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GRAPHICSTUDIO // WHERE art TAKES SHAPE

His skin glistens like wet asphalt, his bare bottom round and firm, the muscles of his back taut as his arms tighten in a circle in a classic pose of Greek sculpture. The photogravure series by Robert Mapplethorpe, certainly tame compared with the late artist's work that enraged Sen. Jesse Helms, has been auctioned for as much as 10 times its original price.

The nude images line a hallway of Lois Nixon's home on Davis Islands, and she admits to getting a kick out of the fact that they sometimes get a rise out of guests.

What's remarkable is that the images were inked at a Tampa atelier, or artist's workshop, called Graphicstudio that is little known locally but highly regarded in the art world. Mapplethorpe is just one of the dozens of the world's best-known modern artists who have made their way to the studio nestled on the University of South Florida campus. It produces limited-edition prints and sculptures that fill homes around the Tampa Bay area and around the country.

With prices ranging from $200 to $12,000 for artworks, subscribers and clients get a taste of cutting-edge modern art and add a sense of drama to their homes with eye-popping art.

When Nixon, a professor at the USF medical school, and her husband, attorney Jary Nixon, moved in, they had a sparse Spanish-style home with no artwork. The Nixons are one of Graphicstudio's original "subscribers," people who buy the studio's body of work of about eight pieces per year.

"The house had no artwork and when we got into this Graphicstudio venture we really didn't have a lot of money to invest in the project," Lois Nixon said. "But people said "Oh, but you're going to get such good art.' So we agreed and then as it started coming in and we started putting it up, it was amazing how it transformed a room and it has made it livable in a very different way."

Now the Nixons' house has become such a showplace of modern art, she regularly brings her humanities students to her house as part of her curriculum.

Gail and Arnold Levine of Tampa are longtime supporters of the arts who, like most subscribers, have a house stuffed with the works of the art world's superstars _ James Rosenquist, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein _ whose works can be found in virtually any modern art museum.

Levine, who has handled many high-profile legal cases, has the works of Rauschenberg and Lichenstein hanging on the walls of his downtown Tampa law firm, Levine Hirsch Segall & Northcutt.

At home, the couple had to build a special cabinet to store some of their artwork until they can find more places for it.

"I wish I had more walls," Gail Levine said wistfully. "When you are looking at this art, you are looking at the best of humanity."

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Graphicstudio opened in 1968 under the guidance of Donald Saff, then chairman of the USF visual arts department. The work of Philip Pearlstein, its first artist, was produced in 1969.

The studio's operation could be compared to a university teaching hospital. Research is done under the auspices of the university, but private clients are served and money is raised through its commercial operation. The university and other state funds pay $600,000 toward staff salaries, production costs and facilities. The rest of the studio's $1-million budget comes from sales.

Its crowning achievement came in 1991, when Graphicstudio was recognized by the National Gallery of Art for its contributions, and artworks produced there were included in the gallery's collection. It's the most prestigious recognition a university art program could hope for. In essence, it treats Graphicstudio as an artist itself for being the vehicle for such a diverse band of artists.

"Graphicstudio has always been highly regarded because they have really done some cutting-edge work with some of the most important artists working today," said Ruth Fine, curator of modern prints for the National Gallery of Art.

Bernar Venet, a French sculptor who made some prints and a sculpture there last year, credits the leadership, including Hank Hine, the current head of Graphicstudio, with a keen eye for today's important artists and for providing a collaborative, creative climate.

"A good studio needs a director that is smart and knows what is good and what isn't good," Venet said. "He has a very good eye."

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For the subscribers and clients, the studio's growth has been a learning experience, said Nixon, who said she didn't know much about modern art when she started.

"Most people don't know these names and I find with myself, I still have to look things up," Nixon told a visiting group of students in her home recently. "So there isn't that high comfort level, because people love to recognize a name."

One student, looking a little baffled, points to a James Rosenquist work of spiky black and white images that appear to form a flower.

"I'd probably choose more traditional art," he says, "because I wouldn't be able to come up with some interpretation, I wouldn't know what to say about this. I wouldn't know what to think."

The public taste for modern art has been a stumbling block for some, said Hine, a former art professor from Stanford. He points out that although subscribers have gotten marquee names like Mapplethorpe and Rosenquist over the years, they also have had some oddities to deal with.

"It can be amusing sometimes," Hine said. "The subscribers will also get some artists, like Richard Tuttle, who paints wax on fabric, who doesn't want it framed. So when we tell these people in these gorgeous homes to just tack them on the wall, they get a little disconcerted."

But it's the unusualness of the art that keeps subscribers coming back. Having interesting art can transform a room from a comfortable living space to an instant conversation-starter.

The first work of art to catch most visitors' eyes in Lois Nixon's house is a paper dress made by Lesley Dill, which hangs behind a frame in her living room.

The tiny bodice and long skirt look as though they are made of the paper that dress patterns are drawn on. Drawn on the breast of the dress is an anatomically correct heart, and across the skirt are Emily Dickinson poems about the vulnerability of the heart.

"People usually say, "Oh, is that your christening dress?'

" Nixon says with a grin. "So many people ask me that and I understand that, but to me it looks like something old-fashioned, so the fact that it is inspired by Emily Dickinson, I can appreciate.

"You can't help but talk about the art in this house, and I like that."

Gail Levine, who is an interior designer as well as a Graphicstudio subscriber, says that too often homeowners overlook art when they are putting a room together.

"If you took away the artwork, I find that a room instantly becomes boring," Levine said. "Conversely, you can have art on the walls and have hardly any furniture and it is still an interesting room. I don't think people realize the significance of what art does to a home."

Of course, the best rule is to buy what you like.

"I don't buy a painting to match a room," Levine said. "It's great to have a painting that will enhance its setting and will be enhanced by the setting, but I have found that a very contemporary quality painting will fit in a room full of antiques."

About Graphicstudio

Graphicstudio is at 3702 Spectrum Blvd. on the University of South Florida's campus in Tampa. It is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays. Visits can be made by appointment on the weekends. Call 974-3503.

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