California master street painter Melanie Stimmell Van Latum talks about her unusual career trajectory.
One of the most gratifying moments in Melanie Stimmell Van Latum’s strange and storied art career happened in the middle of Istanbul, Turkey.
She and fellow street painter Julie Kirk Purcell had been commissioned to travel to that city to paint murals in a plaza. They brought chalk along so passersby could stop to doodle alongside them. While the plaza was filled with people etching drawings, one man in particular stood out.
“We looked over and there was this guy in his full on three piece suit with a tie and the vest and the shoes, totally sharp,” Stimmell Van Latum said. “His hair was all combed nice and he had a briefcase in one hand and he had chalk in the other and he was down on his hands and knees and we looked over at each other and said, ‘Oh my God! This is amazing!’ We didn’t have our cameras with us so we couldn’t take a picture, but that moment was so amazing. That something as simple as chalk could make somebody in this amazing outfit sit down and draw.”
The story highlights the appeal of the public art form, which stems from centuries-old Italian street art tradition: it is accessible, fun and interactive.
Stimmell Van Latum, who lives in L.A., brought her team of street painters to Whistler last week for the second year in a row. She taught local artists how to translate their talent to 3D chalk art then took to the pavement in front of Olympic Plaza with artists Anat Ronen, from Houston by way of Israel, and Alex Maksiov, from the Ukraine, where they created three large murals.
“She taught us how to get the 3D effect by starting from a perspective,” said local painter Vanessa Stark after finishing her piece of a bear in Mountain Square on Friday. “Everything is warped out because you want it to pop. You can notice it way more on the camera because it has one lens — or you close one eye.”
For the uninitiated: 3D street art does, indeed, look like an impressive, but wonky image upon first glance. But snap a photo from correct angle and it pops out on screen. The other unique aspect of the medium is its temporariness. A single downpour or too many trampling feet and it’s gone forever.
“I think the temporary aspect of it is the best part of it,” says Andrea Mueller, another local artist and Whistler Arts Council’s event coordinator, who created a dragon guarding a castle. “You kind of have to let go. A lot of the time you’re really in control when you’re creating a piece of art work. This has so many elements you’re not in control of that it’s actually refreshing.”
The master painters — Stimmell Van Latum and her crew — use a slightly more permanent concoction of tempura paint mixed with powder pigments and sugar water — but that simply delays the destruction for a little while. Their paintings also have to sustain people posing on them. Ronen’s painting of The Creation of Adam, Michelangelo’s famous piece on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, had a couch where people could sit and become part of the 3D image, for example. “We want people to interact with art,” Stimmell Van Latum said.
She started her career working on a more conventional canvas, first attending the Art Centre College of Design in Pasadena then putting her skills to work for Trey Parker and Matt Stone, a.k.a. the creator’s of the popular raunchy cartoon South Park. She worked for the program for eight years as the technical director where she oversaw the process of translating the paper cutout images to digital animations.
“The first year I started working at South Park I started street painting,” she says. “It worked out perfectly because every summer we would have a long hiatus. I would do events around California and then go back to South Park in the fall.”
During her second year of moonlighting, Stimmell Van Latum travelled to Italy for a competition against 200 other street painters. She won, despite her inexperience. When she returned home, work kept finding her, especially after she began to teach herself how to turn 2D murals into 3D images.
“I started noticing that if you could do the 3D artwork there was a lot more work for you,” she said. “So I kind of forced myself to try it out and practice it. I did my first one in the U.K. for a 3D street art exhibition. I did this kind of funky painting with a hippo and a showgirl and balloons. I think it’s my most popular painting online.”
In 2012, seven years after quitting her South Park job to pursue street art full time, she formed a company called We Talk Chalk, and now recruits from her worldwide roster of artists to travel to corporate and art events around the world. “It’s taken me everywhere I wanted to go,” she says. “It’s amazing except now I have a two-year-old son, which makes it really, really difficult. My husband is co-owner of the company, so if it’s a big project he’ll come as well and the baby will stay with the grandparents.”
Still, she says she takes pleasure in seeing how much her work delights other kids. “I did it the first time and I loved it,” she said. “It was different from anything I’d ever done. You’re outside interacting with people and you’re doing something really big.