As virus retreats, chalk artists eager to hit pavement at Lake Worth Beach Street Painting Festival
Updated: Feb 23
WHEN THE COVID-19 pandemic wiped out the usual slate of chalk art festivals around the United States, California artist Naomi Duben improvised outside her Century City home.
Using her driveway as a canvas, she chalked a variety of colorful images, including an Alice in Wonderland cheshire cat. As she worked, a rotating audience of social-distancing admirers organically transformed her practice sessions into a one-person mini chalk art festival.
“I made friends with dog-walkers, the mailman, the UPS guy. Everybody who saw it loved it,’’ she said.
“It was when spirits were low and people could go outside and see this grinning cat with ‘hang in there.’ It made me realize the impact art could have on people.’’
While solo chalking and virtual online festivals offered unconventional outlets for artists in 2020 and 2021, there’s no substitute for the energy of a large outdoor event. That's why Duben and hundreds of other chalk artists can’t wait to hit the pavement this weekend in downtown Lake Worth Beach.
After a one-year hiatus, the Lake Worth Beach Street Painting Festival is back. More than 600 artists will transform Lake and Lucerne avenues between U.S. 1 and Federal Highway into a vibrant gallery this coming Saturday and Sunday, another milestone on the road to post-pandemic normalcy. Admission is free.
It’s the latest outdoor event in Palm Beach County this year, joining large public gatherings such as the South Florida Fair in January and the Artisgras arts festival in Palm Beach Gardens this past weekend.
Chalk art festivals around the United States have been returning since last summer. Four months ago, Chalktoberfest attracted a crowd of 100,000 in Marietta, Ga., the same number of people the Lake Worth Street Painting Festival has attracted in past years.
Whether those crowds return this weekend remains to be seen. But regardless of how many show up, artists and diehard festival goers can’t wait to hit the streets.
“We need a return to normalcy,’’ said Erik Geenawalt, a chalk artist from Pittsburgh who, like Duben, will be among the 25 professional “featured artists” this weekend in Lake Worth Beach.
“If you can't be outside enjoying the creation of art, what’s the point? I look forward to seeing all the people again and getting back together after two long years,’’ he said.
For the first time, the city is producing the 2022 festival, replacing a non-profit that had run the previous 26 events, including a virtual festival last year. (The non-profit was voluntarily dissolved by its board of directors in April 2021.)
As city officials began planning the logistics six months ago, an obvious question took priority.
“How do I safely bring in artists and patrons and do it in a way where everybody kind of feels like, ‘OK, I can hang out here for a little while?’’’ said Lauren Bennett, the city’s director of leisure services.
The city believes it has come up with solutions that should offer comfort for anyone heading downtown this weekend.
Mask wearing is optional. Masks and hand sanitizer — 15,000 ounces worth — will be available for visitors on every block. Along the two avenues, some spaces that would have served as artist canvases in past years will be incrementally left vacant.
Those empty spaces will be filled with COVID-19 safety signage and should “allow for a gap to hopefully alleviate not only the pressure for people outside the stanchions but also kind of give the artists a bit of breathing room,’’ Bennett told city commissioners during a presentation Feb. 15.
Those measures are important since visitors in past years have crammed shoulder-to-shoulder on crowded sidewalks to watch the artists at work.
“Things get pretty concentrated as people get enthusiastic and want to get in there,’’ said City Commissioner Christopher McVoy, who asked Bennett to elaborate on the safety measures, which are not mentioned on the festival website.
“Although we like to think we are out of the woods on COVID,’’ he said, “we don't seem to be 100 percent there.’’
While there’s always a risk of catching the virus in any public setting, the latest statistics offer encouragement, with new infections and positivity rates continuing to drop in Palm Beach County, mirroring a nationwide trend.
And one widely -respected medical expert offered a cautious endorsement for people who want to safely attend the street painting festival.
“I would go,’’ said Dr. Larry Bush, an infectious disease specialist at Wellington Regional Medical Center, noting other recent large outdoor events like the Super Bowl.
