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Watercolorist Jean Calomeni Plays with Metaphor at Basement Gallery

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The stuffy watercolor world would be wise to take notes from Jean Calomeni. The bright-eyed Boise transplant doesn't paint wispy sunsets or poppy-dappled fields. At least not anymore.

"I started out doing landscapes. I wasn't even touching the figure at all at that point," explained Calomeni. "I did landscapes, barns, houses, flowers--kind of what a lot of watercolorists begin with because there's certainly a lot of instruction out there."

But after studying under well-known watercolorists at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas--Clay McGaughy, Finis Collins, Ivan McDougal--Calomeni quickly got bored with watercolor's more traditional subject matter.

"Every artist just evolves," said Calomeni. "You grow from one phase into another and it's inevitable, or it should be inevitable."

So Calomeni started toying with the human form, which she found to be much more challenging than recreating the natural world. She poured through books to learn new techniques, like how to manipulate tone, color, shading and light. And then she set aside the formalities and stopped trying to harness the paint.

Now Calomeni's work shines with a playful vigor. In her piece "Extrovert," for example, a pout-mouthed girl in a sun dress and sneakers dances evocatively as a sludgy bomb of red and yellow confetti explodes behind her, dripping down the page. Thin wisps of pencil outline the girl's features, giving the piece a casual, almost sketchbook-y feel.

"I like to leave the pencil showing because I believe that a strong foundation for any painting is important," said Calomeni. "So I get the pencil drawing as tight as I can before I even get close to painting."

This nontraditional approach was what caught the eye of Basement Gallery co-owner Jane Brumfield.

"When she came and showed us the work, I thought it was absolutely fantastic to see that really loose watercolor style. It's a traditional medium but certainly not traditional work," said Brumfield.

Calomeni's first-ever solo show will debut at Basement Gallery on First Thursday, April 5. The exhibit explores human relationships from a uniquely female perspective--wind-swept redheads in ball gowns hold up rabbits next to topless women in elaborate feathered headdresses. But for all the splashy whimsy, Calomeni's characters retain a swirling aura of darkness.

"The subject matter is pretty, I think, engaging," said Brumfield. "My husband is slightly less engaged, but I think that's probably the subject matter, too. I think it's quite a feminine perspective."

But while Calomeni's work is emotionally evocative--tackling themes like outrunning one's demons ("Run") or dissatisfaction with the dating pool ("Sea Nymph")--it's far from realistic.

"Artists can sometimes get caught up in trying to control the paint and then it can become a little bit prissy. ... She lets it go and then brings it back in," said Brumfield. "I think that the combination of the draftsmanship, which actually is very precise, the looseness of the watercolor is great."

Calomeni explained that this "loose" style serves a larger purpose.

"I don't think [it] would be appropriate for the lightness and the transparency and the liveliness of the watercolor if I were too stiff with the drawing and too anatomically correct," said Calomeni. "It doesn't feel right to me to try to capture a photographic image of a woman. These are symbolized women, these are metaphors for women."

One of the show's central pieces, "Frida Unfettered," features a crowned woman in an airy peach dress floating out lethargically, anchored by the sinewy strings of a heart. Calomeni said that the piece depicts the fraught, adulterous relationship between Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.

"He was just a horrific cheat. ... It devastated her because she really did want him for herself, she did not want to share him, but later on, she had a few affairs of her own," explained Calomeni. "She's trying to escape from the conventional type of love into this kind of relationship her husband had. But I like to think of her as being unfettered and not being bound to anything--being able to let both worlds go and just stop agonizing over the relationship that just isn't the one that she hoped it would be."

Despite these dark undertones, Calomeni said this series is much more lighthearted than her previous work.

"I had a series before this, about two years ago, that was fairly different from this. The figures were a bit more grotesque. ... They were women with big boobs and it was a series based on my online dating experiences. Some people would call it my bitter phase and they might be right," Calomeni said, laughing.

"I lightened up," Calomeni said of her new exhibit. "My messages are still feminist, somewhat, and they're still bound in relationships and what people do to each other in the name of love and want, but I think I'm a little more lighthearted about it now."

For a list of First Thursday picks click here and for a full list of maps and event listings for First Thursday, click here.

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