Peer to Pier: Conversations with fellow travelers
Geometry existed before the Creation.
It is co-eternal with the mind of God.
Geometry provided God with a model for the Creation.
Geometry is God Himself.
Kurt Wenner, 53, is a Master Artist and native of Santa Barbara, California, who has made a speciality of street painting, a tradition known as “madonnari” in Italy. Kurt lived and worked in Italy for 28 years and now calls home the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington state.
In 1984, Kurt created an art form all his own that has come to be known as anamorphic or 3D pavement art. A form of perspective, known as anamorphism was used by the great European Masters to give the illusion of soaring architecture and floating figures in ceiling frescoes. Inspired by this use of perspective, Kurt invented a new geometry to create compositions that appear to rise from, or fall into the ground.
Kurt produced his first commissioned mural at the age of sixteen and attended both Rhode Island School of Design and Art Center College of Design before working for NASA as an advanced scientific illustrator. In 1982 he left NASA, sold all of his belongings, and moved to Italy to study figurative drawing and art. Wenner lived a stone’s throw from the Pantheon in the heart of Rome, where he studied the drawings, paintings, and sculptures of the old masters in Rome’s best known museums. Over the years Kurt’s work became known throughout the country and in 1991 he was commissioned to create a work of art to honor the visit of Pope John Paul II to the city of Mantua. He founded the first street painting festival in the United States at the Old Mission in Santa Barbara, California. After participating in countless festivals, Kurt returned to fine art painting on commission and also creates sculptures, decorative stucco relief, ceramic murals, architectural designs, and numerous images for publicity and advertising.
A firm believer in arts education, Kurt taught more than a hundred thousand students over a 10-year period and received the Kennedy Center Medallion in recognition of his outstanding contribution to arts education. In addition to teaching, he has lectured at corporate events and conducted seminars and workshops for organizations ranging from the National Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian Institution to Disney Studios, Warner Bros. Studios, Toyota, and General Motors. Kurt’s work and thoughts are lavishly presented in his book, Asphalt Renaissance. Click here or on the dust jacket for more info.
I hope you’ll enjoy Kurt’s story of pursuing his passion, cultivating a radical new perspective, and passing on his experience.
Meg: Can you explain to readers what street painting is, and a little bit about its history?
Kurt: Street Painting, now mostly called pavement art, began as part of a larger tradition of religious folk art. Untrained artists, called “madonnari” — literally, “Madonna makers” — sometimes drew chalk images of the Madonna, saints, or Christ on the ground in order to solicit donations, or advertise their abilities. During the Second World War these artists suffered many hardships and were greatly reduced in number. Despite this, a small number of them continued working into the 1980’s. Thanks to the International Street Painting Festival in Grazie di Curtatone in Northern Italy they received recognition for their efforts. They also witnessed the revitalization and transformation of their art into a worldwide phenomenon.
Parallel to this tradition in Italy, street painters began appearing in London, England in the mid-nineteenth century. These artists were called “screevers,” a term that refers to the written message that generally accompanied their works. An early reference book places the origin of the word “screeve” to Scotland or Holland, but it is as likely that the word comes from the Italian “scrivere,” pronounced scree-ver-eh, as it also links the two traditions. Although there is little documentation by the Italians regarding their madonnari, the Victorians were interested in the lower class and documented their street painters. In the 1930’s both George Orwell and Pamela Lyndon Travers wrote about street painters. Travers’ character of Bert the screever became further popularized in the Disney film Mary Poppins.
Meg: In the early 1980s, you became the first American to join the ranks of the Italian madonnari. Can you share some background about your early experiences in Northern Italy?
Kurt: In those years a very small group of young artists worked alongside the last remaining madonnari. The relationship between the public and sacred imagery was changing in those years, and the public responded enthusiastically to more refined and complex imagery. This created some tension between the generations, but there was also a sense of camaraderie. Even the most cantankerous of the older artists realized the significance of resurrecting the art form.
Grazie was a very wild-west sort of experience in the early years. To the people in the small village, even southern Italians were foreigners. They were literally unable to understand them. The organization of the festival, as nearly non-existent as it was, overwhelmed the authorities. There was one bathroom for 300,000 people, for instance. We worked from midnight in near-darkness, through the sweltering heat of the following day, when the chalks would began to sink into the fantastically rough asphalt, which began to soften in the harsh sun.
