Peter Shelton

A Live-In Work of Art

Posted in Uncategorized by pshelton on January 13, 2013

The front door of the house opens into a gallery, a high, white-walled room that was once the center bay of the barn. Antonio Marra’s abstract sculptures people the space. There are bronzes and plaster studies that have yet to be cast. Some were inspired by the movement, and womanly forms, of ballet dancers Marra observed in his past life in New York City. Others recall great angular slabs of sandstone sheared from the cliffs in canyon country west of Ridgway, the sculptor’s new home.

In one corner sits an incongruous steamer trunk. “When we came over from Italy (to Toronto) in 1951, that was my mother’s trunk. In the village where I grew up, the women all wore beautiful, traditional dresses. Her dress is in there.”

In San Giovanni Fiore, in far southern Italy (on the “toe” of the boot), villagers still speak a unique dialect. Marra’s father was a shoemaker there. The son is proud of this heritage, though he has moved well beyond its sphere, with advanced degrees in fine art and a career selling his work, largely through interior designers.

Together with his wife, the psychotherapist Denise Gendreau, he has turned this erstwhile barn in the Uncompahgre Valley into a home/gallery/studio using all the various gifts and cultural influences at his disposal.

“In a sense, we brought a bit of New York with us and combined it with some of the vernacular of this place,” Marra said.

The barn was never actually a barn, though it has classic barn lines, with a tall, gable-roofed center bay and sheds on either side. It was built in the 1980s to be a welding and wood shop, a venture that didn’t work out for the original owner. Antonia and Denise spied it, empty, in the piñon-juniper on the west side of the valley, just up from the irrigated bottomland, on their first visit to Colorado in 2006. “It was a lightning bolt,” Marra said. “I have an eye for spaces I want to be in.”

The couple had come to Ridgway on a hunch. They exchanged houses (theirs was a renovated 15th-floor loft in the Garment District) with artists in Ridgway, using an on-line house-exchange service. It was September. They arrived at night, in the rain, unable to see anything. In the morning, Marra awoke first to a full view of the Sneffels Range. The colors were at their height. “Denise!” he called out. “Look at this!”

“It was very serendipitous. Our friends in New York still don’t get it.”

After purchasing the barn, they set out to completely repurpose the structure – the interior and the grounds; the building envelope remains largely unchanged. The couple did most of the work themselves, all except plumbing and electrical, having gained experience working on their Manhattan loft and a renovation of a home on the north shore of Long Island.

The large central bay became the gallery space in front and the master bedroom in back, on the north side, with a view to a large patio space and Marra’s as yet unrealized wood-fired pizza oven. (“I grow great tomatoes. I’m Italian!”) A bank of photovoltaic panels is barely visible out the bedroom window. The home is not off the grid, but the panels provide “more [electricity] than we need,” Marra said. Off behind a bank of gambel oak sits the guesthouse, a remodeled Airstream.

The long, narrow east bay of the barn became the home’s primary living space, kitchen, dining, and living room. All of it lit by tall, sliding glass doors, with views of the Cimarron and Bridge of Heaven, and closer in, the cottonwoods and hay fields of the valley.

The plans had called for 17-inch headers over those sliders, but Marra figured that would stunt the view. “So I called Chris McMillon [of McMillon Engineering in Ridgway] and asked him, ‘What’s the smallest steel I-beam I can put in there?’ Then I decided to leave them exposed. They go with the ‘industrial’ concrete flooring” throughout the building.

“Denise has an incredible eye,” Marra said. She did all of the lighting, all of the rich, saturated wall color: reds and blues, and a lit turquoise alcove, like a miniature museum at waist height, filled with small objects and photographs.

The spare, modern kitchen has black granite countertops and “no overhead wall cupboards!” Marra said, emphatic. “With these views?!” Instead, pantry, fridge and kitchen cupboards are incorporated into a wide interior wall dividing the kitchen from the entry hall.

The dining table came from Taos and the turquoise-painted wooden chairs from Italy. Examples of some of Marra’s smaller bronzes, and a few of his sketches, adorn the otherwise spare walls and tables.

Before they took on the reconstruction, the barn’s west side bay had served only as a place to park a truck: just a roof, no walls. Marra closed it in and turned the space into his studio. It is here he builds the Styrofoam armatures that are covered in plaster and sanded to perfect curving lines and planes. The one affixed to the wall on the day I visited reminded me first of a sail filled by the wind, or a section of a wind-turbine blade, or a humpback whale’s pectoral fin. It was, in fact, inspired by the shapes snow takes, drifted, sculpted by the wind. Once you know this, it can be nothing else.

Marra doesn’t cast the bronzes himself. He has that done Back East and then shipped to the client. Some of them weigh hundreds of pounds. A dramatic piece called “Wings” came with the couple from New York. It had to be placed in the front yard, just so, using the neighbor/rancher’s backhoe.

Marra sees the new barn-turned-house in terms of sculpture. “It’s an environment formed out of space, volume and line. You create it. You make it manifest in the world.

“This is the ideal place to live in,” he went on, rhapsodizing about the mountain light. “Ideal to read in, to work in, to let the light in. To approach the work with absolute honesty,” he said, “it has to be an expression of who you are.”

This surprising, one-time Uncompahgre Valley barn has itself become an honest New York/Italian/historic/contemporary/Western Slope live-in work of art.

To see the illustrated cover story in Shelter Magazine, go to

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