponsored events, Chalk it Up is the project of a small band of volunteers. From early April until late September, the group meets for a weekly huddle around a Midtown coffeehouse table to labor over an annual effort dear to their hearts, and unique to the city. The lineup of volunteers has changed over the past two decades, but the commitment to children’s arts education and arts activities has not. As a result of their work, over 500 arts scholarships have been provided to Sacramento area children, and numerous arts projects have been created through Chalk It Up.
This year, as Chalk it Up celebrates its 20th birthday, board members and volunteers can look back over a rich history that began very quietly in the heart of Downtown. Although many people were a part of Chalk It Up’s development, Amy Chow, a Downtown merchant with strong ties to the artistic community, is generally credited with being the moving force behind its creation. Chalk it Up began modestly with two small festivals held in Cesar Chavez Park. In its third year, the newly expanded festival was moved to its present location, and in 1999 substantial improvements to Fremont Park provided additional sidewalk space and facilitated additional art squares.
That same year, the first festival preview party, held at the Art Foundry Gallery, brought artists, sponsors, volunteers and friends together. Four years later, when founding board member Rick Best died, Chalk It Up began providing art scholarships for the California State Summer School of the Arts and prizes for area student art shows were funded in his memory. The following year, a new generation of Board members was introduced, total arts education grants exceeded $50,000, total funded art projects passed the 160 mark, and two scholarships were provided.
2005 was a big year for Chalk it Up. It marked the first year that Sacramento businesses sponsored every square surrounding the park; the beer garden got a much needed face lift; interactive space was made a part of the children’s area; and new food and arts vendors were added. A generous donation from the Nancy Hill Wright family helped to provide a record number of student scholarships, many awarded for the High School Self Portrait Show at 20th Street Gallery. Since that pivotal year, the festival has continued to grow with added activities and a determined effort to make it more eco-friendly.
To help promote this year’s festival, Chalk It Up joined the Crocker, Center for Contemporary Art, Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission, and Downtown Sacramento Partnership in facilitating a series of temporary murals painted on the façade of a derelict Downtown J Street building. Julie Beckner, DSP’s Programming Manager, describes the project as “a way to support our identity as an arts friendly city.”
Chalk it Up has enhanced the lives of not only the children who have been the recipients of its arts scholarships, but also the people who have labored to produce and guide it over the years. Most volunteer artists return year after year, and most board members have long histories with the festival.
Laura Kass, who served on the Board from 1996 to 2003, caught Chalk it Up fever from her first experience with the festival. “I was working at the Crest Theatre when Amy Chow called and asked me to do some volunteer work. I went over to the festival and was hooked. I especially loved the way the money realized from the festival was used to directly benefit the kids.”
MidMo’s own Liv Moe started as a volunteer artist in 1996, and eventually served on the board. “Lots of people deserve recognition for their work with Chalk It Up – too many to mention,” she says, “but in recent years Susan Orr, an artist coordinator, and Leta Wrightsman come to immediate mind. Leta ran the show and had a hand in every detail. She was amazing.” Current Board Members Darby Flynn, Suzanne Mayes, Desiree Mann, Jerry Perry and Allison Wells have paved the way for a smooth 20th Anniversary year.
Once a modest exercise which originally involved the chalking of a few sidewalk squares, Chalk It Up has become an ever growing Sacramento gala that closes the city’s summer and ushers in it’s fall, recognizes and celebrates its emerging art scene and contributes to the art experience and education of its young people, helping to assure Sacramento of a brighter future.
If you are interested in being a sponsor, volunteer, donor of service or material, entertainment or chalk artist, or craft or food vendor, go to chalkitup.org.