Holly Love • Main Line Today Magazine • March, 2003

Give Todd Marrone an inch and he’ll decorate it. On this morning, the self-described “modern art revolutionary” begins at the Narberth train station. To most people, a train station is a place to catch trains. To Marrone, it’s an empty gallery awaiting exhibits.

“This is how it goes down,” the Narberth resident says. He cases the depot, then pops the trunk of his Jeep Cherokee, where several of his creations await. One is the spoils of his recent live painting gig at the Philadelphia nightclub Shampoo: brown paper, 2 feet by 3 feet garnished only with bold, black, foam-brush strokes and white space that yield the gestalt of two faces rendered in the artist’s puckish Pop Art style. Another is about the 900th member of his Glue Bottles Chronicles, which Marrone produces by zigzagging tips of glue bottles filled with acrylic paint and India ink over white paper. “There’s no drag slowing you down like there is with Magic Markers.” Marrone squirts out bumper crops of the minimalist creatures in about 20 seconds each.

It doesn’t take much longer than that to place each abstract illustration in a new, but assuredly transient, home. Before he staples one to the tunnel wall this morning, he affixes to it the standard message-in-a-bottles for the passersby. It contains his contact information and mission statement, which lets a finder know this: You can have it. Art should be accessible.

“Art’s for everybody,” Marrone says. “But a lot of people don’t go to galleries, even if they’re interested in or educated in art. Or they can’t afford to buy it. Or they’re turned off by the snobbery that can be associated with it. By leaving it around, I’m trying to make it more available to the general public.”

He deposits his art on trees and telephone poles, under windshield wipers, in home-delivered newspapers, on the doors of public bathrooms, on makeup hangers in drugstores—“basically, wherever I can reach. I’ve dropped stuff onto people’s car seats when a car door is unlocked. I don’t want people to think I’m stalking them, but it’s hard to brighten a day. People are leery. It’s too bad. I mean, why can’t you break into someone’s house and leave art in there? Criminals have really ruined it for the rest of us.”

Marrone advances to the other side of the train tracks. There he staples to a bench a super-sized black and white paper portrait of a strong-jawed lady-killer and his much less symmetrical and nerdish companion. A couple of young females bystanders stare, then one asks with all the wide-eyed innocence of Cindy Lou Who, “What are you doing?”

“Decorating this bench,” Marrone says.


“Because no one has done it yet.”

At the Wynnewood train station a little later, he finds true gold—a passenger shelter with large blank walls. Within a minute he has attached to them two or more products of his prolific imagination, including a composition resembling two tangoing spinal cords. Like all of Marrone’s cartoonish pieces, these reveal the influences of his idol, Pablo Picasso, the comic book monsters he loved as a child and the work of late American Pop artist Keith Haring, who also took his art to the streets by creating hundreds of drawings in New York subways in the 1980’s Marrone’s more removable art is regularly taken by admirers who send him flattering emails calling his artwork “pumped with humor,” “so inspiring I’m doing art myself now” and “amazing, I’m getting a tattoo of one of your paintings.” Mary and Jim Brown of Wynnewood, after taking home one of his paintings from a lamppost in Suburban Square, threw him a party. Marrone is also rewarded in cash for the originals he sells from his website, on eBay, and the Well Fed Artist Gallery in Old City and the DeBottis Gallery in West Chester.

The transformation of the train station now complete, Marrone steps back out into the parking lot, where two bike-riding students yell, “Hi, Mr. Marrone.” All the kids around here over the age of 10 know him pretty well. For the past six years, he’s been teaching them art at Welsh Valley Middle School in Narberth. But in Marrone’s classroom, it can be hard to tell who are the children and who is the adult.

Marrone, 28, addresses his seventh graders. “Ladies and gentleman, the other adult in the room is a writer who asked to observe my most talented class. Unfortunately, they weren’t available, so she’s watching you.” The kids laugh. Then, as Marrone quizzes them on earlier lessons, he tosses Starburst candies to the students who answer correctly. Today he’s asking them with his congenially militant tone to play back details on how they’ll proceed to use wet tea bags wrapped in muslin to dye their self-portraits, in the style of da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man,” which will make them look like parchment.

Marrone has popped in a custom-recorded CD of alternative music. “I’m just as inspired by music, literature, dance and everything else creative as I am by (visual) art.” He claims that David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” album is “reason enough to have ears.” He fancies the novels of Kurt Vonnegut, whose stream-of –consciousness resembles Marrone’s own expressions. He has “a billion ideas for screenplays and children’s books.”

After Marrone answers an enfilade of questions on technique a sixth grader leans on his shoulder while he shows her how to use a template to make a Japanese kite. Another approaches a fellow classmate and says, “My name is Mrs. Marrone. How can I help you?” One boy says Marrone is the best art teacher he has because, “he plays random music, he gives out Starbursts, and he’s funny.” When they ask about the tattoo on his left forearm (it means “painting” in Japanese), Marrone says he got it in prison. When the kids want to know what he was in for, he tells them “child abuse.”

