House of Style
FACED WITH WHAT she fears may be chronic obscurity, Mari Newman occasionally wraps some of her artwork in white plastic garbage bags, carefully letters a sign that says "Original Artwork For Sale," and ventures out into the city in search of a market. One recent afternoon, she was seated at a sidewalk table in Uptown, wearing a red velvet jacket and smoking a huge cigar. Business was apparently slow.
Mari is the president of Newman Galleries/Mr Buttons LTD, and her south Minneapolis home is her headquarters, studio, gallery, and principle creation. Situated along Penn Avenue in a quiet and resolutely middle class neighborhood south of Lake Harriet, Mari's home--with its hand-painted, motley siding, its alternating pattern of red and white shingles on the roof, paintings in the windows, and pile of brightly painted tree stumps in the front yard--is a peculiar presence.
"A house represents so much to the person who lives in it," Mari says. "And it can tell you a lot about that person. I've tried, unsuccessfully, for so many years to get my art into galleries, and I finally decided that rather than let myself get so frustrated about it I would turn my entire house into a work of art and use that as a means of getting my work to the public."
The front porch of Mari's house is cluttered with works in progress. "This broom, this chair, this dresser, this frame," Mari explains, "I found all this stuff in the garbage. Found objects. You can find so many useful things. I'm going to take this chair and paint it some bright color--probably blue--and hang it out there on the siding of the house. And this broom--see how I dipped it in primer and then painted it yellow?--I'm going to hang that on the outside of the house also. Eventually I'd like to have lots of things that you'd associate with a house, actually hanging on the house."
Just inside the front room sits a large oak table where Mari has neatly displayed the looseleaf manuscripts for a novel, a novella, and a play, as well as the membership cards for the many organizations to which she belongs (the Cryptogram Association, Japanese Sword Society, and International Association of Bomb Technicians and Investigators, among others). There is an adjacent table covered with the numerous magazines Mari subscribes to: everything from Hemp World to Cigar Aficionado, Reptiles to Soldier of Fortune. The only book in the room is The Bagpipe, History of an Instrument. "I play the violin and the harp," Mari says. "I practice on the harpsichord and I'm learning to play the bagpipes. I grew up musically illiterate and I always had this fantasy that I was going to learn to play the bagpipes. It's all just for fun, you know?"
The entire house is a gallery of curiosities, an amazing and eccentric extension of the work in progress that is Mari Newman. Off the front room is what she calls "My unconventional art gallery." Every inch of the walls and much of the floor is covered with Mari's art, going all the way back to Junior High school. Her style has gone through many changes over the years, but she has always favored heavy, bright colors, and houses have been a steady presence in her work. Usually the houses are bright and animated, surrounded by cordial houses with welcoming arms and open windows. Occasionally things get dark and confusing; in one pastel, a house made of brick and riveted armor leans defensively in the middle of a lot, surrounded by menacing-looking flowers with sharp teeth. In another pastel, a dark and forlorn house belches thick black smoke from the chimney while its hands grasp at the moon and the stars.
Out of necessity, Mari finds herself now forced to work with inexpensive materials such as paper, crayon, colored pencils, and pastels. "It's almost like I've come full circle," Mari says. "It's a fun style, lots of bright, wild colors and imagination. Almost like being a kid again."
The floor of her gallery is cluttered with sculptures and found objects that can be moved around and incorporated into temporary or finished pieces: a rubber glove, a Gumby doll, a coil of electrical wire, a stuffed banana, a paper cake, a broken shovel, railroad ties, a Pillsbury Dough Boy, a ceramic cherry pie. "Maybe I'll put the Dough Boy in the pie," Mari says, then shrugs the idea off. "There are so many possibilities. Most of this stuff is still unfinished."
Virtually every piece of furniture in the house is pressed into storage service to accommodate Mari's growing collection of art. "I use the dresser drawers, the trunks, the bread dough rising boxes, and wooden egg cartons," she says. "There's even artwork in the kitchen cupboards along with the canned goods."
"You know, it's just so frustrating trying to get into the art galleries and the coffee shops. I'll bet I've had 2,000 rejections over the years," she says. "Most places just turn you down. My dad always used to say when I was a little girl, 'Gosh, Mari's got so much talent and she tries so hard and she enters all these competitions and coloring contests and she never wins a single one, not a one. The girl has just not gotten anywhere. I just don't understand it.'"
But Mari has continued to work, and has expanded her interests into other areas, receiving vocational certificates in upholstery, cabinetry, and jewelry making, and taking classes in film, papermaking, ceramics, and landscape architecture. She has sent her work to people like Johnny Carson and Paul Harvey, and lists Leroy Neiman as the solitary reference on her resumé. She still scavenges for art materials, and when it gets hot,she heads to the public library downtown and stays there until close, working on her art, writing poetry, or studying up on the history of pipes and pipe smoking.
"Sometimes at night, I'll just sit here in my gallery, smoking a pipe and drinking coffee," Mari says. "And I'll study all these works in progress and I'll think to myself, okay, tomorrow I'll work on this one or that one, and ideas will come to me. I know it's almost impossible to get into art galleries, but maybe if people will come here to look at my stuff, they will find something they like."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.