When Robert Marbury was 19 years old, he necked with Ricki Lake on camera. At age 29, he spent a year sailing in Indonesia, where he says his ship was attacked by pirates.
Four years later, he was one of the three co-founders of the Minnesota Association of Rogue Taxidermists. At age 34, one of his photographs of stuffed animals tied to car grilles was featured in The New York Times — the first of several articles in that august publication in which Marbury has been quoted.
And this coming weekend, the 41-year-old Marbury will preside over an installation at Artscape that includes a 7-foot tall Bigfoot swathed in fake fur, as well as a pond from which visitors can fish for canned soda and beer. Where the yeti's face should be, Marbury will saw a hole through which festival-goers can insert their own mugs.
"It's going to be pretty ridiculous," Marbury says, using his favorite word.
"Artistically, it's easy to see where John Waters' influence hits me. One of the things he says is that to understand bad taste, you have to have good taste. A lot of the bathroom-centric art I've done comes out of that critique."
When the 31st annual Artscape begins this Friday, it will feature more than 150 artists and draw an estimated 350,000 visitors. The nation's largest free outdoor arts festival will fill 12 city blocks with aerial dancers, art cars, experimental films and a concert by R&B; singer Brian McKnight, among other attractions.
But even against competition that colorful, it's safe to say that Marbury — who'll exhibit in the garage opposite the Charles Theatre — will hold his own. The Homeland resident doesn't simply create sculptures from used stuffed animals and whatever other odds and ends are at hand.
His entire life is a nonstop arts installation. And each new embellishment — each new potted tree or set of rubber claws or anecdote about having tea with singer Iggy Pop — is more amusing and intriguing than the ones that came before.
As the artist's mother, educator Nancy Marbury, puts it: "People sometimes ask me, 'What does your middle son do?' And I am always at a loss to say."
Indeed, characterizing Marbury can be a challenge, because he's been involved in so many different — and frequently off-the-wall — activities.
For instance, he runs his own advertising firm, the job that pays the rent. He has acted in a handful of films, minored in modern dance, dabbled in performance art. Some of his photographs and sculptures have received the kind of free publicity that his art world colleagues can only envy.
Perhaps above all, Marbury is a consummate storyteller, and one who is as adept physically as he is with words.
"Rob has always been an actor to some extent," his father, retired lawyer Luke Marbury, says.
"Even as a kid, he was always willing to try out any number of characters. He had a role, and he would play that role. If you didn't buy it, he'd move onto something else and say, 'How about this?'"
For the past few years, Marbury has concentrated on stories that can be told visually; consider, for instance, his so-called "rogue taxidermy." Most taxidermists try to replicate nature, but members of the group that Marbury co-founded create beasts that exist only in their imaginations.
Marbury is the organization's only "vegan taxidermist"; that is, he uses only stuffed toys and not recently killed animals to create such urban beasts as a white-and-pink demon hare named Lady Frampton — or the legendary, beer-swilling, punk marmot called Kaiser. (However, when it comes to his own lunch and dinner, Marbury is a decided carnivore.)
Another of the artist's ideas involved creating a series of plates in which he poses as several hirsute former U.S. presidents, including Chester A. Arthur ( bushy mutton chop and mustache) and Martin Van Buren (wild and wooly side tufts).
It took Marbury two months to grow his locks to presidential lengths, though he acknowledges having used an extension for Rutherford B. Hayes, whose long beard partly obscured his bow tie. Marbury still thinks the plates are hilarious, though they have proved less lucrative than other projects.
As he says: "Who's going to buy a dozen plates of me dressed as former presidents?"
Other projects include a series of "merit badges" for Brooklyn, N.Y. (where he lived for a time), which enshrine such traditional borough activities as drunken bicycling and surviving a squirrel attack; a series of pickup cards ("How you like me now?" with suggested responses "hellsa" "mezzo mezzo" and "not so much"); and a series of needlepoint samplers, the least obscene of which includes a cockroach and reads "I ♥ dive bars.")
"I create art about the minutiae of life," Marbury says. "I'm drawn to liminal spaces, to what's betwixt and between."
