It has been about a third of a century since I first sat down on the streets of Rome with my tip buckets and started creating large pastel images. At the time, I expect there were a dozen or two practicing pavement artists in the entire world. Life was very different in those years. This little memoir is excerpted from my book, “Asphalt Renaissance”. Although I would prefer it if people bought the book, which contains many such stories, I know that it is difficult to obtain in some countries and would like this history to be readily available to anybody who is doing a paper, writing an article or making a presentation on the subject of pavement art.
The Making of a Madonnaro
Kurt Wenner’s path toward becoming a street painter began years ago at a well-known art school on the East Coast of the United States. An instructor declared that Wenner had no talent for drawing the human form, and advised him to choose an artistic path that did not include figures. Not long after, a guest lecturer recommended that Wenner burn his portfolio and start over. Wenner had entered the prestigious art college expecting to be initiated into the drawing secrets and techniques of the Old Masters, naively assuming that there would be wise teachers schooled in the disciplines of formal art training. The teachers quickly disabused him of such antiquated notions, asserting, “Drawing is a matter of talent—you have it or you don’t,” and adding, “Drawing cannot be taught!”
At the time, I was quite young, and it was difficult to understand how to cope with such comments. Eventually, I was forced to come to terms with the problem. Before the twentieth century, generations of art students studied perspective, light and shadow, anatomy, and other foundations of art in European classical academies. While my attempts at figure drawing were not at the top of the class, none of the other student drawings were at the level of the academies a hundred years earlier. And certainly nothing on the order of a Renaissance drawing was produced by any of the students or instructors. Based on what my teachers said, we had produced an entire culture that lacked talent! I knew this was not the case, and realized we had developed a culture that could no longer teach the foundations of classicism.
Over the past centuries, students laboriously copied the masterpieces of Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Leonardo, and ancient Roman sculptors, minutely observing each brushstroke or chisel mark that added up to greatness. Wenner had long dreamed of such an education, but the sweep of modernism across the twentieth century art world did away with all rigorous formal training. Wenner found the distinguished school he was attending capable of offering him only an education that narrowly focused on breaking away from past conventions.
I had to face the fact that the classical academy of my dreams existed only in my imagination. My ideas and opinions were so out of step with contemporary art education that I often enraged my teachers and was branded a failure. Although I was not yet an adult, my ideas were considered anachronistic. Being young, idealistic, and resilient, I wasn’t willing to accept that I was finished as an artist before I had begun. However, I felt that if I remained at that particular school, the teachers’ prediction that I couldn’t draw the human figure was certain to become a reality. I was forced to choose between giving up my desire to draw the human form and changing my path in life.
Out of a sense of self-preservation, Wenner left the school on the East Coast and enrolled in Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. Art Center had a strong drawing program, and Wenner’s heart soared as he watched an instructor draw with so much grace and ease that the works seemed to create themselves. As instructor Harry Carmean worked from life models, he explained the drawing process to the students. To finally see an artist draw brilliantly was exhilarating and disturbing for Wenner. For the first time, he comprehended that art was a process, an act of expression, as much as a final product. As with playing a musical instrument, the act of drawing existed only in time. Wenner could not imagine having that skill.
I began to worry that I might not have the ability to draw in such a decisive and confident way. Fortunately, the teacher put my mind to rest, asserting that mastery of drawing did not ultimately require talent so much as an understanding of the rich formal and perceptual language of Western art. What is called “talent” merely accelerates the learning process. The bad news was that formal training was a difficult study that required years of instruction and thousands of hours of practice. I was fully committed to the idea of mastering the language of Western art; however, there were no degree programs or any scholarship options that offered it.
In order to pay Art Center’s expensive tuition, Wenner worked as a scientific illustrator for NASA at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He spent his time drawing extraterrestrial landscapes according to scientific information provided by the Voyager spacecraft, and creating conceptual paintings of spacecraft for proposed future missions. His job was one that many graduates dreamed of, but for him it was also a means of supporting his studies. Most nights and on the weekends he continued his drawing classes. Eventually, he realized that he couldn’t learn much more from his art professors and that he would have to go to Rome to continue his education.
While saving up for his studies abroad, he lived a monk-like existence, spending eighty hours a week hunched over a drawing board. Finally, in order to save on rent, he camped out in a sleeping bag inside a defunct wind tunnel. Once a month, the NASA staff would send a supersonic airflow through the tunnel in order to maintain it in working condition. One day, they fired it up on a different day than usual. Wenner searched for his sleeping bag, and while he never did find it, he did notice a fine layer of fluffy feathers coating the walls of the lab. With no place to sleep and a fistful of savings, it seemed like the right time to move on. He left Art Center, NASA, friends, and family, and headed for Rome to continue his study of classical art.
