Category Archives: philosophy of art

Maeve Painting, soft pastel on textured gator board by Marie Marfia, 10 in x 10 in.

Getting schooled

Maeve Painting, soft pastel on textured gator board by Marie Marfia, 10 in x 10 in.
Maeve Painting, soft pastel on textured gator board by Marie Marfia, 10 in x 10 in.

As I walked into the art center one morning to teach a kids’ pastel class, I was thinking about what I needed to do first. Should I lay newspapers on the tables or look for the boxes of pastels that I was pretty sure were hiding in the cupboards somewhere? No worries, because the class started at 10, and it was just a little after nine a.m. now. I had plenty of time to do both.

“Oh, good, you’re here,” said Katie, the program coordinator, as I waltzed through the door with a large bin of supplies. “Can I help you carry anything?” 

“Oh, you don’t have to. There’s just my roller bag in the car. I’ll get it,” I said, heading for the stairs. “Are there some kids up there already?”

“Yes, they’re all here.” 

Cue sinking feeling. “What time was class supposed to start?” 



Hurrying now, Katie close behind, telling me it was all right, they’d been given paper and colored pencils to draw with, but it was definitely not all right and now I was thinking, “How could this happen? Why did I think class started at ten? Why did I agree to do this?”

I’m not a real teacher. I mean, I teach, but only because someone expresses an interest in learning how to work with soft pastels and I’m happy to show them what I know. Also, the few times I’ve taught a class, it’s been for adult students and the class size is limited to eight. Sometimes they bring wine.

So teaching a two-hour pastel class for around twenty 6-11 year-olds? Needless to say, the atmosphere was a bit different than what I’m used to.

To be honest, I only agreed to this because I was asked. It’s a failing of mine. Someone says, can you do this (insert something I’ve never done before here) and I say, “Sure!” mostly because I want people to like me and saying yes to whatever impossible thing they’re asking is easier than saying, “No,” and risking them not liking me anymore. Before you point out that I have a choice about this stuff, let me just say I’ve been doing it all my life and I’m too old to stop now. Besides, I thought, how hard could it be?

Maybe I was motivated by my own experience as a child going to art class. I remember walking into the shady back yard of Ms. Taylor’s house on a Saturday morning and standing in front of a big easel that held a piece of newsprint taped to a board and jars of different colored paints in the well underneath. There was a stick of charcoal and a paintbrush and a subject to paint–an owl, a tree, a house. Everyone painted the same thing in the same way–charcoal drawing first, outline with black paint, fill in with colored paint, outline with black again. Then we signed our work and Ms. Taylor fed us marshmallows and Kool-aid before Mom picked us up. It was grand.

What was happening here was considerably less than grand. 

I raced around the room, handing out paper, calling out apologies for my lateness over the hubbub of children’s voices. I gave a small stack of dixie cups to Katie and asked her to pass them out. “Who can guess what’s going in the cups?” I yelled, hoping to distract the kids with a guessing game.

“Water!” “Glue!” “Soap!” 

It was going to be liquid starch, which I knew no one would guess, but it kept their minds occupied while I frantically put all the pastels I’d brought with me onto paper plates for everyone to share at each table. Maybe I’d be able to find more in the cupboards later. For now, I needed to get this class started.

I did a quick demo, drawing a picture with the pastels and then dipping my fingers in the starch and smearing it over the drawings, liquifying the chalk and turning it into paint. My plan was to put the wet pictures in another room and they could take their pieces home with them the next class day. Then, once this project was done, the second project would be using Elmer’s glue to outline a picture on black paper, which would hopefully dry by the next class day and then the kids would paint between the glue lines. 

I started to relax a little. This was fine, I thought. Me being late was just a little hiccup. Everyone was busy drawing now. It was all going to be okay.

Predictably some kids finished their paintings faster than others. I invited them to do more paintings and then realized that I might run out of the special paper I’d brought because there were just 50 sheets in the box and I had 18 students in the class. As a result, the more enthusiastic students were limited to three pictures each, and the slower, more methodical ones only got to do one or two.

It also soon became obvious that the two projects I’d planned weren’t going to be nearly enough to get us through a two-hour class. They blew through them in an hour and a half including the fifteen minute break for apple sauce. At the 45 minute mark, one little boy, who I was reliably informed later had started the day with three jelly donuts for breakfast, slithered off his chair and began crawling around under the table. Another started making a glued together Eiffel tower with the Q-tips I’d passed around in case some kids didn’t want to use their fingers with the liquid starch. I noticed one girl emptying her glue bottle on both hands and then spending about ten minutes peeling it off with a curiously blissful expression on her face. I wished I had thought of it myself. It would have used up some more time and I’d have had something to keep the wiggliest kids busy. 

