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Hello Kitty is an internationally recognized symbol that has garnered icon status around the world.

The character was originally created by the Japan-based Sanrio, Inc., in the mid-1970s. Initially designed as a simple gift, its intended audience was young girls.

Now, Hello Kitty is popular among many age groups. Hello Kitty is found on everything from stationary, posters and stickers to clothing, purses and jewelry.

Leslie Holt, a 39-year-old Tower Grove East resident, is one of those Hello Kitty fans.

She has more than 100 figurines, T-shirts and an electric toothbrush - all with Hello Kitty emblazoned on them in some fashion.

Holt, a college art instructor, also decided to incorporate the character into her oil paintings and design a show around it.

The exhibit titled "Hello Masterpiece" will be on display May 10 through June 21 at phd gallery, 2300 Cherokee St.

"I like to juxtapose childhood and adult subject matter to create disjuncture and irony," Holt said.

For her exhibit Holt combines Hello Kitty with famous images from art history. She creates a clash of iconography creating a clever intersection of pop culture and antiquity.

Holt makes her canvases souvenir size, similar to postcards in a museum gift shop, transforming the masterworks into take-home sized objects, while lampooning their high-brow context as commodities in a consumer market.

"This art work functions on a comical level. People think 'what is a cartoon character doing in this work?'" said Philip Hitchcock, owner of phd gallery. "If you look deeper Hello Kitty is a feminist icon. She's traipsing through these paintings by dead white guys and she has this tremendous feminist voice, but no mouth."

The idea for Hello Kitty came from another art project that involved pills. Holt was creating a series of paintings depicting pills in different areas, including on the toilet and scattered on a rug. That turned into other paintings of movie characters, such as E.T. and Yoda, holding pills.

Then Hello Kitty came to mind.

Today, Holt serves as a part-time art instructor at Fontbonne University, St. Louis Community College-Meramec and Lewis and Clark Community College in Godfrey, Ill. For an art appreciation class at Fontbonne, Holt decided to show a video to go along with a lesson plan.

"Sister Wendy's American Collection" is a television series that aired on PBS. Sister Wendy Beckett, a nun from a British monastery, stared as an art critic who traveled to talk about pieces of art in detail.

"It occurred to me that Hello Kitty could be Sister Wendy and taking a tour through art history," Holt said.

In the exhibit Hello Kitty appears with a book in "Hello School of Athens," with a saxophone in "Hello Picasso (Sax Player)" and on the face of Mona Lisa in "Hello Mona," just to name a few.

"She doesn't belong in these serious art pieces because she's a toy. That contrast is interesting to me. I think it's funny" Holt said. "A lot of my work I did up until now wasn't funny. It's a little bit of comic relief for me."

Holt's biggest challenge with this exhibit was finding time to create each 4 X 6 paintings.

"Since I work at four different places it can be hard to fit in studio time," she said. "My goal was to complete 50 in a seven month period and I made it to 56, so I am pretty proud of that."

Hitchcock wanted to exhibit Holt's work for several reasons. She is local and her work is challenging, but also accessible.

"I was also captivated by the subject matter and the diminutive scale," he said. "Leslie Holt is a painter's painter. The 'Hello Masterpiece" concept aside, this body of work is a credit to her skill as a technician - that she can emulate the vastly different styles of so many different painters is quite a coup."

Want to go?

What: "Hello Masterpiece"

Where: phd gallery, 2300 Cherokee St.

When: Opening reception will be 7-10 p.m., May 10. Exhibit runs May 10 through June 21. Gallery hours are noon to 4 p.m., Thursday through Sunday.

Information: Call (314) 664-6644 or visit www.phdstl.com