Famous 3D chalk artist working in Chicago today

June 26, 2013|By Ryan Smith, @RyanSmithWriter | For RedEye

Those wandering into Chicago’s Union Station expecting trains might be surprised to find themselves deciding on a canoe instead. Well, sort of.

Renowned 3D street artist Kurt Wenner took to Union Station’s Great Hall (500 W. Jackson Blvd.) at 7 a.m. today to spend the morning creating his latest art installation--an enormous representation of the Colorado River measuring 32 feet by 64 feet that will be on display until 6 p.m. tonight. The plan initially called for the art to be placed at Pioneer Court on Michigan Avenue just south of the Tribune Tower, but predictions of severe weather prompted the venue change.

“If you’ve got a 16-by-32 piece of canvas out there and there’s 60 mph winds, it’d be like Armageddon,” Wenner laughed. “You know, it’s the Windy City. There’s only so much you can do at a certain point.”

Much like Wenner’s other expansive chalk art, this one uses an old technique of trompe l'oeil, French for "deceive the eye," that involves tricks of perspective and realistic imagery to create a trippy optical illusion that makes the mind think that the objects depicted in the piece exist in three dimensions. In other words, Chicagoans staring at Wenner’s artwork might feel a bit like they’ve been transported to a precipice overlooking the mighty Colorado.

The project, sponsored by Silk beverage company, is part of a campaign to raise awareness for the depleted Colorado River, which is slowly drying up due to climate change and the divvying up of much of its water to serve ever-growing Western cities and farmland. The river was recently named America’s most endangered waterway by American Rivers, a conservation non-profit organization. The hope is that Wenner’s art will prompt Chicagoans to pledge at reunitetheriver.com and reduce their own water consumption.

“I think they wanted to get a hold of me because they wanted an image that would tell the whole story of the river--from when the rain and snow fall from the mountains through the greenery and the fact that the river dries up before it hits the ocean. It’s a great natural tragedy of our time,” Wenner said.

But the question remains: Why pick Chicago to display a representation of the 1,450-mile Western waterway?

“The point is that really all the waterways are in danger, and the whole country needs to save water,” Wenner said. “It’s still something everyone needs to deal with, especially since our world is so interconnected. I could be eating a salad here that got its water from the Colorado River.”

Wenner believes his art is an effective method of communicating ideas because it is designed with interactivity in mind. While the San Juan Island, Wash.-based artist will be drawing onto the Union Station floor with handmade pastels, half of it has been pre-printed onto a large piece of canvas to be hung vertically. Much of the rest of the 16-by-32 piece installation located on the floor has also been printed so the public can walk on it and interact with it.

“People will be able to sit in the eagle’s nest and different parts of it, and it’ll look like they’re high above the river,” he said. “You’ll have lots of people posing for photographs and sending them to their friends, and then the images will have a long life on the internet. So people become involved in the art, and the art is the bridge between the people and the project. It’s a really nice way to bring a message, not just throwing it in someone’s face.”

Three-dimensional art has long been a passion for the former NASA illustrator. He spent more than two decades in Italy studying and researching a form of perspective used by the great European painters to give the illusion of soaring architecture and floating figures in frescoes. Part of what makes it difficult to produce is all of the math, particularly geometry, involved.

“I deal with real sizes and relationships,” he said. “I have to figure out the real size of the canvas, plus the real size of the spectator and the actual geometric position of the spectator. All of those things go into the calculations.”

Over the last decade, Wenner has created a number of memorable 3D art installations, including the "Grand Canyon Illusion," installed in 2012 at the Grand Canyon National Geographic Visitor Center in Tusayan, Ariz.

It’s his fourth piece in Chicago, but he says this one will be “the biggest and best yet.”

Ryan Smith is a RedEye special contributor.

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