CLEARWATER – It was the fall of 2012 and a what-the-heck event called the Clearwater Beach Chalk Art Festival made its debut in less-than-ideal conditions.
“I want to say there was only five of us,” Cass Womack, a Brandon resident who was one of the original artists, said. “We didn’t know what to expect.”
Certainly not that they were braving the elements of an annoying storm that would eventually become the deadly and devastating Hurricane Sandy.
“You’d put a piece of chalk down and next thing you knew it was gone,” Womack said. “There was wind and sand and our materials were blowing all over the place.”
That daunting start, however, did not put a damper on the event. In fact, it enters its seventh year with more than 40 artists ready to bring to life the BeachWalk area with a cornucopia of colorful creations. The event takes place Friday, Oct. 19, through Sunday, Oct. 21, and is free.
“We get big crowds there these days,” said Womack. “There’s a lot of interest from the public.”
You could say that chalk has become the talk of the town.
“This has become one of the most sought-after festivals in the country,” Womack, who has never missed the event, said. “It draws artists not only nationally, but internationally.”
Despite that soggy start, it was season 2 that likely what got her hooked for good as far as Clearwater is concerned.
“I had just had a baby a month earlier and I wasn’t in the best physical shape,” Womack said. “In fact, I remember being so tired.”
But she pressed on and, inspired by her brand-new daughter Cora, the mermaid Womack created for her not only served as a memorable tribute but it garnered the first-place prize.
“That was special,” she said.
Last year, little Cora joined Mom at the age of 4, coloring in the outlines Womack prepares. The first creation was “Daniel Tiger at the Beach” – based on the Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood series.
The first outing was a good one – so much so that Cora will be back this year.
“She did great. It being her first experience, I wanted to see if she had the patience to stick with it and the setting at Clearwater Beach was perfect for that,” Womack said. “She could go away, play on the beach, and then come back to it. The casual vibe there is ideal.”
That goes for Womack as well, whose breaks in the action last year included a boat trip with other artists for the sunset.
“We even saw dolphins,” she said.
While the event is a competition, Womack said that interacting with the other artists, many of whom have become close friends, is what fuels her fire.
“It’s nice to see the reactions, which are encouraging, and receive the awards – they have a people’s choice one that is considered a best in show – but really for us it’s about the chalking and connecting, talking about art, and walking the beach together.”
And she marvels at some of what is produced by her peers.
“Some of the 3-D ones are amazing,” Womack said. “You have them where it looks like you’re feeding fish, or it looks like you’re surfing. There was an interactive one where you felt like you were in a wading pool.”
Womack herself dabbled in that form with a “hidden gator” creation a few years back.
While Florida sidewalks are known for having shell rock mixed in with concrete, often resulting in a bumpy challenge for the artists, Womack said Clearwater’s BeachWalk is uniquely smooth and well-maintained.
“It lends itself nicely to some very technical work, like portraits,” she said. “Some of the detail you see is remarkable.”
Then there are times a chalk artists must roll with the punches.
“I know stories of people’s hand being stepped on or a baby stroller going right through the middle of the fresh chalk, leaving a long rut. There’s nothing worse than that one,” Womack said. “And we’ve all had beer or soda spilled on us.
“Then there are times you get a piece of sidewalk where the crack is right where you want the face to be. It’s one of the rare mediums where you’re not in control at all. So, you have to be at peace with the idea it’s temporary art. If it rains, it washes away.
“Really, it’s performance art. You have to be in the moment. But I like that – it allows me to think outside the box and not be afraid to do something unusual or make a mistake.”
That mindset of experimentation has resulted in some of Womack’s favorites, including a funky giant crab.
This year, she has two plans. If it rains, she’ll go avant-garde and draw a little girl riding a bull down a river. If the weather’s nice, she’s going technical with a portrait of the Greek goddess Hera.
The artists usually work in spaces 5-by-5 feet or 10-by-10 feet in size. Those attempting the more elaborate productions can request as much as 15-by-30.
In previous years, different awards were assigned to different sizes, but a couple of years ago the switch was made to one overall winner.
When asked the number of colors typically used in a design, Womack could only laugh.
“For me, all of them,” she said. “I’ve gone through the whole crayon box and even invented some of my own pigments.”
When pinned down on the subject, she said 52 to 60 different colors are usually at her disposal.
And with that, she’s ready for another go at it on the BeachWalk.
“It’s my favorite place, whether I’m drawing or not,” Womack said. “And has everything going for it, and the chalk festival is icing on the cake.”
IF YOU GO:
What: The 7th annual Clearwater Beach Chalk Art Festival, presented by the Clearwater Beach Chamber of Commerce.
Where: The BeachWalk area at the south end of Clearwater Beach.
When: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 19, and Saturday, Oct. 20. 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 21 (“People’s Choice” winner announced at noon Sunday).
FYI: The event also features live music, food vendors, arts and crafts vendors, a Kids Zone and games.