Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Up when the Economy Went Down: Gary Marr’s Unconventional Brush

From corporate caterer to artist, how one man transformed himself and what it means to live through a recession.

In the midst of the economic collapse, Gary Marr revolted. Instead of clinging to his mind-numbing corporate job like many typical Americans, he did the bizarre. He quit. After over 30 years in the hospitality industry, most recently 13 years as the Director of Catering at the largest convention hotel in Chicago, the Hyatt Regency Chicago, Marr, 51, made a drastic decision to leave mainstream corporatism and turn toward passion-filled expressionism. He became an artist.

Leaving the Hyatt in February, Marr opened Sapere Art/Intuitive Works. A gem in the maze of galleries winding through the Flat Iron Building of Wicker Park (formerly the host building for Around the Coyote ). Since Sapere Art’s inception, the gallery has been involved in multiple openings, including the successful smART show and art competition “Points of View, Points of Light.” The most popular events, though, are the Flat Iron “First Friday” shows, which occur the first Friday of every month. On November 6th, Marr is featuring biomorphic surrealist painter Jon Neal Wallace. Vivid lime green female bodies stretch fluidly across Wallace’s pieces while bright red and purple flower buds adorn the heads of these organic creatures. Marr knows good art when he sees it.

But opening Sapere Art has not been a walk in the park for Marr. “Every day I’m thinking that there is still more that I could do,” says Marr, who initially started out representing himself and three other artists; he has since jumped to 16. “I’m learning as I go along.”

After painting on the side for many years, Marr left the mainstream corporate world to find freedom. “I got tired of feeling like I was personally responsible for figuring out how to overcome the recession, how to get people to spend money that they’re not spending,” he says. “I walked away from a paycheck, my 401k, benefits; I walked away from a lot of things that make most typical people confident that tomorrow is going to occur. And why? Because I didn’t want to do it anymore. And I figured I could figure it out.”

And figure it out he has. Going from director of catering to gallery owner/artist actually wasn’t too far of a stretch. In both careers he has encompassed one major theme—to deliver a message—whether it was planning a wedding with the message of love or planning an art opening with the message of intellectual stimulation, Marr has been able to package the exchange of ideas to any given audience. The difference between his former corporate career and his current art career has been calmness and passion. “It’s calmer now that I’m not having to do something for somebody I feel has a bad idea. I’m the chief of my own bad ideas now,” he says. “I can ignore some that I’m given. It’s as much pressure, but since the pressure is from myself, it’s a whole different level.”

The name Sapere means “to taste,” and the gallery includes tantalizing treats for everyone’s art palate. Color connects these 16 emerging to established artists; almost all of the work in the gallery stretches or plays with hues in alternative ways. “Every one that I’ve selected so far has a sense of uniformity within their styles,” Marr says. “I feel confident most of the pieces could be in the same room or the same house or the same collection. I call it juxtaposed with purpose.” His gallery’s November artist, Jon Neal Wallace, focuses on the tulip’s color and shape. He says, “I used my theme of biomorphic Tulips twisting, stretching, and bending in all directions to make the viewers eyesight travel dimensionally back and forth in space. This gives a unique view of the usage of space within the picture plane. No other design principle does this, and that makes Directions new and the beginning of something that will change the way we see art.”

Marr took a radical leap opening up Sapere Art/Intuitive Works at the peak of a recession, but the bad economy has proved beneficial in some areas. “I justified opening during a recession because I could get the guts of the space done more economically than if I had done it during the height. My entire interior is eBay, Craigslist and liquidation sales.”

And though sales are slow, the popularity of the Flat Iron Arts Building has not slackened. “We get as many as 600-plus people here for First Fridays,” says Kevin Lahvic, member of the non-profit Flat Iron Arts Association. “The Wicker Park/Bucktown area comes alive on those First Fridays. It’s a neighborhood party and everyone is invited!”

The Wicker Park area is known for its hip anti-mainstream art scene, which is why Marr thought it would be a perfect location. “It’s always been the area of fighting the establishment. It’s an eclectic community, and it’s important in art not to fit in with conformity and to do your own thing. I fight the establishment in my own way,” he says.

Sapere Art/Intuitive Works

1579 N. Milwaukee, Studio 341

Chicago, IL, 60622

(Painting above by Jon Neal Wallace: Venus Hyper Space)

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