Artist Paul Marioni came to Seattle for a short stay in 1978 and never left. He lives in an old telephone switching station in Wallingford that is also his studio. His simple space, three rooms, is packed with art, his own and the work of friends.
Paul Marioni looks more like Albert Einstein than a pioneer.
He is both. More.
The kitchen chalkboard reads:
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“Nietzsche: We have art in order not to die of the truth.
“Kafka: There is infinite hope, but not for us.”
Marioni, a founder of the studio-glass movement, got his degree in philosophy. But he fell in love with light.
It was light that fascinated him when he became a filmmaker of some renown in the late 1960s, and in 1969 when he turned to glass for experimentation with refraction, reflection and expression.
Marioni, 70, is a radical (says Democrats are too centrist) and a surrealist who mines emotion, nature and identity. His dreams are more than dreams. They are a great source of inspiration.
He says he’s far more interested in making people think rather than telling them what to think. “Somebody brought me one of my pieces they got at a yard sale for 75 cents. It had been spray-painted gold. I thought it was great.”
Marioni has a résumé as long as the average human arm of honors, appointments, galleries and collections featuring his work. His kids, whom he raised alone, are artists, too: Marina, also a jewelry maker, has assisted Marioni since she was a teenager. Dante’s work in glass has become more well known than his father’s. Marioni long taught at Pilchuck and elsewhere.
“I once gave a lecture naked on the legal rights of artists. I had nothing to hide.” He amuses and is amused.
But it’s here, in a blocky brick building, an old telephone switching station in Wallingford (Melrose exchange; 633, 632) that he calls home and studio: 35,000 square feet filled with artists, once home to two MacArthur grant geniuses. His simple space crammed with priceless art is three rooms. Studio and guest room are across the hall.
“I got a commission from the Seattle Arts Commission, and I was going to stay here for 11 weeks (in 1978). But I got one job after another.
“The owner sold this building in 1982, and the first thing he did was post an eviction notice. By then I’d filled the building with all my artist friends. And I’m still here.
“This is the long-distance room,” he says. It is living room, kitchen and bedroom. (Marioni added a twin bed here after he broke his neck a few years back.)
The place is gloriously cluttered with dusty treasures, his own and others’. Marioni figures about 1,000; 500 in glass. His collection is promised to the Tacoma Art Museum; the patterns and drawings promised to the Smithsonian Institution.
“I’ve never been a really big-seller. I trade works with a lot of artists. I try not to judge art. Anything with a strong expression I try to acquire.”
Dozens of pocket-size glass skulls hang from their place on a wall, sit in a case by his bed. Little surprises Marioni likes to hand out to the unsuspecting. He first made them for a show in which he advertised, “Come to the show, get a free piece of art!” Toy cars traffic-jammed on a window sill. Postcards tacked to the wall. Indonesian masks. Fans. Paintings, sculpture everyplace it will fit. Old work, new work. A museum’s worth in three small rooms.
“I was born in Cincinnati, and I got out of there five days after I graduated. I don’t know why it took me five days. They say the South starts at the Ohio River, but I say it starts in Detroit, north Detroit. And now I say Middle America goes from Woodinville to Brooklyn.”
Probably explains why he lives on the edge. Marioni has lived to tell; almost died five times. He likes to tell.
“I’m on a quest to see how many near-death experiences I can have. I’m up to five. Car crash, drowning, plane crash, broken neck and pneumonia where they had to put me in a coma.”
The kids got him through No. 5, seeing him through absolutely real hallucinations he’s now painting on glass.
“One of the reasons I stayed here is they care about regional art here. Every artist I know here sells art. They really don’t give a $#%! about what’s going on in New York, which, to me, is new depths of shallow.
“That’s the thing that bothers me the most; the elitism of art.”
Marioni likes the diffused, natural light and tall windows of his Wallingford nest. The counter wears its original yellow linoleum. Aged and cheerful.
Dante has taken over Paul’s downstairs hotshop. “Now he pays the bills, and I work there.”
A new piece, “Gossip,” lies on a bench in the studio. Painting on glass of a head covered in tongues. “I’m really sick of gossip. If half of what people say about me is true they’d come after me with an arrest warrant.” He likes that part.
“I’ve been called a genius; that was my mom. I’ve been called an asshole; that was quite often.
“I don’t care much about history books. I’ve worked in glass all but three years of my life. What was I thinking to get into a field with no history, no books, no teaching? Obviously I wasn’t thinking. But we built the studio-glass movement on cooperation, not competition, because there was no past. There was nothing for us to get.”
Faces stare down from paintings, steel, glass blown and stained, photographs.
“We’ve barely scratched the surface of what can be done.”
This final bit is from the actual Albert Einstein, who surely also must have been a little bit Paul Marioni. It’s all relative.
“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.”
Rebecca Teagarden is associate editor of Pacific Northwest magazine. Benjamin Benschneider is a magazine staff photographer.