At Home with Michelle Marie
The singer, painter, ad humanitarian pours all of her enthusiasms into her exuberantly decorated home in Dutchess County.
The Max Factor
Michelle Marie¡¯s exuberantly decorated estate is the anti-Bauhaus, where more is definitely more
by Jorge S. Arango
Photographs by Michael Polito
When you¡¯re an artist,¡± says 30-something singer, painter, and writer Michelle Marie, ¡°you¡¯re taking a chunk of your soul and putting it out there for people to criticize or ridicule or love. That¡¯s scary. It¡¯s a big risk.¡±
In Michelle Marie¡¯s case, it could be even scarier and riskier than for most artists, since what she ¡°puts out there¡± is so extravagantly conceived. Take her paintings, for example. They are usually quite large. She applies the paint with a palette knife rather than a brush, so the surfaces are encrusted with an inch-thick impasto. They are mostly portraits, and the sitters¡¯ garments are often rendered in additional layers of sequins, buttons, beads, shells, starfish, stones, bone china, sand, pennies, and all manner of found objects. There is no ignoring these paintings in a room. They¡¯re strong statements. Whether to your liking or not (and she says enough of the aristocracy of Europe admires them to sell out her twice-yearly shows there), they command your wide-eyed, awestruck attention. If chunks of soul can be measured in sheer volume of paint and bravado, Michelle Marie flings huge boulders of it into the world for the scrutiny of critics and the appreciation of her public.
So it¡¯s no surprise that her mansion in Wappingers Falls, Dutchess County, is a little overwhelming for the first-time visitor. It¡¯s the sort of place that might have given Mies van der Rohe, who coined the phrase ¡°less is more,¡± a spontaneous coronary. Virtually every surface is worked to its limit. A coffered ceiling might combine darkly stained woods and panels hand-painted with French Rococo floral motifs. The foyer, richly painted in Chinese red, serves as a gallery for her smaller, yet no less eye-popping, paintings. Every stair riser has a black-and-white checkerboard pattern. There is an enormous brass chandelier, a Victorian settee, an ornately carved baroque pedestal topped by a polychrome classical bust, a porcelain dog on the landing, and, visible on the floor above, tasseled and fringed damask curtains partially obscuring a monumental canvas. ¡°I love to layer things,¡± she says sincerely. ¡°That¡¯s basically my secret.¡±
Michelle Marie ¡ª she long ago jettisoned her surname for an abbreviated stage moniker ¡ª comes from Atlanta. Her father was from Savannah, her mother from South Carolina, yet she considers herself a northerner because she chose New York and the Hudson Valley above other locales along her world travels, sensing it was her real home. Still, her graciousness is distinctly Southern, and an occasionally flattened vowel or a phrase like ¡°that¡¯s just crazy¡± bring a faint echo of her Georgian roots. She is a lovely creature, dressed ¡ª at 10 a.m. ¡ª in a pink, diaphanous, silky ensemble, with two strands of waist-length pearls, pearl drop earrings, and a discreet ruby-and-diamond pendant at her neck. Her hair, a cascade of blondish tresses, frames gray-blue eyes with a trace of lilac eye shadow. A long, gauzy scarf, pinned at the neck with a rhinestone butterfly brooch, lifts and flutters as she moves, giving the impression that she not so much walks as floats along.
My parents were great fans of music,¡± says Michelle Marie. ¡°They encouraged us ¡ª I should say made ¡ª my three sisters and me all learn piano. And thank God! I play every day of my life.¡± Yet she sang and wrote music mostly as a hobby for years. She went to Lee Strasberg¡¯s acting school in New York, but says, ¡°It just wasn¡¯t deep enough for me. Not that I was too good for it, but, as with anything, there¡¯s a process, and I didn¡¯t enjoy the process of acting. It was too court-jestery, too ¡®look at me.¡¯ It had this element of despair. On the other hand, I adore the process of writing, the process of painting, of making music.¡±
One day, a friend suggested she record an album. After they decided on a recording studio in nearby Millbrook, remembers Michelle Marie, ¡°I just walked in and said, ¡®I want to make an album.¡¯ I knew nothing about how to do it.¡± Though she looks back on the result wincingly, she says, ¡°It was great with respect to taking chances.¡± On it she played the guitar and piano, with accompanying musicans on the oud and the sitar.
For her second CD, the singer hired a team, including a crack producer and a lawyer to work out rights to the 1970s Rick Nelson song ¡°Garden Party¡± (the other 13 tracks are her own tunes). It reached 13 on the Hot AC (adult contemporary) list. Now she¡¯s working on a new release for 2006, which will be ¡°purer, more authentic, with no synthetic feel.¡± She plans to accompany herself on piano, percussion, and harp.
Yet her greatest passion these days is her charity, Blankets for Warmth, an organization that, partnering with the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH), collects and distributes blankets to the homeless. Started in 2001, it deploys three SUVs (Michelle Marie¡¯s and those belonging to two of her friends) to pick up donated blankets from the Bronx to Wall Street. They¡¯re handed out along a route following the NCH¡¯s soup-and-milk distribution. ¡°The need is just unbelievable,¡± says Michelle Marie. ¡°One winter I was passing out blankets and it was so cold I didn¡¯t think I could make it through the night. All I could think was, ¡®I don¡¯t know how they can do it year after year.¡¯ ¡±
The charity (www.blanketsforwarmth.com) plans an art auction for late November called Art for Warmth, to which Michelle Marie will contribute paintings. She will also produce a catalog with bios of artists and pictures of the work, the aim being to raise money for a drop-off and distribution center for the blankets. ¡°I really feel we can keep all of Manhattan warm,¡± she says hopefully. ¡°At least those people we see.¡±
Wappingers Falls, of course, is a world away from the streets of New York. When Michelle Marie bought her 30-acre estate seven years ago, the house appeared very out of date. ¡°But the bones were fantastic,¡± she says. The place is even more astonishing when you realize that she had it completely gutted, so she could start again from scratch. It is entirely her creation, down to the layout of the rooms.
Michelle Marie¡¯s taste runs to massive, heavily carved Italian furniture and lots of gilded French Rococo (¡°my favorite period,¡± she says). In the dining room stands a 22-foot-long, circa 1920s table she bought from a posh corporate dining room. In a corner is an elaborately carved black 1860 Steinway, one of her collection of seven square pianos.
Down the hall is the library (restrained compared to the rest of the house), crowned by a portion of a ceiling from a Scottish castle. There is also a Murano chandelier, ripe with multicolored glass grape clusters, pears, oranges, lemons, and cherries, that she pronounces ¡°great fun.¡±
Every room is so crammed with objects ¡ª as well as yard upon yard of strenuously ornamented draperies hand-sewn by a local Italian mother-daughter team ¡ª that it takes a minute to notice the handsome Eastlake guest bedroom set, the gorgeous Wooten desk in the parlor, the 1700s painted French armoire in Michelle Marie¡¯s master suite (created by combining five of the original bedrooms). On the drawing board is a formal ballroom and a gallery patterned after the Green Room at the Frick Collection in New York.
Yet her earnestness balances the excesses of her zany, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous aesthetic. ¡°I consider myself an artist first, then a musician,¡± says Michelle Marie. ¡°The charity is something I have to do. You have to give back.¡± And you believe her without question. ¡ö