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The rise of the all American chalk-in
Apart from the odd itinerant foreign pavement artist, or home-grown pioneers like Sidewalk Sam, America had never developed the depth of cultural street art as experienced in other European countries. A combination of state laws and the fact that many places remained without pavements for well beyond the turn of the century, meant that pavement art was a non-starter. Of course, places like New York City saw itinerant English artists trying their hand from the mid 1800’s. Liverpool’s own boy screever James Carling, travelled to America in 1872, and there were reports of Italian artist/scam merchants from around 1886
In 1932, New York, a local newspaper announced “An eagle-eyed reporter discovers New York’s only screever in a block of West 57th street. In London, the screever or sidewalk artist is common, especially near Trafalgar Square and London Bridge approaches.” The paper even had to offer an explanation to its readers “The screever draws pictures with colored chalks and depends upon pitched coins for his livelihood.”
It wasn’t until the 1960’s that pavement art started to make a real impact, with student led demonstrations against the Vietnam War and ‘Flower-Power’ sit-ins. Pavement art became an expression of peaceful protest, and the communal “chalk-in” became a symbol and rallying call for the disillusioned youth.
It wasn’t all political: In San Francisco, 1967; the city’s Recreation and Parks Department sponsored an official “chalk-in for all ages.” It staged it in an area where the “hippies” congregate—the rendezvous of the philosophic college dropouts and other young people. As the local paper reported “over 200 eager entrants, claimed the 200 packages of colored chalk which the Park Department had ready to distribute, some had brought their own.” The paper continued—soon the chalk artists had covered with their sketches the four-foot squares of asphalt assigned to each. Many bright, original designs appeared. Spectators crowded in.
The first rain was expected to wash away the entire exhibition. But its lessons will remain. It indicates that cities should find more outlets for the creative abilities of their youth. The San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department is on the right track in setting up its chalk-in for people of all ages and stations.
On the other side of the country, was the famous PIED PIPER OF HARLEM. British expatriate and painter John Rudge, who in 1966, started to organise his own brand of chalk-in; with the aid of a small salary from the Police Athletic League, an unofficial arm of the police department, he would go out every morning and sit on the pavement drawing pictures. During the summer, seven streets were blocked off around Harlem; children who didn’t live near a park would now have somewhere to play and make art on the pavements.
Before long, organised chalk-ins where popping up all over the US.
In 1971, the University of Chicago marked its 17th annual Festival of Arts with a “chalk-in.” The Chicago Sun-Times reported (8th May 1971)—Students (and some young campus visitors, including a dog!) participated in the Chalk-In. Participation wasn’t limited to just drawing with colored chalks, but eating al fresco, music from two bands, watching, and hopscotch games—just what comes naturally on a spring day when you’re handed a piece of chalk and there’s a handy sidewalk.
Graffiti art forms and hopscotch layouts were but a few forms that evolved in Hutchinson Court, on the Chicago University campus
In 1973, and at the Florida State University of Tallahassee, they decided to mark ‘GREEK WEEK’ with a Chalk-In. The local newspaper reported (25th April 1973)—this is Greek Week at Florida State University in Tallahassee and these sorority and fraternity members are decorating the sidewalk at the university union with the many various Greek symbols in chalk.
Working on the decorations here are—from left are Lynne Zaritzky of Hollywood, Fla, Larry Lynch of Fort Lauderdale, Karin Mayo of Charlotte, North Carolina, and Marc Campbell of the Panama Canal Zone.
Back over at Chicago, and the University was celebrating its 19th annual arts festival with another chalk-in.
The Chicago Sun-Times reported (9th May 1973)—BJ Crigger and Bob Esty draw the song, ‘Greensleeves’ during the sidewalk chalk-in at the University of Chicago, and to make sure the notes are right, Bob plays the music using a ‘Recorder’ they brought along.
The most beguiling thing about these chalk-ins is the lack of a commercial agenda; no desire to “increase footfall” or promote business interests. These where community led initiatives based on educational and social values. Long before the “Madonnari cults” and the promotion of Italian business & religious interests, something that the modern US festivals seem to have developed into.
The All American CHALK-IN represents a time of innocence born out of the peace movement, and sometimes, we just need to “get ourselves back to the garden.”
Written & researched by Philip Battle