Northern Michigan landscapes beg to be painted.
Ludington artist Marie Marfia has painted her fair share of sunsets. But Marie’s most recent series, ‘What I did on my COVID Vacation” documents the quarantine experiences of skeletons.
In the middle of May, Marie was stuck at home and looking for a new way to engage online. She decided to do a "20 paintings in 20 Days" challenge.
“And I just kinda on a lark decided to make it a skeleton series, 'cause it easily could have been landscapes or portraits or something like that," Marie says. "But I just thought, well, let's do skeletons, and what would skeletons do inside during this pandemic, which would never happen, but maybe it would, who knows?”
Each painting is done in acrylic. They’re all small at 6x6 inches. Her usual style of soft bright pastels are replaced with greys and tans. The tan highlights look like they’ve been soaked in coffee.
Even with the drab color palette, the skeletons have funny expressions. In one, a skeleton is working at a sewing machine. The dark holes where their eyes would be seem to be focused intently on making a mask. In another painting, skeleton feet are in the air while they try to do yoga. Yet another is posting to social media. A skeleton friend photo bombs in the background with skeleton finger antlers.
“For me, death is just another doorway," Marie says. "Everybody’s gonna go there. So why not paint about it?”
But this isn’t her first time working with bone-y figures. It all started in 2011 at a bellydance class down in Florida. At the time Marie joined, she hadn’t drawn in a while.
“But I was so inspired by the people in the class and all the fun they were having and the instructor was so cool," she says.
Initially, Marie drew the dancing figures in charcoal. But soon, she decided to experiment.
“I thought I would pick up pastels cause it seemed like it was close to charcoal and I thought, 'Oh, this’ll be an easy transition, which it was not!'” says Marie.
Marie set a goal to paint 100 belly dancers. But she got burnt out after about 50.
“So someone suggested I do a belly dancer like Salvador Dali would do it," Marie says. "I thought, ‘okay, skeleton, on a beach dancing. I can do this.'”
She called them "Skelly Dancers." She hung her first five pieces in a consignment shop she was working at. They sold.
“So I thought, ‘huh, maybe I’m onto something.’”
Over the years, Marie thinks she’s made more than a hundred pastels featuring skeletons.
“They still make me laugh, ya know?" she says. "There’s no reason to stop...who knew...they just seem to touch something in people.”
People like Megan Myatt.
“[Laughs] I bought five!" Megan says.
She bought five "What I did on my COVID Vacation" paintings. But she hasn’t just purchased Marie's work.
“I recommended that she do Lady Godiva, and she did!" says Megan.
"Skelly Godiva." It’s part of another set of skeleton pastels. A masters series, where Marie re-imagines classical works: skeletonized.
Marie’s version of Lady Godiva is a lot like the original by painter John Collier. Lady Godiva sits upon a skeleton horse. A soft burnt orange tapestry is draped over it. Lady Godiva’s hair falls over her shoulder and exposes her skeleton body. She looks down. The posture is likely intended to be one of modesty, but with Skelly Godiva’s bone-y smile, it looks more like she’s in on a joke.
“It’s such a tongue and cheek thing to do, because ya know, they're dead," says Marie. "The people that made them are dead, the subjects are dead, everything's dead!”
As Marie has created her many skelly pastels, her view of them has changed. At first, they were meant to be funny. But now...
“They are real Fearless," she says. "I’m real conscious of the fact that you can’t tell that they are female or male, or what color their skin is. I think about the skeletons as they can be anybody. Everybody’s got one and we are all kinda built from the bones out.”
As for Marie’s “What I did on my COVID Vacation” challenge: she finished. She painted 20 skellys in 20 days.
She typically sells her paintings for around $800 but this series was different. Because she had never used acrylic paint before and because they were 6x6, she only charged $25 for each painting.
Because of the pandemic, she donated half the proceeds to her local food bank. In fact, Marie sold all but one of the paintings: skeleton feet weighing themselves on a scale.
“I thought it was going to be a common enough occurrence to gaining weight over the pandemic 'cause you just sorta sit at home and eat all day," she says. "But nope, nobody wanted a reminder!”
You can find Marie's paintings at the Bonafide Gallary in Ludginton or view all of her work at her website, Mariemarfia.com.