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Nina Surel's works will keep you in 'Wrapt Attention'

Nina Surel buys materials for her mixed-media art in thrift shops — not that she's their typical shopper.

"When I go to vintage places for porcelain, they'll talk about how this used to be from my grandmother, and this and that," she says. "I don't even want to hear that, because I'm smashing it!"

The artist takes a screwdriver and hammer to the breakables to free the parts she'll incorporate into works, many of which depict Surel (often as more than one character) in a variety of lush landscapes. The works, which hang on walls like portraits or paintings, encapsulate scenes, complete with life-size dresses, vintage buttons, lace, flowers, birds and other items, in layers of resin.

"What Is Worth While?" — currently in "Wrapt Attention," a group show that runs through Nov. 25 at Studio 18 in Pembroke Pines — portrays two women (each depicted by Surel) in a forest.

One wears pink flowers around her head and strings of pearls draped across her shoulders. She's seated amid chickens and is wearing a strapless pinkish dress with a large, deep-pink flower above the portion that cascades over her midsection. At the bottom of the dress, a lighter material is gathered. Nesting in it are porcelain cardinals surrounded by berries, twigs and flowers. Opened on her lap is Anna Robertson Brown Lindsay's 1893 book "What Is Worth While?"

Standing behind her is another woman. She has darker hair and wears a black dress, covered in buttons. Her hand rests on the seated woman's right shoulder. The women depicted in this work, which is about nesting, are unsmiling and staring straight ahead in a way that seems to denote strength and determination.

The works, most of which are at least 6 1/2 feet high and 42 inches wide, mark a relatively new direction for Surel, who moved from Argentina to South Florida in 2001. While growing up in Buenos Aries, she says, her parents encouraged to consider a career more lucrative than visual art. So she went into fashion design but continued making art that involved cutting, pasting and collaging. She considered it a hobby.

"It was childish ... all about paper dolls and dresses," she says.

After moving here, however, she became more immersed in that art, eventually taking a studio at the Bakehouse Art Complex, and later ArtCenter/South Florida. While pregnant with her second child, she began to consider things she might one day need to explain to a daughter and began reading early feminist literature and incorporating these ideas into works that became increasingly "less playful."

"Handle With Care," a 2008 mixed-media work, reflected some of Surel's rough times. It features a patterned and distressed-looking background and, at the forefront, one of her "paper doll" girls clutching a rabbit. The rabbit, to Surel, represented family, and the girl's dress and socks were made from bandages.

"I realized that I had been through a lot, but I was still standing, still holding the rabbit and looking forward," she says.

Three years later, her art took another turn after a fire in her ArtCenter studio left everything blackened. "I had to throw it all away and start from scratch," she says.

As her works get more involved, they become a joint effort. Many of the lush Argentine landscapes used as a backdrop were shot by Surel's husband, an architect who pours the resin layers. The mother of three also enlists professional photographers, a studio assistant and a nanny she trusts and respects.

It seems that the artist's paper-doll girls have been replaced by determined women exploring new themes, challenges and realizations.

Last summer, the Argentine forest that provided the backdrop for her "Understory" series fell victim to a Chilean volcanic eruption that covered it in ashes, killing sheep and other animals. Knowing that landscape will never again exist as it once did has given new meaning to scenarios, personal and otherwise, that the artist preserves in resin.

"I'm taking a picture, but it's going to last forever," she says.

Colleen Dougher operates the South Florida arts blog Arterpillar.

What: "Wrapt Attention"

When: Runs through Nov. 25, and includes a studio salon at which Surel and other artists will discuss their work from 7-9 p.m. Nov. 2

Where: Studio 18, 1101 Poinciana Drive, Pembroke Pines

Cost: Free

Contact: 954-961-6067,

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