A North Carolina artist intrigued by the public's obsession with celebrity has found herself feeding that obsession with a painting of actress Angelina Jolie as the Virgin Mary hovering over a Wal-Mart checkout line.

Kate Kretz has painted for 20 years but none of her previous works has garnered the attention given Blessed Art Thou, which was to show at Art Miami 2007 beginning yesterday. One reason for the attention was a posting of the painting on the popular gossip site, www.perezhilton.com.

"My intention was to ask a question and get people to think," Kretz said in a telephone interview yesterday from Miami. "I had no idea so many people would be asking a question and thinking."

The attention is startling for Kretz, who doesn't watch much television and never read tabloids until she began doing research for this painting. "I'm looking at it from the point of view from somebody from another planet - what is this about, this is so strange."

The painting - acrylic and oil on linen - depicts an angelic Jolie in the clouds, holding her newborn daughter Shiloh with children Maddox and Zahara at her legs. Below them is a checkout line at Wal-Mart, where women wait in line. The painting is for sale for $50,000 through Chelsea Galleria in Miami, which represents Kretz.

On her blog, Kretz said the painting speaks to "the celebrity worship cycle." She said she chose Jolie for the subject "because of her unavoidable presence in the media, the worldwide anticipation of her child, her 'unattainable' beauty and the good that she is doing in the world through her example, which adds another layer to the already complicated questions surrounding her status."

Kretz, 43, was an associate professor at Florida International University for 10 years before moving to Burlington, about 50 miles west of Raleigh, last year with her new husband.

With the popularity of Blessed Art Thou, her blog, which used to average 30 unique viewers daily, is getting more attention from strangers these days with 15,000 unique views Wednesday.

Blake Gopnik, an art critic for The Washington Post asked to comment about Blessed Art Thou on a Post blog, said that the painting's message is too obvious.

"It's more like a puzzle-picture than a probing work of art: Once you've deciphered it, there's not much chance of giving it a second look," Gopnik wrote. "Its van-art technique, especially, is so generic that it hardly has a thing to say that hasn't been said a thousand times before - often, much better."

But Kretz's experience so far is that the painting isn't so easily decipherable - opinions posted on her blog range from people who think she's deifying celebrities to those who believe she's making fun of the culture that deifies them.

"Kate, I love the painting and I love even more what it says to me," one person wrote. "This is very inspiring. The weird world of the celebrity cult fascinates me and repulses me at the same time. There is nothing stranger than the spaces, premises and concepts of the world we live in."

But another said, "I'm feeling a bit of resentment towards the artist for being yet one more media person to shove Jolie's useless visage in my face."

Kretz, who was raised Catholic and often uses church imagery in her work, said that the painting has become a lightning rod on the subject of celebrity culture.

"Whatever people want to foist on the painting, they are foisting on to the painting," she said.