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Don Marco: A career built on Crayola

Parents have it all wrong. Children shouldn't be reprimanded for using their crayons on the kitchen linoleum, they should be encouraged.

Why, they could be the next enigma in the arts community, like Duluth's Don Marco -- aka the Master Crayon Artist.

"I can remember it ... kitchen floor of the house, prior to going to school," recalls the 78-year-old native Duluthian from his studio in Lincoln Park, "asking my mother, 'What should I draw now?'

"I must've been a pain."

Marco's not just any crayon artist, though, he exclusively uses one brand (Crayola) and he can count Burt Reynolds as a fan. And, if it weren't for his eldest son and his star pupil (a 24-year-old who paints under the name "Tiona Marco"), he would probably be considered one of a kind.

Although Marco had his humble kitchen linoleum roots in Duluth, it wasn't until he was pushing tin as an air traffic controller in Hawaii that he found out crayons were his true muse. (He had taken a military exit from the Zenith City at the age of 17, spending 27 years in the Aloha State.)

For the benefit of the scopes' fluorescent presentations, the radar room's walls were painted black and illuminated by broadband blue

lighting.

"The blue light was known as a depressant," Marco said. "You felt like you were being squeezed in."

That's not something management was too keen on.

Already an established artist (he had been painting Orientals and Polynesians "basically for the tourist trade" when he wasn't at work), Marco was given an assignment: Create some pieces for the wall that his coworkers could focus on outside of what he described as the lighting's "blue fog."

His weapon of choice was fluorescent paint, and his "canvases" were actually black showcards.

"My favorite was a scene of flying over a small city at night, looking down," he said. "I did everything with pinpoints of color. You could see the main thoroughfare through town off into the distance. Square blocks, the service station, the grocery store -- you know, all twinkling below.

"It was kind of fun to do."

Unbeknownst to Marco, his supreme moment of destiny was just around the corner.

"One of the things I did was looking at a sunset through some birch trees, and in the foreground was a little bit of water," he said. "They don't have a decent blue in fluorescent showcard paint -- I could not create water.

"But there wasn't much to do, so I thought, Gee, I betcha if you rubbed a crayon on that rough board, there would be enough light to where you'd see blue."

Although his children were grown by this time, he was able to scavenge a blue crayon from their childhood things at home that night. And, as one can ascertain by the fact that we're telling this story today, it "worked great."

"My thought was, I wonder if you could create art -- fine art -- with crayon," Marco said. "And, like I always tell 'em, 'Well, you be the judge.'"

He said that when he retired in 1973 as the assistant chief of the control tower at Honolulu International Airport, he finally had enough time to hone his newfound craft.

"This was all experimentation. It was trial and error," Marco said. "Where do you go for a reference? Who do you talk to for a lesson? Who could tell you something?

"It turns out I'm the one that tells other people."

Since he didn't have anyone to turn to, there were a few technical "cramps" he had to hammer out by himself.

"I found skin tone was really rough," Marco said. "How do you get skin tone? In them days, the box of crayons contained a flesh color (the name was changed to 'peach' in 1962), but 'flesh' didn't make flesh at all. There's some very unlikely colors that I use in order to get skin tones -- all experiments."

Once his novel approach to fine art was mastered, Marco slowly started marketing his works. In San Diego, where he had moved upon retirement, a store that sold American Indian jewelry was the first to express interest.

"The lady that owned the thing said, 'You frame 'em up, I'll buy 'em,'" he said.

And, with the help of his son, who possessed framing skills, that's exactly what he did.

That was just the beginning, though. Despite moving to Red Wing, Minn., so his cancer-stricken wife could be closer to their daughter, Marco received attention from national television and print media throughout the '80s.

"It all stopped when I came to Duluth," Marco said, referring to his "half an hour to 45 minutes" of fame.

The Master Crayon Artist moved back to his hometown solely because of his second wife, Alice.

When his first wife was still alive, the two had taken a chance trip to Duluth so Marco could visit his parents.

While he was assisting his aging father at the Duluth Heights Community Club, Marco saw a woman standing by the steps who was "absolutely gorgeous." He

hadn't been back much in the 35 years since he left, but he knew he knew her. She turned out to be an old neighbor.

Fast-forward in time ever-so-slightly and Marco is back in Duluth, visiting his brother. Their father had just died and, 45 days before that, so had Marco's wife.

"Hey, you gonna call Alice?" his brother had asked him. He did, now they've been married 25 years.

These days Marco lets Don Bremer and Donneray Consulting take care of much of the behind-the-scenes work, like fulfilling orders.

It's not as if he's boxed up the Crayolas for good, but much of his time is spent securing his legacy -- since June he's been grooming a successor.

"I've often thought that it would be good if I could find somebody that was interested in learning to do this, and just by a stroke of luck I got (Tiona)," he said. "She is totally, absolutely devoted to this. She's doing beautiful work. I've had a lot given to me. I think it's only right I should give it back for somebody to carry it on.

"I'm not going to be doing this forever. I'm not going to die, but I'm just not going to do this forever."

For more information on Marco's work, call 591-0099 or visit www.themastercrayonartist.biz.

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