The Transiency of Street Art: An Interview with François Pelletier

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Pelletier working on ''Judith and her Maid."

Pelletier working on ”Judith and her Maid.” A. Gentileschi, Ottawa, 2011. Photograph taken by Philippe Sabourin, courtesy of Francois Pelletier. All rights reserved.

Hand me some chalk and I’ll draw the lines and numbers for hopscotch. If I have a variety of colours, I might even draft some primitive trees and a few stick people. For me, that’s the extent of my creative abilities at the best of times. Besides, the chalk work on the sidewalk will just wash away in a day or so.

For François Pelletier, however, chalk and the sidewalk are his media; he’s very serious about his work. He is a classical artist with considerable talent in re-creating famous works of art using coloured chalk as his paintbrush and a sidewalk as his canvas. It’s not very permanent, as weather and trampling feet wear down the image until it is gone forever.

Masterpieces on the Sidewalk

Pelletier has made a name for himself around the world for his masterpieces on the sidewalk.

One wonders, though, whether it’s the art itself or the making of the art, the artistic performance of chalking a famous image on the sidewalk and conversing with onlookers while he works – perhaps this is serves as an additional element to the art form. Or, perhaps Pelletier’s work is an installation piece which, not unlike the landscape installations of Robert Smithson (1938-1973), whose Spiral Jetty (1970), an earthwork installation intersected the placid space of Great Salt Lake (Utah), that demands the active participation of people who wish to study it, or just walk its spirally length.

Spiral Jetty is a work that is constantly changing, much like Pelletier’s work and, as such, we can see both artists’ installations as a statement in itself of the transiency of art, the transiency of life, the transiency of the actual creation of the work.

I talked to François Pelletier, here is what he shared with Decoded Arts.

Interview With François Pelletier

EJHO: François, tell me a bit about yourself. You’re obviously a skilled and talented artist. Did you have artistic training? Who or what artist inspired you the most?

FP: Thanks. I grew up in an artistic family, my father being a painter/sculptor and my older brother, Gabriel, being a very talented and productive artist. Being exposed to arts through my childhood encouraged me to try to improve my drawing in general. I attended De La Salle High School from 1995 to 2000 in Ottawa. De La Salle has a good art program where I became familiar with different media: acrylic paint, prints making and photography amongst others. It was in those years that I started chalk art in the downtown core of Ottawa. 

I started a program in Religious Studies at the University of Ottawa in 2002. I took a year off to travel to Paris in 2005-2006 where I had the opportunity to see up close many art pieces that I had already reproduced through the years. I realized how much we understand better an art piece seeing it in person rather than in books or online. 

Working on the streets brought me in direct contact with the broad public and I was able to exchange techniques and tricks with many people with different art skills and different backgrounds. I always tried to listen to critics and learn as much as I could from them. 

Who are my influences? It is my brother Gabriel who first inspired me to do chalk art. Seeing him in action inspired me to do the same a few years later. So it is fair to say that my brother is the artist that influenced me the most in my formative years as an artist. I eventually became familiar with other chalk artists, firstly online and later during my travels. I especially admire Kurt Wenner’s work. On a broader level, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael, Titian, Tintoretto, Caravaggio, Vermeer, Rembrandt, Gericault, Delacroix, Watteau (and many more) are masters I love to study.

EJHO: Why chalk? Why create art on pavement using a medium that will disappear quickly? It’s a transient form of creating art, what is it about this medium that attracts you?

FP: Naively, I started doing this thinking it was just so cool (following my older brother’s footsteps). Then, thanks to people’s generosity, I figured I could make a job out of it so I did it on a regular basis, mostly on weekends since there are more people in the downtown area. I would say that I was eventually hooked without never exactly knowing when and why. 

It quickly appeared to me that chalk art was a trade, which is a skill that you can always improve. Its particularity is that its result is not permanent, not stable. As a matter of fact, once you are done with one part of the piece, another part has already been transformed a little by footsteps or by the elements. So, to me, it is always a work in progress in which the process of creation is more important than the finish product itself.

EJHO: Since your art form is so transient, so temporary, is it the act of creating the work that is really the art itself? Do you see your medium and methods as a form of performance art? I mean, you are doing your work outside in the public, you are creating classical images, often reproducing famous works of art – you must spend considerable time interacting with passers-by. This in itself is part of your creation, the dialogue between strangers. And then, after the work is complete, the act of trampling feet and weather changes the work until such a time as it disappears completely. In some ways, I see this as a type of performance art, where the viewer and the surroundings affect the longevity of the creation.

FP: Yes, I guess you sum it up well, it is a form of performance art in which public interaction is at its core. Sometimes, I think I spend more time interacting than drawing!

I love reproducing classical pieces. I love classical art and I love to try to understand it. It happens that classical art also speaks to a wide range of people, which makes my work accessible and somewhat popular.

Street Artist: Origins of Chalk Art

EJHO: How do you feel about the term street artist? Does this aptly describe your work?

FP: I think it is a very broad term, but yes it sure applies! Chalk art takes its origins in a 500-year-old Italian tradition called Madonnari (Italian for Madonna painters). Artists started reproducing famous pieces with chalks and other non-permanent materials on the grounds in front of churches or in folk festivals in Italy as early as the sixteenth century. 