I had fallen in love with a study that seemed to have no future. The few students I knew who had spent the years necessary to master the art of drawing would often joke about finding eventual employment as body outliners for the local police department. Ironically, in my case I would come extraordinarily close to this reality by eventually chalking figures on the street for a living. Although the instruction I received at Art Center was brilliant, I felt a need to go to the source of the classical tradition in order to fully understand that tradition. Beginning around 1660, the Grand Tour had served as an educational rite of passage. It was a trip through Europe with an emphasis on artifacts of antiquity and the Renaissance. Young men often traveled with a personal tutor, who could explain the mysteries of art and cultural traditions to them. I was determined to make my own Grand Tour to study drawing. I bought a plane ticket, an Italian dictionary, and a map of Europe, because I had no idea exactly where Rome was!
Wenner boarded the plane with just a handful of rock-bottom necessities that would fit into a backpack. While in transit at London’s Heathrow Airport, he was informed by an apologetic airline official that his backpack had been sent to Singapore. With no bag in tow, he made his triumphant entry into Rome bearing a passport, a notebook, and a map.
I was completely unprepared to travel in Europe. My first impression of Italy was absolute confusion. I somehow made it into central Rome, and was nearly flattened by a bus when I attempted to cross the street for the first time. I had lots of experience with art, music, and culture, but little with life, and even less with travel or languages. It felt like a miracle when I reached the tiny room I had rented before leaving the States and plopped down on the bed. I wondered how I would ever survive in a city where I had to walk behind a nun to safely cross the street.
Arriving in Italy
It was 1982, and Italy retained much of its Old World charm, customs, and beliefs. The Italians still held strong regional identities, as globalization had not yet begun to homogenize the different cultures. The ancient traditions and art of the Catholic Church were seen everywhere. Life moved at a leisurely pace, with plenty of time to enjoy a good meal and good company. As Wenner settled into his new surroundings, he got started on his to-do list, which he had designed to keep his educational project on track. The first thing was to get an overview of his new living classroom by seeing all the major monuments and museums in Rome.
I never knew there was such a wealth of art anywhere in the world, let alone packed into one city. I was used to spending time at different museums in the United States, but Rome was completely different. Museums in the States were heated and well lit, with small paintings spaced carefully on neutral backgrounds. In Rome, much of the painting was in the form of vast frescoes, surrounded by sculpted moldings and painted and gilded decoration, and accompanied with inlaid marble. I was completely overwhelmed by the dizzying scale and richness of the work. While watching the rain fall through the open oculus of the Pantheon on the fourth day, I knew I had taken in too much.
After less than a week, Wenner had come down with a bad case of Stendhal syndrome, a well-documented illness with flu-like symptoms that strikes tourists whose vision has become over-stimulated as a result of viewing too much grandeur. He spent the next several days in bed, looking up at the fuchsia-colored ceiling in his little room. When the visions of frescoes stopped spinning in his head, Wenner decided to take a more organized approach and went in search of art schools. Unlike the sterile but clean halls of Art Center, these buildings were decrepit, filled with graffiti, and looked like the party headquarters in a third-world country that had suffered a revolt. Classicism was no more alive in Rome’s educational system than it was back in the States, and it did not appear that they would be offering the fabulous art instruction Wenner had dreamed of.
With much trepidation, I entered the Villa Borghese with a small drawing board, a pencil box, and a tiny three-legged folding stool. I didn’t know how to ask for permission to draw in the museum, so I didn’t. A hundred years ago, the museum would have been buzzing with students copying the works of art and discussing each other’s drawings. Unfortunately, I was alone in the large, echoing rooms. I nervously set up my stool in front of a sculpture and began drawing using a sanguine-colored pencil. The early masters often used these blood-red-colored pencils for drawing and sketching. It wasn’t long before I became completely lost in what I was doing.
He spent months drawing in museums, arriving when they opened and leaving only when he heard the doors beginning to close. He spent day after day communing with the masterpieces, and grew to feel an intimate connection with the artists whose works he copied. Dressed in a pair of jeans and a shirt with the sleeves rolled up, Wenner sat for long hours on his stool, balancing a drawing board on his knees as he worked. By looking at him, few would have guessed the level of skill he possessed. Occasionally, a visitor took the time to watch him work and observe his developing mastery.
