DULUTH, Minn. -- A masked woman crouched down, scratching yellows, blues and oranges into the sidewalk. Annmarie Geniusz’s chalk art pieces have run the gamut from elves wearing construction cones, bugs crawling out of holes, Harry Potter and Malala — all on the corner of 43rd Avenue East and Robinson Street in Lakeside.
And the neighborhood is noticing.
The Bateses, who live blocks away from the artwork, have seen chalk art in Lakeside before but nothing of this caliber.
When Bruce Bates first spotted a sidewalk chalk piece of Fred Rogers, he sent a picture to his wife.
"His theme song is, ‘It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor.’ And I thought, 'What a wonderful thing this neighbor is doing, and this neighborhood is reaching other parts of the country,'" said Margaret Bates.
Bates sends pictures of the works to friends in Alaska, St. Paul and Florida, people who can’t get out during the pandemic, those with cancer, terminal illnesses or those caring for loved ones at home.
Recovering from non-COVID-19-related health issues, Bates said the sidewalk pieces were an incentive for her to get out and walk. Also: “It brightens my day and brings joy to my heart."
The couple said Geniusz is doing a service during this time. “This is real artwork,” Bates said.
The neighborhood’s sidewalk is prime for chalking, Geniusz said. “Especially today, when we had some rain, it’s just wet, and it’s drinking in the chalk.”
An illustrator and stained glass artist by trade, Geniusz started in chalk art a couple years ago. She uses sidewalk chalk, “kid chalk” and artist pastels on a black layer of powdered tempera to help make the images pop. Also in her toolkit are a washcloth and a blending stick.
Many chalk artists wear gloves or athletic tape on their fingers because the process can be rough on your hands.
And you get really good at squats doing this, she said.
With this medium, you get used to pressing down really hard and the scraping sound of the chalk on hard concrete — a stark change from her other art forms.
Geniusz recently switched to an iPencil for her illustrative work, and she has had to reduce its sensitivity. “I’m used to really roughing out everything,” she said.
A trick is to start in one corner of a new project and work your way outward to avoid smudging or putting your hand in the chalk.
A touchstone to chalk art is vibrancy, and her work has expanded her use of color. She wouldn't color an area one solid color because she has only one stick of it and will run out. Instead, she'll start learning how to blend four different hues to make one shade.
One of the biggest challenges is that it’s a street art; it’s a performance art — and you’re expected to engage with your audience.
“I know for myself and for a lot of artists, you get so used to being, in my case, alone in a basement working in a glass studio,” she said. Chalking sidewalks has helped her be more social.
As for feedback, people mostly slow down in their cars and yell approval out the windows, she said. During a News Tribune visit, kids huddled nearby, watching her process before running down the street.
A male passerby complimented her art, and a dog walker slowed down to take in the newly formed drawing of a woman holding a bottle of disinfectant with her hair in curlers made of toilet paper.
This piece has likely vanished by now, a testament to the medium. But Geniusz doesn’t feel sad when her work washes away.
Sometimes, the vibrancy is gone even after one gust of wind, and at some chalk art festivals, organizers wash the projects away right after you’ve taken your photos, she said.
The picture takes on a new life as it fades, and then there’s more room for another. And: “A lot of art for artists is about process. It’s not really about that project at the end."
With chalk art, you have to accept that this is a meditation practice. “It helps you learn that the beauty is here for a moment. Then it’s gone, and that’s perfectly alright.”
View more of her work at ageniusz.com.