“God, please use my hands today the way you want me to use them.”
Maria Loh prays that prayer every morning. It makes an offering of the 17-year-old’s usual household chores, and it gives profound meaning to the not-so-usual use of her hands: creating sidewalk art that stops people in their tracks and turns their minds toward God.
The Fargo, North Dakota, teen has never had formal art training, but like her four younger siblings, she simply enjoys arts and crafts. A few summers ago, looking for something to beat boredom, a box of sidewalk chalk caught her eye, and she thought: Let’s see what I can do with this. She laughs now at her ambition: Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa.” But, it didn’t turn out badly, she thought. Not bad at all. “Even though it was a kid’s toy, I was amazed at the potential,” she said.
Since then, Loh has reproduced other great works, including the ancient Byzantine icon Our Lady of Perpetual Help, William Adolphe-Bouguereau’s “Madonna of the Lilies” and the Pieta — all of them with chalk, on cement and washed away when the rain comes.
Why would Loh choose such a temporary medium? In part, because it’s an antidote to her perfectionism.
“The thing about chalk is that it is temporary,” she said, “so instead of focusing on making everything just right, I can step back and see I made mistakes, but it’s going to wash away anyway. I do the best I can, but don’t put so much time and effort trying to make everything perfect.”
Loh also simply enjoys chalk — how it feels in her hands and the way it works its way onto the cement. In July, she went to her first chalk festival, the Borderline Chalkfest in Wahpeton, North Dakota. Sidewalk artists came from across the country to the two-day event, sharing tricks of the trade and creating art for spectators to enjoy.
“I learned that some artists use tempera paint to fill things in if they are making a big piece of art,” Loh said. “Tempera paint does not smudge, and you can layer on more colors on top.”
Her grandparents gave her a couple books on sidewalk art and this past Christmas, and Loh’s father gave her some specialized sidewalk chalk. The oil-based chalk has greater staying power and bold pigments not typically found in chalk such as black and teal.
Part of the enjoyment for Loh has been drawing images that are particularly meaningful to her, such as Jesus and the Blessed Mother. When she did the Pieta last year during Holy Week, it was part creativity, part prayer and meditation as she looked upon Mary holding her son in her arms. Evangelization to passers-by in the neighborhood is another aspect to her art. Not surprisingly, people come to admire it and often bring others to see.
“The Blessed Mother is the woman I’ve drawn the most,” she said. “I love drawing her, because other than Jesus, she is the one most worthy of being captured in art. As the Mother of God, she has been elevated beyond our race. When I depict her, I give my talent to God through her and also to other people, as well.”
She also hopes that seeing the beauty of Mary will evoke a desire in others to get to know her better and come to understand the richness of the Catholic faith.
This past spring, when Loh heard that the Marian shrine in Lourdes, France, was shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic, it inspired her to draw an image of Our Lady of Lourdes on the family driveway. People were captivated by her beauty, but non-Catholics were not familiar with the apparitions at Lourdes.
“I was able to convey the story of Lourdes to them, so I hope they wanted to go and get more information about her,” Loh said.
Naturally, the pictures’ lifespan is dependent on the weather. Loh will put plastic over it and tape the edges, and her parents also bought a canopy to put over it. Recently, the image of Our Lady of Perpetual Help survived two rainstorms. “Most of the pigment has washed away, but the cool thing about the higher quality chalks is they must have some oil base in them, because the image is still there.” Most of the images typically take Loh five to six days, but it took around 10 days for that more intricate one.
As a homeschooled senior, Loh is contemplating majors and colleges for next year. Studying art is a possibility, among a couple other options.
“I’ll have to spend some time figuring out what God wants me to do,” she said. “So long as God is included in that decision, it’s going to bring me where I need to go and bring peace and happiness.”
Patti Maguire Armstrong writes from North Dakota.