FLEMING ISLAND – As a student, Orlando-based artist Leigh Alfredson got a D in chalk pastels, but that didn’t really bother the young graphic designer. Then her dad bought her a set of chalks for Christmas in an effort to enlist her artistic talent for a sidewalk mural at a Rotary Club event.
Alfredson, doubtful of her skills, tried out the chalk and discovered her natural ability for packing color onto concrete and making brilliant two-dimensional images come to life.
In 1995, a couple years after receiving that first set of chalks, Alfredson was asked by Disney to produce the first of many large-scale murals in their parks. When Disney opens a new attraction, or holds a movie premiere, Alfredson creates murals as big as 12 feet square, bringing the characters to life on the sidewalk outside the venue.
After years of kneeling on pillows, blending various hues together in dreamy chalk masterpieces, Alfredson learned that the only thing that brought her as much joy as chalking was teaching younger artists her trade. She now travels the country delivering about 25 chalking lectures at schools every year.
“What I’ve found I like most, after 22 years of chalking, is teaching kids to do it,” Alfredson said.
About three years ago, Fleming Island Elementary School student Skylar Ward was at Downtown Disney with her family. They walked up to a chalk artist who was creating a mural for the, then new release of the hit film “Frozen.”
“I was fascinated, I watched her for a long time,” Ward said. “After a while she asked if I wanted to chalk and I said ‘Absolutely!’ and it kinda went from there.”
Now, Alfredson is a family friend to the Wards, and has even made appearances at one of Skylar’s birthday parties. Ward has her own chalks at home and practices the skills that Alfredson has taught her.
“I really like how [chalk] blends so well,” Ward said. “It’s so beautiful. You can do really amazing things with these little chalk pieces.”
Ward is enamored with the medium, so, when Alfredson approached the Wards and her school’s art teacher Joy Keith about doing a workshop, everyone was immediately on board.
After a brief presentation about the history of chalk art at the school on May 25, Alfredson demonstrated some basic chalking techniques, provided cardboard stencils to the students, and then set them loose with a partner and a box of chalk.
Among the art pieces, there was a great variety of color and subject. Even though the students were choosing between about five rough cardboard stencils, they were able to create incredible variety on the sidewalks that connect all the buildings of the school’s campus.
The walkways were decorated with various sea creatures – dolphins, crabs, turtles and mermaids. Chalk-covered hands smeared ocean blues on clothing and faces, but the students were all involved, and all seemed to be at home seated on the ground rubbing chalk onto concrete.
“I was most excited to get art out of the classroom where people can see it,” Keith said as she walked among dozens of three-foot by two-foot chalk pieces created by Fleming Island Elementary students. “Some of these students aren’t that into art, so to see everyone this engaged is pretty neat.”
After the kids had nearly finished their artwork, Alfredson retreated to a small area near the school’s front gate to start on a medium-sized piece featuring the school’s mascot, a stingray. After teaching the kids the history and basics of chalk art, Alfredson produced a piece for the school that they can enjoy for a few days, or a few hours if it rains.
Alfredson worked quickly, with a rhythm to her movements. The students gathered around, waiting to be released to their next class, as the artist knelt, stooped and straddled the outline of the ray, filling in the ocean background to the taped perimeter she had confined herself to. Blue chalk streaks became reflections, scratches in shades of gray became a stingray, and the students were humbled and impressed with the work.
“I never grew up,” Alfredson said to the kids without taking her eyes off the work in front of her. “When it comes down to it I’m just a big kid having fun.”