Imagine spending six to eight hours on a downtown sidewalk, working to create an artful masterpiece. Think about the concentration it would require to put together a large-form intricate piece and how difficult it might be to complete while observers take photos, ask questions and sing praises for the work.
That’s exactly what skilled artists participating in the annual Downtown Yakima Chalk Art Festival are up against as they create their sidewalk works of art. But the community engagement that this type of set-up allows for is the purpose behind the event.
Like so many other local events affected by the coronavirus pandemic, the annual fall festival’s facing some long odds this time around. The need for social distancing might push the event off this year’s calendar.
“With COVID19, the status of this year’s event is still to be determined,” according to Andrew Holt, executive director of the Downtown Association of Yakima.
But it’s hard to erase creativity. Just ask the artists who take part in the chalk festival. For them, art is often an expression of passion or feelings, while for others, it’s all about sharing and interacting with the community. For the past several years, this community event has provided an outlet to achieve both.
Downtown Yakima’s Chalk Art Festival launched in 2015 and at the time, many of the events hosted in downtown Yakima were geared toward adults, such as the popular Roots and Vines Festival, and Blues and Brews.
“The goal was to offer something on a Saturday to bring adults and families downtown,” said Holt. “It was an opportunity to bring all members of the community to the downtown for a fun day of art and coming together.”
The event has always been held the second Saturday in October. Since its inception, the event has received high praise, earning an Outstanding Promotional Event of the Year Award from the Washington Main Street Program in 2017. It’s an event that’s inclusive to all ages and demographics, it’s family-friendly and free for everyone. And most important, it demonstrates that downtown really is for everyone to enjoy.
The first two years of the festival were fairly grassroots. The Downtown Association of Yakima offered chalk to artists, along with families visiting downtown, and everyone was left to their own artistic devices. The area of North Third Street where the event is held wasn’t blocked off the first two years, as the popularity for the event hadn’t picked up yet.
“The third year was when we made it more of an event,” said Holt. “We blocked off North Third Street, added a few food vendors and introduced the People’s Choice award.” Since then, the event has only continued to grow.
The first Chalk Art Festival attracted a few hundred people, while the third year’s attendance increased to an estimated 500 to 750. By the fifth year, the festival was visited by close to 1,500 people.
The Downtown Association puts a call out for artists months before the event, working with local schools to share the opportunity and posting it on Facebook.
It’s free for artists to register. They’re given pastel chalk and told to report whenever they’d like, as long as their piece is completed by judging time.
The number of skilled artists varies each year, but the event has seen between 20 and 30 artists in recent years.
“It’s a great opportunity for artists for this medium,” said Holt. “A lot of artists love doing chalk art, but there’s not a lot of opportunity for it.”
For Miguel Cuevas, the Chalk Art Festival has been an opportunity to share his passion for art.
“I started drawing when I was 6 and just loved it ever since,” said Cuevas. “I’m 35 now and still enjoy that festival because it’s fun to have something new to create.”
Cuevas has won People’s Choice for the past two years, as well as awards from the judges.
“It’s a challenge at times, but it’s worth it when I see the finished work,” he said.
Cuevas is looking forward to having his daughter participate with him at the next festival, as it’s the ideal opportunity to get kids involved in art.
As the skilled artists adorn the streets with their intricate designs, the other side of the event comes into play: welcoming families downtown. Families are free to stroll around to view the skilled artists’ work, while the sidewalks are opened up for visitors to chalk their own masterpieces.
“We always have artists, but it’s nice to mix the skilled artists with people who want to have a great time with chalk,” Holt said.
The Downtown Association of Yakima hands out chalk to families, allowing them to draw on the sidewalks, often on a chosen theme. Themes over the years have included celebrating Dia de Los Muertos, along with highlighting superheroes and favorite movies.
As the event has become more structured, the Downtown Association has brought in additional food vendors and local youth musicians to make a day of it.
“We want to continue to grow the event, but at the same time, we want to make sure at the core it’s an event for kids to come down with family and feel comfortable spreading out and doing chalk,” said Holt. “It’s a great way to meet your neighbor and it’s a nice mix of a community event and art event.”