I spent vast amounts of time in the various museums throughout Rome, blending into the silence, which was interrupted by loud tour groups, shouting guides, and shrieking schoolchildren. I was often asked directions and did my best to answer questions in fumbling Italian. Many Europeans stopped to ask where I had studied art, which served to confirm my suspicion that good classical drawing classes were as rare in Europe as in the States. In the many months I studied, I never once encountered an art student or an art class drawing in the museums. The exercises I was undertaking were invaluable and built on what I had studied in school. Unlike life models, the sculptures told stories about the artists and cultures that created them. Merely looking at sculptures does not reveal this information, any more than looking at the cover of a book tells the story inside. Only by drawing them is the formal language revealed. I was finally beginning to obtain the skills needed to compose drawings in the classical tradition.
Guards were soon greeting him by name, and each day tourists would crowd around him to watch him draw. Sightseers often asked to purchase a drawing, but it was the museum guards, insulted by the minuscule amounts the tourists offered, who became his patrons for drawings of the masterpieces they so loved and protected. It wasn’t long before he had a list of twenty Vatican guards waiting for drawings. Wenner spent vast amounts of time in the various museums throughout Rome, blending into the silence, which was interrupted by loud tour groups, shouting guides, and shrieking schoolchildren. In the many months spent studying, he never once encountered an art student or an art class drawing in the museums. The exercises he undertook were invaluable and built on what he had studied in school. Unlike life models, the sculptures told stories about the artists and cultures that created them. Merely looking at sculptures does not reveal this information, any more than looking at the cover of a book tells the story inside. Only by drawing them is the formal language revealed. He slowly began to obtain the skills needed to compose drawings in the classical tradition.
The drawing sales helped shore up my shrinking savings. However, I couldn’t produce drawings fast enough to pay for food, rent, and art supplies. The thought of being destitute in a foreign country was a frightening one, yet making art was the only thing that held any importance for me. I knew I needed to find another source of income if I was going to be able to carry on studying in the Eternal City.
One afternoon while walking home past the Trevi Fountain, Wenner saw two young men on their hands and knees working on the pavement of the Via del Corso. They were absorbed in drawing a traditional Madonna and Child, using a mixture of thick sidewalk chalks and finer commercial pastels. The image was quite rough, as dirt and the pavement’s texture combined to prohibit fine details or rich color. Wenner was surprised to see a work of religious art emblazoned on the busy sidewalk. People stood around and observed the painters quietly. It was as if the painting were bringing the sanctity of a shrine out onto the dusty pavement, creating an island of calm on an otherwise frenetic corner. He had just come across the work of two madonnari and observed his first street painting. He didn’t know it yet, but his life would be forever changed.
The following morning, I approached the same spot. Gathering all my courage, I asked the painters a few questions in halting Italian. Their reply was equally rudimentary, but with a German accent. I was overjoyed, as I spoke some German, and as it turned out they spoke some English. I was astounded to learn that they actually made their living from street painting. From then on, every evening I made it a point to pass by their site, chat with them, and watch them paint.
True to tradition, the artists never revealed to Wenner how much they earned on the street, and like most people, he assumed it was very little. They had plenty to talk about, and Wenner was amazed to learn that they had come to Rome specifically to street paint rather than to visit the museums. Wenner didn’t know it at the time, but one of the two painters, Manfred Stader, would become a lifelong friend. After a week, the artists asked Wenner to paint the head of an angel that had been giving them trouble while they went to dinner. He hesitatingly consented.
I was nervous and self-conscious as I sat down on the pavement. I surveyed the Via del Corso, gazing up at the buildings from this new angle. I then took a deep breath and set to work. To my surprise, it was immensely enjoyable. I had an immediate, visceral response to the soft, fresco-like palette of colors. The populated street was more frenetic than any museum, but I soon became so involved in the work that I didn’t notice the sound of the passing cars, the whining motors of the ever-present Vespas, and the clatter of hurrying feet around me. It seemed like only minutes had passed before my new friends returned from dinner. They perused the angel and complimented my work. Then they emptied the baskets of the donations made while I had been painting and handed them to me in a plastic sack. I had been so absorbed in the work that I hadn’t noticed anyone tossing coins into the baskets. I accepted the sack and realized in that one hour I had earned enough money to cover my daily expenses!
