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  • Kelly Luttinen

Making a House a Home: A mother's artistic talent enriches her family's life

Viriginia Farris stands in the foyer of her home, flanked by a glass block sculpture of items from her family's past, and a chalkboard she updates as she likes.

Imagine being a child, growing up in a house where whimsical landscapes and creatures are everywhere -- a secret door enters a loft playroom, furniture almost comes to life and new creations are born daily from a special studio where your mother spins her magic.

This is what childhood was like for the six children of Virginia and John Farris. The house where they lived was the palette for Farris’ artistic creativity – a creativity that has not dimmed with her 86 years.

It was 54 years ago Farris was a young mother, moving into her new house in suburban Detroit, along with her husband, five children and one on the way. “John paid for it, but I designed it,” she said simply about the place she has made unique and special ever since.

“It’s nice to have that kind of longevity in a house,” she said. “People don’t get that too much. I love my home, and I love working in it.”

During those five decades, and even today, Farris “works” on labors of love in the art studio her husband added onto the house for his wife.

The studio is equipped with everything an artist could want or need, from paints, brushes, and tools for sculptures, including a circular saw and drill.

In the art studio where the creating happens.

Fruits of her work in the studio can be seen throughout the house. Every wall, floor, shelf, nook and cranny has been re-imagined. A myriad of colors and shapes cover the rooms, furniture and light fixtures.

The hallway to the main living area of the home.

"I was always creative, as was my mother,” Farris said. “I always made art. I didn’t call it art. I colored and painted and drew things when I was young.” As an adult, Farris has developed a talent that could have made her a professional artist. But she preferred to use her gifts for the wonderment of her family.

One of her daughters, Andrea Farris Marchhart, now lives in New York. She so treasured the memories of growing up in her amazing home that she created a coffee table book chronicling her mother’s work and its themes. She dedicated the book to her mother, who she called an “inspiration to all of us” and added it was created in memory of her late father, who she said “always believed in all of us”.

A daughter's tribute to the home she grew up in and her mother's art.

The book is called “Jou Jou’s House.” Jou Jou is a nickname given to Farris by her grandchildren, of which she now has 14. Her grown children now bring their families to enjoy the gift of the house so special to them growing up. When all the family is visiting – children, grandchildren, spouses and significant others – there are about 25 in all.

“We all just have a ‘warmth’ being here,” Farris says fondly of her family gatherings.

One of the treasures for the Farris children has always been the Toy Loft in their home, accessible in one of two ways – through a secret opening in the closet of the upstairs master bedroom, or via a ladder from the ground floor. The ladder entrance (and the view from the top of the loft) is, of course, the source of all the magic, the art studio.

The Toy Loft

One way to access the loft from the floor of the studio.

In her book, Marchhart details the motifs her mother loves to use, such as snakes, dogs, cats, mice, hearts, triangles, checkerboard and the American flag, as well as the artists and traditions that have influenced her work, like Roy Lichtenstein, the Memphis Movement, the U.S. Bicentennial, Walt Disney, Peter Max, and many more.

Virginia’s daughter painstakingly illustrates the details and efforts Farris put into all she created, from a bench she transformed into a zebra, to the old chairs she rescues from the garbage to resurrect with new life.

A collage of the various artwork in the Farris home.

“I like old things,” Farris said, indicating a wooden chair in the center of her studio. “I just picked that chair up in the rubbish. I like the lines of it. When I see old things, I know that if I paint it, it’s going to look better, no matter what I do.”

“I am a good painter,” she answers when asked how she is able to expertly cover one chair with red paint without spoiling the upholstery’s needlepoint.

A chair rescued from the rubbish and repainted.

“I love ladders – wooden ladders,” said Farris. “If you ever see one that is being thrown out, let me know. They are hard to get.”

One of her beloved ladders.

Marchhart’s book highlights the family motto, something her mother reminded the children of each day before they left for school – “Be Kindly”. This phrase is a common thread throughout the house.

The Farris family motto,"Be Kindly".

Another unique creation Marchhart highlights is her mother’s interesting use of the upstairs’ closet space. Within two bedroom closets, she created memorials to her husband and children, dubbing the creations “Scrap Closeting.”

A tribute to her husband John Farris.

A tribute to her children.

Today, Farris spends the majority of her day in her workshop. How does she get her inspiration? “It just comes,” she said. “If it doesn’t work, if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t. I can come back to it another time.”

Art is very therapeutic, Farris muses. She encourages everyone to dabble in it. “Art helps with depression. Just buy some acrylics and start painting. You would be surprised. Paint is pretty. Even if you have something old and ratty, it doesn’t matter what you do to it. It’s going to look better than it did with a little paint.”

Marchhart's book ends with a portrait of her mother in one of her refurbished chairs.

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