Kevin Wenner, born in 1961, raised by a draftsman father and housewife mother in JFK cookie-cutter ranch house Cleveland suburb, was always creating something.
A fan of comics and a model car builder, Kevin spent every summer weekend at drag strips and racetracks creating signage and car drawings. Between laps he paced the grandstands selling racing magazines while helping run the family part-time business of vending model cars, jacket patches, and photography from the back of the van.
Since well before graduating high school in 1979, and until moving to Pittsburgh in 1984, worked as a bowling machine mechanic and artistically indulged his interests in music, sports, and "culture"(mostly upon the wall of the machine area!)... This while attending art classes at Lakeland Community College and painting signage for local businesses.
After graduating from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh in 1986 with an associate degree in visual communication, Kevin worked as an artist/illustrator for Cleveland's Rose Graphics and Szomoru Graphics, where he produced art for sports teams, radio stations, malls, and corporations in the form of outdoor advertising logos, and mass mail.
Kevin moved again to Pittsburgh's South Side in 1994 to pursue his artistic vision. While accepting small art jobs and working in a local restaurant, helped found musical group Venus In Furs as a "live action painter". Thrashing and painting wildly on a surface the size of a small billboard, he would complete an erotic and captivating image in a timed fashion, often slamming down his finishing brush stroke just as the band crushed their final note!
As the only band anywhere with a painter (referred to as "Visual Noise"), Venus In Furs became hugely popular with a highlight as opening act for rock megastar Nine Inch Nails.
For his efforts, Wenner was voted "Artist of the Year" in 1986 and '98 by 'In Pittsburgh Magazine.... This while living in a studio space without plumbing or heat!
A.k.a."The Nerve", he became a solo performer in 2000. Performances combine live painting with music, sound bites, samples, and props to form "voice" and convey focused meaning. With a style often described as "mesmerizing", he has also collaborated with jazz bands, orchestras, dancers, poets, the Pittsburgh Opera, and variety shows of all types in nightclubs, theaters and galleries in Pittsburgh and beyond.
When not performing or displaying art in the occasional group show, Wenner has busied himself creating and painting imagery appearing in many of the areas hottest spots. One night club includes 180 feet of hand painted glass covered bar top and a 25 foot serpentine glass table chock-full of entertaining imagery.
Phipps Conservatory has featured Wenner's work on numerous occasions during their shows, most notably the 2010 summer flower show including 13 sculpted gargoyles and grotesques carved from polystyrene foam and painted as stone. Additional Phipps events showcasing his creations are: an eight foot carved hydraulic head if Medusa and a one room, suspended animation rainstorm.
Wenner also works behind the scenes as a storyboard artist for commercials, virtual worlds, videos, and special features, such as "How The Toys Saved Christmas" by Space Monkey Productions. Many of these projects include him in starring roles characterizing voices for the likes of 'Smuckey the Sick Monkey' and 'Bizz Bee' in their computer animated manifestations.
Kevin also likes movies. So much, in fact, that he has become involved in the motion picture industry creating handmade scenic affects and other visual art for many popular movies.
In association with the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts residency program, Wenner has been involved with many art education projects ranging from local community events to large- scale productions...In 2014, he received a nomination for 'Best Emerging Artist of the Year'!
Wenner's recent work includes commissions and installations of fine art for private businesses and collectors, galleries and showrooms.
KW: I’m working on a market. Pittsburgh unfortunately is not really an art market. The cost of living is great here, but it’s not an easy place to make a living as an artist. So what I’m doing now is, there is an artist I’ve become acquainted with, his name is Robert Robertson, and he is a little bit of a mentor to me. He’s teaching me how to establish a market and sell to a market… I’m learning how to be a little bit less expressive in an outright way, and a little bit more trying to learn how to finance my life with my art by working through a market. Making things, abstract paintings for instance, that are going to hang over someone’s $25,000 couch. I know that sounds extremely limited and I approach it like it’s limited. I try to have as little involvement in the emotional part of it as possible. And believe me that’s the only way to get through it because you can’t spend a month on a painting anymore. You have to bang a painting out in a day or two or three. And that’s it if you want to make your money, and you want to survive. That’s what has to happen. It’s been a difficult change because I have an enormous ego and it’s been very difficult sacrificing that. When I was performing, it’s all ego. It’s all what I want to make, the way I want to make it, and expressing it the way I want to express it. By the way, lucky me, that turned out to be something that was incredibly popular. Which is a great feeling, great for my ego, times of wonderful health and good fortune. I made a lot of money doing that too. But it’s almost like once you’ve done something a certain way for a certain while with a certain style…
JK: you get stuck in it?
KE: You can. It can turn into a rut or it just doesn’t have the same punch for you on the inside that you need it to. You never get tired of having an audience. You never get tired of having people know you when you don’t know them. Being recognized, having people ask for your autograph. It’s lovely, but at some point you start looking for another way to express your skills, to use your talent, to broaden your horizons, or just to learn something technically new. And so that’s kind of what the progression as been like. I’m just trying to become more of a world-class artist, than a localized artist, in every way, shape, and form. Locally in terms of geography and locally in terms of my mental state.
