Alicia Puglionesi • Main Line Times Newspaper • June, 2006

Some people like to sit quietly and listen to music. Todd Marrone likes to dash around the room and slather paint on giant rolls of paper. “It’s all a matter of preference,” says Marrone, a Narberth-based artist whose work, in addition to appearing in bus shelters and train stations around the region, will be on display at Milkboy Coffee in Ardmore starting July 7.

For the show’s opening night, Marrone decided to eschew the traditional wine, cheese and black turtlenecks for a livelier presentation: He will paint along to the musical stylings of local band the Levelheads – thus ensuring, in his words, that “the house is properly rocked.”

“When I hear music, I think about images,” Marrone explains, “and when I’m painting, I’m either listening to music, singing, humming, or thinking songs.”

This passion for music makes it only natural to paint accompanied by live bands, as he has done in the past at the Theater of the Living Arts, the North Star Bar, and numerous other venues in the Philadelphia area. “As stimulating as it is to listen to concerts, there’s not much to look at,” he remarks. “This is a way of bombarding the visual and auditory senses.”

A trim man with close-cropped hair and thick-rimmed glasses, Marrone doesn’t immediately strike the casual observer as a person who deals in sensory bombardment. A few telling details – a tattoo spiraling up his left forearm, for instance – hint at the edgy approach that he takes to his work, both in the studio and in the classroom as an art teacher at Welsh Valley Middle School in Lower Merion.

Marrone’s philosophy of art embraces the spontaneity and energy of the live performance even when he works in relative isolation. One method he developed, using empty glue bottles to squeeze lines of paint onto paper, produces dozens of angular, gestural sketches at a sitting.

“Sometimes I make them faster than I can get them onto the drying rack – and they certainly don’t sell as fast as I can paint,” he laments. As a result, many glue bottle paintings are destined to act as ambassadors of the Marrone gospel, stapled to telephone poles, benches, and bus shelters for the enjoyment of passers-by. He includes a message with each piece explaining his project and how to contact him. By no means is this a “look with your eyes, not with your hands” arrangement: Marrone wants people to take his work home with them and make art a greater part of their lives.

Sometimes this requires a little nudging, as many people seem to have difficulty with the concept of free art: “It’s usually this long, drawn-out process,” says Marrone, reflecting on the times that he’s watched from a hidden vantage point to see who plucks his paintings. “They’ll read the information, then spend a few minutes deliberating – like they’re not sure it’s legit – and then grab it and walk off.”

In one case, however, Marrone discovered an amateur collector at work on South Street in Philadelphia. A man passing by on the sidewalk snatched one of his freshly hung posters with hardly a sideways glance, and Marrone, intrigued by the quick response, followed him into a shoe store.

“The man goes, ‘hey, I found another one of those paintings by that guy,'” Marrone recalls bemusedly. “So I asked him what paintings he was talking about, and he started explaining the concept of my work to me from what he had read on the posters. Apparently he had a whole bunch of them back in the employee lounge.”

Whereas his ‘street art’ is decidedly low-tech, he also has a sizable presence on the web, selling work on eBay as well as from his own site, Many artists scoff at the informality of internet sales, but for Marrone “It’s all about getting your work out there. There’s no point if you’re just going to scribble in a sketchbook somewhere and keep it to yourself.”

Drawing inspiration from the guerilla art of Keith Haring and the mass-produced aesthetic of the Pop movement, Marrone believes that art should be “…accessible and available. There should be art out there that’s consumable for everyone without having to go into a gallery or a museum.” He especially rails against the “elitist, exclusive tendencies of the art world,” pointing out that many people, when faced with a piece they dislike, assume that they just aren’t smart enough to understand it and keep their opinions to themselves.

Certainly, Marrone has observed this phenomenon among his favorite constituency: the sixth, seventh, and eighth graders whom he teaches at Welsh Valley Middle School. Some students arrive in his class claiming that they “just can’t do art.”

“I don’t have kids at the end of the school year who talk like that,” he reports with a touch of pride. “It’s not a competition about who draws best. These kids are the future of art, whether as producers, collectors, or the voters who have to make decisions about arts funding.”