“You should go to detention, you break so many rules,” one girl announces to Marrone, who is standing on the window ledge and throwing an art supply back into storage. A bell is about to end the circus of self-portraits and kites just as it has ended previous sessions of drawings modeled after those in the caves of Lascaux, plasticine clay sculptures, Van Gogh reproductions and “Guernica” –inspired murals.

What Marrone hopes the bell will not end is his students’ enjoyment of art. “I want them to enjoy art here at middle school so they’ll want to take it in high school, where it’s not a required class. This is an advertisement for art. It’s important that they have a positive experience.” Marrone’s fellow Welsh Valley art teacher, Ryan Johnston, observes just how dry Marrone isn’t. “Sometimes in the middle of my own class, the kids will go over and watch Marrone instead of me. He keeps it light and juvenile. He juggles. He’s got toys. The kids eat it up.” Of Marrone’s art and personality, Johnston says, “They’re both bizarre, but you wouldn’t want him any other way.”

That wasn’t true during Marrone’s own years in school. His father, Mike Marrone of Yardley, tells the story of being called in with Marrone’s mother, Cindy, to confer with art teachers about their son’s work. “His assignment was to draw a poster for marketing a product. Todd asked the teacher if he could have creative liberty and she said yes. So he drew an ad for condoms. The teacher was taken aback. Then next week another teacher shows us what Todd produced when he was asked to create a bust of himself. It was a Medusa, with all the snakes. Then when the students were asked to draw a skeleton, Todd drew a basketball team of skeletons. The teacher said Todd had to learn some structure. Todd felt his creativity was being threatened. We told him, if you’re going to be commissioned to produce art, they want to pay you for what they want, not for what you want.”

And, oh, how that distaste for being commissioned has remained. “In 1999 I was hired by Rolling Rock to make a poster, and I drew this.” Marrone takes out his conception of a Rolling Rock beer bottle—one with six arms and a horse head. “They made 35,000 copies of it, and I was paid $7,000 for that one afternoon’s work.” But that’s the rare case. “Most commissioned work is so stifling. They tell me what to do. I enjoy doing graphic art and commercial art, but I don’t enjoy working with the people associated with it. I say, go stand over some other artists and tell him how to push the pencil. I only take jobs with creative control, like drawing album covers, because musicians have respect for the creative process. They let me listen to the music and then paint whatever I want to in reaction to it. That’s how it should be done.”

Marrone prefers to skip the micromanagement of academia as well. To supplement his undergraduate degree in art education from Kutztown University, he applied to grad school twice. “I was rejected both times on the basis that my art was ‘not sophisticated enough,’ ‘too cartoony.’ I say, well, a ton of people own a ton of it. I struggled with the idea of spending two weeks doing a bunch of realistic paintings to resubmit and get into school, but then I thought, no. I got straight As when I painted realistically, but realism takes too long. I like to work quickly. And ever since the invention of the camera, why would you bother painting what’s already there? I want to create something that wouldn’t exist without me.”

Without him there would be no Narberth MOMA—or Museum of Marrone Art—also his house. Inside are samplings of his realistic art, which confirm his skill at rendering detailed, lifelike depictions of skulls, nudes, still lifes and more. But they’re all tucked away in a basement closet. Abstract art, he believes, “gets a bum rap,” but shouldn’t because it’s more original. After all, Marrone notes, “Picasso said it took him four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.”

It’s not just that Marrone can paint like a child—he can paint like a child of any age. One his house’s second-floor hangs a pair of crude dudes with misplaced teeth and porcupine hair under a half-moon, engendering an onlooker’s visit back to first grade. Perhaps a child of nine might finally have the control necessary to cover an entire home office wall, as Marrone has, with variously-sized purple, green and white concentric squares. It seems as though a 12-year-old must have co-conceived the image at the top of Marrone’s stairs—a sharp-featured guitarist, vivified almost redundantly with motion curves. But the dining room and its theme of circles is overseen by man and woman portrayals, reminiscent of the work of Paul Gauguin, that boast a richness and blending of color indicative of how, ultimately, all of his art resists age-typing.

Marrone shares MOMA with his girlfriend Heather Hall, an ebullient actress, dancer and teacher at Walnut Hill College, who he wooed after meeting at one of her performances while the two were attending colleges 400 miles apart.

Hall takes out the letters he sent her then. “None of his letters were ever just a straight, normal letter,” she says. “There was always a game, a silly hidden meaning, and inside joke, something like that. This one had a cassette, and I was supposed to guess the theme of the songs he recorded on it. It turned out that they all had something to do with the Woodstock (of “Peanuts”) tattoo on my hip he know I had. He would send things, too, just to see if they would make it through the postal system.” Case in point: On a postcard—which anyone could read—Marrone had written, “Heather, the more I think about it, the more I believe it’s a bad idea to murder your entire family. I beg you to reconsider!”

