Zen and the art of the Denver Chalk Art Festival in the rain

5 min. read
It rained over the Denver Chalk Art Festival at Larimer Square, June 1, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Phillip Bernal has beautified Denver's streets at the city's annual Chalk Art Festival for 16 years now. When the skies dumped a sudden deluge on him and some 200 other artists Saturday afternoon, he reacted with more poise than you might have expected.

"I've already had my heart broken enough to realize if you're not going to be open to the elements, then why do it, you know?"

It was a scene of artistic chaos. Some finely drawn chalk masterpieces were just muted, but others had become pools of color. In some cases, too many hues blended into a muddy brown. In others, clear lines between work were destroyed as pigment from some pieces ran into others.

But, despite the chalky calamity on the ground, every artist I spoke to shared Bernal's pretty chill perspective.

Chalk art collides in the aftermath of a sudden deluge. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Eddie Huang (left) and Daniel Chavez pose for a portrait with their portrait of Frida Kahlo. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

"Chalk art's ephemeral in nature anyway," Eddie Huang said.

He and his partner, Daniel Chavez, had painstakingly created a portrait of Frida Kahlo.

"This stuff's gone in a couple days anyway," Chavez said. "I don't think we get too attached to it."

Like other artists, the duo said they'd wait for the skies to clear and their canvass to dry, and then just get back to work.

Justin Decou was also unfazed, though he said his work is pretty quick and dirty so it's not much for him to start over.

"But, like, that face at the end," he said, pointing to Huang and Chavez's portrait, "that was some work. That sucks."

Decou, at least, said he kind of liked the way his colors ran. He and a friend smeared a teal pool around to make a textured background for a second try at his drawing.

Justin Decou's hands are covered in chalk. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Justin Decou poses for a portrait. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Samantha Nies was a little distraught when the bird motif she was helping artist Stephanie Duffy create turned into a large smudge. It was her first time at the festival, after all.

She spent the morning dreading the worsening weather report.

"I was watching it, and this morning it was only a 20 percent chance. And as the day went on, it went higher and higher and higher," she said.

But something about the medium and a sudden downpour must do something to the mind, because her outlook changed after the rain ended.

"We're going to jump back in and try to fix it," she said. "It's a new start. I gotta try to stay optimistic."

Samantha Nies poses for a portrait. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
This is what Neis and Duffy's piece looked like only an hour before this photo was taken. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Chris Carlson is one of the festival's featured artists and a professional chalk worker who travels all over the country to events like this. Going with the flow is second nature now, but it wasn't always so easy.

When he was first starting out, he said, "I would have tried a lot harder to protect any bit that I could. But you kind of learn with experience that it's not really possible and it's not really worth the effort. The mental stress would have been more damaging than anything the rain could have done."

These days, when he brings his work home to Denver, he brings some nonchalance and a plan.

"In Denver, I always make my design flexible so that if the rain does come I can eliminate an element and still finish on time," he said.

Eddie Huang said that's just the nature of working here.

"You never know in Denver," he said. "It is what it is."

Chris Carleson poses for a portrait. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Pigmented chaos in the aftermath. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
While the rain vacated some canvass squares, the crowd lingered. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Phillip Bernal (right to left) poses with his assistants Sheridan Vigil and Brennan Livingston. Their work, done with pastels and not chalk, amazingly survived the downpour. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

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