KC Chalk and Walk Festival this weekend focuses on 3-D images

Houston-based muralist and chalk artist Anat Ronen is one of the featured guests at this weekend’s Kansas City Chalk and Walk Festival. The event showcases more than 100 artists — from students to virtuosos — who craft temporary masterpieces on the pathways at Crown Center Square.
Houston-based muralist and chalk artist Anat Ronen is one of the featured guests at this weekend’s Kansas City Chalk and Walk Festival. The event showcases more than 100 artists — from students to virtuosos — who craft temporary masterpieces on the pathways at Crown Center Square. From the artist

Hollywood filmmakers spend millions of dollars on state-of-the art equipment and processing to produce 3-D movie images.

Anat Ronen creates the same effect with a piece of chalk.

“The most important part is the idea. That can take five minutes or take five months,” Ronen says of her three-dimensional artwork.

The Houston-based chalk artist and muralist is one of the highlighted guests at this weekend’s Kansas City Chalk and Walk Festival. The event showcases more than 100 artists — from students to virtuosos — who craft temporary masterpieces on the pathways at Crown Center Square.

Most of the guest illustrators demonstrate their expertise in 3-D street paintings, which are two-dimensional images that provide breathtaking optical illusions when viewed from certain perspectives. It might be a waterfall descending into the ground or a colony of bats flying up from a cavern.

“So much work goes into this — even things that look very simple,” Ronen says. “During the execution of it comes the math or how to distort it correctly. Then you have to do it with all the shading right so the effect will be powerful and memorable.”

Lotti Halpern, the executive director and founder of Chalk and Walk, says the 3-D contributions to this eighth annual gathering promise to generate an element of surprise.

“People will ask, ‘How did they do that?,’” she says.

How they do that involves quite a bit of formulating and hard labor. It’s a toss-up whether it’s the scorching heat that can prove more daunting or the hours of physical toil (some of the artists kneel on skateboards while working).

This year’s theme involves games.

“Games can be 20 different things: outdoor games, board games, children’s games, baseball, soccer, video games — we’ve gotten a lot of video games,” Halpern says. “And I’m still a Ms. Pac-Man fan, so I don’t know what most of these new games are.”

One of the key games is actually more of a contest. Halpern sent out a challenge to members of the arts community to submit a short paragraph explaining, “How does art inspire you?” Five entries will be selected by Ronen, who will incorporate the winners into five 4-by-8-foot murals she creates at the fest. (Those interested in being included can still submit a paragraph to kcchalkandwalk@aol.com before Friday.) A sixth mural will be dedicated to the legacy of arts advocate Steve Metzler, who recently died of heart failure.

Ronen plans to meet with the applicants prior to the event to get to know them and their stories. Even so, she already has a clear vision in mind for the half-dozen plywood panels.

“Each portrait will be painted on a separate background with a separate color,” says Ronen. “It will be a colorful series of portraits looking at each other or looking at us, depending on how my photo shoot goes.”

This project was borne from a massive mural she completed in Houston.

“Not everybody (in KC) knows what I’m talking about, and they’re cautious because they’re afraid I’ll paint them in a way that doesn’t look like them. But I did this 250-by-18 feet mural with 55 people. Hundreds more wanted to be in it. People are really amused by this forum of making them immortal. You paint them somewhere and they stay there, regardless of what happens in life. Even though in Kansas City it will be on a panel; that panel will be displayed somewhere else, perhaps for years and years,” she says.

Ronen, however, never studied to be an artist.

By her own account, she spent most of her adult career as an “office mouse,” doing administrative work. She didn’t even pick up a brush until 2008 — coincidentally, the same year that Chalk and Walk launched.

“From the many different jobs I got to do when I didn’t have a real profession, you gather a lot along the way. When I came to that moment where I started doing art, I had some life experience that goes well with what I do now,” she says.

Her work has taken her to festivals throughout the U.S., Europe and the Middle East (Chalk and Walk provides her first opportunity to visit KC). After stints living in Miami and a small town in Michigan, Ronen now enjoys being embraced by the arts community in Houston.

“Houston is not pretty. That gives a whole other meaning to being able to do beautiful things in an ugly place. Four years ago I went to a street-painting festival in San Diego. That place is stunning. It’s beautiful. But I was like, ‘What am I doing here?’ If you’re going to have an amazing festival with an amazing backdrop, it’s just more of things you already have. I think it’s more of a good deed to do art in places that don’t have all that,” she says. “I feel like Houston needs me more.”

That spirit of giving back to one’s community fits in well with the imaginative vibe of Kansas City, a metropolis that likewise lacks the natural charms of San Diego. That’s also what led Halpern to establish Chalk and Walk even though she had no artistic experience herself.

Taking inspiration from the La Strada dell’Arte street painting event of the 1990s, the sales and event-planning veteran “decided to start my own festival.”

She says, “Not everybody can go to an art gallery and pay to see art. Not everybody can afford to take an art class — a lot of the schools don’t even have art classes anymore. Might as well give them a taste of the arts for free.”

Halpern expects 13,000 to 15,000 people to attend this weekend. She says the affair typically draws a range of ages and cultures. The performance-art atmosphere keeps patrons amused.

“You might be looking at a piece of artwork on the ground, then somebody next to you will take out a violin from a case and start playing. It’s a European-style feeling where there are surprises everywhere. It might be a hula-hooper or whatever. It’s not a festival; it’s a happening,” she says.

This will be the first year of Chalk and Walk to really stress the 3-D facet of this medium. Halpern hopes local artists will take the time to study the intricacies exhibited by the invited guests — Ronen, Nate Baranowski, Jennifer Chaparro, Ever Galvez, Hector Diaz and Ken Mullen — who combine originality with mathematics to devise their memorable works.

“I don’t improvise much for 3-D,” says Tampa artist Baranowski, who spends a day designing and another preparing the design for chalk.

“I must skew the original image to make it look 3-D from one angle. This is done with a computer program and with quite a bit of trigonometry.… I like to work out the piece beforehand, as far as dimensions, and trust my math. That way I know the piece will not turn out wonky at the end.”

Baranowski says the most misunderstood aspect of being a chalk artist is that viewers assume he is bothered by the fleeting nature of the artwork.

“I hear the statement a lot, ‘After all this hard work, aren’t you sad this will wash away?’ As long as I’m able to finish the piece and take some final photos, I’m very content with the piece being temporary,” he says.

“Part of the uniqueness of the art form is that it’s on the street for such a short time, and if you can get out to see it in person, you are looking at something that no one else will be able to see in person ever again.”

Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”

Saturday and Sunday

The Kansas City Chalk and Walk Festival is from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday at Crown Center Square, 2450 Grand Blvd. The event is free. More info at KCChalkAndWalk.org