art professor at the University of Michigan in the 1970s if Niagara
Detroit would make it in the art world, and they would have said "No."
They didn’t think Niagara would make it making art.
"They were flummoxed by me, and were always calling me into the office saying, "what are you doing?" Niagara says with a laugh, two hours and at least one questionable stimulant away from picking up a paintbrush on a chilly Tuesday night in October.
Back then, she says, art galleries were different. "They were snobby. When I started, people were into these nonobjective landscape paintings, the most boring crap. My teachers were worried because my kind of art wasn’t ‘in.’"
Funny how that’s changed. Ms. Niagara’s paintings of film noir-inspired women toting guns, delivering Sam-Spade-smooth one liners have appeared on the covers of Juxtapoz and New York magazine, and fetched thousands of dollars in art galleries.
Certainly, angsty hipsters worldwide rock out with the stereo too loud in rooms with walls covered with Niagara posters. She has, by all accounts, made it, despite the lipstick.
As a kid, "I thought women artists who made it were serious and wore no makeup," Niagara said.
You can almost hear her liquid eyeliner smacking against the telephone
as she says "I thought, with the way I look who’s gonna take me
seriously? But I went for it. I thought maybe I can get away with it."
When she couldn’t get a gallery gig, she made her own—in the window of Dave’s Comics in Royal Oak. She set up a bunch of mannequins in the window. The plaster peeps stood around looking at her paintings as if they were real people in a real gallery.
Every last painting sold. "I made about $300 (per painting), which doesn’t seem like anything now, but then I was blown away, because people don’t buy stuff unless they really like it."
The babe-inspired frenzy of color that she’s now known for started with Greta Garbo. Niagara says the women of film noir movies "raised her," and she’d watch "Bill Kennedy at the Movies," Detroit’s film noir movie bacchanal, on her family’s black and white television set religiously.
A bit of that noir femme sass rubbed off. "I was a snotty little kid who hated being told what to do," she admits laughing.
(Niagara also refuses to use an alarm clock and hates standing in line. But what self-respecting 21st Century Gal does?)
"We all usually go back to things that hit us when we were little," she says. "Growing up I thought everyone painted quasi pop, thought everyone in my age was influenced by the same things as me."
It wasn’t too long before Detroit’s petite Queen of Pop Art was doing a little influencing of others. Rolling Stone magazine once described her as "a cocktail of Valium, Tuinal and Nervine."
That was in the 1970s, when she was singing with seminal noise band Destroy All Monsters, and hobnobbing with Andy Warhol.
Her paintings sprang out of this era, starting with self-produced album covers.
These days, she hasn’t given up music for paint, although Niagara admits she is a "color addict." She tours the world with as front vixen of Dark Carnival, with former Destroy All Monsters bandmate Ron Asheton, who played with Iggy Pop and The Stooges. She can say, with a straight face and all sincerity, "I’m big in Japan."
and in Australia, which she describes as her home away from home.
Niagara visits Melbourne and Sydney twice a year for art shows, and
she's toured there so much, "she's a household name and everyone knows
every lyric she's ever written," says her sexy raven-haired beau
Colonel Galaxy, who is a rock promoter, body guard and international
road race champion, of course!
And as if she isn’t busy enough, she’s managed to fall in love with Colonel Galaxy, accidentally rented the upstairs of her house to a bank robber, oh, and she just released a retrospective book, Niagara - Beyond the Pale, all without two batts of a fake eyelash.
But still she insists "Artists are so damn boring. We sit alone a lot and paint."
Oh, and for those boring lady artists out there, she has some advice about making it making art. "Artists really have to work at more than just painting," she says. " I always thought art should speak for itself. As artists, all we want to do is paint, but you have to try to deal with the gallery people. You have to run the business side of things, keep in touch with curators."
"It’s a good business, people are usually nice, it’s not like rock n roll," Niagara says laughing. "But ‘making it’ takes ages. The art community doesn’t love you right away."
"For women artists it’s harder, they’re getting low prices (for their art) compared with the guys," she says. Niagara paintings now fetch between $3,000 and $20,000 a pop. You can get your own signed limited edition print on her NiagaraDetroit.com, for about $200. Or, if your bank account is wearing a bit thin, at least a T-shirt with one of her babes on it.
course, that makes her a bit miffed. "That’s mostly because women
artists tend to undervalue what their paintings are actually worth."
Maybe it’s a crisis of confidence, she said. Whatever it is, chicks need to snap out of it.
The moral of the story? It’s tough to make it in art, Niagara says. You have to be sassy and persistent, much like the ladies in her paintings. Don’t take no for an answer, and most of all, don’t sell yourself short.
"Just be a genius and shut up."•
learn more about Niagara, to buy awesome limited edition prints of her
paintings, or to see a schedule of her upcoming shows, visit NiagaraDetroit.com