In cities and towns throughout the world, pedestrians may see a patch of sidewalk or paved surface decorated with chalk or pastels. Although street art is new to most countries, it has a long tradition in Europe and is thought to have originated in Italy during the 16th century.
Italian madonnari were vagabond street artists noted for a life of travel between festivals and were the visual arts counterpart of minstrels. They often lived solely from the coins tossed onto or next to their drawing as an homage to the Madonna and possibly their skill. They arrived in towns and cities to paint religious pictures directly on the beaten earth or paved public squares, using chalk, brick, charcoal, and colored stones as their medium. In Italy, street artists are called madonnari after their practice of reproducing images of the Madonna (St. Mary). Their work is tied to the rich history of Italian religious art and is connected to votive and ex-votive offerings (given prior to, or in gratitude for a grace received).
For centuries, madonnari were true folk artists, reproducing simple images with minimal materials. During the Second World War, these street artists suffered many hardships and were greatly reduced in number. Despite this, a small number of them lasted into the 1980s.
Parallel to this tradition in Italy, pavement artists began appearing in London, England in the mid-nineteenth century. These artists were called screevers, a term that refers to the written messages that accompanied their works. An early reference book attributes the origin of the word screeve to Scotland or Holland. It is more likely though the term originates from the Italian word scrivere (scree-veh-ray) meaning to write, as this word links the Italian and northern country traditions. Although there is little documentation by the Italians regarding their madonnari, the Victorians were interested in the lower class and documented their pavement artists. In the 1930s both George Orwell and Pamela Lyndon Travers wrote about pavement artists. Travers’ character of Bert the screever became further popularized in the Disney film Mary Poppins.
In Italy during the early 1970s street painting began to have a small resurgence, and in 1972 thanks to the International Pavement art Festival in Grazie di Curtatone in Northern Italy, the exponents of this historical art form received recognition for their life-long artistic work. Through the efforts of the festival, they also witnessed the revitalization and transformation of their art into a worldwide phenomenon.
In 1982, Kurt Wenner became the first American to join the ranks of the Italian madonnari by creating his first pavement art picture in Rome. In the same year, he returned to the United States to introduce pavement art at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. Upon returning to Italy, it wasn’t long before he became the first American to win the top prize at the Grazie di Curtatone competition. By 1985 his art had captured the attention of many, including National Geographic who traveled to Italy and created an award-winning documentary on his work, Masterpieces In Chalk.
© 2019 KURT WENNER
In 1982 Kurt Wenner began combining traditional street painting techniques with innovative geometry to invent an art form all his own — 3D pavement art. Today, all artists creating 3D pavement art can trace its origins back to his invention.
Although inspired by the perspective used on Baroque church ceilings, Wenner had to invent the geometry he uses to create his images.
By 1986, he had created several signature 3D images such as Muses and Dies Irae. The media’s widespread use of these images popularized the art form and inspired many to try their hand at it. Brian Davis and Elise McConnell were among the very first to take it up. Their artistic talents and enthusiasm inspired countless others as the art form grew. Some artists such as Rod Tryon and Tracy Lee Stum began their pavement art careers by participating in U.S. festivals. Other artists like Genna Panzarella and Melanie Stimmel excelled in traditional pavement art (often referred to as 2D pavement art). By the 1990s some of these artists followed in Wenner’s footsteps to compete at the annual festival in Grazie di Curtatone, where Wenner first earned the title Master Street Painter.
In 1996 Absolut Vodka commissioned Wenner as part of their artist ad series. The print ad Absolut Wenner launched the art form into the world of advertising. With commissions for beautiful 3D branding, Wenner’s interactive images were at the forefront of this transition. Nowadays, pavement art is seen in commercials, movies, print ads, and on the street as a means of promotion.
Although the commercial demand for the art form remains high, there are countless artists who remain faithful to the original ephemeral tradition. The nomadic nature of these artists is now on a global scale as they meet up at events in Dubai one month and in Singapore another. Many pavement artists appreciate being part of an innovative international community and enjoy the comradery of collaborating with each other.
One of the most spectacular public events featuring an enormous, collaborative artwork is the Chalk Festival in Florida. Each year a global group of pavement artist works together to create some of the largest and most complex interactive illusions ever made. Wenner designs the compositions and gives short lessons during their time together on-site. The experience of working all together to manifest a spectacular work of art is pavement art at its spiritual best.
© 2019 KURT WENNER
With 3D street art already widely popular with the public and an Internet sensation, digital technology ushered in a new era and Kurt Wenner was ready to expand the boundaries. As the trailblazer for bringing art outdoors, he was eager to offer his audience an opportunity to interact with his images.
He continued creating his artwork by hand and then digitally transferred them on to a durable, lightweight canvas. This new approach enabled the public to stand, sit, and interact with the artwork without causing damage.
Having created a new perspective for a permanently installed Illusion Room in Disney’s Tokyo, Japan park, he was ready to take multi-surface images out to the public.
Once 3D televisions hit the market, clients began asking if he could make stereoscopic images by hand (previously only ever done with the camera). It wasn’t long before he had the public wearing special glasses on both sides of the Atlantic, experiencing his stereoscopic art. When the Rockettes launched the news of their new 3D Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall, his artwork had everyone in Times Square reaching out to catch snowflakes.
With the success of the Illusion Room in Japan, he thought about how he could create one outdoors. Never one to shy away from solving an artistic hurdle, he returned to his drafting table and conjured up a new form of perspective geometry. This gave him the framework to create an entirely new kind of image, so he got to work and came up with Shangri-La. This became the centerpiece of an exhibit of his work in Jakarta, Indonesia. The image creates an illusion of an open-sided, ancient temple filled with butterflies.
Given his immense global popularity, he was asked to create an interactive museum solely of his artwork. The 27,000 square foot Museum of Wonders is designed entirely by Wenner, from the interactive images to the architectural door surrounds and faux wall paneling. The highly original environment creates a sense of a grand museum however, it comes with a twist as everyone is encouraged to touch and interact with the art.
Wenner’s has captured the world’s imagination with his spectacular illusions and entertained millions across the globe for more than 35 years. To learn more about the other amazing things he does, check out the galleries below.
© 2019 KURT WENNER