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Minneapolis, Minn. — Just off of 50th Street on Penn Avenue, Mari Newman's house pops out like a miniature Disneyland in an otherwise sleepy neighborhood. The walkway to Newman's house is covered by a series of metal arbors, each painted a different bright color, some decorated with painted pop cans. Off to one side of her yard sit a row of grocery carts, each one carefully painted, one filled with more pop cans, another with painted hub caps, and a third with brightly colored air ducts. Newman gives a tour of the yard, and points to a seaweed like sculpture.
"...and then I made this sculpture down here with the squiggles. I call it squiggle grass," says Newman. "And I just got hubcaps in there but it holds anything [and it] looks like its floating up in the air."
The house itself is covered in what Newman calls "patterned abstracts," small repeated images of flowers or circles, again in a myriad of lively colors. While Newman's home might look like a giant LEGO toy set, Newman herself at first doesn't appear as kid friendly. She's often seen around town wearing all black. Her hair is bleached a pale blonde, and her face is pierced in eight or nine different places. She walks with a bit of a limp, and sometimes talks to herself.
Newman grew up in this house; she moved into it as a small child with her parents in the 1950s. Now she lives there alone, and survives off of a monthly stipend plus whatever cash she makes from selling her artwork. Sitting at the neighborhood coffee shop, Newman say it was in 1988, while trying to figure out what to do with a couple of butternut tree stumps in her yard, that she saw her own home as a potential canvas.
"I had over 5,000 rejections in 35 years from art galleries, entering juried shows, getting into museums," says Newman. "And this was one way to advertise and provide an outlet for me to do it on the exterior of the house."
She painted furniture and set it out on the lawn, and she began painting her house.
"It was slow but I got my first publicity in 1991 in the Southwest Journal and they followed up on my house because a lot of neighbors were making complaints that I had a continuous garage sale even though there was no sign out there but all this painted furniture and other stuff were sitting out there every day," says Newman.
Newman's evaded any serious fines or penalties over the years, but now the zoning department, in response to the most recent complaint, says Newman needs to at least move her art out of the front yard.
Andy Carlson, the lead zoning inspector for the city of Minneapolis, says these types of investigations are complaint driven, but the identity of the person making the complaint is kept confidential. He admits there are a lot of zoning ordinances, and often times the ordinance language is vague or left up to interpretation on a case by case basis. But he's obliged to enforce them as best he can.
"The ordinance doesn't even address the issue of art, so from a code standpoint these would simply be seen as obstructions within the frontyard. It's the intensity, it's the amount of the items there," says Carlson. "If we can help reduce that to lessen the impact along the front then I think we can live with that."
But Mari Newman's artistic vision is all about intensity. She currently has three grocery carts in her yard, but she wants 20. And she has plans to put more pop cans on the arbors.
"It's one thing to do that in a different place, but you have to consider the people who live on either side of you or across the street."
On a sunny afternoon, two women pull up in a shiny red car with tinted windows. Penelope says she's brought her friend Gretchen to see the house for the first time, but she has driven by it for years. She says she'd be horrified if she were Mari Newman's neighbor.
"Mostly I just wonder about how the people on either side can tolerate it, what it does to their property value," says Penelope. "It's one thing to do that in a different place, but you really have to consider the people who are on either side of you or across the street."
Jeff Pierce disagrees. Pierce is the owner of White Oak Gallery, just a block away from Mari's house. Pierce's gallery is one of a couple around town that now sell Newman's artwork. Pierce says Newman's work is in the collections of most every folk art museum in the country. He says even the Smithsonian has one of her works. He says her house and yard are examples of her artistic vision, and should be respected as such.
"What she's got there what she's done is in no way a hazard to anyone it's not profane, it's just a little bit of whimsy," says Pierce. "I know it's every child's favorite house. I drive my nephews past and they tell me they want to live there. You know it's a little fantasy in the middle of a kind of dull block in the city of Minneapolis."
Pierce says he'd like to see a museum buy Mari's house so that it becomes a cultural institution. In the meantime he thinks everyone else should maybe take a more critical look at their own yards to see what artistic value their original landscaping ideas really have to offer.
Mari Newman and her house are often the subject of misunderstanding and abuse. The grocery carts are tied down with cables and covered with chicken wire, to prevent people from knocking them over or running away with a souvenir. The brightly colored front door of the house is marked by a black "X" that someone spray-painted onto it over a year ago. But none of this slows Mari down or makes her think of toning down her yard. When asked what she thinks of garden gnomes and pink flamingoes, she says she doesn't really care for them.
"But you know it's something you could go to Target and stick in your front yard. I can understand a guy if he put a thousand different flamingoes in his yard. Then he's making an interesting statement," says Newman. "And a bright pink house! I'd like to see a homeowner do that."
Drew Lamosse says when he bought the Dunn Brothers coffee shop on 50th and Xerxes two and a half years ago, he inherited Mari Newman. Lamosse says Mari comes into the coffee shop, several times a day, 364 days a year; it's closed on Christmas. Mari spends her days at a table in the corner, drawing and painting. Lamosse says Mari's an important part of the diverse community that comes to the coffee shop. A mural of Mari's decorates the back patio, and she's halfway done with a second one. Lamosse is upset that Mari has to suffer zoning inspections. He says people are complaining because they're scared of someone they don't understand.
"Mari on occasion will tell me stories of the verbal and physical abuse that she takes just walking down the street. And it always makes me feel sad inside to be a part of a society that singles out people because they're different," says Lamosse. "Mari's different, but you know the reality is that Vincent Van Gogh was different, Mozart was different ... what makes great art is looking at the world from a different perspective."
Lamosse says people need to put their prejudices aside and get to know each other as individuals before they pass judgements on one another. He says the people who filed complaints about Mari obviously hadn't taken the time to get to know her.