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Saturday, November 17 Living

Painting a look: Artist finds new creative pursuit in vintage fashion palette

It’s hard to know where to look first. The blooms in the garden. The wrought iron chair shaped like a butterfly. A beautiful red barn. A 1700s white farmhouse. Or, the artist Joan Wheeler, who lives and creates amid all this.

As she leads a visitor into her Easton home, Wheeler is wearing a dress patterned with red parrots perched on verdant boughs. The yellow background sets off the red shirt she wears underneath, as well as her Frida Kahlo brooch and green tropical leaves necklace. Wheeler is a walking canvas of colorful, fashionable creations — some bought, some handmade — that she accessorizes with unique finds from brick-and-mortar and online retailers and posts online, often amid scenery that matches the theme.

She has drawn fans via Instagram, and maintains a steady cohort of admirers who may not be aware of her sartorial celebrity. “When I teach, I dress to get the kids interested in the lesson plans,” she says, of the art she teaches to preschoolers through third-graders at Ridgefield Academy. “It’s a way to keep kids engaged with their projects.”

For the gnome home lessons, for instance, Wheeler made sure she to dress accordingly, from her mushroom cap pin to a skirt bustling with mushroom houses and industrious gnomes. In January, she began posting her looks online.

“I have always been in to art, but I also loved clothes as a kid,” she says. “It’s been a very welcoming group to fit in to. It’s wonderful to see all these people who love clothes and love expressing themselves through them, and, to find connections within that community.”

Followers have been quick to share information on where to find accessories, vintage and otherwise, to spruce up any outfit, such as mermaid pins, flamingo necklaces and Carmen Miranda shoes.

The outfits she assembles reflect the layering one finds in her paintings, visual tapestries made of color, pattern, personal meaning and universal stories. Inspired by the natural world, her often dreamy interpretations suggest characters famous and otherwise who are hooked into a primeval and deep-rooted well of creativity. She points to one above her fireplace. In it are images of Kahlo, Vincent Van Gogh and Henri Rousseau, who are among artists who inspire her.

“My work is very narrative, though I don’t start with the narrative in my head,” she says. “As I start painting, it comes out. When I step back, and look at the whole thing, the thoughts gel. The story becomes clear in the end. It is more of a subconscious process.”

A painting on the wall behind the dining room table, “Creation,” depicts a girl whose mind is laid bare so flowers can bloom. “That one is about creativity. I feel the mind is like a garden and all the seeds are there. If you just let it grow, it can blossom and can become so rich and full as to fill your life.”

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While art has been a constant, Wheeler’s first job after earning a master’s degree in art therapy was designing windows and vignettes for clothes and home goods at Read’s in Bridgeport. She went on to work for Macy’s, traveling and opening stores for them. “I found it challenging, until I didn’t anymore.”

For a while, in the 1980s, she owned an antique store, Retro Modern, in South Norwalk.

Throughout, Wheeler always knew how to sew and enjoyed finding vintage sewing patterns of classic fit-and-flare dresses and skirts that evoked her baby boomer childhood. When stores such as Davidson’s Fabrics in Bridgeport began closing, she found inspiration in fabrics offered by online retailers, including Spoonflower and Etsy.

She’s no Jayne Mansfield, she readily admits, laughing, whose body shape appears to be the default for some of the patterns. With alterations, Wheeler cuts a stylish figure in her handmade frocks. They sometimes are made for a particular event, such as an art show opening or lesson; at other times they simply appeal to her, like the vintage flamingo dress that began her entire vintage kick.

This is the latest endeavor in a life of artistic forays. Her home and studio include her assemblages, many of which were in the 2002 show, “Roadside Attractions,” at the Stamford Museum and Nature Center. There is work from exhibitions in places such as Silvermine Arts Center, where she is a member of the guild, and Kershner Gallery in Fairfield where she showed her dioramas and staged photographs in 2011. Most recently, paintings that were on display at the City Lights gallery in Bridgeport are back at home.

She doesn’t necessarily think of the fashion posts as art, but when encouraged to reflect a bit deeper, she wavers. “When I found Instagram, I thought, ‘Wow,’ there are other people like me out there. I began to realize that my clothes were an extension of my art. I am about color, pattern and narrative.”

If anything, she could have become concerned about how it might appear to a fine arts community — perhaps a bit too kitschy. In the end, she decided to follow the lead of other online posters and not be ruled by others’ expectations. As proof, on her phone, she brings up the Instagram account of Baddie Winkle, a newly minted nonagenarian whose eccentric fashion sense has earned her more than 1 million Instagram followers.

“This has definitely become a creative obsession,” Wheeler says, having earlier bemoaned the fact that her fashion holdings have extended well beyond her small closet. “You know, recently, I saw these shoes with a sideshow scene - one has a two-headed lady and the other is a strong man. Then I remembered I had seen a strongman pin somewhere and a circus lady necklace elsewhere and I think that would look great. Maybe, I could get some circus themed fabric and make something. So yes, it is a medium in that way, like assemblage.”

Mission accomplished. Weeks after the idea first percolated, a post appeared of Wheeler in a circus-themed fashion assemblage, trapeze lady necklace, sideshow flats and all. The photo was taken, where else, in front of a carnival fun house.

chennessy@hearstmediact.com; Twitter: @xtinahennessy

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