KW: Venus in Furs was a multidimensional performance act and musical act. It all started with me and a friend of mine, Michael Nolan. This was, let’s see, in the early 90’s. He and I were just hanging out and he was making music primarily on his computer, occasionally he’d have a guest artist come over and play guitar or keyboard or something like that. He was looking for a way to move his interest in music to the stage. But the problem was, everybody he was working with usually a guitarist and a keyboard guy and no drummer at the time didn’t really do much. He couldn’t find anyone that was really animated. He thought it would just add an element to the performance. At the time I had just broken off a relationship, and I had these big feelings going on. And Mike was just like, “Why don’t you just come up on stage, it doesn’t matter what you do, let’s just do something, anything. You could break stuff, I don’t care” He wanted to put his music on the stage and he knew I had something going on. He said “We have six weeks, let’s get a gig.” Six weeks later I showed up in a coffee shop with a giant eight-foot easel, that I put up hours before they arrived with the other equipment. And we proceeded to blow the minds of all 12 people that were there. And disturb some of them I’m sure. Although I didn’t see anybody leaving, and I painted a picture of a man with his hands tied behind his back, and a gag in his mouth, and a gigantic phallus that was blue. Everyone was totally offended and I thought it was hilarious… As time went by we started getting more of these gigs. The coffee shop kept having us back, I think it was called Charlie’s over by Duquesne University, long gone now. We would basically get together and make a mess, I would anyway…
KW: As I recall, one night we had about 3 people there. It was really sad. Turns out one of them was a writer from the Post Gazette. He wrote a beautiful little article about this cool band who had a live painter and he called it visual noise, and so we started calling it visual noise after that.
KW: I decided to really throw myself into pursuing the solo part of what I was doing. I was starting to have ideas to go different places with it, especially sonically. I had a guy who was really good on a computer and could help me assemble my sound. I was always listening to books on tape and I loved movies. And so what I thought I would do is come up with a concept for a painting, and it didn’t matter which hit me first, I could be listening to a piece of music and think of an image that was powerful enough to get through my wall and really start resonating with me, or I could think of an image that was already powerful and then resonate to the music I wanted to use. And then I would even resonate beyond that to sound bites from movies, big chunks of books on tape that I was listening to at the time. And I had a sound guy that knew exactly how to plug all that stuff in. I would go over to his house and bring all my materials, he would plug them all into his computer and put together a sound scape for me based on the amount of time I had to perform… We used a huge poem from Revenge of the Sith from the Star Wars book. It’s really well read but what we did was we has this piece of music that would jump, there would be this pause between bits of music. It think it was a piece by Ministry. And it would play, there would be a pause, it would play, then short pause, and so on. This poem from the Star Wars book was about the dark and how it waits patiently for things to happen and it was really a great poem. The problem was he said it all in a row. What we did was we took the little sentences and we broke it up and put it in these pauses… It was exciting just to sit there and put the music together, and if I had an image that was powerful, I actually started to feel bad for my audience because I was going to hurt them. This was going to be painful for them because a lot of that stuff, when I created those things, was coming from a place of pain. I would create this beautiful picture, and the sound bites and music would be very emotional it would carry you to a place that if I did something terrible to the painting you were going to get hurt… I painted the head of a bust of Jesus on the cross and then by the end of the music… I spray paint a barcode over his head. Half the audience was yelling, "Do it", and half the audience was gasping going, “No!” And I just thought, “This was it. You got all of them.”
You know you’ve done right when the whole room is standing up for you at the end. There were some really intense performances there that I truly miss that release of all of it, even more so with Venus in Furs, I mean that was like being some kind of animal on a kill. The solo performances were a little more refined but no less satisfying because I had just destroyed my demons. I would breathe right for days after a show like that. If people knew what it was like to release themselves that powerfully, you’d see a lot more people out there doing things like that. There is noting, every single demon in your head shuts up when they know you are in control. And I don’t think you can get that working a 9-5 job or doing nice quiet pretty art, which is great, it’s satisfying and it’s wonderful… and it sells. But boy oh boy to throw paint and scream at the top of your lungs maybe bleed a little, that’s getting it.
JK: So you don’t work for the [Pittsburgh Center for the Arts] school, but you are an artist in residency there. What does that mean for the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts?
KW: Well for me, it’s a lot like what you are doing. It’s a place where artists can have a sense of community, like they belong somewhere and they’re connected to something. Those are pretty essential things once your serious art career starts and you might spend a lot of time in your studio by yourself, and you can get lost, and you can get lonely and depressed, all kinds of things can happen when you are trying to create and you have to isolate yourself. The only thing to make us feel connected are carrying agencies like yours, the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, and there are a lot of other ones out there. In a way… they kind of found me… At the time I was spending a lot of time here by myself, I was performing very little. And I was trying to create a market. I was making paintings and trying to sell them outside the gallery as well. Trying to do other small projects, and it really did kind of center things for me.
KW: I had an art teacher in second grade, her name was Jackie Horner, I wish I could find her because she was the first person who made me feel like I was different in a good way. Until then I thought I was different in a bad way, very inferior, and this teacher set me free. I never thought of myself as a giving back person but there’s me giving back. This is me setting these kids free… Now it’s trickling back to the board of education out there. It’s trickling back to the parents. And now everyone else is getting in on the stuff that’s not artistic, like “You’re teaching my kid what? How to do his part? How to be a part of the whole? How to help create something bigger than himself by not even knowing what he’s doing until it happens?” Now we are talking about something that is beyond art. And that’s what makes it special.
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