Most of Anita Wexler’s childhood memories are clouded by one color: brown.
Earth tones. Neutral shades. Colors that match everything and offend no one.
Her parents had a brown sofa. White walls. Wood floors. Her hometown — a typical Midwestern community in the middle of Illinois — was also basked in brown, bordered by fields that grew hay, corn and wheat.
Even her adolescent wardrobe was drab, try as she did to brighten it up.
In eighth grade she asked her mother to take her shopping. Her girlfriend had a red dress and she wanted one, too.
The attempt was met with resistance. Wexler was encouraged to pick out a white dress, instead. She was told red was too loud. It drew too much attention.
“I love my parents,” Wexler says. “They were just into natural tones, and all I wanted was to experiment with color.”
On this particular day, the artist is dressed in a turquoise halter-top, rhinestone-studded jeans and green sneakers with orange laces.
Like many people who rebel against their youth, Wexler has, in adulthood, made a color correction.
Her Laurel Park home is the domestic incarnation of a rainbow.
Psychedelic art, figurative paintings, contemporary furniture, hand-carved chests, scarves, jewelry boxes, glass bottles, candle sticks and found objects collide in a way that is at once disarming and disturbing.
Murals line nearly every wall. Doors and ceilings are painted with tribal faces and surrealist landscapes. An Egyptian pharaoh stands guard at the kitchen table. Alphabet letters and Elvis magnets clutter the refrigerator door.
Curious, creature-like sculptures that appear to have manifested in the recesses of Tim Burton’s mind make you feel like you’ve just crashed a party on another planet.
Even the outside of the house is covered in murals; the yard scattered with sculptures. It’s hard to believe Wexler, a mother of three who teaches art at Brookside Middle School, once lived in a pristine East County subdivision.
“If I ever put a second story on the house, it’ll be a pure space with virtually nothing in it,” she says. “It’ll be a retreat; a way to escape the chaotic downstairs.”
Wexler is at home among chaos.
A painter and sculptor, she has been a bright spot on Sarasota’s contemporary art scene since she left New York City for Florida nine years ago.
“I left kicking and screaming,” Wexler says of her New York departure. “But it’s worked out OK.”
Locally, she’s exhibited at Art Center Sarasota, Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, Selby Gallery at Ringling College of Art and Design, Five Points Collective and the Federal Building in downtown Sarasota.
In addition to her most recent project — a collection of pen-and-ink drawings that inspired the e-book, “Face It,” by Tampa poet Russil Tamsen — Wexler has a piece in this season’s “Embracing Our Differences” exhibit on the Sarasota bayfront.
A depiction of freedom and ethnicity, the image is of six arms (some light in color, some dark) bound together with rope. It’s the third time the artist has had a piece featured in the annual outdoor art exhibit.
“I love the idea of big, giant banners,” she says. “It’s accessible to everyone whether they want it or not. It’s like a museum for the people who don’t go to museums. It feels very New York to me, to have art sort of in your face.”
Despite the neon green sneakers and propensity to create wild art, Wexler’s personality is surprisingly subdued. Maybe it’s because she says everything she needs to say in paint or sculpture.
“I was originally going to write my own book of poetry with art,” Wexler says. “Then I realized it would be way too revealing. I love to leave my work open to interpretation. I keep it vague and mysterious on purpose.”
Born to pragmatic parents with Cherokee roots, Wexler was different than her fair-skinned siblings. She was dark and artistic.
“They used to call me ‘papoose,’” Wexler giggles.
She spent her first three years out of high school serving in the U.S. Navy, a decision she admits was more of an exit strategy than a career move.
Her parents had wanted her to be a nurse or a secretary. Wexler had wanted to be an artist.
When her active duty was up, she headed to New York City to study graphic design at Parsons School of Design — The New School, where she discovered the work of 15th-century Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch, whose bizarre characters and moral commentary run parallel to much of the allegories and motifs in Wexler’s work.
“I didn’t know about Bosch until I went to Parsons,” she says. “The college was having a book sale at the end of the year, and I found this huge old book in German with these images inside — all the tortured, crazy-looking people! The creatures that looked like birds crossed with humans crossed with fish. I was like drooling. There was so much symbolism in one painting. It was like, ‘Wow, what’s going on in this guy’s head?’”
Some people might say the same thing about Wexler’s art.
Prolific and easily inspired, she is unapologetic in her approach. Though she’s drawn to using bright colors, she isn’t afraid to load her work with sexual, animalistic or morbid imagery.
“It’s fun sometimes to fool people with bright colors,” she says. “There’s a doctor in town who loves this one piece, but he’s always like, ‘Dang! Why did you have to put a skull in there? Can’t you put a flower in its place?’ I told him, ‘It’s bones. You’re a doctor. Deal with it.’”
DID YOU KNOW?
One of Anita Wexler’s earliest assignments as a graphic designer in New York City was to physically track down famous dog photographer William Wegman.
The magazine she was working for wanted to feature one of Wegman’s iconic weimaraners on its cover.
After several unsuccessful attempts to reach the photographer, Wexler was asked to go to Wegman’s house in Manhattan and return with a final answer.
“I was all sweaty and nervous,” she recalls. “The weimaraners greeted me at the door.”
Impressed by Wexler’s chutzpah, Wegman let her inside and the two hit it off like old friends.
Although he failed to grant the magazine permission to use his image, he did stay in contact with Wexler. He even purchased one of her paintings for his personal art collection.