A 3D painting for iCub

Valentina Polini

Interview with Tracy Lee Stum, internationally-recognised American street painter and author who specialises in interactive 3D chalk art street paintings

Born in Pennsylvania, Tracy began drawing as soon as she could hold a crayon in her hand. She studied privately as a child and completed her Bachelor’s degree in painting and drawing at the Tyler School of Art / Temple University in Philadelphia. She discovered street painting by chance in 1998 and made the decision to pursue this art form full time. She has also been privileged and honoured to serve as a US State Department arts envoy since 2008, touring Tajikistan, Thailand and India, demonstrating and teaching 3D art workshops at universities and art colleges to promote education, awareness and positive cross-cultural exchange.

Could you tell us more about your job? Where do you get the ideas for your paintings, and how do you choose the locations at which to create them?

I’ve been practicing the street painting art form for about 23 years. I began by painting classical masterpieces in chalk pastel on pavements, then transitioned into the interesting 3D style. I have found that this allows me the greatest freedom of expression. The idea for a work may develop from the location or place where I will be painting, from themes in contemporary culture that I find intriguing, subjects that I consider particularly interesting, or again, imaginary ideas that I feel would translate well into a 3D image. In addition, I often incorporate a subtle humour into my pieces, which may encourage viewers to look deeper into the image I’ve created. The places that I choose for making the work depend on availability. In the United States, street painters are usually relegated to official festivals and authorised events at which to create their pieces. Most street painting festivals allow a broad range of subject matter, which naturally permits the greatest freedom of expression.

How has the work of an artist such as yourself changed in this long, difficult year of global pandemic?

To a degree my work moved from street to computer during the pandemic. 2020 was spent planning my latest project, TiLT: A Tracy Lee Stum Museum. I built models, drew up plans, selected colour palettes, designed graphics, etc., all in my home studio. This was already on my schedule so I simply transitioned into the design/planning mode during lockdown. I feel extremely lucky that my calendar was not disrupted excessively during 2020, as I am acutely aware of how difficult it has been for many people around the world. I tend to go inward and conceptualise future work when I am subjected to restrictions, and I think that this isthe best use of my creative energy.

Where did you meet our humanoid robot iCub, and when and why did you think of featuring it in a 3D painting?

I discovered the iCub on line through some videos when I was researching robots for a project. That project did not go ahead, but I found the iCub so appealing that I wanted to create an image using this robot for one of my own compositions. I’m interested in how people view technology and how it impacts our lives. Robots tend to be misunderstood in society, and gain ‘sci-fi’ or ‘alien’ labels. I thought that of the many robots I researched, the iCub had the most humanised and appealing features (face / eyes) and I felt that this made it more accessible and likeable. I wanted to convey this in the street painting design I created, hoping that viewers may discover an interest in learning about robots and why we associate certain labels with them. 

Have you ever thought that robots could replace artists like yourself in the future, or that perhaps they could help you?

Yes, in fact I know of the existence of new robots who can paint large street art murals without a human having to lift a paint brush! In this case, the creativity lies entirely in the design and programming. For tough physical work, this could be of great help to those artists who may not be able to handle the stresses and strains of this demanding sort of activity. Personally, all considered, I still prefer to hold a paint brush in my hand! 

Can you tell us how you would imagine a robot at your side helping you?

Perhaps for mixing colours, and preparatory work that I’d rather not do. Particularly moving large objects or setting up a work site! I’d need to understand the robot’s capabilities: perhaps a robot’s assistance in developing and building new project applications and installations would be useful. 

I have read that you are working on the opening of a new museum in New York: would you like to give us some advance information, or details enabling people to follow your next adventures?

This museum is the flagship location for my new brand: TiLT Museums. I’ve partnered with American Dream to present the best hand-painted 3D optical illusions I could imagine, in the hope of providing an enjoyable attraction that will delight and educateour visitors about the world of anamorphosis. The museum’s public opening is scheduled for late April. Please join the conversation with us @tiltmuseums on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and soon, TikTok. Tickets will be available on or through