The Kennedy Center

Edwin Fontánez’s Washington Chalk Festival


Man's desire to make his mark has been around since the first cave dwellers decorated their walls with images of the world around them. Whether trying to capture and interpret an artistic impulse or relay a fragment of history aesthetically for generations to come, art has always been the tool of choice. Ever since, even the smallest child knows the joy of filling a sidewalk with colorful scribblings…

It was with this primal urge in mind that Exit Studio decided to bring a chalk festival to Washington, DC. The International Chalk Festival, initiated in 1992 in Puerto Rico by artists Carlos Rivera and Denis Rodriguez, selected several locations, including Mexico, Washington, D.C., Argentina, and Puerto Rico, and held the event on the same day. The Washington Chalk Festival was created as an offshoot of this in 1993.

The first year's gathering at the playground of Ross Elementary School in the Dupont Circle neighborhood was modest (our host neglected to send out the notices!) but walk-in participants still covered the asphalt with colorful and imaginative self-expression. Local artists served as guides and inspiration, as they created art side-by-side, filling up the ground with explosions of color.

For the second festival in 1994, the Capital Children's Museum hosted the event in conjunction with their Hispanic Heritage Celebration. This time the activities received press coverage from as far away as Puerto Rico while the pool of artists increased, making it a "must" event, for spectators and artists alike.
In 1995, Edwin Fontánez's Washington Chalk Festival was invited to the Open House Arts Festival at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and instantly found its perfect fit and audience, initiating a decade-long partnership. This annual free event draws as many as 15,000 arts enthusiasts who come to view the art and participate in the chalk creations.

The festival has involved many local artists over the years with quite a few returning multiple times. Artist Michael Walberg was always a familiar sight, easily recognizable in his gold turban. He was a kid magnet who was never afraid to get covered in chalk dust in pursuit of interacting with his audience. In 1996, when the Kennedy Center's celebrated its 25th birthday, the Chalk Festival had a record number of participants, with twenty-two artists coming together to create works on large, four-sided towers and on the grounds of the main plaza.

Over the years, the Open House has had various themes that have been reflected in the chalk art. 1997 brought a Salute to the Circus and the artists created leaping tigers, big top scenes, and colorful clowns--all while a real tightrope walker balanced overhead! A Celebration of Latin America was featured in 2000 and the art was filled with vibrant colors and exciting rhythms.

In 2002, the Chalk Festival invited a guest artist from Canada and almost set off an international incident! Artist Sean McDonough traveled from Toronto to participate in the event but at the U.S. border he was detained, questioned about his reasons for entering, and denied entry. Fortunately, he was admitted on his second attempt to cross and arrived in time to join us. The incident was even reported on in The Washington Post who tried to get to the bottom of the Customs agent's arbitrary actions and although they were unsuccessful in getting an explanation, they provided us with a priceless anecdote!