The last twenty minutes of class I resorted to having them fold paper airplanes because it was the first thing that popped into my head. Then once they had the planes folded everyone wanted to try them out. The last thing I remember was yelling, “No flying airplanes in the building!” before they all left with their parents. 

Afterwards I stood ankle deep in paper airplanes and soft pastel sticks, and thought, “It could’ve been worse. Nobody got hurt. At least not by me, which is the important thing, liability-wise. And now I have a whole 46 hours to come up with four more projects to do. How hard could it be?”

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Crap photos

“Remember to send pics!”

Whenever I’m on vacation, this request always makes me feel bad, because I usually don’t take good vacation photos. When I’m taking pictures on vacation it’s almost always because I’m planning to use them for a painting reference and not because I want to share them.

I feel a teensy bit guilty about this. Even when our kids were little, most of my photos of them were because I was trying to capture an interesting composition for later, and not because I wanted a record of visiting giant sequoias in California or camping in the U.P. or throwing clay bombs in the Gulf of Mexico.

As a result, most of the pictures I take while on vacation are crap for sharing. The people in them are more likely to look like they’ve just eaten a bug instead of like they’re smiling for the camera.

This painting, Laurie by the Pool, is a case in point. In the photo reference, which I am not going to share because I love her too much, she looks like she’s in mid-rant, which she may have been, I don’t remember what she was talking about at the time, because I was too busy noticing the saturation of the color of her shirt, the turquoises in the water, the color of her skin and the dramatic shadows behind her. All these things prompted me to take a photo and I didn’t bother telling her I was going to take it because I never intended to share it with her or anyone else. It was meant to be used later for a painting or a collage or something.

Then, when someone asked me to send pics of our time in Tucson, I frantically searched through all the photos I had and couldn’t find any, not a one, that was suitable for sharing. Story of my (vacation) life.

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I'm retiring!

What’s next?

Retirement. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. This is the year I’m going to quit doing graphic design and be an artist full time. It worries me a bit because I’m starting all over again and there are some things that I have to put in place if I want to be happy with my decision down the road.

The one thing that I have had as a graphic designer that I won’t have as a fine artist is instant feedback. When I save the day for a client by putting an ad together in fifteen minutes using only a low res bitmap file and a logo scanned off a cocktail napkin, I get a little surge of serotonin in my brain that feels like, “Oh, yeah! Who’s the kickassingest graphic designer now, baby? You, that’s who!” followed by an email thanking me in ALL CAPS WITH MULTIPLE EXCLAMATION POINTS!!!!!!! I mean, woot! It’s the best feeling and I’ve gotten used to that after 30 years. I crave it, even. What do I have to replace it with? Nothing! Or at least, nothing that doesn’t involve a controlled substance like alcohol or potato chips. 

So I need to build those attagirl moments into my day. I need rewards!

Something like the little ditty that plays after I’ve successfully completed a crossword puzzle, or the maybe a little “Genius!” icon that appears whenever I get all the points for a Spelling Bee game. I don’t know. But I need something that triggers a deep sigh of satisfaction and a feeling that all is currently right with my world.

Painting is hard. I never know what I’m doing. Each painting is one stroke away from disaster, although to be honest, sometimes I don’t notice I’ve wrecked it until I’m many strokes past the destined-for-the-trash threshold. 

With graphic design, I know how to do everything. And if I don’t, I know where to go to find out. With painting, I don’t know anything and every artist on the internet has a different idea about how to solve a problem. 

I was teaching a pastels class for Deb Borema at LACA last week and there was a seven-year-old in the class, the youngest person in a group of eight kids. He’d never used soft pastels before and he was curious about what you could do with them. He started out by doing the same painting that every one else did and then he started seriously playing. He tried smearing the chalk with his hands. He used a stomp. He splashed water on the paper. He folded the paper. He did everything to the paper using the chalk that he could think of. He went through several sheets and tried all the different kinds of pastels there were to use. And then suddenly he was done with pastels and made shrinky dinks for the last fifteen minutes of class. 

All the other kids were very careful with their materials. They all wanted to make a good picture. Even though they were welcome to use as many of the pastels and sheets of paper as they wanted, nearly all of them did one piece and one piece only. They felt they had to do it correctly, and a few asked for help so it would look more like the demo. The youngest kid did not want any help. He wanted to do it all by himself.

Young kids can really teach you a lot as an artist. They don’t care whether they get a good picture or not. They’re playing with the materials. They’re exploring everything about it. They use their hands, they try out all the tools, they use lots of colors, textures. They play.

