LAUREL — To the hip, sophisticated New York art world comes Marlou Freeman, a waitress and bartender who shares an apartment with a cat named Sox and has dreams of buying her own mobile home.
It was the unwieldy prospect of moving her collection of 2,300 refrigerator magnets that had the unlikely consequence of landing Ms. Freeman in the art world.
And the collection may be the ticket to a new and different lifestyle, with considerably more wealth than the 47-year-old waitress at O'Toole's Road House Restaurant in Laurel ever envisioned for herself.
The collection, titled "Marlou's Magnets," is now on display at Loren & Pere gallery in Soho. It is, says gallery owner Alesh Loren, "a mirror of American pop culture since the late '60s, a miniature concentration of the last two decades. It is funny, it is optimistic, it makes people laugh."
The collection includes replicas of Hershey bars and alphabet letters, $100 bills and ice cream sundaes, all 50 states, many small animals. There's the Three Stooges, Mickey Mouse, Charlie Brown, Gumby, Bobby Darin and Bobby Rydell. A rainbow, a Christmas stocking, a pair of pliers. A carrot, a flower pot, a beer can, an ear of corn. And the corpse of a cicada, laminated by Ms. Freeman with clear nail polish and mounted on magnetic tape.
Mr. Loren predicts that Ms. Freeman will soon be able to cash in on the national exposure she and her magnets are getting -- not only by selling the collection but by becoming a well-paid spokeswoman for a refrigerator company.
Marlou Freeman cuts an unlikely figure in the art world. Her expansive friendliness is reminiscent of another waitress, Flo, from the TV sitcom "Alice." And she would be the first to tell you she had no inkling where she was headed when she picked up a couple of refrigerator magnets more than 10 years ago at a Laurel street festival.
"I thought they were cute and I didn't have any refrigerator magnets at the time," Ms. Freeman says of the yarn animals that began her collection. "Then wherever I went I saw them -- and they were all cute."
Refrigerator magnets were relatively inexpensive, readily available -- and more fun than she would have imagined. She was especially drawn to the creations of Woo and Locke, two Los Angeles artists who create intricately-designed household scenes on magnets: a desktop, an open briefcase spilling its contents, a full shopping cart, an ironing scene.
Ms. Freeman kept buying and buying and buying. Before long the collection overflowed her refrigerator, her dishwasher, her washer and dryer. She had metal boards made that soon filled the walls of her apartment.
"They were all over the apartment, it was pretty awesome," she reflects. "Several times I thought, 'This is getting out of hand,' but I didn't care because I was loving it."
Ms. Freeman, a native of Illinois, is divorced, has a grown daughter and has never used magnets to attach notes to the refrigerator. She describes herself as a woman with a "collecting mentality." She has collected Dallas Cowboys memorabilia, miniature liquor bottles and a line of sculptures called "Frozen Moments." These collections all stayed manageable and she eventually ended up selling them, recouping her original investment and experiencing minimal emotional loss.
But the magnets -- that's another story altogether.
"This was the only collection I was truly obsessed with and totally out of control with," she says regretfully. "With the others, I'd get to a point where I'd say, 'Oh, I'm tired of this.' "
She looks around the completely blank walls of her apartment with genuine sorrow. But when she decided to buy a mobile home, she realized she had to divest: "There's no way my magnet collection could be displayed in a mobile home," she figured, so she ran a few ads in newspapers.
Mr. Loren saw the classified in the "miscellaneous" column of the New York Times. As soon as he laid eyes on the magnets, he says, "I realized that this was something completely unexplored, never put together in such numbers, never displayed in a gallery and never appreciated as art."
Ms. Freeman certainly had never seen it quite that way; she was just hoping to get back the $10,000 she'd invested over the years.
When Mr. Loren offered to display the magnets, Ms. Freeman realized that widespread exposure could jack up the price of the collection. Mr. Loren mounted the exhibit at his own expense and is selling a full-color catalog (available for $12 by writing to the gallery at 280 Lafayette St., New York, N.Y. 10012). He also commissioned 36 artists to create original magnet art. Their works and Ms. Freeman's collection are all displayed on refrigerator doors, through Oct. 25.
"People love it," Mr. Loren says of the public reaction to the exhibit, and Ms. Freeman has been overwhelmed by attention from newspapers and radio stations around the country. She is scheduled to appear on ABC's "Good Morning, America" Friday. The Fox network is also lining her up for a TV spot.