Nestled in the basement of a Minneapolis warehouse about three blocks from the Guthrie Theater, Leon Hushcha's studio looks like it is inhabited by a master of multiple art forms -- or by 16 different artists who just happen to share some significant DNA.

That would be the DNA of Hushcha, 64, a veteran Minneapolis painter who invited 15 longtime friends to collaborate on the show he holds once a year in his work space. Called "Aesthetics X 2," the event is a "visual dialogue" in which Hushcha and pals exchanged and modified each other's work with no rules or guidelines about what they might do. It's up through Jan. 7.

The friends include writer Garrison Keillor, photographer Tom Arndt, children's book author Nancy Carlson and portraitist Paul Oxborough. Participants range in age from 26 to 71. They started trading pieces in June and were still handing them back and forth a few days before the show opened last week.

"When this started, I figured I'd have one or two collaborators, but people were so enthusiastic that it just kept growing to 10, and then 15, and I had to put a stop to it," Hushcha said. "I realized at some point that I'd lost control."

Coherence out of chaos

Despite the myriad media, styles and creative voices involved, the show has a surprising coherence. It's as if the various personalities are facets of the same spirit, or different characters working from the same script in a stage production.

The Austrian-born Hushcha, whose family emigrated to St. Paul in 1950, has been knocking around the Twin Cities art scene long enough to know a lot of talent. After graduating from what is now the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (1968), Hushcha completed an MFA in painting at the University of Minnesota (1971) and subsequently taught painting at both schools.

Artists were reclaiming empty warehouses in downtown Minneapolis during the 1970s and launching cooperatives with fanciful names like Fort Mango, which Hushcha co-founded on 1st Avenue N. as a combination studio, showroom and print shop. He met Keillor at Fort Mango when the wannabe writer from Anoka dropped in with their mutual friend Arndt. Keillor credits Arndt and another show participant, poet/artist/songwriter Gregory Bitz, with first luring him onto the stage. "They were the impetus, the tempters, the compadres," Keillor writes in a blurb for the show's planned catalog.

Things were like that 40 years ago -- casual, improvisational, free-spirited and ripe with possibilities. That same spirit animates "Aesthetics X 2." It is, for example, Keillor's first art show. He sent Hushcha a dozen or so black-and-white photos of a nude whose poses discreetly preserve her identity. Hushcha had them reprinted on drawing paper, embellished them with abstract marks and figurative designs. Then Keillor copied onto them poems from his book "77 Love Sonnets."

All the collaborations went back and forth that way, sometimes with unexpected results. Painter Paul Oxborough masked out part of Hushcha's drawing of a ballerina, added his own portrait of Hushcha and then cut off the bottom third of the paper -- including the ballerina's legs. His image of Hushcha is energetic and slightly impressionistic, its soft blue-gray tones contrasting with the dappled black-and-white of Hushcha's drawing but not overwhelming it, a delicate balance that testifies to the professional dexterity of both artists.

"I was afraid he wouldn't like how I painted him, but I didn't pull any punches," said Oxborough, who also sliced off some of his own work. "I didn't try to flatter him. I find him a pretty intense character and I made him look the way I think of him."

Spontaneous fun

Children's book author/illustrator Nancy Carlson was at first afraid to mark up the paintings Hushcha sent her of a woman's silhouette and a dead dove. She reciprocated with images of fish, trees, crows and little houses that she's been drawing since she and her husband downsized from their suburban home after their three kids flew the nest.

"It was intimidating, but then I put a line on and I wasn't scared anymore," said Carlson, who embellished Hushcha's work with doodles of popular animal characters from her books.

Rochester sculptor Judy Onofrio also was stumped by the hollow birch log covered with female figures that Hushcha brought her. Two weeks passed before she had a brainstorm involving "this junky lamp that I didn't know what to do with," she said. She attacked the lamp with a band saw, chopped it in half, cut off the base, inserted Hushcha's log, rewired it, added snakes, mirrors, jewels and geegaws, and shipped it back to Hushcha, who added a hand-drawn shade.

"We didn't have any conversation about what we were going to do, but it's been a lot of fun," Onofrio said.

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431