My favorite years were the first years I spent in Italy. Even as they were happening I would think, “these years will be the best years of my life.” Other events were extremely important in my life, my marriage and the birth of my son. But in those years I became me. Whether we want to admit it or not, all things move from this center.
Meg: Tell me about how you got started on your street-painting career.
I started to paint on the streets of Rome, Italy in 1982. I was studying in the museums directly from the great master works of art and needed a way to make ends meet. For six months I spent eight hours a day drawing and learning from paintings and sculpture. At first I sold the studies to tourists and museum guards, but it did not cover my expenses. I did not speak Italian and had no permission to work in the country. One day, I saw a street painting and asked the artist what he was doing. He explained the tradition of street painting in Europe to me, where it was a traditional form of folk art. After viewing my museum drawings he asked if I’d like to paint the head of an angel while he went to lunch. At the time, it was not a sophisticated art form, and my drawing skills were more than sufficient in order to distinguish myself. Working with the chalks came very naturally, and from that point on I’ve been street painting.
Meg: You attended Rhode Island School of Design and Art Center College of Design — were there any formative experiences during those years that gave you confidence about creating a livelihood from your artwork?
Kurt: I had already been a working artist for two years before attending Rhode Island School of Design at the age of 18. I was actually less prepared to do the sort of illustration I studied there when I left, than to return to the graphic arts and illustration I did previously, which is what I did for a year. With this income I attended the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. From there I went to work at NASA, but the skills I used there were not learned at either school.
Meg: You worked for NASA as an advanced scientific space illustrator. I never would have known such a job existed! How did that opportunity come about and what did you take away from the experience?
Kurt: One of my physics instructors at the Art Center was a NASA physicist. I was able to draw a cut-away view of an ion-mass spectrograph. None of the NASA artists had been able to visualize this, hence my introduction. I was probably the last artist to hold such a position, as the work is now done in CAD and other computer graphics programs.
I had to be able to read blueprints of fairly unusual structures and create perspective views or cross-sections from them. I had to be able to question the physicists about the properties of gasses in a particular atmosphere at a particular temperature. Then I needed to depict the result in a drawing or painting.
I eventually was employed at the laboratory and created artist’s renderings of future projects to Mars, Venus, and even the sun. The images were created by hand from scientific data, landscapes of outer planets and future spacecraft. I can’t even begin to describe what the experience taught me.
Meg: Can you talk about your passion for classical art, what about it so engages you?
Kurt: At first I merely wanted to draw well. I observed that the classical tradition gave artists a creative potential to visualize and a mastery of form that did not exist with alternative approaches. It confused and angered me that the tradition had been lost.
The entire time I worked at NASA I studied classical drawing, sometimes for more than 20 hours a week. Eventually the time came when the only way to further my studies was to go to Italy and work from the masterpieces. I saw the first examples of computer graphics imaging (CGI), at the laboratory and realized I would probably be the last traditional artist to do that kind of work. Because my own studies were rooted in the ancient tradition of sacred geometry rather than technical drawing, I was concerned about this development. It occurred to me that the tradition and significance of geometrical drawing and design would become lost with computer graphics in the same way that the tradition of classical drawing had collapsed with the invention of photography.
Meg: Joseph Campbell famously advised people to “follow their bliss.” That can require some courage and faith. Was making the decision to leave your job with NASA a difficult one?
Kurt: It really was difficult. One day John Kempton, the head of the graphics department, listened to me as I considered my alternatives. He lifted up his pants leg, revealing a prosthesis. His leg had been removed as a cancer treatment. “You can wait until you lose a leg, and then try to go to Europe,” he told me. He made me realize that my attachments and difficulties would never diminish, and it was better to start earlier rather than later.
As with any occupation, you generally find people engaged in the work because it supports them. And, like any other trade, there are different degrees of success. Some painters live hand-to-mouth and others enjoy it as a lucrative profession. Success is very dependent on the sheer number of people who pass by a work, their reaction to a particular image, and the artistry of the painter. On my first street painting, I made three times my NASA salary.