During the course of the year, Marrone leads his classes through a survey of basic skills and art history, with an emphasis on discussion and criticism. “I spend a lot of class time trying to make kids feel comfortable looking at and talking about art,” he says. “It’s sort of like a big commercial to try and get them enthusiastic, to make kids who aren’t great at it feel included in this world.”

Marrone’s own work isn’t immune from the critical lens. Since he likes to paint in the classroom, his students have the chance to watch his pieces progress and give him some pointers. And kids can be harsh. “The most important thing is constructive criticism,” he states. “I’ve changed paintings based on their recommendations; these kids have some very sophisticated opinions.”

Although they’re adept at spotting “areas for improvement” in his paintings, Marrone’s pupils seem quite happy with his teaching style: on evaluations, the most common request is that they be allowed to pick their own seats.

Cameron Subhiyah, a former student now entering her senior year at Smith College, certainly remembers the class fondly. “Mr. Marrone was one of my favorite teachers,” she recalls. “He was really excited and enthusiastic…he definitely spurred my interest in the art field.” Subhiyah expects to graduate with a minor in art history.

Although Marrone gravitated towards art early in life, enthralled by cartoon and comic book images, he gave up painting for almost three years during high school and college. “I was tired of being ‘that kid who draws well,'” he says. “You kind of get pigeonholed. I wanted to be something besides ‘good at art.”

At Kutztown University, he decided to study teaching. But the siren call of the art supply closet was too much to resist: “I saw the projects that the art majors were doing, and got really excited about them. I decided that I had to get back into it.”

With a degree in art education, Marrone applied to “probably a hundred” K-12 teaching positions. “Middle school was originally my last choice,” he admits. “I think everyone remembers having bad experiences during those years.” But the reputation of the Lower Merion system made him reconsider when a position at Welsh Valley opened up. Despite initial concerns, he reports, “I haven’t had a problem with a kid in six years, as terrifying as it was in the beginning. They can be tough, but they’re tremendously loyal…kids pick up on who cares.”

While arts programs are on the chopping block in many districts due to budget pressure and testing requirements, Marrone has found the Lower Merion community very supportive. “I don’t have to justify to people the importance of visual art,” he says.

His students seem to have gotten the message. They often ask Marrone for paintings to take home (and he rarely says no), sharing his work with their families and friends. Some take a more enterprising approach: two years ago, Lorenzo Erico, an avid skateboarder in Marrone’s class, decided that he wanted to start a skateboard company – and only Marrone’s art would do for the logo and merchandise.

“I told him, you start it up, and I’ll give you as much art as you need,” Marrone recalls. “I wasn’t sure if he’d follow through, but we’ve designed five skateboards, sweatshirts, t-shirts…he can’t even drive yet and he does all the sales, distribution, and marketing.”

The company, Formation Skateboards, sells locally at Spectrum Skateboards in Ardmore as well as through its website,

A block down from the skateboard shop, at Milkboy Coffee, Marrone sips a caffeinated beverage and reflects on his latest project: a bi-weekly podcast that he airs with two friends under the guise of the UsedWigs Radio Team. Russ Starke and Jeff Lyons handle the technical components and recording equipment; Marrone contributes “a love of pop culture and an ability to talk nonstop.” Their shows – twelve so far – have covered topics ranging from stupid baby names to dead rock stars, with a special fondness for “random nonsense.” Starke also plays in the band The Levelheads, which will join Marrone on stage at Milkboy on July 7th.

For a man who can’t seem to find enough outlets for his creative energy, this is surely not the last frontier. “I want to change the way people think about art,” Marrone says. “Especially for people who claim not to understand it. They need to feel like art is for them, too.”

2 Responses to “Art for Everyman”
  1. Lauren Hutton says:

    Lauren Hutton…

    I Googled for something completely different, but found your page…and have to say thanks. nice read….

  2. Todd Marrone says:

    Thank you but is this the actual gap-toothed beauty or a robot created to do her bidding? Excuse my apprehension but I’ve been fooled by andriods posing as Lauren Hutton before.