Through sidewalk art, first-ever Madonnari Arts Festival aims to unify Little Italy

More than pasta: With new arts festival, Little Italy looks to highlight charms beyond food.

With lauded restaurants like Aldo's and La Tavola, it is easy to understand why city residents and visitors automatically associate Baltimore's Little Italy neighborhood with classic cuisine.

Cyd Wolf, however, wants to remind those same people that Little Italy has much more to offer than a plate of pasta and a glass of wine.

Wolf plans to prove it this weekend, when Little Italy hosts its first Madonnari Arts Festival. The free event, which kicked off Thursday night and runs through Sunday, will focus on street chalk drawings — Madonnari is the Italian word for these specific artists — but will also offer live music, theater performances and a Columbus Day parade, said Wolf, the festival's executive producer. (The festival will take place rain or shine, Wolf said. If it does rain, artists will be covered and still producing their pieces on the sidewalks.)

“This festival is not like any of the other festivals that Little Italy does,” Wolf said last week inside Germano's Piattini, the Little Italy restaurant and cabaret space she owns with husband and festival co-organizer, Germano Fabiani. “We have our eye on the future. This art show is a catalyst to really bring people to an understanding of how beautiful Baltimore is.”

The hope is to draw attention to the neighborhood through a style of street painting that has been traced to the 1500s in Italy. Artists often drew religious images, Wolf said, and attracted large crowds that watched intently as striking images of the Madonna and other Renaissance-inspired works grew from concrete.

Now, in the hands of artists like Baltimore's Michael Kirby and Florence, Italy's Flavio Coppola, chalk on the street can look as vibrant as oil paintings on canvas.

This weekend, Kirby, Coppola and more than 50 other artists will take over South High Street to create brand new works under the theme “The World Is Round: Renaissance in Little Italy.”

Part of the appeal of Madonnari festivals, which take place all over the world, is the immediate connection made between artists and observers, Kirby said recently. Everyone in attendance watches original art get made in real time.

“It makes people appreciate the piece right away,” Kirby said from his Highlandtown studio recently. “In events like these, you get to come up and speak with the people making it. You get to say, ‘How do you do that? What are you using?' … This is an opportunity where you get to see people who know how to do it, and learn from them and talk to them.”

A street painter with awards from around the world, Kirby has continued to help evolve the art form by developing and honing techniques for 3-D street paintings. Playing with light and perception, this art — which will be on display at the festival — can look like the world is caving in or you are about to walk off a steep cliff.

These skills took Kirby places he never expected.

“Now I work for corporations, events, conferences and things like that,” he said. “But before, we'd go to Dubai. We'd go to Japan — all over the place, just to do chalk drawings.”

Kirby learned the ways of the Madonnari from Coppola after the Baltimore native moved to Florence after high school more than 20 years ago. This weekend will be a reunion of the two, as Kirby invited his former mentor personally. Coppola, who began doing chalk paintings in 1990, plans to reinterpret a work by Sandro Botticelli this weekend. Like Kirby, Coppola said he appreciates that the work, by definition, is temporary.

“You create something in front of the people, and then it disappears,” Coppola said on the phone from Florence through Fabiani's translation. “It's just the memory of what you've done.”

Kirby said the ephemeral quality of chalk paintings, and the contradiction it presents in the traditional art world, is appealing.

“Generally, art is all about preserving and making it last as long as possible,” Kirby said. “This, you're dedicating sometimes days upon days, hours upon hours, on a piece, and at the end of the day, you know it's going to get washed away. For me, it's fascinating.”

Alex French — the curator of the festival, and also Hampden's Gallery 788 — said the hope is the chalk art makes passersby stop and take notice. (For the record, French said, the chalk the artists will use this weekend is much more like high-quality pastels than the chalk kids use for hopscotch.)

“Even if they stop for five seconds, you're successful. If they really get into it and find themselves in the art, then you really hit a home run,” French said. “It's even a success if people like it, but don't know why they like it. That often happens.”

While street art should draw plenty of curious onlookers, the festival — which is funded by the Associated Italian-American Charities of Maryland, PNC Bank (where Wolf works as senior counsel in its legal department), Free Fall Baltimore and other sponsors — will also feature more than 120 performance artists, Wolf said.

Laura Norris, founder of the local youth music program Mando for Kids, will lead young Baltimore musicians as they play music on bowl-back mandolins. The Baltimore School for the Arts Senior Acting Ensemble will perform scenes from Carlo Goldoni's 1746 comedy, “A Servant of Two Masters,” both inside restaurants and outside. Bocce tournaments are scheduled, and the Apple Scruffs — a Baltimore Beatles tribute band — will even play a concert on top of Germano's Piattini's roof for Sunday's finale.

Neighborhood restaurants will participate in the festivities as well, she said.

“The best part of this is you'll be able to dine al fresco, and watch the art and drink wine and eat delicious food,” Wolf said.

Wolf's enthusiasm for the event is obvious, and not only because of her obvious love for Italian culture. To her and Fabiani, the festival represents something significant for the neighborhood. They see it as an event to bring the Little Italy community together, which until recently, was not something Wolf would have expected.

“Really, it's only been since April that we started to develop friendships [with other businesses],” Wolf said. “There are a lot of old feuds here in Little Italy, but everyone has put the past aside because we're looking at the future.”

The future, Wolf said, can be seen in the influx of young professionals to Little Italy and its surrounding neighborhoods. Now, she said, is the time to unite Little Italy's lifelong residents with its new neighbors, especially given the year Baltimore has seen.

“It's true that what happened in April and May with the Freddie Gray situation brought us all closer. Suddenly we found that we were texting each other constantly to get information,” Wolf said. “Before we knew it, Germano's idea — this idea of Madonnari art, to bring it here and rebrand us essentially — it became something that was doable. He knew he needed the community in order to make it work.”

Repairing and strengthening relationships happens over more time than a four-day festival allows. But Wolf believes the Madonnari Arts Festival is a step in a positive direction, and will only strengthen Little Italy. She calls it “our inaugural event” to emphasize the hope that this is only the beginning of a new tradition.

“I hope the people coming here this festival weekend leave with that magical feeling that they were a part of something special, unique and that they say, ‘I can't wait to go back to Little Italy to see what they're doing today,'” Wolf said. “The intention is to have people come back, and keep coming back. And really, to be proud of being a Baltimorean.”

wesley.case@baltsun.com

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If you go

The Madonnari Arts Festival takes place through Sunday throughout Little Italy, rain or shine. Chalk paintings will be made on South High Street. 4 p.m.-10 p.m. today; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. Free. For more information, go to littleitalymadonnari.com.

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