Not long ago, Houston Street needed help. Fronted by empty storefronts and lots, redevelopment had not yet reached this narrow, bricked street that traverses the heart of downtown.

Nearby neighbor Artpace noticed and began an annual tradition that brings lively and colorful art to Houston and surrounding streets, filling an October day with celebration and free participatory activities for all.

Chalk It Up brings San Antonio together to celebrate art expression [and] our downtown,” said Artpace Executive Director Veronique Le Melle at a Thursday press conference announcing the 2017 event. This year’s Chalk it Up will take place in and around Travis Park on Saturday, Oct. 14 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

“One of the most important things to me is, how does art become accessible to all,” asked Jessica Todd, superintendent and principal of the Henry Ford Academy, echoing Le Melle’s inclusive view of Chalk It Up. The free, family-friendly, community open-participation event presages the City’s recent efforts to promote cultural equity.

The Henry Ford Academy regularly sends a team of students to participate. As of Thursday, a total of 59 area schools will send teams to fill the streets with art, in part to create a collaborative, city block-sized mural, said Artpace Director of Archives and Communications Scott Williams.

Students will work alongside professional San Antonio artists including Xavier Gilmore, Jasmeet Kaur, Dora Orajel, Andrei Renteria, Guerilla Haiku Movement, Justin Parr, and others.

An artist and art teacher at Henry Ford, John Medina believes Chalk It Up can galvanize his students’ awareness of art’s potential in the community.

“This is a really great way for them to get outside of the school walls, and be involved in something that’s bigger than our little classroom,” he said.

Medina wants his students to learn that they are part of a much larger community, “and that you can work with other organizations, you can work with other people, and that collaboration is really what helps push things forward.”

For many people of a certain age, chalk and chalkboard were the primary tools of education. For today’s digital-native students, these tools are throwbacks to a dustier era before Photoshop and online learning.

“For them to actually to create something physically is a new experience for a lot of students,” Medina said. “To get this experience where they’re on their knees, and they’re sweating and outside, I call this the ditch-digging of art. It looks beautiful, but it’s a lot of hard work.”

Hard work produces results, one of which is instant feedback in the form of audience appreciation. Another is prizes for the student Team Works competition, including trophies and $100 gift certificates provided by Herweck’s art supply store, a longtime sponsor of Chalk It Up. Herweck’s also donates much of the chalk students will use, in all colors of the rainbow. 

Henry Ford Academy students prepare a rainbow of color for Saturday's Artpace Chalk It Up free community event during the press announcement at Travis Park.
Henry Ford Academy students prepare a rainbow of color for Saturday’s Artpace Chalk It Up free community event during the press announcement at Travis Park. Credit: Nicholas Frank / San Antonio Report

Students aren’t the only ones competing. David Snowden, senior vice president of corporate communications for presenting sponsor Argo Group, said his company would field a team for a new corporate competition.

“Stop by the corner of Houston and North St. Mary’s Street on Saturday to say hello, and to see our designs,” Snowden said. “We’re a competitive group, and we’re going to try to win,” he said, smiling.

Now in its 14th year, Chalk It Up annually attracts thousands to this once-neglected area. “It’s grown from a 4,000 person festival of local art to the largest, single-day celebration of creativity in the city with an attendance over 25,000,” Williams stated. Houston Street has also evolved into a busy hub with new restaurants, the Frost Tower rising, and the Alameda Theater redevelopment.

The event is also a fundraiser for Artpace’s education programs, primarily the Teen Leadership Council, that imprints valued skills and awareness on high-school age students. One former teen council participant, Carlos Moreno, parlayed his experience into an Artpace internship, and now studies art history and arts administration at the University of Texas at Austin.

“I would consider my time at Artpace a very transformative experience, in terms of where I was and where I am now,” Moreno said in a Thursday phone interview with the Rivard Report. “Artpace was a pivotal moment in my art career.”

If the Monarch butterflies fluttering high above Thursday morning’s Chalk It Up news conference were any indication, Saturday’s 14th annual Chalk It Up promises to be a colorful, lighthearted event.

“It’s about bringing people together, sharing ideas and connecting communities, starting conversations that never would have happened otherwise,” Medina said, looking forward to his students’ participation on Saturday.

If cultural equity is in the air, it finds expression in the chalk dust that will color San Antonio’s downtown streets.

“I think chalk is the common denominator,” Medina said. “It’s the one language that everybody understands.”

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...