Most people have little nice to say about 2020, but for one local woman, "It has been a blast."
Bored during lockdown in March, Mary Kay Mitchell pulled out a box of Crayola chalk and drew a heart and a rainbow on her driveway, along the words: "When this is all over what will you remember?"
When neighbors walked by and made comments, Mitchell felt compelled to go out and create more chalk art, averaging three to four different pieces a week in front of her home on Anamor Street in Redwood City.
People stop to take pictures and chat, oftentimes dropping off ideas and thank you notes in her mailbox. When an admirer wrote a fan letter to the talented "young artist," that really made Mitchell laugh because she's a 68-year-old grandmother.
After a toddler neighbor called her "Chalk Grammy," Mitchell decided to go by the name Chalk Granny, and has since turned her whimsical pursuit into a side career "to cheer people up."
On Christmas a friend emailed Mitchell, saying "You've brought so many smiles with your art," and then requested surprise drawings of Champagne bottles alongside the message "Happy New Year! We miss you! Thank you for your support!" chalked outside three elementary school teachers' homes on New Year's Eve.
Thrilled to spring into action, Mitchell says she likes to think of herself as a bit of a Banksy, the mysterious street artist whose pieces pop up in Britain.
Ellen Jacobson lives nearby and asked Mitchell to draw a "rainbow unicorn Pegasus" to celebrate her twins' birthday. The girls were delighted as were many others, says Jacobson: "Mary Kay's artwork brings smiles and happiness to anyone who walks by her masterpieces."
During the week, Mitchell works as a receptionist, scheduler and notary at O'Donnell & Associates, a law firm in Menlo Park. Off hours when she's not teaching yoga or drawing, she's researching new ideas, adding them to her binder of images, and posting pictures of her projects on Instagram and Facebook using the hashtag #chalkgranny.
With the help of a hose, her husband, Marcos Domingos, keeps their driveway and sidewalk prepped for new creations. He also suggests content.
Through word of mouth Mitchell has landed assignments as far away as Marin County and the East Bay. A longtime friendship with Willie Brown's wife, Blanche, led Mitchell to drive to Oakland to chalk the characters from the movie "Trolls" for a great grandson.
Mitchell will travel up to 50 miles and charges $50 an hour, usually completing most murals in less than two hours. She donates a portion of her proceeds to Second Harvest Food Bank.
Crouching down with chalk, a whisk broom and sponge in double-gloved hands, she is dripping in sweat by the time she is finished. Moving quickly, she draws from pictures, and has learned mistakes cannot be corrected so it's best to work from the top down, from light to dark colors, and to add details last.
When asked to enter Redwood City's Chalk Full of Fun Festival last Fourth of July, she sought out high-quality chalk and has been using Eternityarts.com's vibrant long-lasting collection ever since. A box of 60-plus colors costs about $100, but Mitchell says it's worth it because now her artwork lasts as long as four weeks — unless it rains.
Rain has forced her to do some pieces on paper instead, such as a poster for her 100-year old neighbor's birthday on Dec. 26. Upon request, Mitchell will also do a keepsake version of her chalk drawings using other art materials.
"I really like that chalk is temporary, just like I hope COVID is temporary," she says.
Sometimes the pandemic inspires works such as a lightsaber-wielding Darth Vader warning, "Wear a mask or else," or a masked Spock from "Star Trek" accompanied by the words "Stay safe & prosper."
Mitchell received a bachelor of fine arts degree from Nazareth College in Rochester, New York. She earned an art teaching certification at Arizona State and taught art therapy to special needs kids for several years. She then worked as a waitress and felt that wasn't a match, but she ended up staying when the restaurant hired her to hand-letter its menus.
She worked for the San Francisco Chronicle before joining the law firm.
Mitchell is grateful for the positive creative outlet her alter ego Chalk Granny has brought into her life, saying, "I have met more people during COVID than I have living in Redwood City for 12 years."
And she is excited — she already has birthday and graduation artworks booked well into 2021.