by Molly Oleson
“The first time I saw it, it was just kind of mind-boggling,” says local artist Joel Yau, of walking through San Rafael streets that had been transformed to masterpieces by artists toting colorful sticks of chalk. “Art on the street? In two days? Really?!”
One stroll, 15 years ago, through the Italian Street Painting Marin event—an annual, two-day tradition that honors the street painters of Italy—and Yau was hooked. Since that first encounter, he’s collaborated on countless 12 ft. by 12 ft. pieces with friends, and has branched out on his own to dream up work for street painting festivals in cities across the country, as well as in places like Mexico, Germany and the Netherlands.
Next weekend, Yau will join more than 100 artists, or Madonnari (street painters), for the event, which was created in 1994 by Sue and Joe Carlomagno, after the art form first appeared in Santa Barbara in 1987.
“It’s their baby; it’s the passion,” Yau says of the couple, noting that they’ve traveled around the world to seek out painters and bring them to Marin. “They really champion the artists.”
Yau credits Kurt Wenner, an American artist who spent half his life in Italy, for bringing pavement art to the streets of America.
“He’s really the godfather of street painting, and perhaps an art form,” Yau says, noting Wenner’s impressive and popular 3D work, which appears and then disappears on pavement around the world.
Although many disagree about where street painting first began—some say Florence, and others Venice—it is believed that the Madonnari date back to 13th century Italy. Last year’s event in Marin featured street painters illustrating California in the 1940s, and this weekend, Carnevale di Venezia will be the theme. In addition to talented local and international artists, visitors can expect a lively parade of costumes featuring models in Venetian cloaks, and elaborate masks made by Novato artist Veronica Venezia DeMartini.
One of Yau’s favorite parts about painting on the pavement en plein air is the dialogue that happens between artists and onlookers. Yau, who is finalizing sketches for this year’s Carnival theme, says that he even invites the most curious admirers to crouch down with him and lend a hand if they like.
“It really is something,” he says.
The Italian Street Painting Marin festival, a program of the EveryLife Foundation for Rare Diseases, takes place on Saturday, June 27 from 10am to 8pm, and on Sunday, June 28 from 10am to 6pm at 5th and A streets in downtown San Rafael. Tickets are $5 on Saturday and $10 on Sunday; children 12 and under are free. For more information, call 415/884-2423, or visit italianstreetpaintingmarin.org.