Paint The Town
What to do when you want to promote your city’s artistic flair, but have had your fill of arts and crafts shows? Look down, at all that lovely, blank asphalt.
The Elmira Street Painting Festival turns the streets of the city into canvas and turns 150 artists loose with pastel chalks and their own creativity. The result is a kaleidoscope of color and design that lends itself perfectly to a summer weekend. July 6, 7, and 8 is the weekend this year and Jennifer Herrick-McGonigal is crossing her fingers for clear skies and big crowds. She’s the executive director of Elmira Downtown, a not-for-profit corporation whose mission is the administration of the city’s fifty-two-block Business Improvement District, planning and managing special events, including a weekly farmer’s market (elmiradowntown.com).
“Years ago, Elmira did something called Arts in the Park. It was a great event, but when I moved back to the area in 2007, I wanted to try something different,” Jennifer says. She heard about the elaborate street painting that went on in Lake Worth, Florida, and headed south to learn all she could. Eleven years ago, the Elmira Festival began with thirty-five artists.
“The city is doing so much to grow and embrace activities that encourage people to come downtown. I wanted this festival to grow along with the city,” Jennifer says.
That it has done. Those 150 artists include six professionals, all of whom submit samples of their work ahead of time. The rules are simple and allow for a wide range of pictorial subjects. (Go to elmirastreetpaintingfestival.org or call Jennifer at  734-0341 for more information.)
“No religion or politics, especially these days,” Jennifer laughs. “And nothing offensive. One year we did have a depiction of Michelangelo’s David, but that’s one of the great master works, so it was allowed. There was an Abraham Lincoln portrait that people still talk about. And one year, there were paintings of Jack Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe on opposite corners. That got a lot of smiles.” In 2010, the region celebrated the Year of Mark Twain and the legendary author’s library of works provided much fodder for artists. “Often they will depict iconic landmarks of the area. We encourage them to use the rich history of our city as inspiration,” Jennifer says.
One of the most anticipated aspects of the festival is the “Chalk It Up” program, which offers kids from third grade to high school seniors a chance to participate with their own artistic efforts, culminating a four-week program under the guidance of local artists and art teachers. The kids get spaces four by six feet big to express their talents. Last year, seventy kids took part; Jennifer says the best part is watching the growth of the young artists over the years.
“We’ve had kids who started in the youth program and moved right up to the adult level,” she notes. There are prizes for the three best efforts by kids and several categories for the adults, including Best in Show, Most Original, and People’s Choice. There is no cost to artists unless they don’t register until the day of the festival—then there is a small fee. “Artistic folks sometimes forget the detail stuff like that.” Jennifer sighs.
Vendors will showcase regional arts and crafts. The restaurants will be offering their best dishes and music will fill your ears while your eyes feast on the art. The street painting dovetails into another event on that Friday night. Alive After Five is a celebration of the end of the workweek that brings people downtown for music, food, and special business promotions. While that is happening on Friday, July 6, the street festival volunteers will be marking out 100 squares for artists to produce their magic.
Let’s talk about where those squares are. The City of Elmira has been “very kind” to the festival, according to Jennifer, which is fortunate, because shutting down city streets on a summer weekend needs to be a group effort. From Friday at 8 p.m. to Sunday, July 8 at 7 p.m., vehicular traffic is prohibited on West Water Street from the Clemens Center to Columbia, and North Main Street from Ferris Street (Southside) to Church Street. The awards ceremony happens at 3:45 on Sunday.
Visitors are encouraged to come watch the artists in the creative process and see how the paintings develop. “Our artists are the stars of the show,” Jennifer says. “They spend up to sixteen hours on their creations, down on the hot pavement. And they know their work is truly temporary.”
Ah, the fleeting existence of street art. The artists come equipped with tarps and the full knowledge that Mother Nature could wash all their efforts away with one of our region’s sudden, intense summer storms. They are a resilient bunch and, if the heavens open, they simply wait it out and re-draw the areas that have been muddled. “The streets are all slightly crowned, they are higher in the center to allow for drainage,” Jennifer says, showing off the knowledge she gleaned from her colleagues in the public works department. “Did I know that? Not before all of this!”
Jennifer admits that re-opening the streets after the festival is hard. “Watching that first car drive over those wonderful paintings, it just breaks my heart.” But, if the weather cooperates, the images are visible for a couple of weeks, prompting smiles from drivers, even in rush hour traffic.