Robert Marbury with some examples of his rogue taxidermy. (Amy Davis, The Baltimore…)
When Robert Marbury was 19 years old, he necked with Ricki Lake on camera. At age 29, he spent a year sailing in Indonesia, where he says his ship was attacked by pirates.
Four years later, he was one of the three co-founders of the Minnesota Association of Rogue Taxidermists. At age 34, one of his photographs of stuffed animals tied to car grilles was featured in The New York Times — the first of several articles in that august publication in which Marbury has been quoted.
And this coming weekend, the 41-year-old Marbury will preside over an installation at Artscape that includes a 7-foot tall Bigfoot swathed in fake fur, as well as a pond from which visitors can fish for canned soda and beer. Where the yeti's face should be, Marbury will saw a hole through which festival-goers can insert their own mugs.
"It's going to be pretty ridiculous," Marbury says, using his favorite word.
"Artistically, it's easy to see where John Waters' influence hits me. One of the things he says is that to understand bad taste, you have to have good taste. A lot of the bathroom-centric art I've done comes out of that critique."
When the 31st annual Artscape begins this Friday, it will feature more than 150 artists and draw an estimated 350,000 visitors. The nation's largest free outdoor arts festival will fill 12 city blocks with aerial dancers, art cars, experimental films and a concert by R&B singer Brian McKnight, among other attractions.
But even against competition that colorful, it's safe to say that Marbury — who'll exhibit in the garage opposite the Charles Theatre — will hold his own. The Homeland resident doesn't simply create sculptures from used stuffed animals and whatever other odds and ends are at hand.
His entire life is a nonstop arts installation. And each new embellishment — each new potted tree or set of rubber claws or anecdote about having tea with singer Iggy Pop — is more amusing and intriguing than the ones that came before.
As the artist's mother, educator Nancy Marbury, puts it: "People sometimes ask me, 'What does your middle son do?' And I am always at a loss to say."
Indeed, characterizing Marbury can be a challenge, because he's been involved in so many different — and frequently off-the-wall — activities.
For instance, he runs his own advertising firm, the job that pays the rent. He has acted in a handful of films, minored in modern dance, dabbled in performance art. Some of his photographs and sculptures have received the kind of free publicity that his art world colleagues can only envy.
Perhaps above all, Marbury is a consummate storyteller, and one who is as adept physically as he is with words.
"Rob has always been an actor to some extent," his father, retired lawyer Luke Marbury, says.
"Even as a kid, he was always willing to try out any number of characters. He had a role, and he would play that role. If you didn't buy it, he'd move onto something else and say, 'How about this?'"
For the past few years, Marbury has concentrated on stories that can be told visually; consider, for instance, his so-called "rogue taxidermy." Most taxidermists try to replicate nature, but members of the group that Marbury co-founded create beasts that exist only in their imaginations.
Marbury is the organization's only "vegan taxidermist"; that is, he uses only stuffed toys and not recently killed animals to create such urban beasts as a white-and-pink demon hare named Lady Frampton — or the legendary, beer-swilling, punk marmot called Kaiser. (However, when it comes to his own lunch and dinner, Marbury is a decided carnivore.)
Another of the artist's ideas involved creating a series of plates in which he poses as several hirsute former U.S. presidents, including Chester A. Arthur ( bushy mutton chop and mustache) and Martin Van Buren (wild and wooly side tufts).
It took Marbury two months to grow his locks to presidential lengths, though he acknowledges having used an extension for Rutherford B. Hayes, whose long beard partly obscured his bow tie. Marbury still thinks the plates are hilarious, though they have proved less lucrative than other projects.
As he says: "Who's going to buy a dozen plates of me dressed as former presidents?"
Other projects include a series of "merit badges" for Brooklyn, N.Y. (where he lived for a time), which enshrine such traditional borough activities as drunken bicycling and surviving a squirrel attack; a series of pickup cards ("How you like me now?" with suggested responses "hellsa" "mezzo mezzo" and "not so much"); and a series of needlepoint samplers, the least obscene of which includes a cockroach and reads "I ♥ dive bars.")
"I create art about the minutiae of life," Marbury says. "I'm drawn to liminal spaces, to what's betwixt and between."