Maria Loh is an artist whose sacred work is ephemeral, totally dependent on the elements.
Yet she left her religious mark on a Sioux City sidewalk on April 21.
Using special art chalk, the 19-year-old Fargo, ND native created Roberto Ferruzzi’s famous ‘Madonna of the Streets’ on the sidewalk outside the offices of Siouxland Catholic Radio.
Loh’s visit came in conjunction with the radio station’s spring pledging campaign and the first-ever Juried Youth Art Festival, which was themed “Mary, A Model of the Perfect Communicator.”
Although Loh began her artistic journey at a young age by drawing and painting, her passion for chalk art began several summers ago.
“I didn’t know anything about chalk until I picked up a box and started doodling,” she said. “If I think back, my grandparents had a blackboard at home and I always liked to draw on it, so maybe the love started when I was a kid.”
Loh simultaneously discovered the rich history of street art and the Catholic tradition surrounding chalk art, which is said to have its beginnings in Europe between the 13th and 16th centuries.
Madonnaris, or chalk artists such as Loh, traveled to festivals using chalk to draw Madonna or religious icons.
“I fell head over heels in love with the combination of chalk and creating sacred works when I attended such festivals,” she said. “I looked forward to chalk drawing every summer as the snow melted on the sidewalks of North Dakota.”
Interest in Loh’s art ignited when images of her drawing of Our Lady of Lourdes in her parents’ driveway in 2020 were posted on the Diocese of Fargo’s Facebook page in May. The response surprised Loh, the eldest of five children.
“I had been happy to create in peace and solitude, so I would have preferred that God left me in my garden to create,” she confessed. “But the answer showed me how God is able to share my work with others.”
Loh’s visit to Sioux City provided a unique opportunity to combine the aspect of the Catholic faith with the artistic skills of the young contestants, said Lisa Niebuhr, director of listener relations at the station.
“It’s a pairing that you don’t find offered anywhere else,” she said. “We believe this is a valuable collaboration that allows others to experience the awe-inspiring characteristics of Maria’s talent and the church’s teaching regarding the Blessed Virgin Mary.”
Loh rose with the sun on April 21 and began by gluing down part of the sidewalk, then painting it with white tempera as a primer to smooth out any imperfections in the cement.
Over the next eight hours, she painstakingly added the vibrant blues and yellows with highly pigmented chalk to withstand the weather outside.
“God must have watched over us, because the weather the day before had been rainy,” Niebuhr said. “The next day there were notices of strong gusts of wind, but the room was still visible.”
In keeping with the tradition of chalk artists, Loh responded to inquiries from interested passers-by.
“I wanted people to know that God is the ultimate entertainer,” she said. “We can look at creation to see that. Everything we create, we create for his glory.
At the end of the day, the radio station hosted a reception for the first-place winners from grades 1 through 12 of the art festival.
“We were surprised with 180 entries from over 30 counties in our listening area,” Niebuhr said. “A panel of professional artists judged the art, choosing a first place, second place, third place and honorable mention in each rating. We also encouraged individuals to view all artwork and vote for a Viewers Choice Award.”
Loh offered ideas and spoke with the winners and their families.
She also talked about her sidewalk presentation and chalk art experiences.
Then, on April 22, Loh visited students and made chalk art at St. Michael’s Elementary School in South Sioux City, Nebraska, as well as some of the elementary buildings in the Bishop Catholic School System. Heelan in Sioux City.
“When I was in school, I would have loved to know an artist, to have my questions answered and to know that it is possible to be an artist,” she said. “I want to be that someone. I also want to reaffirm to every student that pictures speak when words fail.
Fox is the retired editor of the Catholic Globe, the former newspaper of the Diocese of Sioux City.
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