Kurt Wenner: 3D Street Painting, Classical Art and Using Imagination

A Conversation with the Artist

The Magic Flute, Painting by Kurt Wenner

Kurt Wenner is one of the most prominent street painters of our time. After completing studies from Rhode Island School of Design and Art Center College of Design, Kurt Wenner served a stint with NASA. He was an advanced scientific space illustrator. However, he was forced to pay heed to his heart’s desire soon.

In 1982 he left NASA for Italy to explore more of Renaissance classicism. He became the first American artist to win the top prize at the Grazie di Curtatone competition for three consecutive years and received the title Master Street Painter. In 1985, National Geographic documented Kurt’s unique and innovative works of art in their award-winning film Masterpieces in Chalk.

The trip to Italy served Kurt Wenner more ways than one. He benefitted from the rich artistic legacy of the country.

Incidentally, the history of street painting could be traced back to the sixteenth century Italy. At the time, artists used to recreate their commissioned artworks from the cathedral and palaces on the streets of Northern Italy. They came to be known as ‘madonnari’ as they often reproduced the images of Madonna. Sometimes they earned their living from the coins thrown onto their work as a token of appreciation by the passers-by.

Policino, Painting by Kurt WennerTerpsicore, Painting by Kurt Wenner
Policino and Terpsicore

Classical art born out of Italy during the Renaissance always fascinated you and influenced your art. You also travel quite a bit to do your work. Does a local topic also influence the choices of subject and its presentation?

In our time Renaissance Classicism is usually seen as a dead art – something that belongs to the past. It has given me great pleasure to revive the tradition within my own work and show how it can be applied to a huge variety of venues, both contemporary and global.

European art and particularly that of Italy did have a profound effect on you and your work. Would you like to mention any other noteworthy sources of influence and inspiration on you?

Two other major influences have been sacred geometry and Eastern philosophy in the form of self–realization. I have always felt that art (for me) was less of a vehicle for expressing my personal psychological state in the form of works than a way to understand and forge a meaningful relationship with the larger creative force of the universe itself.

You have mastered not only the painting but also various other subjects such as architecture. How do they contribute to the development of a complete artist?

As a young artist, my two greatest interests were classical drawing and artists’ geometry. I have used them both extensively in all my work. My studies of geometry were never limited to perspective but included architecture as well. My desire was to create a venue that combined sculpture, architecture and painting. I have only partially succeeded in this pursuit. There are a number of possibilities I would still like to explore.

Your art is an ode to Italian Renaissance Classicism and in a way gives the opportunity to your audience to relive that era through art. Can you tell us a little bit about the audience feedback you receive on this?

I think that Renaissance Classicism is a fundamentally timeless form of expression. It is rooted in a very acute knowledge of human perception. No other descriptive tradition is as flexible or convincing to an audience. For this reason, artists have returned to it time and time again over the centuries.

Fishing in Old Shanghai, Street Painting by Kurt WennerLeonardo in Milan, Street Painting by Kurt WennerSpiderman, Street Painting by Kurt Wenner

Street painting, that started as a mean of financing your studies and travels have continued to stay with you. What part does it occupy in your artistic self?

When I moved into other venues of art and architecture I found that I was always involved with patronage. The works tended to remain in the relatively closed environments of elegant private homes. Therefore they had little possibility of giving pleasure to a large audience. I found that I missed having the larger audience.

You have been involved yourself in varied projects that included decorating a family chapel in Puglia to adorning commercial high rises. What is your approach to the versatility of the projects that you undertake?

I always welcome unusual projects. If projects are too easy I often complicate them to make them interesting, so it is better if they already have some challenges. For me, the most fascinating use of art is to transform an environment using the imagination. This was a major function of art in the Renaissance but is less utilised today. Most works are created to exist independently of their environments so they can be bought and sold as commodities.

For years now you have extensively been involved in educating young artists. How have their views on art evolved over time? Especially, now that we have digital technology with digital art form do you see any shift in focus?

It is tempting for young artists to go straight to digital technology as a form of expression. The traditional art techniques are usually poorly presented and many of the artists’ materials have degraded in quality as well. When artists do learn traditional techniques, they often do not learn how to produce their work in a digital format. The most exciting possibilities in art lie in the ability to combine traditional skills and technology. These opportunities are unlimited and scarcely explored.

From your research and experience can you share the lessons that ought to be learned and followed by past masters?

All artists before the invention of photography give us a precious insight into how we really see the world. Today we are under the pervasive illusion that we see mechanically, like a camera. This has truly harmed figurative art and given birth to the misconception that art cannot be pure unless it is ‘abstracted’. The great masters of the past did not feel an overwhelming compulsion to overtly ‘stylize’ their work, yet it remains formally pure because it is the result of human perception rather than of mechanically copying the visual results of a mechanical tool, (a photograph).

Portrait of Kurt Wenner

Kurt Wenner prefers…

I have a quiet life outside of my work. I enjoy classical music and opera, walks in nature and travelling for leisure as well as for work. When I am not creating works I am mostly writing on topics such as creativity, sacred geometry and classical art and design. It is my hope to publish texts and demonstrations on these topics because I do not feel they are well understood in our time. My favourite short book recently has been Tagore’s Sadhana. I mostly enjoy food when I am out of the U.S.A., especially in Asia or Europe.

Find more of his work at his website.

Image Courtesy: Kurt Wenner