Visual Arts

Studio Visit: The Maas Monster Mash

Mike Maas has more than a few skeletons in his closet. The budding artist who spent his childhood watching Creature Feature boasts a house full of monsters, goblins, freaks and bunnies. Yes, bunnies -- both real and ceramic -- the signature touch of sweetness that wife Jodi lends to Mike's metallic image.

The two live in a quaint house in a quiet cul-de-sac, just a few miles east of Arizona State University in Tempe.

The connoisseurs of "crazy art" have transformed their '60s-era abode into a real-life monster mash, cramming every room, ceiling to floor, with collectibles that could go bump in the night. From vintage Dracula dolls to modern Charles Manson memorabilia, Maas has only one explanation for his chaotic interior design, which he describes as "50 pounds of shit in a five-pound bag."

"We collect what we like to look at," says Maas, a soft-spoken guy who, at 43, still dresses like the skateboarding punk he once was. "If we buy something and have it in our house, we are able to look at it any time."

Only a few of the pieces are Maas' own creations. His colorful 3-D works, which pay homage to the horror movies, cartoons and pop icons that shaped his life, are subtly placed among mounds of kitschy knickknacks and on walls and shelves adorned with other artists' work.

Despite a flourishing career in graphic design, Maas' life as a profitable artist has only just begun. He and Jodi, a sweet Olive Oyl-esque painter herself, started a mail order business in the mid-'90s to sell custom monster model kits. The unfinished resin dolls allowed fans of the morbid to create their own 11-inch antiheroes, such as Manson or the fictional transvestite killer Divine. The business, trademarked "Green Fuzz" after a song by Maas' favorite punk band, the Cramps, soon exhausted both his time and money.

Maas' first public display wasn't until November 2003 when his show "Saints and Ain'ts" premiéred at Perihelion Arts in Phoenix. The eye-popping collection of 3-D paintings, which look more like sculptures, placed movie monsters and personal images in traditional saint boxes of the Catholic Church (Maas grew up Irish Catholic but says he's now an atheist). Saint Chocula, for instance, found the campy cartoon version of Dracula trapped in one such box.

Maas has been working overtime in his studio -- a small, dim bedroom in the back of the house packed with toys -- for his upcoming shows this month.

One of those pieces, a semi-molded head of Nosferatu, sits lopsided on a small desk splattered with paint and Super Sculpey, a two-part epoxy resin he uses to create his models. Nearby images from the 1922 classic horror film guide Maas' work. The sharp-toothed villain will eventually be clad in swimming trunks and poised on a diving board, a sea of rats coaxing him closer to the edge.

This isn't the only representation of Dracula in the room. Even with wall-to-wall dolls of all ilk -- the Grinch, Frankenstein, Bart Simpson -- Dracula is still the dominant baddie of the bunch.

"I like the whole gothic thing," says Maas, whose ultra-short hair and skate-punk look don't exactly summon the dark arts. "Frankenstein's the sad monster you feel bad for, the Wolf man can't really help that he's a Wolf man, but Dracula seems to be proud that he's a monster. He's unapologetic about it."

Similarly, Maas offers no apology for his art, which is more cute than creepy, more pop than repugnant. In fact, the scariest thing in the room, he says, is a "Susie Scribbles" doll. The yellow-haired toddler sits at a miniature desk, head flopped over, pen in hand, waiting to be switched on. Maas shudders a bit at the image.

Another new painting, Viva Transylvania, has Dracula driving a convertible away from his creepy castle, Ann-Margret doing the Twist next to Frankenstein and a space ship sucking up the skeletal head of Elvis with a ray beam.

Maas could offer philosophical interpretations for his character orgies, but he doesn't. "I really just do things more toward what I like," he says. "I like mixing the cutesy stuff with the edgier stuff."

Along with the bunnies, there are some additional surprises in Maas' decor. The living room, or "Michigan room" as he calls it, features a deer head and a large fish bolted to a burgundy brick wall -- tacky pieces obviously reminiscent of his childhood in Michigan.

Three live birds and a rabbit round out the eclectic living room, which is merely a bizarre appetizer to the rest of the house. Take Jodi's cluttered meditation room, two Burmese cats -- whose tiny faces and large eyes bear an odd resemblance to Maas' painted characters -- plastic pink flamingos by the pool, a faceless mannequin dressed in a go-go outfit, and enough toys to fill another Neverland Ranch, and you still haven't seen much of the Maas home.

The Maases are happy to share their collection with curious visitors, just not with children. The couple considered adopting at one point but soon abandoned the thought.

"We don't want to share our toys with kids," says Jodi, whose magenta, pixie-cut hair, girlish barrettes and baby-doll shirt make her look younger than 40-something.

When it comes to his art, Maas often looks to Jodi for approval, and she isn't afraid to tell him his monsters need work -- that Nosferatu's head doesn't quite look right.

"It's nice to have someone you can trust and not who will just say, `Oh, that looks great, honey,'" Maas says, adding that people are finally understanding his work. While the recognition is nice, Maas says, he doesn't want too much attention. He'd like his work to remain a little punk rock.

"When punk started, everyone was like, `This would be so cool if it were on the radio,' and now it's on the radio and it sucks," he says.

"I don't want my art to suck."

Three pieces from "Saints and Ain'ts" will show Friday, August 6, from 7 to 10 p.m., through the end of the month, at Coach & Willie's, 412 South Third Street in Phoenix.