Ocean Beach dad turns famous paintings into sidewalk chalk masterworks
To entertain himself and neighbors during the coronavirus pandemic, Erick Toussaint has turned his Ocean Beach sidewalk into a canvas.
A few months ago, Erick Toussaint came up with an idea to entertain his housebound children by creating chalk art on the sidewalk in front of their Ocean Beach house.
Although his two children quickly tired of watching their dad draw, Toussaint’s neighbors fell in love with his weekly chalk reproductions of some of the world’s great masterpieces.
To share the chalk art with a wider audience, Toussaint launched an Instagram page, instagram.com/sidewalk_chalk_dad, and videos of their creation can be seen on his website, ericktoussaint.com. He’s also taking requests, as well as the occasional chalk donation.
“Whether people are artistic or not, I live in a community that appreciates it,” said Toussaint, 40. “My neighborhood is really chill and supportive.”
Sandra Hamilton, who lives a few doors down from Toussaint on Muir Avenue, said seeing his art periodically appear on the street has been a highlight of sheltering at home during the coronavirus pandemic.
“They’re amazing,” Hamilton said. “I’ve told Erick how much I appreciated what he’s doing, especially since we’re in a quarantine. It’s a bright part of my day when I’m on my daily walk trying to get out of the house and I see someone beautifying the area.”
She asked Toussaint if he could memorialize in chalk her pit bull, Biggie, who died July 5 at age 11. She texted him a few photos, and the next day, he invited her to see his work in progress.
“I walked up there and he captured my dog’s spirit so well I just burst into tears,” Hamilton said. “Every day for a week I walked up there and would just sit there and look at it with my morning coffee. I knew it would go away. It was chalk and it was fading, but that was also kind of appropriate and symbolic for me.”
For Toussaint, creating the chalk drawings has been a way for him to keep his art skills fresh during the pandemic. He is the design director for the San Diego Natural History Museum, which has been closed to the public for all but five days since mid-March.
The Minnesota native has an undergraduate degree in fine arts from the University of Minnesota and a graduate degree from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. For most of his career he has worked in the museum field as a designer, exhibit fabricator and diorama painter. At the Natural History Museum, his work involves marketing and exhibit design.
Toussaint is now working from home and he and his ex-wife split custody of their 7-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son. While helping his kids one day with distance learning in April, he asked his daughter for a fun outdoor way to take a break from schoolwork. She suggested they do some chalk art on the sidewalk and he took the idea and ran with it.
“My kids pretty quickly lost interest, but I’m incredibly obsessive-compulsive and I wanted to keep going and see how far I could take it,” he said. “I set up rules for myself that I could only use Crayola chalk to re-create masterworks to see what I could do with this really basic material.”
The first piece he created was a self-described “loosey-goosey” interpretation of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa.” From there, the drawings became increasingly sophisticated. They include Johannes Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” John William Waterhouse’s “The Lady of Shalott,” Gustave Courbet’s “The Desperate Man,” Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s “The Incredulity of St. Thomas” and Gustav Klimt’s “Hygieia,” which was looted and destroyed by the Nazis during World War II.
He also drew William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s “The Young Shepherdess,” one of the most popular paintings in the San Diego Museum of Art’s collection.
Toussaint’s favorite chalk work so far was his color interpretation of a 1917 black-and-white illustration by Mexican painter Saturnino Herrán. He created it for his father, who is Mexican, and because he feels it’s important to celebrate the work of unheralded artists of color like Herrán.
The chalk drawings take Toussaint anywhere from 45 minutes for Biggie’s portrait to three hours for the Herrán illustration.
Toussaint said he’s considering branching out into new chalk repertoire. He thinks it would be a nice surprise for walkers and bikers to come upon trompe-l'œil drawings of animals on the sidewalk. Trompe-l'œil is a technique that creates the optical illusion that an image exists in three dimensions.
The biggest challenge Toussaint faces is maintaining a steady supply of Crayola sidewalk chalk, which became hard to find as parents rushed to stock up on children’s art supplies early in the pandemic. There’s also the inescapable fact that as soon as the works are complete, they begin to disappear. That saddens the neighbors, but not Toussaint.
“I do love that they’re ephemeral,” he said. “People bike over them, and a ton of fog will smear them. But I love the fact that they’re not meant to last forever. There’s something cool about that to me.”