Each year, as May gives way to June and the Memorial Day weekend opens its portal to summer, one of the great Santa Barbara traditions unfolds at Santa Barbara Mission—or the pavement outside of the mission, to be exact. It is a tradition during which wandering hordes of residents and tourists, both passionate observers and the idly curious, can be found staring intently at the ground.
This beloved institution is the “I Madonnari” street painting festival, a benefit for the Children’s Creative Project, which hosted its 29th annual event this past spring, featuring more of the often striking, virtuosic chalk paintings we’ve come to expect as part of the city’s calendar. But few know of the origins behind I Madonnari—or the circuitous story behind that story—tracing back to Kurt Wenner, the festival’s originator and a prime mover in the proliferation of this “street level” art form around the world in the past few decades.
Wenner, who grew up in Santa Barbara and has lived here as well as in Italy and other locales over his 57 years, is a veritable Renaissance man, in more ways than one. An artist with a strong and abiding affection for classical drawing and traditional painting ideals rooted in the Renaissance, he is also a versatile artist/craftsman whose resume includes work as one of the last pre-computer NASA illustrators, as an architect, and as a storied and still-busy master street artist and self-proclaimed inventor of “three-dimensional pavement art.” That artistic/personal narrative all began on the streets of Rome, where the restless twenty-something artist studied the art of the old masters and stumbled on a centuries-old tradition of Madonnari street artists.
“It has been a bit of a strange career,” Wenner admitted recently, from one of his homes, in Sedona, Arizona, “in the sense that it wasn’t something I was counting on. I’ve had a lot of different careers, artistically.” For the past several years, he has become an in-demand practitioner, pioneer and master of the “pavement art” form in Europe, Asia and even back in America, his point of initial contact when he proposed this novel idea in Santa Barbara nearly three decades ago.
As Wenner asserts, Santa Barbara’s festival “was pretty much based on my experiences as a pavement artist in Europe. I came back to Santa Barbara and thought it was a terrifically exciting thing that I had found. I presented it to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art and did a couple of successful events there. Then the Children’s Creative Project thought it was a good idea and wanted to do it as a fundraiser at the Old Mission. I trained all the artists, did the posters and the graphics. I created a vision of the art from what was a little bit my own vision of it. It wasn’t something that existed in the way I presented it.”
In fact, the pavement art he found in Italy was “very simple folk art—you had your saints and Madonna, and they were kind of scraped on the ground in chalk. It wasn’t very fancy. But I made it fancy, and I did very well in Italy with it. The vision was really that it was a virtuoso art form, kind of spectacular in the fluidity of the drawing and the perspective. Basically, what I did was to incorporate a lot of very difficult artistic problems into this folk art, which was not very complicated.”
From a personal artistic basis, Wenner’s new and fanciful take on an ancient vernacular tradition was a way of satisfying a long-burning fascination with classical art, in a time when Modernism and Post-Modernism ostracized such an “archaic” expressive avenue. He cleverly took his message to the streets and eventually around the world.
Simultaneously over the decades, Wenner has channeled his creative energies, painterly skills and passion for classical aesthetics into the relatively more permanent medium of architecture, in both two- and three-dimensional work, from murals and fresco work to ornamentation and design work. One of many Montecito houses Wenner worked on was the extravagantly lovely and Italianate ‘90s-era Mountain Drive estate known as Villa Zeffiro (Zephyr is the Greek god of the west wind)—based on the 16th century’s Villa Barbaro, designed by Palladio, near Vicenza in the Italian Venito—commissioned by Jim and Beverly Zaleski and designed by Jon Sorrell. In a 1999 Architectural Digest story on Villa Zeffiro, Sorrell calls Wenner “the finest fresco and mural painter in the United States,” and much like the famed artist Veronese, having been entrusted by Palladio to complete the interior frescos of Villa Barbaro, Sorrell and the Zaleski’s entrusted Wenner for the completion of Villa Zeffiro.
“The magnificent ceilings and decoration of this estate likely represent Wenner’s finest accomplishment during this phase of his career,” says Sorrell. “The ceiling of the living room took over a year to paint, and the ongoing decoration of other rooms several more years.”
From Wenner’s point of view, “Sorrell was a pioneer in transforming and scaling European residential architecture to meet contemporary lifestyles along with the current problems of building code and height restrictions.” That same project also involved a literal 360-degree turn away from the previous house on the property, a more modern structure by well-known architect Jack Warner, which was demolished before the Italianate villa project began. Wenner, who often worked with Warner, points out that “Jack has worked in many architecture styles including classic idioms, such as the remodel of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. My impression is that he, like many architects, became rather unhappy with the tastes of the 60s and 70s and sought out richer architectural idioms.”
Wenner’s own design savvy and input helped in the problem-solving process on large architectural efforts. He comments that, in those days, “architects weren’t yet able to design and include classical decorative details with ease, and a lot of reverse-engineering was necessary. I did many thousands of square feet of murals and decoration at that time.”
Recent examples of Wenner’s remarkable adventures in tromp l’oeil 3D pavement art include Shangrila in Indonesia, Dies Aerie (“The Flying Carpet”) in Italy and Greenpeace—a Million Signatures in Brussels, Belgium, sponsored by Greenpeace and championing the GMO-free movement.
Wenner’s classicist radicalism didn’t only happen on pavement. At the same time, Wenner, who studied at the Art Center of Design and Rhode Island School of Design, and whose father, Adrian M. Wenner, was a provost at UCSB College of Creative Studies, found ways to channel his history-steeped cultural ideas into his parallel skill and passion for architecture. He operated in a workshop near the Funk Zone. In Santa Barbara, he painted “church ceilings and a lot of the fancy Italianate homes when that became in vogue. There was a cottage industry of making these luxurious Italianate villas. I was working with different architects who were bringing architecture out of Bauhaus Modernism and back into a more voluptuous traditional idiom.”
“That was a huge thing, to propose that kind of elegant architecture that Santa Barbara was known for in the 1920s, and skirting around what I consider the devastation of the late Bauhaus-style in the 60s and 70s and saying ‘if you’re going to have a fancy, expensive, beautiful home, why not make it look like one?’ It was shocking at the time,” he laughs.
The economic upheaval of 2008 put a damper on high-end domestic architecture.
Wenner was doing extensive work on an elaborate estate project, forestalled in the wake of the fiscal meltdown, called Villa Té, on Montecito’s “Teahouse” property (now infamous as ground zero of the “Tea Fire”). With a touch of rue, he notes that the project “would have taken me through retirement, probably—it was such a big project.”
A bit ruefully, Wenner says that “when the market bottomed out, tastes became more restrained even when the finances were available. This seems to happen with all luxury products, including cars and jewelry. I would very much like to do more architectural work. I only really put the work aside in order to respond to the numerous requests for my illusions, which have been very successful globally.”
Recession hit, and Wenner hit the road, riding the wave of his sought-after mastery of “3D pavement art” and traveling to inherently “site-specific” and temporary art locales in Italy, Dubai, Chicago and beyond. “I’ve seen it through the environment of the festivals around the world, and I’ve seen it hit its pace as a profession now. It got funded and became lucrative. The corporate world got interested and social networking became involved. If you Google ‘pavement art,’ you would be shocked. There are literally hundreds of thousands of images, and in the beginning, there were zero.”
Now, after Santa Barbara’s festival took root in the city’s self-identity, he notes, “after 30 years, you look at things and see where your legacy has gone.” What happens at the Old Mission over Memorial Day, he says, “has made a lot of people happy, not only the audience, but the artists, as well. It really has changed a lot of peoples’ lives.”
Originally published in the fall 2015 issue of Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine.