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It's empowering, really

When Olivia De Berardinis paints a pinup, it's clear who's calling the shots.

July 27, 2008|Mike Boehm | Times Staff Writer

How Olivia De Berardinis found her creative calling is a classic feminist success story -- with one possible catch. Can a painter who is at the pinnacle of pinup art be a symbol of female empowerment?

Since 2004, De Berardinis' portraits have filled the monthly niche in Playboy magazine carved by Alberto Vargas, the most famous American pinup artist. They depict women too beautiful to be real in states of come-hither nudity or dishabille, above naughty captions penned by Hugh Hefner himself.

De Berardinis, 59, admits she felt conflicted during the 1970s, when she was creating more blatant erotica for less classy men's magazines.

"I had the boxing gloves on for years," she says, putting her fists up to illustrate how defensive she used to feel about creating work that "is not considered blue-chip art" -- and that risked being interpreted as reducing women to sex objects. But those misgivings faded, she says, replaced by an obsession for capturing feminine allure as artfully as she could. In fact, Olivia -- her nom de brush -- and her husband, Joel Beren, say they've never heard any criticism about how they make their living (he photographs her models, because she prefers working from pictures to having them pose while she paints). The living is a good one: Their home and work studios occupy 6,000 square feet above the ocean in Malibu. And judging from the response at her art shows and her MySpace site, Olivia says, women are a big part of her fan base.

She can't remember a time when she did not draw women. Girlhood inspiration came from the Playboys her father, an aeronautical engineer, would leave around the house, and from her mother, whose larger-than-life personality, yen for fantasy and lack of inhibition included a fondness for trying to impersonate Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn. Her mother also had a penchant for prancing through the house undressed if no visitors were around.

Olivia says the extroversion genes apparently bypassed her. One reason she paints fabulously sexy women is to vicariously inhabit their bodies and their attitudes. "I just never found my way to be that free. I can fantasize on paper about running around in a sheer outfit, which I can't do myself."

After being schooled by nuns in Elizabeth, N.J., Olivia landed in Manhattan in 1967 -- a waiflike beauty whose photo from the early 1970s reveals a dark-haired, platform-boot-wearing approximation of Stevie Nicks, pre-Stevie Nicks. She enrolled at the School of Visual Arts, figuring she'd become an illustrator for fashion magazines. Instead she delved into minimalism and produced textured, all-white canvases.

Along the way, Olivia says, she became "just really lost" in a whirl of alcohol, artistic aimlessness and abusive boyfriends.

Then, in a reversal she says still mystifies her, she took control and became her own woman. No more booze, no more bozos. And no more minimalism; that, she knew, was no path to freedom from her day job as a waitress. She figured it would be a lark and a paycheck for her -- and an artistic upgrade for her employers -- if she became a contributor to some of the less-refined skin rags. Swank, Club, Hustler and Oui began to feature her work. "Drawing these dirty pictures for magazines really appealed to me on some level of pushing buttons," Olivia says. "It was part of that decade to explore sexuality."

Along came Beren, a salesman for a clothing importer who'd been smitten by early 20th century pinup art as a kid in Cincinnati, became a collector of vintage erotica and was knocked out by Olivia and her paintings. They married in 1979. In the mid-1980s, Marilyn Grabowski, then Playboy's longtime West Coast editor, was impressed by erotic greeting cards Olivia had made. The couple soon moved to L.A., where they began to prosper, selling Olivia's originals and reproductions.

For years, Playboy used her only sporadically. But Hefner took a liking to the art and the artist, regularly commissioning her to illustrate party invitations for special bashes at the Playboy Mansion. Hanging with Hef, she and Beren met lots of Playmates with the right stuff to pose for paintings -- among them Pamela Anderson, pre-"Baywatch." Working from old photographs of Bettie Page, Olivia also helped spur a revival of interest in that fiery 1950s cheesecake queen. The artist's other famous subjects include comedian Margaret Cho (who commissioned portraits that hang in Cho's home) and rocker Courtney Love (for the cover of her 2004 album, "America's Sweetheart").

Commanding a price

Olivia's canvases typically sell for $15,000 to $25,000, Beren says, with a recent high of $75,000 for a painting of Page as a devil in a red dress, a whip between her teeth. That image became especially meaningful for Olivia after it turned up in a Time magazine photo essay in 2003, stuck to a wall in an Iraqi palace, behind a bivouacked, guitar-playing American soldier.

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