And when they’re done, they’re satisfied. They don’t say to themselves, “I need to master this medium,” or “This stuff is expensive, so I better make it last,” or “I’ve put so much time into this picture, I’ll be sad if it doesn’t turn out.”

The playing is the reward for them. How do I change so that playing is its own reward for me? The way I look at it, my new job will be figuring that out.


The truth about living in a tiny house

A little over a year ago, my husband and I moved into a tiny house.

I welcomed the chance to downsize our lives. I envisioned paring down to a few, simple necessities, all within arm’s reach. I would discard all the rest, like nail clippings, into the nearest trash receptacle. My life would be streamlined, elegant, efficient, speedy.

Fast forward to last week, when I was looking for my bangle skirt to complete my skelly dancer costume.

“Honey, have you seen my hip scarf skirt thing with the coins on it?”

“Did you look in the attic?”

“Yes, it’s not there.”

“How about the shed? There’s a few boxes out there.”


“The camper?”


We then quickly ran through all the rest of the possibilities, including my studio, both vehicles and the storage unit. It took a while. And then I realized the awful truth.

We had traded in a 3 bedroom, 2 bath home where, even if I couldn’t find something right away, I knew it was ultimately going to be somewhere within a single building, for a tiny house and its seven additional storage units.

This was not efficient. This was not elegant. This is not acceptable.

How did this happen?

The same way everything happens. In tiny, almost unnoticeable steps. Like the oblivious frog slowly boiling to death in a soup pot, I fear my life is being sucked away, minute by minute, in search of things that I know I have, but just can’t find right this second. Come with me on a magical tour of all our extra storage spaces…

The (Official) Storage Unit

You don’t go from great big ranch house to tiny cottage without having a place to put all the stuff you couldn’t sell at the moving sale. The official storage unit is located 28 minutes away, which is inconvenient for Steve, who’s retired and stays home most days, but on the way to my studio, which is inconvenient for me because I hate having to go there.

The Shed

This is certainly more convenient than the storage unit because it’s in the back yard, however, my handy husband set about transforming it from a shed for yard tools into a retreat/workshop. He partitioned it, insulated it and filled it with woodworking tools, tie dye supplies, concrete sculpture stuff, guitar, computer, a desk, and a comfortable chair. Now it’s a very nice space for doing what a man’s got to do in the comfort and privacy of his den. However, it’s no longer a shed.

The Shed Addition

Because the non-shed is busy being a den, Steve’s building a lean to that’s going to hold all the things that used to be stored in the shed, like the lawn mower, the ladders, the gardening tools, shovels and bags of dirt.

The Camper

Gotta have one because one of these days, we’re going to pack up and head down the road to who knows where to have the best time ever. It’s just we have these dogs, one of whom is really uncomfortable traveling to anywhere new, and the other who’s a consummate escape artist. No problem, just drop them at the kennel, except the darn kennel owners expects us to pay for that, and the truck only gets 10 miles to the gallon when it’s pulling the camper, so maybe not a really long road trip, but if you’re just going one county over, then why bother camping? A day trip will do and we may as well take the dogs because it’s a beautiful day and they like walking in the woods as much as we do.

So the camper is now a storage unit for all our camping gear, plus extra kitchen items, like dishes and silverware and a bottle opener. Oh, and that cute string of skull lights that our neighbor down the street got us, and the lawn chairs that don’t fit in the non-shed or the lean-to, plus it’s really handy for overnight guests, since we no longer have a spare bedroom. Besides, the dogs won’t be around forever, and then we’re really going to tow it somewhere fun.

The Studio

My first studio space was large and we had dreams of splitting it equally between my work and Steve’s hobbies, but after a particularly awkward episode involving some odiferous mushrooms and multiple drying racks, we decided it was just going to be for me. Then I moved into an even smaller space and it really became just mine, all mine. Except it’s got the filing cabinet in there, so it’s mine all mine, unless something needs to be filed, and then it’s both of ours.

The Vehicles

We have two of those and the things they store all depends on what’s being moved from one of the other satellite storage units to another. For instance, my van currently has about 4,000 postcards in it, left over from ArtPrize Nine. Don’t ask me why I printed so many. I’m trying to use them for other things. Maybe to wallpaper a wall in my studio? Steve’s truck holds lots of truckworthy things like firewood, a chainsaw, bins with more camping supplies, mushroom hunting paraphernalia, fishing poles, and sometimes, the dog bag with the long leashes and portable water dish, plus cans and cans of Deet. Oh, and last week, it had my skelly dancing costume in it.

