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JAUNTS : Art Takes to the Street : Hundreds of artists will create works on pavement outside Santa Barbara Mission for the annual 'I Madonnari' festival.

May 26, 1994|JANE HULSE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Artist Phil Roberts draws the faces of celebrities on the posters he designs for the movie industry, but this weekend he'll be down on his hands and knees re-creating the work of Michelangelo--in chalk.

Roberts will be among hundreds of artists scrunched down on the pavement outside the Santa Barbara Mission for the three-day "I Madonnari" Italian street painting festival.

This is a chance to see art in the making. The plaza in front of the mission is divided into 200 squares, each ranging from 4-by-6-foot to 12-by-12. As thousands of people watch, artists--some professional, many not--transform the squares into chalk art.

By the end of the third day, the drawings are done. Many are spectacular reproductions of classical art. Others are wildly contemporary, like one last year of a shark in a swimming pool and another of a TV dinner. Geometric designs are popular too.

The festival, coordinated by the Santa Barbara County Education Office, is free to the crowds who come each year to peruse the unusual art. But it's also a fund-raiser for the Children's Creative Project, an organization administered by the office, that brings fine arts programs into the schools. Businesses, organizations and others sponsor the artwork by buying the squares.

The idea of street art is steeped in Italian history dating to the 16th Century. Vagabond painters would arrive in small towns and transform the sidewalks and plazas into showcases for their work, which would then wash away with the next rain.

The tradition was called "I Madonnari" because the artists would try to reproduce the image of the Madonna. The Italian village of Grazie di Curtatone carries on the tradition with an international street painting fair every year in front of the church.

This is the eighth year that the Santa Barbara Mission has been the setting for "I Madonnari." It's the fifth time Roberts has sprawled out on the pavement with his pastels to re-create a classic.

This year, the Los Angeles resident will be the featured artist at the festival. He'll have a gigantic spot--15-by-20--where he plans to reproduce a portion of the "Last Judgment," painted by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel. He prefers doing the classics, rather than contemporary creations.

"I like keeping it along those lines, considering the Santa Barbara Mission and the theme of the festival," he said.

Although many artists at the festival use a grid system to sketch their work, Roberts eyeballs it freehand. He's had a lot of practice. When he was only 15 he was doing caricatures of people at street fairs. Now he sculpts, teaches art, designs shoes--all in addition to his poster art.

Even so, the rigors of street art take their toll.

"You must have on kneepads," Roberts said. "You're constantly on your knees." Not to mention killer backaches from the strain of such intense work. He hopes massages and a little yoga will ease him through the weekend.

Roberts will be working at the base of the mission. Visitors at the festival can stroll around the plaza and peruse the artwork, or they can sample Italian food on the grass where a market will be set up. Live music, even a singer performing Italian love songs, will be ongoing during the three days.

Sunday's activities will wind up with a free concert at 6 p.m. in the mission's chapel by members of the Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra.

Details

* WHAT: "I Madonnari" Italian Street Painting Festival.

* WHEN: Saturday,, Sunday and Monday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

* WHERE: Santa Barbara Mission, 2201 Laguna St., Santa Barbara.

* COST: Free.

* FYI: There is limited parking at the mission so be prepared to track down a spot in the area, which is mostly residential.

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