Multiple Monas in Annapolis

The Baltimore Sun

In Leonardo da Vinci's famous painting, Mona Lisa gazes off into the distance, smiling faintly and, some say, mysteriously.

But on the walls of a West Annapolis art supply store, Mona Lisa stands behind prison bars, sports a nose ring and hawks everything from eclairs to sushi. She grimaces, smokes a cigarette and grins to reveal a mouthful of oversized teeth.

For two decades, customers and staff have brought renderings of that image to Art Things on Annapolis Street. More than 500 versions of her face decorate the walls and windows of the shop.

"It's really not a collection that I thought I'd ever have," says Laurie Nolan, the store's owner. "But it's fun to see what comes in next."

Back in the 1980s, around the time she took over the store from her mother, Lydia Nolan, who founded Art Things in 1966, Nolan tacked a few postcards of altered versions of the painting behind the register.

Soon a customer arrived with a present: the famous face on velvet. Since then, the kitschy collection has grown. "It just took on a life of its own," Nolan says.

Mona Lisa graces salt and pepper shakers, a necktie, a clock and an umbrella displayed around the store. There's a pillow that giggles when squeezed and a wobbly gourd painted by a customer. In the hundreds of images tacked on the walls, Mona Lisa pitches for the Mets, advertises a perm sale at a hair salon and uses nose strips to stop snoring.

After spending so many hours staring at the enigmatic smile, store employees have a few theories of their own about the original painting.

"I've often wondered if everyone has been suckered in and she didn't even exist," says Greg Peace, who has worked at the store for a dozen years. "And you wonder, after all the paintings that have been done, why that one became an icon."

Da Vinci spent more than 15 years on the portrait and completed it shortly before his death in 1519. It is believed to depict Lisa del Giocondo, the wife of a wealthy merchant from Florence, although there has been some debate about the painting's subject.

The Mona Lisa has hung in the Louvre in Paris for more than 200 years, with a few interruptions. It was stolen in 1911, and after an investigation in which both Pablo Picasso and poet Guillaume Apollinaire came under suspicion, it was found in the possession of a museum janitor from Italy.

Nolan says that seeing the painting in the Louvre was a bit of a disappointment. "When I actually saw it, it was kind of small and dark," she says.

While Mona Lisa, ironically, is not Nolan's favorite Da Vinci painting, she enjoys seeing all the variations that people bring into the store. There's the snow globe that plays Nat King Cole's "Mona Lisa," the photo of an image of her face made entirely from pieces of burnt toast and not one, but two, Garbage Pail Kids stickers: "Phony Lisa" and "Mona Loser."

The faces of Monica Lewinsky, Whoopie Goldberg, President George W. Bush and a hog have been superimposed above the figure's dark gown and folded hands. Customers - including many children - have brought in their own drawings of her, and one young person drew her with the big eyes in the popular Japanese anime style of animation. There's even a painting with Nolan's face on the familiar background - it's called the Laurie Lisa.

"It's fascinating to see the desire that people have to manipulate and change things," Nolan says. "I'm just amazed at the endless variations."

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