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Exploring the Fabric of Her Meditations

DesignTextile artist Teena Leonardi found a creative outlet in transforming pure white silk into exotic paintings.

April 23, 1999|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The faintest trace of incense tickles the nostrils as one steps into the spacious entry of textile artist Teena Leonardi's home in Calabasas. A candle burns at the feet of a Buddha seated in the place of honor--before a backdrop of Leonardi's "Lotus in Blue."

This, Leonardi explains, is her bow to feng shui, the ancient Chinese art of placing furnishings so as to create harmony and favorable energy, thus assuring good fortune.

Her home is also her workplace, and she has more than a passing knowledge of the customs of China, having made six trips there. An Asian influence is reflected in her art, though not necessarily by design. "They end up that way," she says with a shrug.

Her China phase was but one facet of a life that has just sort of evolved and has included stints as macrobiotic cook to the stars (including Barbra Streisand, Cher and Marlo Thomas) and as co-proprietor of an English bed and breakfast. "I feel I've lived so many lifetimes," says the 41-year-old free spirit, who for the last five years has shared this house with Jorge Mascheroni and their extended family, which includes her son and daughter and his two sons.

Leonardi had studied business in college, but found working as a junior accountant stultifying. A minor health scare led her to explore meditation, spirituality and holistic medicine, which, in turn, led to macrobiotic cooking. Her then-boyfriend, Michael Scholes, signed on as her partner and, Leonardi says, in no time "we were two kids making tons of money."

Then one day she saw an ad seeking a cook for a health club on the island of Rhodes, and off she flew to Greece. That was fun for three months, and then, she says, "I couldn't cook one more day. It wasn't fun anymore."

So she and Scholes journeyed to England, where he was born, and renovated a Shropshire house as a B&B. They married, had a son and settled down. But Leonardi never felt at home there, and after three years they returned to Los Angeles. The marriage didn't survive.

Leonardi's career as an artist grew out of her passion for making dresses for Ella, now 9, her daughter from a subsequent relationship. She smiles and says, "I'm just this entrepreneurial-type person."

Her one-of-a-kind dresses, carrying the Leonardi label, attracted the attention of Hannah Exely, who was seeking a designer for her label, Far Village. Over their six-year association--until Far Village folded--Leonardi traveled extensively throughout China, where the clothing was hand-embroidered.

Then Leonardi hired a rep in New York and started creating fabrics for high-end clothing designers. One day, the rep told her, "Your work is getting too artsy."

It was a watershed. Leonardi says, "It was so freeing--finally a way for me to release all of my creativity." Textile artist Teena Leonardi was born.

For two years, she's been focused on her art. Her watercolors on silk, evocative of Chinese and Japanese paintings, are one-of-a-kind works framed in silk brocades from India. There are single pieces and multiple panels, often incorporating Eastern symbolism such as lotus petals, which represent peace and serenity.

Gica Malbas, who owns a Leonardi and sold the pieces through a gallery where the artist formerly exhibited, praises her ability "to incorporate the depth of the Asian practice with the feeling and the flow of a more contemporary form."

Malbas adds, "There's a very meditative quality in her work." Clients told her they found the pieces "very comfortable, very comforting, easy to live with and aesthetically very satisfying."

Leonardi's "studio" is a poolside space overlooking a vast green canyon. There she paints three or four days a week.

"I do meditation, look at my view, say a little prayer and ask what to do. Ninety percent of the time I like the results."

Her exotic works begin as large pieces of pure white silk. Using pushpins, she tacks the fabric to flattened, corrugated cardboard boxes (the kind movers use) and begins painting the background with a house painter's brush dipped in French watercolors. Later, using small Chinese natural bristle brushes, she paints the design.

She says, "I like to play with my colors. It's all so spontaneous." Holding up a plastic jar and a pitcher that had been left uncapped in a recent rain, she remarks: "I don't know what the heck's in there, but I'm going to use them." Her colors tend to be soft, subtle.

Sometimes she sprinkles her silk canvases with coarse salt before the paints dry. "It pulls the color and you get these really interesting marks." The corrugated cardboard, which she uses over and over, also lends texture.

Leonardi likes the pieces, which range in size up to 5 by 8 feet, to be versatile, suitable for hanging on the wall, displaying in a protected area outdoors, or using as a room divider.

Once the silk panels have dried, she takes them to a professional steamer in West Hollywood who employs a technique for pleating draperies to set the colors. "It's almost like a pressure cooker, this intense steam," Leonardi explains.

Leonardi's pieces range in price from $1,000 to $3,000 and are available at Algabar on La Cienega Boulevard, Silk Roads Gallery on La Brea Avenue and Warisan furniture shop, which specializes in Asian antiques, on Beverly Boulevard.

The artist has given her pieces titles such as "Chrysanthemum Sea" and "Whisper" and frequently incorporates poems or Taoist words of wisdom into her paintings. One of her favorites: "To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, remove things every day." Some clients, she says, ask her to skip the poetry.

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