An Artful Life

Realtor finds the fun in funky art

Written by Annie Beckmann
Photography by Chris Joseph Taylor
April 10, 2012

Designs on Life

As she says on her website called Unusual Life, Marlow Harris embraces art, popular culture and the strange, eccentric and offbeat in her scope of interests.

“I also like unusual homes, wacky places, weird accommodations, unique tourist traps and kitschy icons,” she writes. “I like meeting new friends, especially unusual and creative eccentric artists.”

She and her husband JoDavid are prolific supporters of the arts—and have a special place in their hearts for bad art. The website Official Bad Art Museum of Art (aka OBAMA) reflects their permanent display at Café Racer, 5828 Roosevelt Way NE in Seattle.

Watch a video clip from Treasure Hunter's Roadshow on Marlow’s Paint-by-Number Salon.

For those interested in Marlow’s real estate business, she blogs at 360 Digest and at

When she heard the Seattle Art Museum would host a Paul Gauguin exhibition this spring, Marlow Harris, ’83, hopped into action. She started to plan a complementary exhibit of the works of lesser-known artist Edgar Leeteg, sometimes heralded as the “American Gauguin,” although his paintings are more provocative. And done on velvet.

She is hosting a counter exhibit, as she calls it, of Leeteg’s work at her Official Bad Art Museum of Art (OBAMA for short) in Seattle’s Roosevelt neighborhood. That’s just the sort of tongue-in-cheek, irreverent love of the arts that wins fans for Harris.
Don’t let her devotion to paintings on velvet and other funky art fool you—she’s one smart businesswoman, too. When she was still a public administration major at Seattle University, Harris had an internship with the National Endowment for the Arts. Later, she did public relations for the Bellevue Philharmonic and worked for Intiman Theatre as a special events coordinator. These opportunities solidified her future as an independent curator and arts event planner.

Soon, though, she found herself fantasizing about owning a fancy mansion and turning it into a bed-and-breakfast. She managed to convince a woman to carry a contract on a 10-bedroom house on Capitol Hill. Her friends were amazed and started asking her to find homes like that for them. By 1985, Marlow was a licensed real estate agent.

There’s a magic to how her arts event planning skills, her love for tacky art and her work as a successful real estate agent for Coldwell Banker Bain meld so well. She supports the arts at any opportunity and positive word-of-mouth brings her plenty of artistic and creative clients looking to buy or sell homes.

Today, her own four-story home, which she shares with her husband JoDavid and her three teenage sons, is a 1914 Capitol Hill parsonage once known as the Seattle Presbytery House. The home is homage to both the whimsical world of art and her real estate savvy. Not everyone would buy an old parsonage and transform a room into what she calls the Dead Elvis Tiki Lounge.

“It’s a bad joke,” she says. “We don’t really like Elvis, but we feel he’s one of the original performance artists.”

The funny part is, you’d never guess she doesn’t like the King, from her kicky shorts emblazoned with the image of Elvis Presley to photos featuring her with various Elvis impersonators she meets. It doesn’t stop there. Her home has several busts of Elvis (chia pet Elvis, anyone?) and a commissioned painting of her husband as Elvis, on velvet, no less.
 Earlier this year, Harris and artist husband JoDavid organized an Elvis Invitational at Seattle Center’s Experience Music Project to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Seattle World’s Fair. And in September, she brings “Elvistravaganza” to Seattle’s annual Labor Day weekend music and arts festival, Bumbershoot.

Harris and JoDavid also curate “Bumber by Number,” an interactive paint-by-number art exhibit at the Seattle Center Pavilion during Bumbershoot. The entrance of the retro Dead Elvis Tiki Lounge in her home is devoted to the Paint-by-Number Salon with a collection of throwback paint-by-number works embellished with the personal style of local artists.

From religious mini-shrines to recycled red fezzes once worn by Shriners, there’s a light-heartedness to the visual vignettes in this home. Harris is a big fan of wacky pop surrealist Mark Ryden, so much so she lost count of how many of his works she and JoDavid acquired. Near the home’s entry is a large painting by local artist Sean Hurley.

“The Bad Art Museum is both bad and funny. Life is too short not to enjoy yourself,” Harris says.

The dynamic husband-and-wife duo, who married shortly after Harris graduated from Seattle University, can be seen around town in a playful seven-seater van they call the Traveling Elvis Museum and Chapel of Love. The traveling art caravan frequently doubles for what Harris calls the “Tour de Farce,” where passengers are treated to a tour of artists’ homes in the region. Proceeds for tours frequently benefit area arts groups.

Last fall, the couple spoke about unconventional art careers at an SU class taught by Fine Arts Adjunct Faculty Deborah Lawrence. JoDavid, who taught art and co-chaired the design department at Cornish College of the Arts for 15 years, encouraged the students to be outgoing.

“I really think you have to be very social to better yourself, connect and find your place,” he told the class. “Volunteering is also really important.”

Harris told the class, “Eighty percent of what I do is create community. The rest is indulging my own whimsy and passion for the arts.”

“As long as you’re passionate about your art, good things will blossom out of that,” JoDavid added.

Then he smiled at his wife of nearly 25 years and said, “Of course, it’s good to have a muse or a partner in your life to keep you going.”

Harris, a third-generation Seattleite, encouraged the SU students to think in fresh ways about careers they fashion.

“Coming to Seattle University is one of the best things I ever did,” she said. “It taught me how to make a cohesive career out of real estate and my love of the arts.”

Marlow Harris, '83, shows off some of her Elvis-inspired pieces on display in her Seattle area home.