You’d be forgiven for thinking suddenly, in a moment of panic, that you were about to fall down a flight of stairs that somehow found its way into a completely random point on the sidewalk.
California artist Tracy Lee Stum is famous for her three-dimensional chalk paintings that seemingly jump off of, into and away from pavement in all sorts of American cities. Her titillating designs are always original, and she paints for 10 to 20 events per year, including street-painting festivals and various community benefits.
A multi-medium artist, Stum was introduced to street painting in 1997, when she was in Santa Barbara, Calif., with her boyfriend and stumbled upon the IMadonnari Street Painting Festival.
“I said, ‘What’s that?’” she explains, laughing. “And as soon as I saw it, I flipped out and said, ‘I have to do this.’”
Her first street painting followed a year later at that very festival, where she offered an Escher-style piece with a 3-D subtext. It was unique, and Stum said she got a strong response.
“I just had this concept in my head that it needed to say something, and it was on a flat surface,” she says, explaining her affinity for the three-dimensional. She began to do more and more 3-D pieces, drawing inspiration from places she visited and everyday observations.
What she draws, she says, is reflective of a current place in her thinking; thus, some of her drawings are more playful than others.
“I have a whole list of things, in my head and on paper, that I’d love to draw,” she says. “I can just choose one and play around with it to see if it works.” Her portfolio consists of a vast array of sidewalk images, including interpretations of classical pieces by artists such as Michelangelo and da Vinci, and cultural-specific pieces like her “Big Bowl of Wontons,” which she completed for a street-painting festival in Hong Kong. “The Meaningful Game: Chess With the Dalai Lama” features His Holiness on one side of a chess board with an empty spot on the other side so anyone can join him, and “Desert Baby” shows a lanky young camel chilling out on a Persian carpet — it was inspired by her recent trip to the Middle East. All of her pieces are intended to be interactive — she creates a world different from our own that people may enter freely.
She has a design prepared for Waterfront Park, where she intends to start on Wednesday. Stum is here for the Champions 4 Her Festival, a new event that raises funds for 10 Louisville nonprofit women and girls’ organizations, including The Center for Women and Families, Maryhurst, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Kentuckiana and Project Women. The event will include other artists, as well as music, food, performances, demonstrations and free health screenings.
As one might assume, Stum says she gets backaches from working on the ground so much, and that practicing this type of art form has forced her to exercise often and stay in shape. “I’m overall much more healthy as a result,” she says.
Her favorite part about doing these drawings, though, is the communication: People often surround her as she works.
“I love that I am performing in front of people,” she says. “It’s a lot of fun for me. I’m no good at acting, so this is my substitute.”
Her paintings typically take two or three days to complete, and the one she plans to do in Louisville will take four. As well, the Louisville piece will reflect to some degree the reason she’s here: to help women.
So, just as Buddhist sand mandalas are intricate works of often-public art that, upon completion, are left to the wind to be swept back to disconnected parts, one may wonder of Stum’s work: Why spend so much time on something that is just going to wash away?
“You should always do your best, and you only have that moment,” she says. “It’s challenged me to become a better artist. It doesn’t matter if the painting lasts for a day or for a hundred years; it’s the process that counts.”
Stum has completed six projects this year and has a few more scheduled for the remainder of the summer. In addition to her street art, she recently began a career in designing textiles and carpeting, which has allowed her to return to mural painting (she spent 15 years painting murals).
As far as her street paintings go, they allow her to immerse herself in her own creativity. It’s all very Zen for her.
“I get into a place of flow when I’m working. Everything clicks; it just comes to (me). It’s such a magical place to be, and I put as much into it as I can.”
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Champions 4 Her Festival
Saturday, June 21
Free; 8:30 a.m.