Walking on the wild side
Conversations with chalk artist Rifka Chilungu
This past June, medical emergency services noted a spike in calls originating in Brighton.
Fearing for their sanity, panicked Brighton residents reported strange and wondrous creatures rising from their neighborhood sidewalks.
Here, a luminous lime green snake winding its way along a chocolate-hued branch. There, an impossibly bright-tangerine-and-white-colored clownfish ensconced in a royal blue and fluorescent green anemone. Nearby, a delightfully delicate monarch butterfly disarmingly dines on nectar from a rose-tinted flower. But, beware the pensive tiger treading water up ahead, and don’t be fooled by the bronzed hippo in all of his smiling gap-toothed glory!
Have these upright denizens of suburban Brighton fallen prey to a sudden fit of hysteria and hallucination? Have they magically been transported to the Amazon wilds?
The answer is quite prosaic, hinted at by a mysterious number appearing alongside each of these pavement apparitions.
In fact, these marvelous creations are yet another consequence of COVID-19.
The woman behind this wizardry is an art teacher, scriptwriter, furniture-maker, and multimedia artist who can milk a cow blindfolded and ace target practice. Yes, Rifka Chilungu is a woman who contains multitudes.
While she embraces her talents, she says that marrying her husband, Dr. Shalom (a neurologist and accomplished jazz musician), is what has given her life purpose. And it is clear that her crowning achievement is being a dedicated mom to her four children: Rafi, Maya, Gary, and Ben.
Ever sensitive to her children’s needs, Chilungu devised a tradition to signal the much anticipated end of the school year. “My kids oftentimes need to be dragged across the finish line,” she explains. So, I started to make mini, 4×5 watercolor paintings, usually of animals or something from nature, and, on the back, I’d write some facts about the animal.” She’d then slip them into the kids’ lunchboxes. Each watercolor was tagged with the number of school days remaining, as a cheerful reminder that the school year would soon be coming to an end.
But then came COVID-19, and school moved online.
“This year, it felt so wrong not to be doing a countdown,” Chilungu recalls. “I also needed to get outside. I couldn’t handle one more question about Zoom codes!”
So, she grabbed her stack of pastels and, having never done this before, set out to test how well pastel chalk and cement would tolerate one another. Using white pastel, she first sketched a poison dart frog, then added layers of color and shading in order to give it a 3-D effect. As she added more and more images, more and more people stopped to remark how wonderful her work was. “Ya know,” she thought to herself, “this is gonna be my countdown.”
From mid-June until the end of the school year (other than on rainy days), Chilungu has gone outside to her sidewalk studio. Within two and a half hours, she’d have a new creature to add to her vibrant menagerie, which she’d tag with the number corresponding to the remaining days of school.
Chilungu credits her artistic leanings to her mother. “It was not uncommon to see my mom making stained glass at the dining room table,” she recalls. And it was her mother who would drive her from the rural Ohio town she grew up in to Cleveland to buy art supplies and visit art museums.
The only downsides to Chilungu’s latest artistic endeavor are the blisters on her hands and the diminishment of her fingerprints due to repeated blending motions across the pavement. Thankfully, her fingerprints have begun to resurface.
One thing is certain, Rifka Chilungu has left her mark on Brighton and beyond.
Arlene Hisiger is a local freelance writer who loves chocolate, world music, and free-form dance.