News and Tribune

September 12, 2013

MAY: Life in the streets

Local columnist

— The CNN story teaser this week caught my attention. “It all started with Madonna.”

At least it wasn’t Miley Cyrus. I wondered what atrocious thing Madonna has done to attract this flurry of media coverage. When the story began after the commercial break, the reporter continued, “We’re talking about the original Madonna.”

Sixteenth-century Italian artists paid tribute to the Madonna with chalk and pastel artwork they drew directly on the street. Madonnari, as the artists came to be called, made a living traveling from village to village crafting their interpretation of the mother of Jesus. As a result, they were able to collect coins, food and other gifts from the people who admired their work.

Often as the artists were working, the townspeople would stand and watch the street masterpieces take shape before their very eyes. The residents would talk, tell stories, reminisce, laugh, enjoy friendships and finally return to their work or daily life. When the chalk painting was completed, the entire town would gather, bringing baskets of food. Troubadours and minstrels would sing and dance, celebrating the art and the day.

Local parishes found that people were often moved to donate to the church in honor of the painting, so priests and nuns would set up tents to receive the gifts and offerings from the people.

Four hundred years later people still gather. The CNN story focused on a little town in Florida called Lake Worth, just south of West Palm Beach, nestled on the state’s legendary highway A1A. February will bring the 20th annual Street Painting Festival in Lake Worth, a tradition that is now shared in dozens of Florida cities. More than 400 artists from all over the world take up chalk and curb and begin to etch art in the asphalt. This past year, Hector Diaz and Ken Mullen recreated the Beatles’ iconic Abbey Road album cover across the main intersection of the city.

While people watch for a weekend, the art does not spring into existence overnight. It is meticulously orchestrated by the artists, many of whom come to Lake Worth weeks and months in advance to scout out their eclectic easels. Where they will work is carefully planned by the festival organizers who provide them with precisely measured areas of the street in which to create their work. Every crack, crevice or pothole gives character and challenge to the living canvas.

Over the next several weeks, bergs in metro Louisville will celebrate in the streets. Middletown, Jeffersontown and the Highlands will set aside time to be festive. Southern Indiana will not be an exception.

The river banks in Madison will be flooded with people reveling their Chautauqua. The streets of Lanesville could not hold all the people, so they will take their party to the nearby corn fields. Blocks of New Albany will be petitioned off for Indiana’s second-largest annual street gathering. Autumn on the River will make quiet streets bustle in the town of Bethlehem.

Everywhere you look, people will leave their homes and meander their way to the village square. Faces will be painted. Food will be consumed. Wares will be sold. Memories will be made.

They will assemble in the streets to celebrate life. They will gather to be reminded that there is more to this world than turmoil in Syria, than the out of control spending in Washington, than the stresses of parenthood or the cantankerous boss at work. They will wander block after block to overlook the worries about finances, the strains on their marriage, the news they just received from the doctor.

Instead they will gaze upon smiling faces, achievements celebrated, and tomorrow’s hope.

For just a few moments, they want to set aside the minute details of the sketches of their lives. In the midst of fried food, locally crafted gifts and crowded streets, they are somehow reminded that everyone is a part of a bigger picture, chalked on the streets of eternity by the Master Painter himself.

No wonder they celebrate.

— Tom May is the Minister of Discipleship at Eastside Christian Church in Jeffersonville. He is an adjunct instructor in the Communications Department at Indiana University Southeast.