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With its roof shingled in the style of a barbershop pole and walls painted in bright patterns of stars and flowers, Mari Newman's house has been known to bring traffic to a standstill on the otherwise unremarkable 5100 block of Penn Avenue South.
Newman, 56, is nearly as conspicuous, with her shock of matted blond curls, missing front teeth, and the dozen or so metal piercings in her ears, nose, and lip. She has lived alone in the house since her parents moved out almost 20 years ago, which is also when she began turning the home into art.
"At first, she painted it very sweet," recalls one neighbor, who asked that her name not be used. "She painted the railings on her stairs white, and had a red and white wheelbarrow to match."
Then, in the early 1990s, Newman began work on her Sistine Chapel of sorts. She painted the shingles and siding, and even the sidewalk. On her front lawn, she erected an elaborate, brightly painted sculpture garden of found objects that included, among other things, tree stumps, metal chairs, and shopping carts brimming with aluminum cans.
For Newman, an artist whose renown has never lived up to her ambition, all this was a creative way of self-marketing.
"I've had over 7,000 rejections from galleries and museums," she says. "I figured, I'll make my house be the art."
But for some in the neighborhood, the house was nothing but a garish eyesore. Starting in 1991, vandals began egging her property, and several times shattered her porch window with bricks. Other neighbors took their complaints to the city, which dispatched inspectors to tell Newman to remove the lawn ornamentation. Newman refused, and so began a pitched battle that has lasted ever since.
In one particularly contentious episode in 1998, Newman lashed out at her critics by showing a series of paintings in her windows of a cartoonish figure resembling a Ku Klux Klansman. The display included other provocative images as well, including a large swastika saying, "I am the Star of David" and a confederate flag saying, "I am the flag of the United States of America." A nearby sign offered: "Pay this artist and this will all go away like magic."
The garden was far from its glory days last June, when a city inspector sized up Newman's property. Taking note of "brush and tree branches and miscellaneous rubbish"—four shopping carts, a few trellises leaning against the house, and some air ducts—the inspections division sent Newman a letter telling her to clean up.
A few weeks later, an inspector returned to Newman's house and found it unchanged. So on August 4, a contractor hired by the city came and removed the two shopping carts that weren't bolted down, along with, among other items, a pair of bicycles and a chandelier she was storing in her backyard. Seven months later, the city sent Newman a $130 "remove rubbish" bill.
Janine Atchison, an inspections supervisor, says that Newman may be an artist, but she still must be considerate of her neighbors. "The community has determined this to be important to take care of," Atchison says.
Of the five neighbors interviewed for this story, only one, who asked that her name not be used, said she didn't like Newman's house. "Of course I wish it were different there," the woman said. "But Mari is Mari."
Other neighbors were more appreciative, albeit with some caveats. Mike Kennedy, who lives across the street and a few houses down, says that Newman's house is "interesting," though he wouldn't want to live next door. Leah Aukenthaler, who also lives across the street, says she rarely gives the house much thought, except as a handy landmark to use when giving people directions to her home.
Mick Kitten, who lives two doors down from Newman, says that when she bought her house three years ago, she got "probably a 15 to 20 percent discount" because of its proximity to Newman's. As it happens, Kitten likes the colorful house, and she likes Newman, too, although she finds her hard to befriend.
"I've tried to give her rides places and she always refuses," Kitten says. "I think people are afraid to raise kids near 'Scary Mari,' but I would have no problem having kids near her."
When she's not at home, Newman can usually be found a few blocks away at the Dunn Brothers coffee shop, her de-facto studio, where she was recently putting the finishing touches on her latest work, a series of crayon drawings, including one of a dead baby surrounded by Gummy Worms.
"Mari is the hardest-working artist I've ever met," says Kyle Radcliffe, the coffee shop's manager, whose article about Newman's art will appear this summer in Raw Vision, a magazine devoted to folk art.
Although she is girding for a looming administrative hearing April 19—Newman is appealing the $130 fine, and demanding that the city pay her $2,000 for the confiscated property—she isn't letting it distract her from more artistic concerns, like the threat of overexposure. "I don't want to be Picasso and flood the market," she says.