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Arts Some very mixed media

July 30, 2018

Among the significant figures in Leslie Giuliani’s still unfolding journey as an artist are Roz Chast, the cartoonist; Jasper Johns, the painter; and Bertie the Bunyip, a television puppet.

This seemingly odd trio belongs together because Giuliani, who lives in Weston, is a mixed-media artist who has had to acquire so many skills, from handcraft to computer, that she sometimes thinks of herself as an inventor.

“Artists do this a lot,” she says. “They know what they want to do, then they figure out what they need to do to get it done.”

One of her skills is rug hooking. She became so adept that she began giving lessons. One of her students was Chast, who lives in Ridgefield. Already casually acquainted, they grew to be such compatible friends they eventually agreed to do an exhibit together.

Punningly titled “Handmade Tales,” and first shown this summer at the Guilford Arts Center, it interspersed prints of Chast’s New Yorker cartoons and her comical hooked fabric pieces with two dozen pieces by Giuliani.

Colorful and cryptic, most look like flat paintings, but only from a distance. Up close, they reveal themselves to be assembled from stitched-together fabric panels with images that may combine embroidery, hooking and encaustic painting — Giuliani’s latest skill.

The art, which uses heated beeswax mixed with pigment, is ancient. But Giuliani’s interest dates from a Jasper Johns exhibit she saw in 1980. Johns used encaustic paint in all his most famous paintings, she explains, because it hardens quickly allowing him to build up texture and also embed other material. Giuliani wished to paint with encaustic too, but didn’t know how.

“The materials weren’t available nor was information about how to use it,” she says. “It took me 20 years to get my hands on this stuff. The recipes for making your own were dangerous and wrong. Now the paint is manufactured and I represent the manufacturer and teach classes.”

In her home studio, she keeps blocks of encaustic paint looking like super thick crayons stored on shelves. Unlike the ancients, she doesn’t have to heat her palette over coals. Hers is electric.

Giuliani also learned to program embroidery patterns, branded a microfiber trademarked Encaustiflex and devised a visual vocabulary all her own — one partly inspired by Bertie the Bunyip.

The puppet was the title character of a local children’s show Giuliani watched growing up in Philadelphia. His creator was an Australian, who gave Bertie the bill of a platypus and fur of a dog. But the bunyip itself is a creature borrowed from aboriginal myth that merged into folklore. In the early 2000s, Giuliani appropriated Bertie.

She reinvented him as a sort of humanoid rabbit, making it part of an inventory of images she could use over and over. “I could hook them into rugs. I could turn them into silkscreens. I could draw them. I could carve them. I was just making an iconography,” she says.

In fact, Giuliani once studied Byzantine icon painting; for the flat style, not the religion. As she did with her bunyip, Giuliani stripped her self-chosen icons of nearly all identifying detail. There’s a flower, a chair, a vase, an animal she thinks of as a bear, but she allows that it could be a cat. Then there’s her “little man;” an Adam she says could be an Eve or have no gender at all. The ambiguity is strategic.

“When you put these images in different sequences, they suggest different narratives to different people, depending on their experiences. It’s almost like a comic book without words. Viewers supply their own words,” she says.

In Guilford, hung separately along the gallery walls, the pieces with the most panels, as many as nine, almost look like pages torn from a wordless graphic novel. They can appear playful one moment and vaguely menacing the next.

Giuliani herself sees dual stories in her paneled pieces. One is about her creative process and the other is whatever emerges from the finished work. Her store of images allows her to be spontaneous. “I lay them out and see how they look together and then I add pieces as I need them. Only after it’s done do I look at it and see what it suggests to me as a narrative,” she says. “I don’t have to pre-think anything I do in the studio.”

Her personal story has many chapters. She comes from a family of artists. “If you couldn’t draw it was like, what’s wrong with you,” she says.

Both she and her mother, Loretta Mossman, an abstract painter who now lives in Greenwich, studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and both joined the Silvermine Art Guild. Her own child is a comic artist who goes by the name Mady G. and whose work appears on The Nib, an online comics journal known for its political and cultural commentary.

Giuliani was classically trained in art school, learning to reproduce realistically. But until she discovered encaustic, she didn’t like to paint. Instead she worked in black and white, doing large charcoal drawings and taught herself other skills. Her rug hooking earned her a grant from the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism and also commissions from Patti Hansen and Keith Richards.

Lately, mostly for fun, she’s been learning to play the ukulele with her friend Roz Chast. Starting last fall, they got good enough to do a duet at the opening of their show at the Guilford Art Center.

Joel Lang is a frequent contributor to Sunday Arts & Style.

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