MARLENE GARDNER’S ANGELS stare at you from all angles. They huddle together with circumspection and confront you with intrepidity. From above, they look down at you with compassion. Gardner’s pieces involve multiple faces, sometimes as many as twelve, peeking out from leather veils. The angels are eerie yet comforting.
Gardner’s résumé doesn’t include names like the School of the Art Institute of Chicago or New York’s School of Visual Arts. She’s a self-taught artist whose work is currently being shown under the fluorescent lights at Bo Knows Southwest Grill in Winters—she and her husband, Bo, own the restaurant. But the family business isn’t the only place displaying her angels. Currently, a piece can be seen at the Star DanceWellness Center in Wimberley. Gardner’s work has also graced the walls of galleries in New Orleans, Las Vegas, Albuquerque, Los Angeles, Fort Worth, and Sante Fe, and has been exhibited in the Las Vegas Convention Center.
Gardner’s unremitting devotion to people is what sets her apart from most artists. “I am a feeler, not a talker. Touching people’s lives is what I enjoy,” explains Gardner, who studied a program called A Course in Miracles, which explores spiritual thought. She has also studied the Hawaiian philosophy called Huna, which encourages a life of peace and compassion for others without brutality, competition, or self-glorification. “In Huna they say there is an aka thread.’ And when you meet someone for the rest of your life, you are connected with that person. It is like a thread. That is where my heart is, and wherever that goes, that is where I am and they are connected to me,” Gardner explains. She feels the connection when her art makes an impression on someone. Gardner spent the day with Texas Monthly talking about her inspiration and her angels.
texasmonthly.com: Where did you get the idea to use leather?
Marlene Gardner: I have always liked doing all kinds of creative things. What I found is that anything I can touch and feel, I like. I like ceramics and clay, and I can touch them and work with them. The same thing with leather. It’s just like it has its own energy. I may think it is going to start out as one thing, and before I know it, I have something entirely different. The leather and the thickness make it variable. One of the other things I like about leather is there’s little waste.
texasmonthly.com: Where did you first see this technique?
MG: I saw another artist’s work, and he was out of Canada. They refused to give me any information on him because I wasn’t going to buy anything. His pieces were masculine and rigid and all straight lines. They were beautiful medieval-style women with headdresses and painted faces. That is where I started. I came home bound and determined I was going to figure it out. I started playing with leather—mine became more flowing and feminine. His were great, but this is what I do. I just play with it and let it go.
texasmonthly.com: How do you manipulate and move the leather?
MG: I wet it, soak it, and wet it again. I lay it out and start forming it. As it dries, I’m continually working and forming and rewetting and reworking until it gets where I want it. I don’t paint the leather until it’s dry. At first I tried dying the leather, but once you wet the colors, you lose that effect, so that didn’t work. With my colors, I just use whatever I have. I use mostly watercolor, and I use some sprays. Different things give different effects.
I have molds for the faces—I get the basics from the molds and work with it. Sometimes the leather I use is natural, and I leave it natural because it has more character. I had some leather and it had some staining and was tattered and torn. I kept it natural, and the piece just formed. She became Trail of Tears. When I am really into it, it’s like when people talk about heaven on earth. That’s where I am. You know, it’s great. It is just me and my work, and maybe some nice background music.
texasmonthly.com: Has your style developed? If so, how?
MG: I started with mostly small pieces and I did mostly faces. Then I added a face and another face. I have twelve faces on one. They speak to me.
texasmonthly.com: Do all of your pieces have names?
MG: Not all of them have names.
texasmonthly.com: What inspires you and what initially inspired you? How do you think your work inspires others?
MG: We went to a Sante Fe Indian market in 1987. We never had been and just happened upon it. Coming from this area, we didn’t go to galleries much. This one gallery was showing Bill Rabbit’s work. It was so pretty. I came to this one painting and tears just started flowing. I thought, “I am tired. I am on vacation. We’re headed home, and I am just tired from this trip.” I decided that I was going to ask about the artist. I found out that he wouldn’t be in until the next day, so we decided to stay the night.
The next day, I went to this piece and tears started flowing down my face again. I said to him, “You may think this is crazy, but every time I go to this particular piece, I have this feeling of unconditional love, and it’s just so beautiful. I think—I have never experienced this before—but I think when you painted this picture you were putting into it your feelings, your emotions. What I am feeling is total unconditional love. What were you doing when you painted this picture?”
He was painting them for the Harmonic Convergence. This is an astrological phenomenon that happened in August of 1987, when apparently the world and universe were supposedly moving to peace and the planets were aligned. That day all over the world people were praying for peace. This is art. This is what art is.
The reason I am telling you this story is because I hope some of the same thing happens when people see my art. We were in a show in New Orleans years ago, and this couple kept walking around. They were both flush in their faces and the lady was crying. I thought, “Wow she’s feeling it. She’s really getting it.”
texasmonthly.com: When you discovered this art form did your artistic perceptions change?
MG: In 1984 a lot of things started happening. I began studying A Course in Miracles, and we started doing a lot of fun things together—a lot of spiritual things. I am a feeler. Part of what I feel when I do my art is this feeling of connectedness with people.
texasmonthly.com: Do you ever see this ending?
MG: There are two things other than my family that I couldn’t live without: this art and something called “lomi lomi,” which is a Hawaiian massage. The word “lomi” means to knead or press. That’s how it relates to my art when I’m working with the energy of the leather. Lomi and my art is the way I will do my healing work.