Finally the two planned a cross-country trip together, had their first kiss in Colorado, and the deal was sealed. Hall has since been inspired to begin making art as well. “I was jealous. Whenever Todd was bored, he drew. As a dancer, if I was bored, I couldn’t just get up and start doing pirouettes around the room anywhere I wanted, so I started to drawing, too.”

The frolicsome missives that began their courtship swayed her much more than any verbal outpouring of affection, Hall says. Lucky she is to feel this way, because Marrone pooh-poohs the notion of artists as especially romantic, sensitive souls. “I’m not any more sensitive than anyone else.” Marrone says. “Maybe some artists are more in touch with their emotions or they’re passionate, but not me.”

Marrone’s pride in his own work is parental in at least one respect. On his home office shelf, above his paintings of wild-haired visages just completed for the Ground Zero West hair salon in Conshohoken sits “The Everything Baby Names Book.” From which Marrone arbitrarily pulls names for many of his pieces. Sheldon, Hazel, Edgar and Fay are just a few of his progeny.

Regarding his lack of actual human descendants, Marrone relies on his affinity for famous quotes to convey his current agenda, “Dr. Seuss said about kids, ‘You make ‘em, I’ll entertain ‘em.’” It’s an appropriate reference. Not only do Marrone’s brush strokes almost seem to rhyme, but they entertained one 15 year-old former student of his, P.J. Smalley of Haverford, straight into an apprenticeship. “I started leaving my art in train stations, too,” Smalley says, “I also took the Glue Bottle Chronicles he gave me, added color to them, and game them back to him to sell. Then I followed his lead right after September 11 and donated money I made from drawings I did on the event to the September 11 fund.

Back in the school studio, Marrone mixes up a batch of gray paint, then takes out the favored foam brushes. He paints with Dionysian momentum, without plan, eager to see the outcome coalesce before him. The faces that emerge on the discarded cardboard—one of his favorite canvases—are destined to overlook train tracks later that week. “Let’s put it this way,” Marrone says while granting freakish eyelashes to his creation, “I’m not a firefighter or Navy Seal. I can’t protect the world. Art may not close the wounds, but it’s the only thing I can do to counteract things like sniper killings or terrorism or whatever. I just take their same randomness and do random acts of art.”

On the Macintosh computer on his desk, Marrone plays a video about himself made for the cultural TV show “Aphillyated.” He leaps up school steps in one sequence, which is embellished with a special effect to magnify his already frenetic speed. He must be on his way to beginning his next project, given his constant need for another one to immediately follow the last. That’s not a tough order to fill. “I feel like I’ll never run out of ideas, like I’ll never have image block. People ask how I can paint without having preliminary sketches, but painting is a reaction like talking—it’s a conversation with that canvas. You don’t need notes to have a conversation.” The notes he saves for that other project of randomness, his Web-posted thoughts. Two years ago he added, “Nobody can ever take an education or tattoos away from you. Load up on both.”

Enter the young recipients of that education. When they begin working on their self-portraits again, Marrone monitors them for mistakes. He never wants them to crumple those up and throw them away before learning from them. He wants to be sure they know that making mistakes is a path to success, that da Vinci made more mistakes than they ever will.

One student wants to see Marrone’s plastic potato pellet shooter, which he takes out for some brief contemplation of why anyone would want to shoot pellets made of potato. To another student who announces that he forgot his pencil, Marrone replies, “You did? It breaks my heart that you would come to art class without a pencil,” then provides one. Whatever materials or instruction the students request, he delivers it summarily with encouragement, a caveat, a personal observation, a demonstration, a joke. He keeps the pace going, to keep filling the students heads with art.

“Put your brushes in the sink, please,” Marrone tells his charges. “I will wash them. I have a masters degree in brush washing.” Class over, he dismisses everyone with, “Adios. Good work. Go forth.”

Within two minutes of renewed solitude, Marrone’s fingertips discharge eight of his Glue Bottle Chronicles, In yet another display of Type-A personality where A starts for Art. The pieces, like so many of their predecessors, will be strewn about Main Line surfaces soon enough. In disseminating his art into the neighborhood, into children’s perceptions, into virtual galleries and bricks-and-mortar galleries of furniture and discarded materials and of his home and the homes of fans he’ll never know, Marrone seems to be resolutely spreading extensions of himself.

The faculty lunchroom has yet to be touched by Marrone’s art. Maybe the vending machine needs some swirls of color. Perhaps the door could use a girl’s indigo face and her overgrown lips. Whether speaking of places within him or without him, Marrone can only answer with another question when asked where art should be that it isn’t already.

“Where shouldn’t it be?” He sincerely wants to know. “ You tell me.”

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