I am doing the same thing now in 2014 in public places around the globe and in a very traditional way since I reproduce classical masterpieces almost every time, like the early Madonnari. From this perspective, I am even proud to have my line of work labeled as street art because it is exactly what I do.

Pelletier's 'Victorious David"

Pelletier’s ”Victorious David (Detail), Caravaggio, Ottawa, 2011. Copyright photo courtesy of François Pelletier, used with permission. All rights reserved.

As a spectator, I love it and as a creator, I love it even more! I am hooked! As I explained earlier, to me the process of creation becomes more important than the end result itself. All of that work gives me so much personal satisfaction, by making it the best I can and becoming better at it slowly every time.

People’s appreciation is also a direct gratification for chalk artists, for myself anyways. Positive or negative reactions from the public will affect my motivation and my drive. There is obviously a form of exchange at that level and I’ll do better if the public’s reaction is positive. 

Added to that, the commercial aspect is also very gratifying because by doing what I love doing and people giving me what they want to give me, I believe it is a perfectly honest way to earn a living. (I must add that I consider myself extremely lucky to live in a time and place where this is possible.)

The product cannot be priced in any way since it can’t be sold, only appreciated. Those pieces belong to everyone, but they are owned by no one. It forces people to make a judgment call when it comes down to what they should say or give, or not say or not give. I think it puts things into perspective in a very accessible and public display.

EJHO: Why do you reproduce famous images? Is there something in the art (from what I’ve seen of your work, primarily images created in the Renaissance) that speaks to you? That speaks to your choice of medium?

FP: I love figurative work where the emphasis is on the human figure. I also love compositions that, while pleasing to the eye, tell a story. So, it is fair to say that I am a fan of Renaissance and Baroque art for those reasons. 

Popular pictures such as Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci, or The Girl with the Pearl Earing by Vermeer (my favorite portrait overall) are good crowd pleasers. I keep them up my sleeves for popular occasions or busy weekends to make the best out of it.

Chalk Painting Colours: Pastels, Tempera and More

EJHO: I have to admit that I’m amazed at the range of colours you create in your images. I hadn’t realized there were so many rich and varied colours available in chalk. Can you mix the colours like you would with paint on a palette? What is your technique for shading, for creating the chiaroscuro around the figures?

FP: People commonly call it ‘chalk art’, but in fact it is a mixture of chalks, soft pastels and other temporary media. I started recently to use tempera paint for certain monochrome surfaces (mainly skies or dark backgrounds). Soft pastels offer a wider range of colors than chalks do and they also allow shadings and depths that chalks could never duplicate due to their poor pigmentation. 

I apply the pastel directly onto the pavement and then use my fingers to rub it in. I then apply subsequent layers of different colors, always rubbing with my fingers to get the right shadings. I find that chalks make a good base color since they are very powdery and smooth. It makes it easier on my fingers. I mostly go from light colors to darker colors. I prefer using my fingers for shading as I can feel how hard or how soft I am touching the medium, which allows me to control the result better. I will also use a paintbrush dipped in water to settle the powdery surface at the edge of a sharp line in order to define it better. I then retouch the matte effect left by the dried pastel by rubbing it gently with my fingers again. A plastic carpet brush makes a perfect eraser for big blunders.

EJHO: Here’s a trivial question – how much chalk do you use in a typical day of creating?

FP: A 3 days creation will take around 100 sticks of pastels. One drawing costs about 150 dollars of pastels.

EJHO: You have travelled the world, creating sidewalk chalk paintings wherever you visit. Do you get similar reactions from people in all of these countries?

Sharbat Gula

Pelletier’s Photo of Sharbat Gula by Steve McCurry, Sparks Street, Ottawa, 2010. Copyright photo courtesy of François Pelletier, used with permission. All rights reserved.

FP: The reactions range from extremely positive to extremely negative everywhere with probably 99 out of 100 being in the positive spectrum. Without being able to explain precisely why or how, reactions are very similar in nature everywhere, but they do have a cultural core that differs from one country to another. This makes it extremely interesting.

Having studied a bit of sociology and anthropology at the University of Ottawa (finally finished my Bachelor in Religious Studies in 2007), I have often thought about this and compared reactions as I travelled doing my art.

EJHO: Do you see yourself, ten, fifteen years down the road, still creating chalk paintings? Is there another medium you wish to explore, something more permanent?

FP: I do see myself doing it in fifteen years, but not on a permanent basis because it is too physically demanding. It is especially hard on the back, being crouched over a drawing for so many hours. I will certainly try other media when I finally decide to hang the skates, probably acrylics and oils.

EJHO: Do you have a favorite work that you created? What and where was it?

FP: I was proud of the photo-realism effect I manage to get on Steve McCurry’s young Afghan girl in 2009 in Ottawa. There are a few Caravaggio reproductions that I thought came out well because of the chiaroscuros that made them come out of the ground I recall The Musicians, Victorious David, detail of Madonna dei Pellegrini.. I have done hundreds of pieces and it is hard to chose one in particular.

Francois Pelletier’s Legacy

In spite of the temporary state of Pelletier’s magnificently-created art, observers remember both his work and the interaction with the artist, leaving a long-lasting legacy in an unusual art form.

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