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Artist evokes mood of art deco era

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Phyllis Nashen revives the art deco movement with her mixed media fashion vignettes HEATHER SOLOMON PHOTO
Phyllis Nashen revives the art deco movement with her mixed media fashion vignettes HEATHER SOLOMON PHOTO

Phyllis Nashen isn’t shy to tell you that she was born in 1928, since her newest artwork hinges on what her world looked like in her early years in Cambridge, Mass.

She remembers being dazzled by the bright colours, awed by the sleek patterns that evoked the new technology of the age and upset when the opulent period passed into history after the belt-tightening of World War II.

“I was heartbroken that it didn’t continue. Mostly what had caught my eye were the ladies in all their beautiful hairdos and dresses,” she says.

The idea of reanimating the era had been simmering for years as she collected books of découpage papers in the art deco style and a coffee table book on the period’s fashion.

The volume prompted her to pick up her watercolour brushes and launch into a series of 20 similarly sized works, all framed to measure 16 by 20 inches.

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They are now on show at the Community Art Space of the Eleanor London Côte St. Luc Public Library until May 29. Lovers of the latter years portrayed in the Downton Abbey TV series will be seduced by the array.

“It’s only of women, and they were outstanding,” Nashen says. Her childhood as an only daughter with three older brothers gave her a thirst for feminine role models.

As an adult, having moved to Montreal in 1951, she was again outnumbered in her household by her husband and four sons. “Although they are proud of me, they aren’t interested in my subject. I still decided I’m going to paint what I like,” Nashen says.

At first glance, the works seem to be a fashion parade. However, individual examination reveals them to be playful commentaries on the decadence of the time and appealing experiments in composition.

In one, a flapper with a typically boyish haircut sits on the grass, a book in her lap and her gaze directed upward toward a butterfly distracting her from her page.

The subject’s sleeveless yellow dress immediately surprises the viewer with a lengthwise insert of blue-flowered wallpaper, repeated in the foreground as spring growth.

In the pink sky floats a multitude of concentric circles like a child’s bubble pipe gone wild. Corner designs crown the picture and at the base, four cut-out geometric medallions add flavour.

Nashen titles it Shoo, not while I’m reading! The whimsical title is characteristic of the art deco era’s new take on the role of women who were breaking free from their constrained descriptions as caregivers to adopt more hedonistic pursuits.

The artist titles her other works with similar asides: How did he get in here? refers to an art deco deer in the faddishly clad woman’s garden.

Do you really like the outfit? depicts a socialite posing in her box at the opera, enveloped in a luxurious full-length wrap. Jewelry, hats, headbands and even outrageous headdresses that threaten to pull the women over with their weight lend an indelible impression.

“The women are prototypes, not portraits,” says Nashen, who is otherwise known for her florals.

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“I love fresh flowers for the colour. I make them last longer when I paint them. In these, I used cutouts, leftover scraps and found objects like the pressed flower at the waist of a dress and a real feather in a hat.”

Nashen studied painting in oils with Herman Heimlich, Seymour Segal and Yehouda Chaki, and watercolour with Rita Briansky and Shirley Katz. Her venture into collage is thanks to weekly workshops with Myrna Brooks Bercovitch, who is a proponent of that medium.

She hopes to donate the series to brighten a public space. “I’ve called a few hospitals that may take them, but I wanted to have this first,” she says. “I think they give people pleasure.”