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Miriam Wosk created work that was 'sensational and very life affirming'

Miriam Wosk and architect Steve Ehrlich, at her studio in Santa Monica, Calif., in 2004.

Ken Hively/Los Angeles Times/Newscom

She called herself "a visual glutton" because she always hungered for more colours, more glitter, more shapes, more luscious images to feed her eyes. Miriam Wosk never believed that less is more.

She filled her successive homes on New York's Central Park, in Beverly Hills and in Santa Monica with collections of masks, costume jewellery, mirrored objects, anatomical drawings, Art Deco vases, beaded chairs, old cookie jars, wild wallpaper, vivid fabrics, and a host of other curiosities and vintage items that provided inspiration for the paintings and collages that she made in the latter decades of her life. Before that, she'd had a highly successful career as an illustrator whose work appeared in Vogue, Esquire, The New York Times, New York magazine, and Ms.

She died on Nov. 5 in Santa Monica, Calif., of breast cancer, unknown in Canada, the country of her birth, but having achieved renown as an artist, designer and illustrator in the United States. She was 63. The eight-armed pregnant woman she drew for the cover of the first issue of Ms. magazine became one of the iconic images of the 1970s. And her sensational former residence, the Wosk House in Beverly Hills, designed with the architect Frank Gehry, remains on architectural tours of Los Angeles.

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Wosk was an exotic flower to come out of rainy, repressed Vancouver in the 1950s and 1960s. She looked like a Latin beauty with her luxuriant black hair and her art had a lush Hispanic vibe, sometimes resembling the work of Frida Kahlo. One of her last exhibitions, in 2008, was held at the Gabarron Foundation in New York, an institution founded to promote Spanish language and culture.

She was born into one of Vancouver's wealthiest families, the eldest of four children of Morris and Dena Wosk, and only daughter. Morris Wosk had come to Canada from Odessa, Ukraine, as a child in 1928, and in the tradition of Jewish immigrants, went into the junk business in Vancouver with his brother Ben. Later the two started a chain of 12 popular furniture and appliance stores in the city, also acquiring several hotels. By the time of his death in 2002, he had given away $50-million to both Jewish and non-Jewish institutions and charities. Mother Dena played the violin and furnished the living room with violin-shaped coffee tables.

In a short 2006 film by Terry Sanders about her work, Miriam Wosk recalled that there was no art in the house but she saw many totem poles in Vancouver and was fascinated by their melding of human and animal forms. On her first day of kindergarten she made a finger painting and felt as though she was falling in love. By Grade 4, she knew she was an artist.

"She was serious, confident, hard working and original in her production," recalls Marian Penner Bancroft, a photographic artist in Vancouver who was in Wosk's high school art class. "Her work was distinctive, even as a teenager."

At 19, Wosk submitted a design for a double-page spread to Mademoiselle magazine in New York and was picked as one of the magazine's student editors. Her winning layout was based on her collection of matchbooks from a variety of restaurants.

Once the magazine brought her to New York, she never looked back. She stayed to study fashion illustration at the Fashion Institute of Technology and was soon drawing fur coats for the Fifth Avenue furrier Jacques Kaplan. Her drawings featured in his ads in the New York Times.

Wanting to expand her skills, she enrolled in night classes at the School of Visual Arts taught by Milton Glaser, then art director of New York magazine under the legendary Clay Felker. Glaser, the doyen of designers and graphic artists, became her mentor and lifelong friend.

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"She was my student and became one of the illustrators I would use at the magazine," Glaser recalled in a phone conversation. "She was concerned those days with building a career."

Though her career flourished, by the early 1980s Wosk had decided to leave New York for a new life in California.

"She had a kind of sensitivity to [the]visual world and she basically broadened her aspirations," Glaser recalled. "She wanted to do more personal, more self-generated and more complex work. As an illustrator you are always being hired to fit into an art director's vision."

In L.A. she hired Gehry to build her a three-story penthouse on top of a small pink apartment. "I was not so well known then but she had seen a story about me in the New York Times and called me," Gehry said on the phone. "I met with Miriam and her father and she was the ideal client. I like to explore a client's fantasies and deliver it and she entered fully into that process. We stayed friends for the rest of her life. I visited her studio and she asked my advice about her paintings."

Completed in 1984, Wosk House had a chimney stack decorated with blue tiles, a kitchen under a dome with a stained glass skylight, a dining room in a greenhouse-like structure, and a den in a ziggurat coated with gold auto-body paint. At the far end of the rooftop, her studio was a large aluminum shed. The floors, including the sweeping curved stairway, were covered with a riot of coloured tiles, designed by Wosk to resemble Antonio Gaudi's famous tiled park in Barcelona. Stories about the house ran in House & Garden and other magazines.

Her paintings in the 1980s done on black velvet were panned as kitsch by critics, but she persisted in trying to work out her vision of beauty. She also married a businessman named Stephen Gunther and, at 40, she gave birth to a son, Adam.

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Not wanting to raise him in a penthouse, she moved to Santa Monica in the mid-1990s with the child. At around this time her marriage ended. She adored Adam and was devastated when his face was later disfigured in a tragic accident at the Cedars of Lebanon Hospital, where he had gone for minor surgery.

Her work became increasingly concerned with the fragility of the body, especially after her cancer was diagnosed five years ago.

In her huge white studio in Santa Monica, she created densely layered collages featuring images of fruits, flowers, insects, skeletons, lobsters, snakes and body parts; symmetrical watercolours based on Rorschach blots; and three-dimensional paintings encrusted with sequins, beads, bits of fabric, starfish and paint.

"Her work was developing in content and seriousness. She got dramatically better. She achieved a significant level of accomplishment at as painter," Glaser said. "You have a lot of habits as an illustrator that you don't want as a painter. She became genuinely expressive on a very high level."

Over the past 30 years, Wosk took part in about a hundred solo and group shows in New York, Miami, Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Denver, Tokyo and San Francisco - mostly at commercial galleries but also at the LA County Museum and at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, where she was an active board member.

Sales, however, were few. "She could have sold more but she didn't hustle, didn't push herself - I loved that about her," Gehry said.

"Miriam didn't need the money and she didn't compromise. She was independent and very dignified. She was part of the L.A. scene, the L.A. art gang. Her house was incredible and she would have these wonderful dinner parties for the artists. She was satisfied that a few of us knew her work and loved her. She was very generous."

Says Milton Glaser: "She developed into a wonderful and unusual painter; not many illustrators make that transition."

Her dealer in Culver City, Billy Shire, recalled that she underwent three rounds of chemotherapy: "It knocked the hell out of her, but she kept on working. In the last three years her work made an amazing leap. Her work was sensational and very life affirming."

Miriam Wosk leaves her son, Adam Gunther, and her brothers in Vancouver: Kenneth, Mark and Yosef Wosk. She was buried in Hawaii in accordance with her wishes.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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