Tall and rangy, Lou Marak was a man of few words, which inevitably hit their mark. “He could really shoot the zingers,” his longtime friend, artist Jane Booth, said in a recent interview. Marak’s superb line drawings of people, landscapes and animals were equally spare and to the point. For more than 50 years, Marak was an unforgettable presence in the Kansas City art world, known for his wit and generosity as well as his extraordinary drawings, watercolors and cartoon caricatures. He was also an art activist. In 1975 he and his wife, Philomene Bennett, founded the Kansas City Artists Coalition, now a nationally respected art center, and held meetings in their downtown studio, where they also taught.
Marak was born in 1930 and raised on a farm in Meeker, Oklahoma, one of three brothers. After attending the University of Oklahoma for two semesters, he was drafted into the army during the Korean War. His son, John Marak, recalls that once his superiors saw some of his drawings, they decided to send him to Austria for two years, where he would be safer guarding the border there. Marak eventually became a sergeant. He then moved to Kansas City to attend the Kansas City Art Institute, where he graduated in 1958. When he and Bennett married, it was the second marriage for both; he had six children and she had five.
From the start, Marak worked exclusively as an artist. He was eventually recruited by Hallmark Cards, then the world’s biggest employer of artists, to help them develop a new, humorous card line officially titled “Contemporary Cards.”
According to John Marak, Joyce Hall disliked the shape of the contemporary cards — they were tall and skinny — and he was skeptical about the “creatives” who designed them. That changed when Contemporary Cards became a hit with card buyers.
Roy Inman, while photo director of “The Kansas City Star” Sunday Magazine, vividly remembers when he first met Marak. He was given the assignment to take pictures of the artists in Hallmark’s “Funny Farm” and realized immediately that the artists worked in the one department where there was “obviously no dress code; I got some amazing shots of people wearing pajamas and bunny slippers.” Marak lasted two years full time at Hallmark, then worked freelance for the company for another 33 years. His caricatures were so successful that he was asked to sign his name on the cards he created. (After Marak’s death, former Hallmarkers had a private Facebook page recounting anecdotes and stories about their old colleague.)
Marak also received commissions for a number of major portraits, and Inman took pictures of him when his splendid likeness of H. Roe Bartle — the 6-foot-4-inch, 400-pound, waffle-eating and cigar-smoking two-term Kansas City mayor — was installed at Bartle Hall. Marak’s likeness of the former mayor says it all.
One of Marak’s specialties was his nudes, both drawings and watercolors, often sparsely outlined with mere hints of color, sensuous and dreamy. John Marak recalls that while growing up, “kids my age really liked coming to the house to look at my dad’s art; it took me awhile to figure out why.”