Exploring the World of Street Painting

An Interview with Tracy Lee Stum

Tracy holds a Guinness World Record for the largest street painting by an individual artist since 2006. As a ‘Madonnaro’ Tracy uses the grey asphalt as her canvas drawing 3d images with colourful chalks. Born in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, Tracy got attracted to painting very early in her life. She studied privately as a child and completed a 4 year Bachelor’s degree program at Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia. She continued her studies in naturalism at the Florence Academy of Art in Italy where she first experienced street painting. However, it is her visit to Madonnari Italian Street Painting Festival in Santa Barbara, California in 1997 that enthused and introduced her to the world of street painting as an artist. In her own words, ‘I have surely found a suitable medium to express my visions of mind and heart.’

The themes you choose for your paintings are quite varied. You also travel quite a bit to do your work. Does a local topic ever influence choices of subject?

Yes, environment or location can inform my painting content, but not always. I do enjoy creating an image that resonates with the place where I am working. Content can also depend on the event or client I am working with, as there may be a theme already established which I would certainly adopt if appropriate.

Has there been any project that you have particularly loved being part of and why?

Yes, I love being involved in group projects, managing a small team of artists. The synergy of these types of collaborative efforts is unique and dynamic, and not easily found when working alone or with one other artist. I’d have to say the Sistine Chapel projects, my latest Cadillac project and MouseTrap project of 2010 were terrific in that I had fantastic teams of friends/colleagues working in unison, each showcasing their own unique talents in a cohesive fashion. That’s the challenge – creating a unified image with many different hands, which is certainly very gratifying when it’s successful!

Hot Asphalt, Street Painting by Tracy Lee Stum

Street painting is a form of art that has very limited lifetime. The hours that are spent in painting are easily washed away. For appreciation of the audience it could best be preserved in a photograph. That it cannot be preserved in its original form lessen its impact in any way?

Actually, I feel that the ephemeral nature of the work increases its impact. The fact that it’s only temporary and an ‘experience’ brings an awareness that the lifespan of an item, idea, art work, even a person, etc. is not what’s important – it’s the present essence of that idea, item, art work or person, etc. that should be experienced. In that the painting washes away, that teaches a non-attachment awareness. These paintings are like a musical performance – you hear it and enjoy it, then it’s gone. But hopefully it has changed you in some small or large way – it’s the same thing with this art form. I dare say street –painting & the inherent non-attachment teaches a very spiritual approach to life.

For a street painter the work in progress is visible to everyone immediately and at the same time is also open for direct criticism. Is it ever considered a hindrance and affects concentration of an artist?

For some artists, yes, this is a challenge. Not for me though. I welcome comments and questions. It’s very interesting to observe what others see in your work – what they respond to. Interestingly I’ve learned so much about ‘paying attention to details’ through comments that others have made about one drawing or another. I am open to all commentary and interactions, however, it’s up to me to filter out what’s important, useful and appropriate and what’s not.

…I resonate with this art form. It’s my greatest artistic passion and I certainly am able to navigate this terrain with enjoyment and stimulation.

You have experimented with street painting extensively. Has there ever been an inclination to experiment with any other art form?

Not like streetpainting – truly I resonate with this art form. It’s my greatest artistic passion and I certainly am able to navigate this terrain with enjoyment and stimulation. I see such a world of possibilities emerging through streetpainting and I believe it will carry me forward for many years to come. I never lack for creative ideas so I focus on evolving and growing in this capacity – for now, the best vehicle I can use is street art.

People, places and / or incidents that helped shape your views and influenced your art.

Certainly the Baroque and Renaissance masters who perfected anamorphic projection were hugely influential. Experiencing those works in Italy / Europe really put me on my creative journey. Santa Barbara, California was where it all started for me, by accident, when I stumbled onto the I Madonnari Italian Street Painting Festival in 1997 – truly it changed my life. Participating in public street art festivals was pivotal – it opened me up to working in the public forum, which is unique for a visual artist. The support and encouragement I received from festival directors, fellow artists and fans confirmed to me that I was on path.

Street painting cannot be exhibited and / or sold in galleries. Apart from few opportunities of ambient advertising the chances of earning could be miniscule for an artist. How an artist can do justice to his work and still earn a living out this? Could this factor ever be a problem for a youngster willing to take up this art form?

Certainly practicing one’s art and the need to make a living are unrelated – it’s up to the individual to decide if and how they want to marry the two. I’ve never believed that an artist must be ‘poor and starving’, as the adage goes, so even as a young college graduate, I looked for the means in which I could pursue my creative investigations while earning a living. The thought of being a ‘something’ by day, painter by night did not sit well with me so I searched for ways to incorporate the two. Fast forward to my life now, I make a very good living with my work in that I am commissioned by all manners of organizations to support their initiatives with my drawings – arts festivals, private events, advertising, PR, etc. I do enjoy the collaborative approach so this works well for me.

I don’t think earning a living should give pause to a young artist wishing to pursue this type of practice. If it is heartfelt, I’ve noticed that the elements needed to support that success will present themselves. I started making street art as a hobby but due to being in the right place at the right time, it became my profession, without any ‘planning’ on my part. There is a terrific little parable that I love which sums up my experience: ‘sometimes when searching for the lost coin in the bushes, one may find the ruby.’ I’ve seen this happen for some of my workshop students as well – they take the initiative to ‘create’ something new, which then evolves into a supportive creative endeavor that others benefit from. That is a huge blessing for me in that I could help empower them to ‘pay it forward’. I encourage young people to pursue their passion, whatever it might be – there is a reason that passion exists and I believe that must be honored.

Anecdotal stories, experiences that you would like to share.

Streetpainting in the snow In South Korea was a first (& hopefully a last!); having both a bull and a snake navigate through one of my drawing workshops – both in India, this would never happen in the US (I actually found this quite curious); drawing ‘The Last Supper’ at Trump Tower in NYC and then meeting the stars of the film ‘The Da Vinci Code’ was really terrific.

Meeting all the young people around the world whom I’ve been able to teach has been absolutely rewarding. I love feeling connected to friends from other cultures – it’s brought me to think of the entire globe as my home, not just the one place where I live.

Portrait of Tracy Lee Stum

Tracy Lee Stum

My life is a modern day fairy tale – I followed my heart into the world of street –painting and it brought me to places I could never have imagined existed, where happiness and love really do reside full time. That is my best achievement.

Find more of her work at http://www.tracyleestum.com/

Image Courtesy: Tracy Lee Stum