Mary Lou Marks Creates a Fabric Menagerie of Southern Beasts

Mary Lou Marks has created a menagerie of Southern Beasts.

“I make them with personality, life and spark,” said Marks, who has lived and worked near Round Top full-time since 2011 and been a regular in the area since the early 1960s. “They’re real to me. I name each one because they’re my babies.”

Although the menagerie is decidedly southern, the animals are not glass like those in Tennessee Williams’ imagination but 3-D forms adorned with a wild profusion of vintage fabrics and trims sourced from all over the country. Some of the fabrics are 200 years old.

“People think that all fabric animals are created equal, but that’s not the case,” said Marks, a self-taught artist and designer. “It’s much more than slapping some material on a form and calling it art.”

In her case, Marks pays attention to details. The Southern Beasts have eyelashes, manes, forelocks or whatever “accoutrements” the species requires. Either consciously or unconsciously, she also sets the ears of each Beast just as Mother Nature would if something in the environment caught its attention. They are animated and engaged. Then, there are the eyes. Although the eyes don’t move, it seems as if they might . . . maybe to wink.

“People who love my Beasts appreciate art—and have a sense of humor,” Marks said. “Color, texture and whimsy are everything. In my opinion, life has enough dark seriousness. My art exists to make people happy.”

The Southern Beasts appear to have wandered in from Alice’s Wonderland or Dorothy’s Oz in search of new habitat. They are equally at home in a stark clean modern home, an overflowing Victorian or even a city-country farmhouse.

“Truthfully, I’m not sure where they come from,” Marks said. “When I’m working they just reveal themselves to me. It’s a divine thing.”

Birthing Southern Beasts
If you were to believe Marks, who is a natural storyteller, Southern Beasts were born from grapes—fermented, red ones.

“The genesis of Southern Beasts was red wine . . . lots and lots of red wine,” Marks said laughing.

In reality, though, the Beasts were inspired by her lifelong love of antique and vintage fabrics.

“There’s a textured richness to those old fabrics that seems to be missing from modern life,” Marks said. “Often, I’ll have a piece of Victorian fabric where the top side is dirty, worn and unusable, but when I turn it over, I find something that’s still vibrant and beautiful.”

Marks relies on a loose knit network of pickers from around the country for her fabrics. As one example, two women from Pennsylvania cover the Mid-Atlantic States on her behalf. Twice a year in conjunction with the Round Top Antiques Show, they hand-deliver paper bags stuffed with fabric. The brown grocery bags are labeled “For Mary Lou.”

The fabrics all find their way to Marks’ art room.

“My art room looks like a volcano exploded,” Marks said. “Instead of worrying about it, I just let the process happen. Invariably, there is a tiny piece of something that is sticking out and catches my eye. Generally, it’s perfect for that project in that moment.”

The forms comes in all shapes and sizes ranging from miniaturized bison, elephant, pig and horse shoulder mounts  to life-sized longhorn steer heads and full-body, white-tailed deer. She also embellishes mannequins and top hats.

The top hats really resonate with women who are battling cancer and have lost their hair.  Many times the cancer victims see the hats and share their war stories with Marks. These exchanges usually involve tears, hugs and the gift of a wildly colorful and brilliantly hopeful top hat.

“Art connects humanity at the heart level,” Marks said.

If the feeding frenzy I witnessed in Marks’ showroom at Excess II during the 2017 fall antiques show is any indicator, people quickly fall prey to the Southern Beasts’ dual appeal. I watched as a group of six friends advised one another on which animals to pick for what rooms in their respective homes. Four of the women walked out with Beasts. The fifth placed an order.

The sixth demurred saying, “I’ve already made my purchase for the show. This is on my list for next time.”

My take away? Few can resist color, texture and fun in the form of their favorite animal.

“Some people take a long time to choose their Beasts,” Marks said. “No matter how long they look, they always go back to the one that caught their eye in the beginning. The Beasts make a connection.”

While she prefers that clients directly connect with a Beast in the menagerie, she will take commissions. Once, at a patron’s request, Marks created a life-sized longhorn steer shoulder mount done completely in shades of white. Its horns were from base to tip with Swarvoski crystals.

“I don’t like white, and I don’t like crystals, but on him it works,” she said, noting it also works in the Austin jewelry and clothing boutique where it now hangs. “I’m a crazy woman with deep Southern roots. I like funky, free-form color and fun. . . lots of fun.”

Funky, free-form and colorful could describe the path she took to becoming a professional artist and mother hen of Southern Beasts. She has been a wedding planner, a caterer, a painter, a model home decorator, a business owner as well as a bookkeeper.

“The best advice I’d give someone who wants to become a professional artist is—run,” she said laughing. “Really, though, it’s to have patience. Patience to find yourself and the story you have to tell. I tried so many things before this and usually got bored. I anticipate creating Southern Beasts until I die.

Making a Round Top Life
Marks has been part of Round Top and vice versa since the early 1960s when she began coming to town as a guest of Faith Bybee.

“I was close friends with Travis Whitfield, a renowned watercolorist whose work Miss Bybee loved,” Marks said. “When Miss Bybee invited Travis to come to Round Top to paint, my kids and I often made the trip to see him.”

She and her family stayed in one of the homes on Bybee Square. They slept in the vintage beds with ropes supporting the old-style mattresses.

“It was so different then,” Marks said. “We’d stay in town and then go out to the woods and chase rabbits or go fishing. We made our own fun.”

Then Emma Lee Turney started the Round Top Antiques Show, and Marks became a Round Top regular. At one point she owned Rockabye Ranch Antiques, which was known for western-flavored antiques embellished with cowboy and Indian motifs painted by Marks.

Later she worked as a bookkeeper for Barry DeBakey, son of Dr. Michael DeBakey. They owned the Thousand Oaks Ranch near Round Top. Marks and her children spent weekends in the country where they’d ride horses all day and then go to the local dancehalls at night.

“Back then everyone went dancing,” Marks said. “Whole families. Grandma, Grandpa and Mom and Dad would be on the dance floor, and the little ones would be asleep under the tables.”

In 2003, Marks and her husband, Daniel, became official weekenders by purchasing a circa 1940s house that is close to Round Top but has a Carmine address.

“Only the postal carriers know where one town ends and another starts out here,” she said.

The house is locally famous because of the two apartments in its backyard. When the house was built, rent property was limited as were young couple’s budgets. The apartments provided a first home for many young couples in the area.

“A couple would rent the apartment, and in short order they’d be expecting a baby, so they’d have to move to a bigger place,” Marks said. “It happened so often that people started calling our house, ‘The Honeymooner.’”

While they loved the house and the lifestyle, it was the people they met in Round Top who convinced them to be full-time residents.

“For me the people were the magic,” she said. “It was a warm, welcoming place that embraced us from the beginning.”

Because there were limited restaurants with limited hours, the friends found themselves getting together regularly to eat and laugh. One favorite locale was The Outpost at Cedar Creek, which eventually sold to Rachel Ashwell and became The Prairie. Another was Lizzy Lou’s, the downtown store Marks owned and operated for 12 years.

“We had a pot luck every Sunday,” she said. “It’s not that way now. Life is more hectic, and everyone is more scheduled.”

Even with today’s frantic pace, people continue to be the spice of life.

“This area is filled with characters—truly interesting characters,” she said. “The great thing is, though, in Round Top everybody has plenty of room to be themselves.”

______________________________________________________________________________by Lorie A. Woodward
photos courtesy of Southern Beasts