Ren Faire artist spends hours creating very-temporary chalk drawings
Stacey Williams-Ng has been painting and drawing all of her life, but she didn't have interest in outdoor chalk painting until five years ago when some friends invited her to participate in the Bayshore Chalk Art Festival. (Which takes place this year on Saturday, Aug. 16.)
"I always hated chalk on paper – too messy! – so I didn't expect to enjoy it much," says Williams-Ng. "But then I won second prize and loved the piece I did, and from then on I was hooked."
Williams-Ng, who lives in Mequon with her husband and two children, went on to participate in the Sarasota Chalk Festival, which has become the most celebrated chalk festival in North America.
"Just being around those artists really inspired me to take street painting seriously as an art form," she says.
Four years ago, Williams-Ng approached the Bristol Renaissance Faire and proposed a live chalk art "performance" that would take place every weekend.
"Street painting with dry pigments is actually a thing from Renaissance-era Italy, where artists would go out to the streets of Florence on the feast of the Annunciation, and paint pictures of the madonna and child on the streets," she says.
Bristol loved the idea, and built a custom cement slab – ideal for chalking – that also features a little garden and wooden sign. It's located near the center of the grounds, just next to RenQuest.
"I like to say I'm the quietest act at the Faire, because mostly I'm just sitting on the ground silently, painting a 17-foot picture," says Williams-Ng.
Williams-Ng has free rein over her drawings. Her only requirements are that her images represent "Renaissance Europe." She creates both entirely original and master reproductions.
"Mostly, I try to create narrative pieces that get people asking questions," she says.
Opening weekend, for example, she created a piece inspired by Michaelangelo's "Creation of Man"—the famous "fingertip" painting —but instead of God and Adam, she drew muses from Greek mythology.
This past weekend, she chalked a mermaid tangled up with a sea creature. "It appealed equally to little girls who like mermaids, as well as edgy LARP-ing types who are looking for something darker in their art," she says.
The Bristol Ren Faire has a chalk artist every Saturday and Sunday – it runs every weekend through Labor Day – and Williams-Ng will be there three more times this summer: July 18-19, Aug. 8-9 and Labor Day weekend, including Monday. Her shifts are from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.
"Each painting takes about 16 to 18 hours to complete. It is grueling, physical work. I am alternatively crouching, bending or kneeling on concrete the whole time," she says. "I try to take breaks to stretch my legs and relieve my back as much as possible, but many times I'm so engrossed in the painting I forget to stretch."
According to Williams-Ng, all performers at the Bristol Renaissance Faire are either dressed by the on-staff theatrical costumer or have to provide their own costume – which must meet the costumer's very high standards.
"Bristol is the only renaissance faire in the country to set a specific time for their faire, so it's perpetually 1574 there," says Williams-Ng.
Although she does not pretend to be a partcular character, Williams-Ng portrays someone from the lower-class and wears woolen stockings, knee-length bloomers, a heavy skirt, an apron, a cotton chemise and on top of the chemise, a bodice. She also wears two hats, one on top of the other.
"So my costume has a nice, working-class feel to it," she says. "I have to hand it to the costuming team at Bristol. Everyone looks truly amazing. Even me – I kind of love the outfit, actually. It's fun dressing up."
Although all of the street performers at the Faire are required to take classes in 16th century English dialects, Williams-Ng does not have to use 16th century-speak.
"Most people want to talk to me about the art and if I responded like an Elizabethan peasant, I'd just piss them off," she says. "I do like to talk to the nobles in dialect sometimes, if it seems like it would be funny to the patrons standing nearby."
Although the temporary-ness of chalk art is part of its beauty and appeal, Williams-Ng says the amount of rain this summer has dampened her spirits at times. Her mermaid painting, for example, was nearly completed during her Saturday shift, but then washed away during thunderstorms that night and she had to start from scratch the next day.
"What I love about chalk art is that it's extremely delicate and ephemeral. And that is also what the audience loves about it, even though so many of them say they wish they could spray a sealant on it and protect it forever and ever," she says. "I'm telling you, when people see chalk art, they flip out."
In 2013, Williams-Ng won the commission to create a work of public art that was installed at Milwaukee Ballet in October 2013. She also has her own publishing company called Little Bahalia Publishing Company. She will release a children's book in the fall called "Luigi at the Opera," that she illustrated and was written by Ellie Alldredge-Bell. She is currently working on a series of paintings called "Now You See Me."
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