It began with a sign. Not a metaphysical one, but an actual sign on a locker room door that read: Chalk Artist Wanted.
University of California art student Jay Schwartz was ready for a little inspiration — and a different type of gig. He was a bit tired of doing pastel murals on paper, which he found “problematic, cumbersome and very messy.”
“Why not use the ground as a canvas?” he said. Jay made a call and was soon the chosen chalk artist for the prestigious I Madonnari Italian street painting festival in 1992.
“I came in cold,” the 48-year-old admitted. “I had no idea what I was doing. I was so stupid. It was 95 degrees that day and I had no hat. I worked with my shirt off. I was 22, with no sunscreen and no kneepads.
“I was chalking and drinking beer by three in the afternoon,” he said with a laugh during a call from his Las Vegas home. “The next day I was lobster-fried, grilled, toasty with no skin
on my knees. Just a mess. But it didn’t matter. I fell in love with the medium of chalk art. It was for me.”
Now what Schwartz does is for everyone who happens to pass by his street canvas.
The artist — who also has done graphic art work for companies including the Hard Rock Hotel, Caesars Palace, Eddie Bauer and Yahoo through his IdeaWork Studios — will provide a live art exhibition at Chalktober Fest on Oct. 20, at Skye Canyon in northwest Las Vegas.
One of many chalk art festivals popping up around the country, this one is in its second year. Last year’s fest included 45 artists from professionals to high school students vying to win up to $750 in cash. Participating artists will create their interpretation of the essence of the city for this year’s theme, Spirit of Las Vegas.
That was a draw for Schwartz, who splits his time between Las Vegas and Santa Barbara, and is now a veteran of chalk art competitions including recent ones in Italy, Mexico, Japan and the U.S.
“It’s always good to come out, meet the community and get family and kids involved,” said the artist. “But the theme this year being the Spirit of Vegas really touched me. Obviously, it has been a challenging year for Vegas, but the community really came together after the Oct. 1 tragedy.”
At Chalktober Fest, Schwartz expects to interact with spectators. “People tend to come up and ask what I’m doing and how I’m doing it. That’s part of the process of chalk art. People tend to get involved with the artist.” There will be other opportunities to interact with artists at the festival’s vendor village, where local artists will showcase and sell their work. Children also can join the fun through creative activities geared to them, including chalk art.
The fleeting nature of chalk art doesn’t bother Schwartz. “Once I’m done with a painting, I’m done. It’s no longer mine,” he said. “If it lasts for people to enjoy it after I’m done, great. If it washes away, so be it.
“I’m always sketching. It’s part of my DNA,” said Schwartz, who grew up in Los Angeles, is married and has three dogs. The artist only wishes he could tell you stories about chalking on his driveway as a child.
“There are none I can remember,” he said with a laugh. “But I always loved art and did become an art major at University of California, Santa Barbara.” He also studied graphic design at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena.
Schwartz’s IdeaWork company, where he is chief creative officer, was named one of the top branding agencies in New York by ratings and research firm Clutch. They have done graphic design work for most of the Vegas casino corporations, creating cutting-edge websites and campaigns for top luxury, hospitality, gaming and nightlife brands, among other clients. One of Schwartz’s first jobs was for the Hard Rock Hotel.
“I went to the Hard Rock and basically said, ‘Your marketing artwork isn’t very good.’ They didn’t disagree with me. They said, ‘If you think it’s so bad, do better.’ ” Schwartz did just that from 2002 to 2008. It wasn’t long before MGM and Caesars corporations sought his help for web development and graphic design.
“I practically grew up in the arcade at the MGM Grand as a kid. My parents were always coming to Vegas,” he said. The ties don’t end there. “In the late ’90s, my sister moved to Summerlin and then my mom and dad moved to Vegas.”
Schwartz has a condo and an office here, but his art takes him around the world. His work includes “mostly replicas. Sometimes known artists such as Diego Rivera and Thomas Hart Benton, other times more contemporary regionalist artists. I’ve always been drawn — pardon the pun — to American regionalism, WPA and art deco/nouveau. I enjoy replicating that style when I do my street art.”
Of course, there are critics everywhere when you work outside their front step. “I remember doing a chalk art competition in Italy, which was basically drawing for 24 hours straight. It takes place in the heat of August. You start at 6 p.m. and chalk until 6 p.m. the next day, stopping only when the bell rings. There are headlamps on the artists so they can see what they’re doing during this marathon night.
“There I was chalking on the asphalt of this church parking lot and this woman who lived in the corner of the piazza could see me through her bedroom window. I was drawing a cluster of nine angels and was almost done. I was mentally exhausted, plus it was murderously hot and the conditions were brutal,” he said. “The woman, who used to teach art, leaned out of her window and shouted, ‘One of your angels has six fingers.’ I said, “That’s good. He’s going to continue to have six fingers. But thank you very much for pointing that out.”
Schwartz isn’t complaining. “It is interactive,” he said of chalk art. “You can go to a museum and look at a painting on a wall. You have no contact with the artist. You don’t get to ask the artist anything. Are they quietly knocking it out? Does it take a long time? Is the artist involved? Detached? With chalking, you can be a spectator while someone makes art.”
Looking up to see young, aspiring artists watching him work is part of the thrill. “One of the things I love about this medium is when I’m down on the ground and a little kid comes up,” he said. “They’ve chalked on their driveway, so what I’m doing is accessible to them. I like to think that all of us are inspiring the next generation.”