Missing Mantis

Colonel Mustard's been cleared. How about the contractor in the tanning salon?

If leprechauns were full-grown, they might resemble something like Ron Lee Wehnes, whose ruddy face sports a bulbous nose and a short beard. And instead of guarding pots of gold, they might look after rusty sculptures, like Wehnes does.

For five years, the welder has created trains, airplanes and other shapes out of metal, placing some of them on a small strip of grass on Kipling near Kirby Drive, along the now-empty courts of the River Oaks Tennis Club. Although Wehnes lives in Manvel, he frequently checks on his assorted artwork. Twenty large pieces, plus a rack that holds smaller works collectively called The Stick Gallery, dot the street.

"I'm not a trained artist or anybody. I'm just a redneck trying to learn," Wehnes says, even though his works have gained recognition. In 1996 Dana Friis Hansen, then curator at the Contemporary Arts Museum, urged him to enter the Houston Area Exhibition. Wehnes took home an honorable mention. The next year he was included in Lawndale Gallery's The Big Show. After displaying his work for a year at Tom Robinson Galleries (then on Kipling, now called Pascal/ Robinson Galleries), Wehnes decided he'd rather show his art for free than sell it.

But in late July Wehnes discovered his best -- and largest -- piece had vanished from Kipling. He had seen it just a week or so before in its spot near a Dumpster. That's the way Wehnes liked it, art coexisting next to trash. But no one could have mistaken the sculpture for litter.

The rusted steel mass stood a good seven or eight feet tall. From the ground, it sprouted like a tree and branched off into four limbs; each ended in a bullet-shaped stump. Upon the tree, a giant praying mantis crouched. Many of Wehnes's sculptures are based on tall tales he wrote. And though he can't remember the story behind the praying mantis, it was based on a real person, an ARVN lieutenant he had encountered during the Vietnam War who was said to torture his own people. The mantis represented that man.

Near the empty spot stood an electricity pole. The upturned earth around its base suggested it had been recently planted. Its wires led to the back of a new business on Kirby, Solar Retreat tanning salon.

Thus began a real-life game of Clue -- a whodunit mystery that led Wehnes to Crescent Q Construction of Tomball, which had transformed the old restaurant space into a brightly colored salon. In several phone conversations with contractor Daniel B. Quinn, Wehnes heard many stories about the sculpture's fate. Wehnes says Quinn first reported that Reliant Energy had confiscated it. Then he said a wrecker had pulled it from the ground. Then he said it was in storage.

Quinn eventually stopped answering calls from Wehnes. So on August 2 the artist asked the police and the Texas Accountants and Lawyers for the Arts to intervene. Quinn told HPD officer A. Demaris and TALA mediator Meg Walker that the praying mantis had been taken to Coastal Metal Recycling and destroyed. Quinn, 48, did not return repeated calls from the Houston Press.

Zulma McCall, who operates Coastal Metal with her husband, says the company hasn't accepted steel for two years. "Something like that we would definitely remember," she said when the mantis was described to her. "My husband likes to collect things like that."

Besides, metal recyclers must keep records of buys and report them to the state, she says. Her records show that Quinn is a customer but has not come by since May 7.

Mediator Walker spoke with Quinn in a call, and says he seemed angry and accused Wehnes of impersonating a police officer on the phone. Wehnes denies it. Quinn also told Walker that the sculpture had been in the way of remodeling work, costing him time and money.

Reliant Energy spokesperson Leticia Lowe says, "That sculpture was never in our way." Even if it were, Reliant would have moved it, then placed it back, just like a fence, she says. When Reliant finished setting three poles on July 24 to provide service to the salon, the sculpture was already gone.

Demaris says police are investigating, but Wehnes has tried to solve the crime himself by talking to folks in the area. The artist says someone at Robert McClain & Company, an art gallery next to Solar Retreat, admitted to helping Quinn load the sculpture onto a trailer. However, McClain says he knows nothing of the incident. And gallery employee Kevin Jackson politely declined comment, saying only, "It's a most unfortunate circumstance. Everyone involved is not happy with the results."

McClain points out that the sculptures sit so close to the street that they might be in the city's right-of- way. Assistant City Attorney Paul Bibler says art objects are not allowed on city easements and could be hauled off, but not before efforts to contact the property owner.

Both Wehnes (who posts his phone number and keeps a personal mailbox by the sculptures for comments and donations) and tennis center owner Tommy Dickey (whose father granted Wehnes permission to display the work) say no one has contacted them -- not the city, Reliant Energy or Quinn.

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