Life’s Funny

Keep on Truckin’

How to Pick-Up Artistic Inspiration Along the Way

By Maria Johnson

I first heard about the truck called Mazy Mae this time last year.

I was meandering the aisles of a pottery show when I was snared by the playful animal designs of Oak Ridge artist Leanne Pizio, who was minding the menagerie.

We started chatting, and soon Leanne, who looked positively girlish in her blonde bangs, flowered skirt and western boots, was telling me now she spray-painted her Chevy S-10 pick-up truck with a different whimsical design every year.

Her themes were never offensive, but sometimes she caught guff for her mobile expressions. Once, at a gas station in Statesville, a stranger scolded her for ruining a perfectly good truck.

I asked Leanne how she handled the service-station critic.

“I tried to be nice,” she said, smiling and shrugging.

Then she invited me to witness the next painting of Mazy Mae, which is how I found myself driving to Oak Ridge late one September afternoon as the dipping sun cast a glow on fields brush-stroked with grass gone to seed.

Leanne calls it a fairyland, the undulating property that she and her husband Will Pizio have called home for the last 10 years. The centerpiece is a 1950s split-log cabin chinked with cement and shored up by stone, ringed by boxwood hedges, low stone walls and five gigantic holly trees.

Enchanted indeed, and the perfect dwelling for two free spirits. As Will puttered around the yard, Leanne invited me inside the cabin, where I was greeted, all at once, by the smell of wood smoke that has smudged the upper lip of the fireplace and by three rescue dogs that hover around Leanne like a force field of gratitude.

The dogs settled into observation mode as Leanne poured iced tea into a couple of her animal-face mugs (I got a zebra!) and arranged a plate of butter cookies dimpled with homemade preserves.

Here’s a person who can’t help but take what life provides and create something new from it. In other words, a born artist.

She was that way, she says, even as a child growing up in Burlington.

“I was the fourth of four girls, so there aren’t a lot of pictures of me, but there’s one picture. I was about 3 or 4, and I’m on the patio in my painting smock, with my little easel and my paints.”

It was no surprise, then, that when she went to UNC Chapel Hill, intending to follow in the footsteps of her psychiatrist father, she was sharply diverted by an art class.

“I was hooked,” she says.

She graduated with a degree in psychology and minor in art, then tacked on a master of fine art degree from UNCG, where she grew to love painting and luvvvvv throwing and decorating pottery.

She honed a technique known as sgraffito (Italian for “scratching off”), in which the potter scrapes away a slip, or thin coating of colored clay, to reveal a contrasting color below.

The practice — which often yields dark-on-light designs — lends itself to Leanne’s drawing ability.

Many of her pieces reflect a love of animals, a fondness you’d expect from someone who has kept chickens and donkeys — and who has logged brief stints with dairy cows and goats.

No kidding; she once worked as a kidding apprentice — basically a baby goat sitter — at Goat Lady Dairy in Climax outside Greensboro.

“Farmers are the hardest working people in the world,” she says.

Over the years, in her own farm-to-table way, Leanne cobbled together a life funded by waitressing and selling her fanciful creations.

In 1997, she was living in Statesville and teaching art at a community college when she decided to paint Mazy Mae for the first time.

It was a difficult decision. She didn’t want to disrespect her parents; she’d asked them for a truck and they’d given her one as a present for graduating from Carolina. The ’91 Chevy was roomy enough for all of her art supplies. It was reliable. And it was white. Like a canvas.

Leanne mulled the idea for about a year before taking the plunge.

The first paint job was flying women with pretty dresses and large feet. “I’ve always loved feet,” Leanne explains. That’s the design that prompted the jab from the guy at the gas station.

Leanne warned her parents, by phone, about the truck’s new look; when they finally saw it, their reaction was accepting. Tepid, but accepting. Her sisters were tolerant, too.

“I think it might have been a little bit embarrassing for me to drive up to other homes in my crazy painted truck,” Leanne says. “But over years they got used to it and looked forward to seeing what was going on with it.”

In a way, Leanne’s experience with Mazy Mae symbolized what it’s like to be an artist; living between the call of your muse and the chance — nay, the certainty — that following the call will tick off somebody, somewhere, for some reason.

“You get to these places where you’re doing something that might be stepping on somebody’s toes, and, yes, you have to decide if you’re going to do that. I think all artists are in that position quite a bit,” Leanne says.

She’s not claiming to be a hero. There are times, she says, when she has rightly reined herself in.

But embellishing her own truck was low-stakes, so she continued covering it, at least once a year, with anything that inspired her: witches, ghosts, bunnies, bats, owls, American flags (after 9/11), llamas and sugar skulls to name a few.

She still raised eyebrows and drew snarks, but she also got a lot of smiles, honks and questions from people genuinely interested in Mazy Mae’s ever-changing wardrobe.

After her career took off, thanks largely to the encouragement of her husband and an agent who sold her works as interior decorating accessories, Leanne used the truck as a promotional tool.

When she created clay aliens for a gallery installment, she plastered the truck with funky extraterrestrials.

She also started parking the truck, festooned with balloons, on N.C. 150 as a flag for people who wondered which driveway led to her home, site of the annual Keep it Local Art Show.

Since its beginning in 1999, the show has grown from Leanne and one other artist, jewelry maker Lisa Skeen, to almost 25 local artists working in a variety of media.

Scheduled for October 26 this year, the event features live music, a food truck and a scavenger hunt of easy-to-find art pieces hidden on the grounds.

With tea drained and cookies crumbled, Leanne and I walked out to the yard where she had just started painting Mazy Mae with this year’s motif: crows flapping through a cornfield.

She held stencils cut from paper grocery bags against the truck’s skin, alligatored from more than 50 paint jobs over the years, and pointed cans of Krylon at the holes in the bags.

Psssst, psssst, psssst.

Orange oblongs = ears of corn.

Psssst, psssst, psssst.

Green stalks sprout to life underneath them.

Leanne hasn’t driven Mazy on the road in a couple of years; at nearly 30 years old , Mazy’s ticker is weak. If Will can start her, they’ll drive her to the top of the driveway to advertise this year’s show.

If she won’t crank, maybe they’ll tow her up there.

Or maybe they’ll leave her in the yard, next to the wood shed, and do something fun with her.

Remove her tires and windshield and make her cab a flower bed?

“I’ll never let go of her,” Leanne says, standing by the vehicle that’s carried her down the long and winding road known well by artists.

“We’ll figure out where she needs to be.”  OH

Maria Johnson is a contributing editor of O.Henry. She can be reached at ohenrymaria@gmail.com.

For details on the Keep It Local Art Show, go to:
https://www.facebook.com/events/keep-it-local-art-and-pottery-show/keep-it-local/405657170156079/

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