MARTINEZ -- A decade-old Martinez festival taking place downtown this weekend traces its roots back to 16th century Italy when itinerant artists brought to the cities to work on massive cathedrals would copy paintings onto the streets and observers would throw them coins if they liked what was drawn.
"We are still doing the same thing," said street artist Christine Pasadis. "We are marketing our skills to possible art buyers who would commission a piece. That does happen, even today."
This popular art performance is commonly called Italian Madonnari because most images were of the Madonna, according to art historians.
The Street Painting Society says the first fair was recorded in 1425. But it was in 1973 in Italy when the first Madonnari Festival fused the celebration of community culture and fun with the art performance.
The winner of the annual Martinez Italian Street Painting Festival will be given a cash prize that in the past has been as much as $500. The cash is based on the financial success of the event.
The winning artist is chosen by public ballot, available at the Main Street Martinez festival booth.
Between nine and 13 competitive street artists have signed up to draw their masterpieces on either an 8-by-8-foot or a 4x8 section of Main Street Plaza.
"The Main Street Plaza will come alive with colorful chalk art for two days," says Main Street Martinez director Leanne Peterson. "We recommend you visit as often as you can throughout the weekend to watch the art progress."
The competition is open to professional, practicing or student artists with experience levels ranging from novice to expert, says Peterson. All that is required to participate is filling out and sending in a proposed art sample with an application found on the Main Street Martinez website. But competition space is limited.
Pasadis says she enjoys talking with spectators and "there is a vibe at the festival, a happy vibe; the kind of thing generated around music and food."
For chalk artists who just want to try their skills, a "Community Chalk" area has been set aside. For a $10 donation they will be provided with a box of chalk and a piece of sidewalk.
Along with watching artists work, there are nearly 100 arts and crafts booths and Italian music for visitors to enjoy.
"Last year we introduced 100 percent Italian entertainment," said Peterson.
That continues this year with Bella Ciao, performing Italian-American hits from the '50s and today. Also returning is Dean Martin impersonator, Matt Helm, and joining the lineup is Mark Shaw as Frank Sinatra.
A variety of Italian wines paired with tastes from Tuscany will be available for $20 at Roxx on Main Street. Hansen Garbarino Vinyards from Lodi will also be providing wine. There will be beer booths, said Peterson.
The Street Painting Festival is introducing a Kid Zone on Estudillo Street featuring about 10 booths with different activities, including a giant checkerboard and interactive art for children 3 and older.
People are also encouraged to stop by the bocce courts located near the Main Street Plaza to check out the players who will be on hand to demonstrate the famous Italian pastime and Martinez tradition.
Peterson and artist Pasadis suggest bringing cameras to capture favorite drawings. Come Monday, they will all be washed away.
WHAT: Italian Street Painting Festival
WHEN: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 28-29
WHERE: Main Street Plaza, downtown Martinez
COST: Free admission
INFORMATION: Visit www.italianstreetpaintingfestival.com or call Main Street Martinez at 925-228-3577