Chalking It Up At Courthouse Square, Redwood City, CA

I appreciate a well-executed artistic composition and can cobble together a decent looking craft project or two. But I’m no artist. So when my artist husband hinted he wanted me to help him create a chalk sidewalk painting, I thought I’d be more of a hindrance. The chalk painting started at 7 a.m. on the 4th of July at Redwood City’s Courthouse Square. There was no way I’d be getting up that early to apply chalk to cement. If John wanted to go, fine but I’d be in bed for another few hours. However, John was tired from his work week and was ready to go to the festival at noon. I was up by then so I tagged along toting water bottles and a roll of paper towels.

When we arrived at the festivities, the parade crowds were just breaking up. We were definitely getting a late start. After finding parking, we booked it over to the chalk art sign in. I spotted our “canvas” right away, a blank 12’x 12’ space for Art Bias wedged between already completed chalk paintings. Art Bias is the San Carlos art community, where John rents his art studio. Many artists had left or were putting finishing touches on their large scale chalk art. Upon check-in we received two boxes of pastel chalk starter kits with basic colors and were pointed toward poster paint we could use to even out the cement surface.

Laying out design in black chalk

Woefully behind from the moment we arrived, I wondered where John’s art compatriots were because we could have used a few more hands. I had come to support John because I knew this was something he wanted to do after watching other artists work with chalk at festivals. I didn’t realize we’d be staring down an outdoor shed-sized space, with festival goers walking past and wondering why they were seeing a huge blank cement square.

With no option but to get started, John jumped sketched out where his portrait of Uncle Sam would lay within the square. Next, he painted white poster paint on the ground where Sam was to go. I filled in the remaining background with gray paint we mixed from our two options, black and white. Once we got our foundation down, we put the paint rollers away and stopped to get lunch while it dried.

Prepping the "Canvas"

Before we left our square, I heard a passerby say something like “This one’s weird,” after she looked at our sea of gray with white splotch in the middle. “It’s not done,” I called after her. She seemed to turn and look at me like maybe she didn’t realize I could interact with her, since I was inside the cordoned off area. “It’s not done yet,” I said again with my hands on my hips. I was taking ownership of our burgeoning creation.

After lunch, I let John go back to the square on his own. His heart must have sunk when he went back to conquering the huge task on his own. I walked around other parts of the festival and found there was a chalk art alley on the street divided into smaller squares. The size wasn’t as impressive as the one we were dealing with but a lot more manageable.

Between completed chalk paintings

I went back over to where John was hard at work. He had drawn in Uncle Sam with black chalk. I pulled up a knee pad and asked him how I could help. “Oh good, you’re going to help me with this?” He seemed relieved. “If not me, who?” I asked, or at least thought. I started with Sam’s hat filling in patriotic blue around the hat’s white stars, then filled in red vertical stripes. I caked the chalk on. I had tried to mix the chalk into the painted surface, only to pull the chalk dust up with the paper towel I was using as a mixing tool.

Filling in with color

John worked on Sam’s face blending red, peach, white, and black to get his features to stand out, nose, lips, eyes, beard. John blew on an area of extra chalk dust only to create a dust bowl sized cloud which carried across the courtyard on a gust of wind. At one point, John went to ask one of the experienced chalk artists how they got their chalk to adhere to the ground. What they did differently was bring their own high-quality chalk in an array of color shades, and they methodically applied the chalk to the ground. These guys got to their spot early and stayed late getting all the details down. Since good chalk and loads of time were not an option for us, we continued to cake on the dust to simulate vibrant color.

John filling in areas

We kept at it. I filled in Sam’s white hair, trying to “draw” in the boundaries of his hair only to be vetoed by the artist. I had to laugh at John for wanting to be precise within the context of how far behind we were. But I didn’t let his exactness stop me; I knew he needed my help. So I caked blue chalk on Sam’s jacket, added a light layer of yellow to his shirt and blending it with white for a creamy appearance. After all the colors were down, John re-drew the definition in black chalk and created Uncle Sam’s iconic finger pointing at the viewer.

As the event organizer packed up for the day, we finished our piece. Festival-goers interested in how our square turned out swung back around our aisle. A few let us know they were glad to see we got it done, and a few people took pictures of it.

Our creation was not the best, but it was patriotic in celebration of the 4th of July. We did our best for first-timers who didn’t fully realize what they were getting into. John’s drawing talent shown through especially at the end where he quickly and expertly added the definition that gave shape and life to the chalk painting. After taking pictures with Uncle Sam, we left Courthouse Square and tried not to think of the city workers who’d soon be by with power hoses to wash it all away.


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