First published:Summer 2007
At a corner table in a coffee house in middle-class Minneapolis, an outlandishly dressed woman hunches over paper with crayons, peering through a magnifying glass, occasionally rising to pester other patrons, many of whom nervously move to distant tables. Her compulsive gestures and words seem designed to put off, even to offend those around her. But of course there is much more to this shambolic figure. A glance at the paper lying on the table reveals a vivid menagerie of cartoon-like figures against an intensely coloured backdrop of stars, polka dots and crosses; and could a casual observer peruse her entire oeuvre, an individual artist of powerful if eccentric temperament would emerge in place of the caricature.
Although Mari Newman owns a home, she is virtually homeless. She lives on a meagre income which barely pays her taxes and medical bills. She filed for bankruptcy in 2005 in order to keep the house, and scrounges for food from free samples in displays in grocery shops. For most of her life she has endured Tourette's syndrome and a debilitating and disfiguring skin condition, and now aged fifty-six, she has no vision in one eye and only partial vision in the other. Her signature work of art - a phantasmagorically painted bungalow with a sculpture garden of found objects in bright hues and soft pastels - is now so dilapidated and broken down that it is little more than a shelter, not a home.