Elated and streaked with grime from the street, Wenner practically floated home, dreaming about how street painting could be his much-needed source of income. He also thought about how it could be a way for him to create the full-scale copies of masterpieces that he had longed to execute as a formal exercise for his selfstudy program. He had not been able to accomplish this, due to a lack of studio space, however, street painting opened up the vast expanses of sidewalks and piazzas in Rome to use as his studio.
As soon as I had my first experience street painting I thought about making my own work, and where and what I would paint. With the constant repairs and renovation in the ancient city, finding a spot with a smooth surface and lots of foot traffic would be a challenge. The next day, I scouted around, looking down at the pavement instead of up at the magnificent facades. I had to find a location where I would not block anything or anybody, and as I searched I discovered remnants of other street paintings. Had I walked over these faded images in the past and never noticed? I finally decided on the piazza in front of Termini, Rome’s central train station.
Early the next morning, I headed for the piazza determined to start a street painting on my own. I knew there were risks involved, such as having my fingers stepped on, or being moved on by the police. The idea of being able to apply all that I’d learned in the past months to a full-scale painting kept me from backing down. At the time, the train station was anything but gracious or comfortable. It had been under construction for many years, and was covered in rusty siding that funneled commuters into a narrow corridor. Black-market sellers, drug pushers, and Gypsies all sought their victims here. By the time I arrived at the station, my heart was pounding. I wove my way through the commuters, looking for an appropriate spot to set out my materials. As a visual reference, I was using my drawing of Michelangelo’s statue of Moses. An endless distracting dance of feet fell all around me, but soon a small group of spectators formed, and in their stillness I was protected from the surrounding chaos. I experienced for the first time a phenomenon that would come to repeat itself over and over again: The power of the image transformed not only the space but also everything and everyone around it. As the image grew, so did the audience, and the synergy created between the two was a tangible, positive force.
Being in the center of this radiant field gave me the confidence I needed to set out a few baskets to collect offerings. People tossed in coins immediately and enthusiastically. Given the shadier denizens of the area, I thought it would be difficult to hold on to the money. However, no one tried to take the coins from the baskets. At one point, a large group of garishly dressed Gypsies surrounded me. I tried to ignore their presence and concentrated on my work as they scrutinized the picture. They pointed and talked among themselves, in their own language, until they seemed to arrive at a collective decision. I braced myself. Suddenly they all dropped some coins into the baskets, nodded at me, and then silently departed.
Relieved that the morning had gone well, I crossed the street to a local bar for a much-needed espresso. I was served instantly and given the correct change in a manner that is usually bestowed only on a bar’s regular clientele. I thought I must finally look like I belonged, and then I caught my reflection in a mirror and saw I was covered from head to toe with a pungent coating of sweat mixed with pastel dust and sidewalk grime. I realized the bartender just wanted to get me out of his shop as quickly as possible! That evening, when it grew too dark to see the painting, I packed up and began to head home. Looking at my watch, I discovered that I had spent twelve hours squatting, kneeling, and crawling about on the sidewalk. My bag was painfully heavy with coins, so I tried to take a city bus, but the driver took one look at my appearance and refused to let me ride. I had no choice but to drag my bag and my aching body five miles across town to my room. After scrubbing off the grimy coating, I sat in my room, every muscle painfully sore from the contortions I had been performing all day. I emptied the coins onto the table and counted them. I was stunned to discover that they added up to my daily salary back at NASA.
Early the next morning, I returned to the train station, and much to my surprise I found the picture not only in good condition, but covered with coins! I found the work much less stressful on the second day. Now that I was familiar with my surroundings, it was easier to enjoy the audience’s appreciation, which increased as the painting progressed. I worked steadily throughout the day, nearly finishing the image. I did my best to keep clean, but I was still black by the time evening came around, and my bag was unbearably heavy with coins. Fortunately, a more compassionate driver allowed me to board the bus home. That evening, as soon as I had washed and put on fresh clothes, I set about counting the coins and discovered my earnings had tripled! I returned to the painting site the next morning and quickly touched up the picture,and then concentrated on finishing. After adding the final details, I stepped back and surveyed my first completed street painting. I was filled with joy; never had I imagined working on such a large scale with so much speed. I was certainly relieved about finding a way to solve my financial difficulties, but more important I was excited about street painting propelling me forward in my studies.
That evening, Wenner fell into bed, overjoyed, relieved, and utterly spent. Sometime after midnight, he awoke to the damp scent and soft sound of falling rain. With his very first street painting sacrificed to the elements, Wenner had been initiated into the full cycle of the medium. He had also been lured by the siren’s song into the life of a madonnaro.