Encinitas artist Mary Fleener is best known for drawing alternative comics teeming with social commentary and humor. But now her pen and paintbrush are capturing her passion for music.
Fleener’s new “American Music” exhibit, running until Feb. 22 at the Encinitas Library, features paintings and drawings that celebrate jazz and blues. And she’s planning a graphic novel about the intertwined nature of art and music in her life, including punk rock leading her to underground comics.
“There’s just an energy about music that’s so immediate compared to art, where you sit down for hours at a time and sketch,” Fleener said.
Fleener’s artwork has appeared in international magazines like “Entertainment Weekly,” “Spin,” “Village Voice,” and more. Much of it features her patented “Cubismo style,” influenced by alternative comics and Egyptian art. Her first love, though, was music.
At the age of 3, she was a natural on piano, so her parents couldn’t resist signing her up for lessons, which she described as a “train wreck.” For that reason, it’s a moment she intends to depict in the novel.
“Putting people into classes who show an aptitude for something can either go really well or really bad. For me, it was bad to the point where it was funny, because I just wasn’t cooperating. I later realized I can only play by ear, not by reading music.”
It’s not the only time Fleener rebelled against formal lessons.
She attended Cal State University Long Beach in the mid-1970s and majored in printmaking, but Fleener said she disliked the art program’s focus on abstract works. Not to mention, teachers criticized her “cartoony” style.
“This is before comics were taken seriously,” Fleener said.
Put off by the experience, she left college her senior year and abandoned art in favor of music. Fleener got a job at a music store and learned to play bass guitar so she could join a band.
She moved to Encinitas a few years later, and realized after writing letters to friends and family that she missed art.
“I would put cartoons in the letters showing what I’m up to,” Fleener said. “I went, ‘hey these are pretty good. I miss this.’”
She then dedicated herself to making it as a cartoonist, a long time coming. As a kid, she revered the comics pages in newspapers. Later, a passion for punk rock led her to discover subversive works like “Zap Comix” and “Mad Magazine.”
“I always wanted to draw comics, even though I got sidetracked,” Fleener said.
Artistic skills run in the family — her mom was a talented artist who worked for Disney.
Fleener’s first solo comic was “Hoodoo,” a tribute to Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston. She followed that up with the autobiographical work “Life of the Party,” in which she chronicled her decadent social experiences in funny and adult-themed fashion. Her career took off from there.
Danny Salzhandler, president of the 101 Artists’ Colony, said Fleener is one of Encinitas’ most accomplished artists. While not a household name, Salzhandler noted she’s a big deal among underground cartoonists across the world.
“Her stuff is outrageous — in a good way,” Salzhandler said.
Salzhandler said he especially appreciates her contributions to the local arts scene, whether playing live music with her husband or painting one of the Arts Alive banners that hang every spring along Coast Highway 101.
He added that Fleener is not afraid to voice her opinions.
Indeed, for a time she lampooned local politics in weekly editorial cartoons in a local newspaper. But her interest, she said, has shifted from politics to music.
With her latest exhibit at the Encinitas Library, she aimed to feature music that’s distinctly American. She got the idea and title for it while listening to The Blasters’ song “American Music.”
“It was perfect because as a musician I love jazz and blues, which are very American. And I’ve done a lot of work for music magazines.”
Part of her upcoming graphic novel will highlight when she met various rock stars, either through work or friends. One highlight was hanging out with the famous guitar player Mick Ronson, noted for his work with David Bowie in the 1970s.
“He was just the nicest, most down-to-earth guy.”
Another cool moment for her was meeting Joey Ramone at Comic-Con, an opportunity that came up because Fleener contributed to the comic anthology “Weird Tales of the Ramones.”
Fleener said historically art and music have influenced each other, and this has held true in her life as well. “They’re so intertwined for me. I love them both.”