As the sun began to move across the sky, The Marketplace parking lot began to come to life Saturday morning.
By mid-afternoon, the outlines of a rendition of one of Mary Swanzy’s cubist landscapes began to take shape. Two rows over, a husband-and-wife team worked with painstaking detail on fine-tuning a variation of one of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo’s colorful paintings. Lakers’ great Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gigi, who were killed in a helicopter crash in January, were immortalized in colored chalk in another 7 x 7 square.
It was all part of what has become an annual event in Bakersfield, the Via Arte Italian Street Painting Festival, which invites artists to showcase their talents through chalk drawings on the blacktop, and also serves as one of the biggest fundraisers for the Bakersfield Museum of Art. It continues Sunday.
Understandably, the 22nd version of the event had a different feel with the COVID-19 pandemic forcing participants to adhere to several safety precautions, including mandatory masks, extra spacing between artists’ workspaces and one-way directional paths to funnel onlookers safely past from a separate entrance to the exit.
“Because of the pandemic world that we live in right now, it’s looking a little different,” said Amy Smith, executive director of the Bakersfield Museum of Art. “We’re just really grateful to this community and to the health department for allowing us to bring a little bit of art, love and sunshine back to our community this year.”
In the interest of safety, event organizers also limited participation to adult artists only. That led to a decrease from more than a 100 typical participants to 63 on Saturday. In either case, Smith was happy with the turnout.
“We’re really proud of the artists that came out,” Smith said. “I think it’s phenomenal. We’re grateful for The Marketplace and all the sponsors for their continued support of this.”
Although Smith said she never gave up hope, with all the cancellations of other events during the pandemic, there was some uncertainty about whether the event would go on.
“I am always the optimistic person,” Smith said. “I am the glass is half-full girl, so I had always hoped in my heart that it would continue. But when The Marketplace came to us and said ‘we really want this to happen,’ then we were really motivated to work with the health department. It was quite a laborious process. I had to go through many, many iterations of a nine-page site plan to get permission to ensure the safety of our spectators, of our artists and of our staff and volunteers for this. But we feel like we’ve got this managed.”
Managing things was good news for Reema Hammad, a professional photographer, who has participated in the event since 2009.
“I think the biggest draw for me is the process of having to create something, even though it’s temporary, having to create it and having people see it, and see what you’re working on ... it’s about the experience,” said Hammad, who graduated from Cal State Bakersfield with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts.
“My whole life I was always interested in fine arts and drawing and painting. My focus was always abstract and cubist style. I just connect to it more because a lot of people just see things differently, not just the same way. And that’s what I like about it.”
Leslie Aldridge, an adjunct professor of performing arts at Bakersfield College, was also happy to hear the event was not going to be canceled. She and her husband, Daron Wilson, were working together on their drawing for the third time since moving to Bakersfield in 2013.
“I think it’s important just because it’s something that Bakersfield offers that gives a little bit of art and culture in a different sort of way,” said Aldridge, who doubles as the 2020 Mrs. Bakersfield. Her reign was due to end on Sunday. “I mean it’s an outdoor venue, the chalk doesn’t stay, it’s temporary. And people just come to appreciate it. They all love seeing stuff like this. They love getting out and seeing something a little bit different.”
Wilson also enjoys participating in the event and feels working with his wife has helped make their relationship stronger.
“I feel like for us, it creates good endorphins, and it’s good collaboration,” Wilson said. “Maybe some couples being together a lot, doing certain things like this they may butt heads, but I feel like it draws us closer together in our relationship. It’s something we look forward to each year.”