Had Lex Gjurasic remained in rain-soaked Seattle rather than decamping for the American Southwest, she might have been an entirely different kind of artist. “I always longed to live somewhere hot,” says Gjurasic, whose paintings and sculptures thrum with the Day-Glo intensity of a desert in the throes of a super bloom. So, when her husband’s work took them first to Albuquerque and later to Tucson, it was like coming home.
Although many associate the Southwest with neutral earth tones, Gjurasic begs to differ. “The desert is psychedelic—it’s like the sun is burning your retinas and all you see is this explosion of color,” she says. While the artist’s work has long been inspired by her surroundings, the pandemic turbo-charged her creative output—even as her physical world shrank. “Work is my way of processing being alive: The harder times are, the deeper I go,” she explains. “I sat in my studio and resolved to bring joy to me, my family and others.” As Gjurasic painted the places in nature she pined for, she also returned to previous Styrofoam experimentations with fresh eyes.
“I had loads of Styrofoam stashed away,” she says. “It’s insanely versatile—the antithesis of what you’d think a chemically based, virtually unrecyclable medium would be.” Whether using it to fabricate abstracted landscapes or fashioning large, fanciful depictions of cactus and coral for installations, Gjurasic employs the same process: After attaching pieces with spray foam, she carves the mass using a hot blade, sands the surface and applies mortar to impart texture. Once the piece is prepped with gesso, Gjurasic is ready to paint—be it a wash of wildflowers or a Sonoran gorge ablaze at sunset. At first glance, the colorful, biomorphic sculptures have the appearance of fired ceramic—until you pick one up.
The 150 works painted on paper, panel, photos and Styrofoam that Gjurasic created during the pandemic filled “Radical Happiness,” her show at the Chandler Center for the Arts in the beginning of 2022. All are iterations of what Gjurasic calls “Flower Mounds,” which collectively offer “an escape into soft, surreal landscapes and a safe place to land,” she explains.
The process of creation also led the artist to a personal epiphany. “I realized these motifs speak directly to my Croatian roots,” Gjurasic notes. “My Slavic foremothers painted and embroidered intricate floral patterns in good times and bad. In that respect, I’m part of a beautiful tradition—and also making it my own.”