“I probably would wear a mask. And I know people will say, ‘But I am outdoors. Why should I?’ Because you're gonna be face to face with people who are talking to you and the virus can infect you. Is it likely? No. Statistically, it's unlikely. So it’s a personal decision.’’
Many of the professional artists coming to Lake Worth Beach this weekend have been chalking at festivals since last summer, even during the omicron surge.
“The Lake Worth festival is shoulder-to-shoulder with people at its peak, but I have no worries,’’ said chalk artist Jeff Pilkinton of Fort Wayne, Ind., who plans to chalk a portrait of Jim Carrey as “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective’’ this weekend.
"If they're having the festival, it must be close to normal.''
Pilkinton, who said he’s vaccinated, said he felt safe while participating in Chalktoberfest.
“Doing live festivals is what it's all about,’’ he said. "You're interacting with the crowd and you're working next to your friends and you got the whole atmosphere of a festival. I feel like this is just going to be a normal event.’’
But other featured artists plan to exercise more caution than they had before the pandemic.
Jessi Queen, whose work is featured on the 2022 festival poster, and her husband Zachary Herndon are taking several steps to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus to their two children, ages 1 and 4, in Atlanta.
Instead of sharing a house with other artists as they had while participating in past Lake Worth Beach chalk festivals, the husband-and-wife artists are staying by themselves.
They also plan to focus more on completing their art this weekend than mingling with the crowd as they’d enjoyed doing before the pandemic.
“There's absolutely some level of anxiety,’’ Herndon said. “We can control what's happening inside of our homes, but when you travel for an event you sort of put yourself at risk. After vaccines came out, that mitigated a lot of the fear. We’ve also had our boosters, so we feel very good about it.’’
And just as artist tool boxes include sheets of plastic to protect chalk creations from rain, Queen and Herndon plan to bring plenty of hand sanitizer, wipes and masks.
“People always ask about the threat of rain at every chalk event. In a way, this is the new rain. We just have to mitigate what happens,’’ Herndon said.
Professional artists enjoy another safety measure because they work inside a space away from the masses.
“We’ve got this zone around us. We’re in our sanctuary,’’ said Duben, who said she participated in a Minnesota chalk festival last fall with no problems.
“I’m just really excited to be at an event again,'' she said. "Something was missing for me when I was drawing in the driveway at home. There was a lot of solitary time, drawing in the quiet. When I went to Minnesota and heard compliments and questions from strangers, I was like, ‘Oh, this is the part I miss.’’’
Queen, keeping the safety of her children in mind, said she hopes her street canvas is next to one of the spaces the city plans to keep empty.
“In past years it’s been a wall of people on all sides. They spill their drink on me and there’s cigar smoke. There’s no getting away from it,’’ she said.
But the bottom line for Queen and Herndon: They’re thrilled to be chalking again in downtown Lake Worth Beach, one of their favorite festivals, even in the new normal.
“It’s about the performance, creation and sharing those moments with people, which you can’t do at a museum because in a museum the artist is rarely standing next to their work,’’ Herndon said.
Greenawalt, who said he might chalk Kevin Costner’s “Yellowstone” character this weekend, remembers participating in the last outdoor Lake Worth Beach Street Painting Festival in February 2020 just weeks before the arrival of COVID-19.
“It’s a bit bizarre to look back at that time, to see all the crowds and three weeks later the world shutting down and where we are now,’’ he said. “But it’s going to be great to be back down there and, fingers crossed, the worst of this pandemic is behind us.’’
(Special thanks to Jon Faust for use of his photos.)
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About the author
Joe Capozzi is an award-winning reporter based in Lake Worth Beach. He spent more than 30 years in the newspaper business, mostly at The Palm Beach Post, where he wrote about the opioid scourge, invasive pythons, the birth of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and Palm Beach County government. For 15 years, he covered the Miami Marlins baseball team. Joe left The Post in December 2020. View all posts by Joe Capozzi.