Armed with a palette of chalk and a prodigious talent for drawing, Ana Vela has carved out a niche decorating chalkboards for restaurants and bars.
You’ve seen them at art festivals, or perhaps you’ve glimpsed one of these unique, colorful paintings unexpectedly on the sidewalk. They’re bright and interesting, challenging any passerby not to stop and stare for a while. The color, the design, the detail are impressive on its own. But throw in the fact that they’re created with chalk, and it’s no wonder these paintings seem to pull us in like Bert’s sidewalk drawings in Mary Poppins.
While chalk art can be traced back to early cave drawings, it didn’t become a legitimate art form until 16th century Italy. Traveling beggars, also known as vagabonds, realized they could earn more money when their efforts to panhandle or entertain were accompanied by sidewalk art. Portraits of Mary, the Madonna, were especially popular and lucrative, thus these traveling artists soon became known as Madonnari.
Today, chalk art is no longer confined to the sidewalk. In fact, it’s popping up in restaurants and other establishments, allowing a broader audience to appreciate the local talent and this unique art form.
Walk through the doors of pretty much any restaurant or bar these days, and you’re sure to spot menu items in sweeping curlicues and block-like shading on chalkboards behind the bar. Or perhaps folding chalkboards greet you on the sidewalk as you come in, hoping to tickle your taste buds with the specials of the day.
Tulsa art student Ana Vela, who went to work for Prairie Brewpub as a server while on a break from her studies in graphic design, didn’t know her passion for art would brew up a love for this new medium.
“I’ve done art my entire life,” says Vela, who has sketchbooks full of old drawings from when she was younger. “Art has been a huge part of my life.”
When the manager at Prairie Brewpub discovered Vela had an artistic background, he asked her to do the menu boards. Vela, who usually worked with acrylic paint, was up for the challenge.
“I first started doing the words of the beers, nothing too fancy,” says Vela. “Then, I started progressing in art.” In the beginning, Vela’s menu board art was simple, with not much detail. Then she started working with shading and mixing colors. Vela says, “It’s been fun experimenting.”
She admits chalk art works well with her personality since it dries fast. “I’m a very impatient person, and this medium allows me to work fast,” says Vela, who tried oil painting before, but wasn’t patient enough to continue since it takes longer to dry.
Inspiration for Vela’s chalk art comes from incredibly talented abstract artists, and she tries to incorporate that style into her menu boards. Though she admits her menu art isn’t to the degree of Jackson Pollack’s art, her style can be described as a modern take on pop culture, focusing mainly on portraits.
Since the brewer names its beers for popular songs, it makes it fun and relatively easy for her to think up with a concept. However, Vela has a lot of freedom and flexibility with her designs.
“Coming up with the concept usually depends on the name of the beer and what transpires in my head,” says Vela. “Some days are harder if I’m dealing with creative blocks.”
There are 40 menu boards; 20 in the main dining room, and 20 by the bar.
“I try to relate the name to the music or film, something people recognize so they’re more excited about the beer,” says Vela. “Some [of the names] are straightforward from a certain artist, but a lot of it is my interpretation.”
Vela’s first idea for the beer Mothership Connection was aliens. “I thought, ‘What was a good movie that everyone who’s of age to drink beer can remember?’” She decided on Independence Day and drew Will Smith with the mothership behind him. “I threw in a beer to make it funny.”
Some other examples of Vela’s interpretations and pop culture references can be seen in the menu art for Velvet Track Suit. Vela thought it’d be funny to draw Run-D.M.C. all holding beers because “they were always flashing Adidas track suits.”
Even though the canned beers Twist and Imaginary Friends have art by Prairie Artisan Ales artist Colin Healey, the can art is separate from the beer boards. “[For Twist] I did the Pulp Fiction scene where Mia and Vince do the twist,” says Vela. For the Imaginary Friends IPA, she drew Frank from Donnie Darko on one menu board and Fight Club for the other board.
“Each 4 by 16 ½ inch drawing usually takes anywhere from 35 minutes to an hour,” says Vela. “We rotate beers out a lot, so that can be a lot of work.”
While Vela enjoys creating new art for the same beers, it’s bittersweet every time she has to erase her work and start over.
“I have trouble saying goodbye to my art,” says Vela. “There have been a couple of paintings I didn’t want to sell, but after it’s spent some time with me, I was ready to let it go.”
Prairie Brewpub is not the only place you can find Vela’s chalk art. “I’ve done a few menu boards at New Era Fine Fermentations, but they don’t rotate beers much,” says Vela, who also did their brewery’s mural.
Recently, Vela finished an art show at Cameron Studios with the theme skateboarding, another one of her passions. The show included 25 other artists and skateboarders. “I think I’ve met more artists through skateboarding than I have through anything else,” says Vela.
You might think art and skateboarding don’t have much in common, but Vela disagrees. “Both skateboarding and art are great avenues to express creative freedom,” says Vela. Since both are done in solitude, Vela has learned a lot of patience with herself.
Even though she’s only been skating for a year, skateboarding has changed her perception of the world. “It changes the way you view benches, rails, and a set of stairs,” says Vela. “It’s built my confidence in my art, and it’s allowed me to focus on building my style.”
As for the future, Vela is focusing on building her portfolio specifically with the skateboards, and she’d like to have them in more shows. She’s also purchased a considerable piece of chalkboard, which she plans to do chalk art on and sell it, eventually.
“I want to learn how to spray paint because I want to do more big-scale art and murals,” says Vela, who encourages other artists to not only study their favorite art form but the artists in that medium. “Keep a sketchbook and draw or write whatever comes to mind, no matter how random it is. Be confident in yourself, and focus on what inspires you, and never worry about what other people think.”
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