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Multimedia artist brings color to North County

LEUCADIA — Ask anyone who knows her and you’ll learn that there’s something about Mary Fleener. Her distinctive out-of-box thinking is reflected in her body of work from music to ceramics, paintings — and comic strips.
“Mary’s life is a work of art,” said Jerry Waddle, owner of Ducky Waddle’s Emporium. “Her artistic voice is a modern derivative of Cubism but she has made it her own, Cubismo, and she is its master.”
Fleener and husband Paul Therrio left Los Angeles around 1980 and used $28,000 she inherited from her grandmother’s estate to buy a home in Leucadia. She still considers herself a flower child. A visit to her home bears that out with a vintage landline telephone sitting on a table and no television. “I killed it five years ago,” she said. “I get Netflix and free movies from the library.”
She has no interest in any mind-altering substances. Instead, she’d rather tend to her organic garden, hang out with Paul and their family of rescued pets, practice with her band The Wigbillies, or do her art.
Fleener says she’s “self-taught” and inherited her abilities from her mother, an artist with Disney in the 1940s who worked on Donald Duck classics such as “Victory through Airpower” and “Three Caballeros.” Fleener became a working artist herself as a teenager, selling old Lancer wine bottles she painted with flowers using model paint. She eventually moved on to ceramics, printmaking, painting on velvet, and pen and ink drawings.
Her favorite medium from the beginning was comic strips.
“A high school proficiency test I took said I would be a writer,” she said. “Comics helped me to do that. I wanted to say something about the human condition. People need to tell the truth.”
In 1984 she reached a turning point after reading an article by “The Simpsons” creator Matt Groening about how the invention of the Xerox machine made it possible for ordinary people to publish their own comic strips.
Fleener remembers producing her first one using the state-of-the art Xerox machine at Anderson’s Stationers on Second Street in Encinitas.
“Then I would go down to the post office and there would be envelopes with 25 cents inside from people buying my comics!” she adds.
While she might have eschewed cell phones and TVs, she didn’t completely turn her back on technology.
“I love the Internet,” she said. “If you want to promote your book, start a blog. More people know what I’m doing now than the pre-Internet days. I have 923 friends on my Facebook.”
Fleener’s first solo comic was “Hoodoo,” a tribute to the Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston, who has influenced such writers as Toni Morrison and Alice Walker.
“Her folk tales gave me the idea to illustrate my own ‘party stories,’ and the best of these were collected in the book, ‘Life of the Party’ in 1994,” she said. The Internet helped Fleener reach an international audience. Today the book is published in English, Spanish and German.
Fleener says she draws upon her own life experience, contemplating a plot for years.
“You write about what you know,” she said. “There’s a lot of weirdness in the mundane.”
Fleener’s next book is a graphic novel about a musician meeting other famous and not-so-famous musicians.
“I had my ‘Susan Boyle moment’ in high school when a kid that everyone snickered at stood up and sang ‘Try to Remember’ from the musical, ‘The Fantasticks,’” she said. “He had people wrapped around his finger in 20 seconds. You can’t judge a book by its cover.”
Fred Caldwell is an artist and owner of Caldwell Antiques in Leucadia. A year ago Fleener asked him to create a portrait of her for the “Artists by Artists” show at the Encinitas Library.
“Mary’s amazing and she’s prolific,” he said. “She’s done the Comic-Con on a semi-regular basis. Her friends down there are some of the most well-known cartoonists in the world.”
He added, “She’s recently painted ukeleles that go for a lot of money. I sold her a piano a few years ago and in two weeks she had written 10 songs that she recorded so I could listen to them.”
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