Talking Shop

Never mind setting foot in her shop: You know something's up when you eyeball Pat Garcia's business card, which announces "Pat Garcia, Crazy Person." But once you do check out Blu Zebra, Garcia's three-month-old garden of whimsy on South Broadway's funky urban-retail strip, you realize it's a divine sort of madness, the kind calculated to bring joy into people's lives. Walk over the threshold; leave the rat race behind.

"If your house is all beige and brown and not full of expression, that can also be the way your life is," explains Garcia, a former marketing director who saw her company's downsizing as an opportunity to leave the corporate world for more creative endeavors. "If you're around a lot of hot color and fun things, that can put a different view on your life." With that in mind, her goal as a retailer is crystal clear: "This is such a happy place. It's all about having fun with your life."

Blu Zebra is a kind of jubilant spillover from the Monaco Parkway home Garcia shares with her husband of three years, Jeff. Theirs is a domicile filled with contemporary, functional and one-of-a-kind artworks that clash cheerfully in colorful profusion. "He already had all this whimsical, unusual art when I met him," she recalls. His enthusiasm for the wacky stuff rubbed off, and that, combined with what Garcia calls her own "subliminal" love of art, fueled both love and a serendipitous career change. If there's any downside to it at all, it's the danger of temptation. Jeff admits that spending time in the store can be perilous for him: He wants to buy everything he sees.

Tops on Jeff's list of favorites among the 35 artists represented in the shop (most of them are women) is Priscilla Draper. Her vivid papier mâché works -- wall pieces, scrupulously crafted "paper-bag" ladies and fun-poking fat-lady bathroom scales -- are outrageous, in-your-face, big-woman self-portraits, complete with big eyes, fat lips and colors just this side of Day-Glo. But he's also partial to Janice Katz's Critters From the Hood: metal cutout creatures fashioned from old car and truck hoods that retain the original colors. Other standouts include unusual textural matte-finish ceramic works by David Warren, an artist who, like Garcia, left his old life behind only recently to become, in his case, a potter. And there are watches made from dice, scrabble tiles and pieces of pencil; robotic-looking found-object clocks that employ metal ice trays, nails, buttons, forks and what-have-you. There's a series of close-up self-portraits by recent University of Colorado grad Hannah Dunn, which depict morning rituals in front of the bathroom mirror; magnetic jigsaw cartoons for the refrigerator; ceramic fortune cookies that proclaim: "The balance on your credit cards will always be zero." Fat chance, if you dare walk into this place.

How do you pull together an arts-and-crafts zoo and manage to have it work so well? In part, it's a genetic predilection: Garcia owes much of her inspiration to her late maternal grandmother, Lillie Mae Michie, who lived to be 99. "She was an artist and a master gardener; she could cook anything, and everything she did, she did from scratch," Garcia says. "She hooked rugs using all-natural materials, and she made her own dyes. If my grandmother was still alive and lived here, she would be perched in this store every day." So she is: Jeff and Garcia's son had a life-sized soft sculpture made of Lillie Mae, who sits cheerfully on a bench in the rear of the shop, overseeing all comings and goings.

There's also good old marketing savvy: Garcia never stops looking for artists you won't see anywhere else in town, and she's chosen a location to match. "There are six or seven stores similar to Blu Zebra in Denver, but we're the only one on this street," she notes. "People enjoy seeing a store like this outside of the normal places." And it seems to be working: "So far," she jokes, "no one's come in and just said 'Ugh' and walked back out the door." How could you?