Given that sensibility, it's easy to understand why the artist and Waters are friends. Marbury receives an annual invitation to Waters' famous Christmas parties, and the filmmaker attended Marbury's wedding in May to actress Alix Fenhagen.
For a gift, Waters presented the newlyweds with 12 pulp paperbacks with a sex or marriage theme. All were individually wrapped and had such titles as "The Wanton Bride" and "Divorce and Annulment in 50 States."
"I like him very much," Waters says.
"He's a smart man, and the artwork of his that I've seen is hipster clever in a good way. It's a compliment if he thinks I've been a role model. That's the example we're supposed to set for our young people. That's my job as a Filth Elder."
The two met in 1990, when Waters was auditioning local talent for his film "Cry-Baby" and Marbury launched into an impromptu, exuberant dance in his clunky leather boots while lip-syncing "Sha boom Sha boom."
Marbury was cast as the Angelic Boyfriend, a nonspeaking part. And to this day, Waters and Lake refer to the now-grown Marbury as "Angelic."
"I got to punch out a cop, kiss Ricki Lake and cry," Marbury says. "It was pretty ridiculous."
The "Cry-Baby" set is where Marbury had tea with the punk-rocker he called "Mr. Pop." He later wrote about his experiences for his senior project at the Gilman School.
Not surprisingly, some of Marbury's more colorful anecdotes are tough, if not impossible, to verify. Luke and Nancy Marbury don't doubt that their son really was held up by pirates when he spent a year at the turn of the millennium in Indonesia, which has been a hotbed of robberies at sea. They heard about the robbery immediately after it occurred and were terrified.
Perhaps tellingly, it's one of the few events that the artist makes no attempt to describe humorously.
In 2000, Marbury and a friend were sailing near the island of Timor while retracing the Trepang trading route.
"Pirates boarded our boat and took our money," he says. "They commandeered our Indonesian crew members but left the two Americans behind on the boat."
Marbury returned from his adventure with several striking photographs that include a girl holding a live chicken in the marketplace and a boy playing a makeshift guitar. The photographs are, for Marbury, unusually restrained and have a documentary-like quality.
But Marbury makes no grander claims for these moody portraits than he does for his Brooklyn merit badges or his 7-foot yeti. He knows his work will never be the subject of a museum retrospective. And he couldn't care less.
"I don't make art with a capital A," he says.
"I think of art-making as similar to a Buddhist meditation, a practice. You exercise as a practice, you cook as a practice, you make art as a practice. It's just something that you incorporate into your day. It's serious, but it's also pretty ridiculous."
There it is again – Robert Marbury's favorite word.
Education: Bachelor's degree in anthropology, Connecticut College, 1993. Post-baccalaureate, in photography and industrial design from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, 2004; was a member of the college's adjunct faculty, 2005-2006.
Day job: Owns advertising business.
Claims to fame: Played the "Angelic Boyfriend" in the 1990 film "Cry-Baby." Appeared as a carrot-munching, alien debunker on Canadian television on June 11 in "William Shatner's Weird or What?" Co-founded the Minnesota Association of Rogue Taxidermists.
Personal: Two brothers. Married to actress Alix Fenhagen. No children; one Boston terrier named Punch.
Robert Marbury's installation isn't the only exhibit or performance at Artscape with a high quirk appeal. If Marbury's yeti makes you smile, you might want to check out:
• At-TENT-ion: A tent isn't just for camping; it also can be a metaphor. Artists used 20 two-person canvas tents as the starting points for their sculptures, and then painted, added on and built around the contraptions. In Pearlstone Park, on Preston Street between Howard and Cathedral Streets.
• Face Forward: This 16-foot-tall metal model of an androgynous human visage has a series of levers that control different facial muscles. Festival-goers can pull the levers to create expressions ranging from jubilation to terror to sneering disgust. Lyric Park, at Mount Royal and Maryland avenues.
• Squonk Opera: "GO Roadshow" is a roving rock and video event that is mounted on a monster truck and which will travel to various locations throughout the festival. Don't miss the 16-by-25-foot blimp in the shape of a human head, or the "peacock" made from trumpets. Performances Friday through Sunday at noon, 2 p.m., 4 p.m. and 6 p.m.