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Outdoor art: Artist knows all his finest works will soon become washouts

The works of art Kurt Wenner creates don't stand the test of time. In fact, they are gone with the first rain.

City streets are his canvas, and the 36-year-old artist, who is making his first appearance in Pittsburgh, enjoys the process as much as the end result."People feel vast dismay that the drawing will wash away in the first rain," he said. "But it's not a problem for me.

"I'm constantly aware my work is not permanent, and to me it doesn't have the feeling of a finished work. I consider street drawing a performance."

Wenner, who created a sidewalk painting at the Salt Lake Arts Festival in June, began his latest performance a couple of days in advance of a weekend street fair. The work was to take him approximately three days. Under a tent downtown, he is drawing his conception of Apollo and Daphne with two river gods. Their environment stems from Wenner's passion for flamboyant baroque design and bizarre perspective.

Apollo seductively plays a flute as Daphne, escaping his lustful intent, metamorphoses into a tree. Wenner's commission is one of hundreds of eye-popping drawings he has done alone or with assistants in the United States and Europe.

Having studied at the Rhode Island School of Design and the Art Center College of Design, Pasadena, Calif., Wenner sought more from life than his job as a technical illustrator and conceptual painter at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. So in 1982 he went to Rome to study classical art.

Today, Wenner and his wife live part-time in Mantua, northern Italy, where he created a 75-by-15-foot composition in 1992 with 32 artists under his direction. The drawing honored a visit by Pope John Paul II, who was impressed enough to sign the work, which was based on Michelangelo's "Last Judgment" in the Sistine Chapel.

"I am working all the time," Wenner said, "and the extent of a drawing and the involvement of other artists in it depend on its size."

And although his street art doesn't last, Wenner documents every project. "It's integral to the process since I design a piece with documentation in mind. I do the photography because many photographers won't do what I want them to do.

"They have their own ideas about what to shoot and sometimes ignore what I have as the optimal viewing point. But I do have a few photographers for important jobs and enough photographs to submit to a publisher."

When working on the street, he chooses as smooth a surface as possible, usually asphalt, although he has drawn on limestone.

Wenner makes his own chalks that are not chalk at all. They are pure paint pigment that he mixes with binders of wax and glue and hand-forms, sometimes making from 200 to 2,100 sticks at a time. He begins with commercial powdered pigments that take 48 hours to a week to dry hard enough to use.

Why make these sticks? "Commercial chalk pastels don't have the right properties for my work, and I can use mine on paper as well as on the street. Mine are not powdery," he said.

Wenner has an intensely intellectual approach to his work, which he compares to the 17th-century artistic interest in anamorphism, the idea of combining actual architectural elements with illusionistic painting so that when the viewer looks from a specific point, the architecture blends with the painting.

Wenner does a lot of canvases each year for clients, as well as work in homes. In Santa Barbara, Calif., where he participates in the annual arts festival, Wenner created original oil paintings on classical themes covering 2,500 square feet of ceiling space in a new house copied from Vicenza, Italy's Villa Barbaro.

He depicted "The Fall of Icarus" in a living room mural measuring 25 by 36 feet and also painted plaster walls and did architectural elements.

But despite his popular acceptance, he is very aware his art form seldom finds a place among contemporary museums and curators.

"That scene is impossible to penetrate. I have made it my own personal quest in life to challenge the idea that classical art is archaic and of little use to us today. This has to do with discussion of themes in classical art as well as its formal principles, such as knowing how to draw anatomy and architecture."