Under the Sun

Rather Be Chalking Is Making Its Mark on the Sidewalk Art Business

Don't believe your eyes.
Lea Rankin
Don't believe your eyes.

Local chalk artist Lea Rankin admitted she has no arts background to speak of.

“I’ve always just been a stay-at-home mom,” she said, “and life kind of pushed me to get hold of some chalk. At first, it was a thing to do with my kids, but they were like, ‘We think you like chalk more than we do.’ I thought so, too.”

After she’d filled every flat surface near her California home, Rankin headed to a nearby park. There, her artwork — vibrant illustrations of mostly inanimate objects — really took off. Eventually, Rankin moved her family and her chalk habit back to Phoenix, where she’s from.

“My husband, Ian, got involved around then,” she recalled. “I wanted to do 3-D stuff, and he’s a math guy, with the mathematical angles and all that.”

The pair answered an artist call for a 3-D show at the Arizona Science Center. “It was our first time chalking in front of people,” Rankin remembered. “There was this other chalk-art group there who’d been around a long time — their stuff was amazing. But they used spray-color, and they forgot to bring their spray pump. So we ended up being the only chalk artists who made art that day.”

Response to the couple’s 3-D work took off after that. They launched Rather Be Chalking, a public art concern that has been mostly mobbed since last March. North Mountain Brewing Company wanted a “Go Cards!” mural to cheer on our NFL team; a local mom ordered a series of outdoor 3-D prom locales made entirely of chalk; Ceretta Candy commissioned a huge chocolate box that visitors could climb into for a selfie.

Rankin admitted to being a little surprised that chalk art was a thing. “I didn’t think there were other chalk artists. I didn’t know chalk art had a long history of its own. I found out there are festivals all over the world, and a crazy group of people who express themselves just like I do.”

She thought the coronavirus pandemic might have something to do with the couple’s lately more-than-steady business. “We can work outside on a sidewalk or the side of a building, and it’s a safe environment. A lot of the people who hire us want uplifting messages during COVID, and we kind of specialize in those.”

Arizona Helping Hands hired the Rankins to chalk a colossal after-the-storm rainbow on the side of their building. Another client asked for a mural of heart-shaped balloons to launch its COVID-era fundraising program. A retirement home in Scottsdale commissioned a 10-panel series about wearing masks and staying safe during the pandemic.

“We’ve had some strange jobs,” Rankin said. “There was one really rich couple who had a chalkboard wall in their dining room. They put it in and then tried to draw on it and it didn’t look very good. They were like, ‘We better get some real artists in here.’ We did the same job at a dry cleaner off of Cave Creek. It’s a weird niche, people with big dreams about giant chalkboards in their house or their business, but they can’t draw.”

Early this year Rankin had an 8-foot-square mobile chalkboard built, allowing clients who don’t want chalk on their sidewalk to continue to display her artwork, and a trailer with removable chalkboard panels to help promote Rather Be Chalking’s services.

Depending on whom you asked, chalk art wasn’t taken very seriously by fine artists, Rankin said. “I tried to join a pastel group on Facebook. And they wrote to me and kind of said, ‘You do chalk art, and we don’t like that.’ I didn’t want to be part of that group anyway.”

For the most part, Rankin wasn’t looking for acceptance. “I mainly do chalk art because it makes me feel good,” she said. “I get really high from hearing people ask, ‘Will you do chalk here?’”