The Upshot

I still like living in a tiny house, even though I’ve stopped believing in the whole bare necessities only way of life thing. It might work if you were just starting out, before you’d had a chance to amass all these completely necessary things. But right now, at this stage of mine and Steve’s lives, we need our stuff, ergo, we need our satellite storage units.

We’re at the age where you’re not only more aware of time passing, but you’re also equally aware you’re running out of it. All those things you meant to do are now things that you’d better get done before it’s too late. Our stuff is more important to us than ever, because it represents a life we still plan on having, as soon as we remember where we stored it.


©2017 Marie Marfia “In Memoriam,” 7×5″ pastel, $75.




Still not famous…

…but I’m okay with it.

Earlier this spring, when I was juried into ArtPrize Nine, I hoped this would be the event that put my skellies on the map. I was gonna get 1,000 new sign ups for my newsletter. I hoped to sell not just one, but all seven original paintings. I imagined being carried through the streets of Grand Rapids by my adoring fans in one of those little tent things on poles.

When I walked into my official venue at the bitter end coffeehouse on the first night of ArtPrize Nine, ostensibly to see how my paintings had been hung, but secretly hoping someone would point at me and yell, “Look! It’s her! The artist who made all these awesome skelly paintings! Oh, please, would you sign my coaster?” there was a huge line out the door and every table was occupied. I held my breath. But as it turned out, everyone there was either doing homework or standing in line for coffee.

I thought, is it possible I have seriously overestimated the importance of skelly paintings in the minds of perfect strangers?

As you’ve probably guessed by now, I didn’t win ArtPrize Nine. I also didn’t get a thousand new names on my mailing list. I didn’t sell any of my original skelly paintings. And, adding insult to injury, no one carried me through the streets in a giant palanquin.

Does this mean ArtPrize was a disappointment? Of course not.

Every day that I was there was a great day. Lots of friends and family stopped by to drink coffee with me and chat. My brother and his wife put aside a cold beer with my name on it every evening. My husband picked up my slack so I could be away every weekend during the show. My mom even refrained from telling me how much she doesn’t like skeletons when I’d stop by to give her an update, which was kind of amazing, really. She’s nearly 95 and doesn’t have many governors left.

To everyone who took the time to come and see me, who smiled and encouraged me and told me they were proud of me for participating in the biggest art show in the world, I just want you to know that it was you that made the event worthwhile for me.

Putting my stuff out there for a chance at fame and fortune may have been my original motivation, but friends and family turned it into something way better. Success is not about the quantity of people who love me, it’s about the quality of that love. I’ll never forget how lucky I am to have all of you in my corner. Thank you.

Faces of ArtPrize Nine

Below are some of my favorite pictures from ArtPrize Nine. You guys all rock my world.

Selfies are harder than they look…


Just take the freakin’ picture!

That’s better!

Thanks for making me feel like a big deal.

Last, but not least, one of my favorite sculptures from ArtPrize Nine. This crazy bird is just a tiny part of why I was happy to be included in ArtPrize Nine. See you at ArtPrize Ten!


Imagining another universe

Skelly Dance at Bougival detail

I am so done with dieting

I wish I were like one of my skellies and had no flesh hanging around my waist, a constant reminder of my love affair with chips and chocolate and laying on the couch reading the day away.

Steve says I make him feel guilty weekends because I am always working — painting, documenting, posting — and he feels like a slacker in comparison.

But the truth is, I screw off during the week. When I’m alone in the house, I have to flog myself to paint most days. There are oh so many distractions — housework, the internet, phone calls from family and friends. Sometimes I make up reasons to resent my lack of ambition, like, “I bet Degas didn’t have to clean his own kitchen or wash clothes or make dog food.” Which is ridiculous because if you think about it, I don’t have to any of those things either.

I could hire it all out, for one. I could just refuse to do it, for two. Eventually, Steve would take it over. Probably.

Making art is harder than I expected it would be. I spent most of my adult life making art for other people via a graphic design business and fantasizing about what it would be like to be a “fine artist.”

I had it all pictured. I’d have long, tangled hair, dirty feet, dozens of admirers. I’d work in a studio full of canvases and sculptures, making stuff all day and into the night, stopping only to dance to jazzy music, smoke thin cigarettes and drink coal black coffee. Every day someone in business casual attire would show up to take away the finished pieces and hand me a check with multiple zeroes on it. I’d sleep with whoever was convenient and do it all again the next day.

You’ll note there is no husband in this daydream, no family, no dogs. All the things that tie me to my present life are nowhere to be found in my alternate life, the life I lived while in another pant leg of time.

I don’t regret my current life. I love my husband, my kids, my dogs. Just sometimes I wonder what it would have been like to live that other life.

Like, would I still be thin?