Twisted Sister

Lesli Englert, 32, is a study in contrasts. Although this tall and wispy blonde painter from South Dakota exudes friendliness and small-town charm, she's created colorfully perverse and sharply rendered surreal paintings filled with almost carnivalesque fantastic realism, anthropomorphized animals, and tragic characters boasting huge kewpie-doll-like heads and soft features. These comically twisted works have been inspired by everything from childhood traumas to supernatural talk radio. After bouncing between Portland and Phoenix over the past decade, Englert settled at The Longhouse, a possibly haunted former home for troubled teens near Roosevelt Row, which she shares with her photographer boyfriend Matt Yazzie and fellow painter Christina Ramirez. While these cruel-yet-cute visions have paid the bills, Englert's been experimenting with more abstract styles for an upcoming show at Bentley Projects.

The (haunted) Longhouse:
Our building was scary when we found it. Christina's convinced there's a ghost in this back room. A guy who worked here when it was a halfway house said they used to put the really bad kids back there, the juvenile sex offenders. Whenever a new boy would come in, that's where all the rapes and bad stuff happened.

Someday my daddy will come:
My mom found this old fairy-tale book of mine about six months ago, and it's full of cool illustrations. When I was 8 years old, my biological father would read to me out of this book. Then one day he backed his Trans Am out my driveway and I never saw him again. I remember waiting, thinking he'll show up and read me stories again. I've used so many of those fairy-tale images in many paintings, almost subconsciously.

Misery breeds fun art:
I've painted like brightest, busiest, most ridiculously fun stuff when I'm at my lowest or in some dire place. I went through a surreally bad breakup once, and that's when I created some of my first paintings. It's not like that anymore, since I don't have the patience to sit and paint when I feel like shit.

Head trip:
I don't know why I always painted heads so large and soft, but lately in my paintings, the heads are actual size, but they just seem too small to me. I think that my initial influence was Mark Ryden. He's a fantastic painter in northern California, and all of the heads in his paintings are just really soft and gigantic on his characters.

Animal farm:
I use a lot of animals because I think visually it's just a lot more interesting. You can only use human figures so many times. It almost gives more definition to an image than just doing a face. To me rabbits represent fear, so if I put a rabbit mask in a painting, you get a bit more involved with the character itself.

Explanation please?
I use so much symbolism in my work that I do a lot of research when it comes to what specific things mean. Once it's all written out in words, I'll just stick that on the wall and work from that. I usually have to write narratives for my paintings because there's so much shit going on and people are like, "What's this about?"

Stay within the lines:
I've always been drawn to a really tight technique and sharp images. I've always loved old world artists, like the Flemish painters from the 15th and 16th centuries, and I like bringing it up to date with more of like a modern perspective.

Painter to the stars:
I absolutely love Tom Waits. He's gonna buy one of my paintings someday, it's a goal of mine. Then I'll have reached my peak and I can die.

Radio daze:
I always tune in to "Coast to Coast" with George Noory and Art Bell, and they're talking about aliens and ghosts and demons and stuff right up my alley. Before that there's two Christian radio shows that I love to listen to because they're so controversial and it's awesome fodder for my work.

Her new style:
I'm bored with my own painting style, so I started experimenting with keeping things simpler and looser and doing more abstract textured backgrounds. I get them done in, God, in much less time. The paintings that were chock-full of energy and objects, they'd take anywhere between 100 to 200 hours. This new stuff, a few hours each. I just do little cute stuff because it's more sellable.

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Benjamin Leatherman is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. He covers local nightlife, music, culture, geekery, and fringe pursuits.