Whatever happened to Tiona Marco?

One of Tiona's Duluth-themed works. Each work of crayon art would take days to complete. Photo provided by Kristina Nelson. Five years ago, a local artist began to generate significant buzz around town for her work. Tiona Marco captured the attention of the community, artists and coloring enthusiasts alike as she created lifelike scenes and portraits using nothing but crayons and paper. But recently, it appears that she has all but disappeared.

She closed her studio in the DeWitt-Seitz Marketplace. Her blog has been wiped clean. Even the Etsy account from which she once sold her works of crayon art is empty. For someone who seemed so well publicized and known around Duluth, it begs the question: Whatever happened to Tiona Marco?

I was quite a fan of Tiona's work during the peak of her popularity, talking to her on occasion back when her studio was open. We talked about art and being an artist amidst the thick smell of wax shavings and wood. Tiona would describe the long hours it took to make a single crayon “painting” while I asked about her different techniques. She had mentioned that times were tough, money wasn’t coming in because of the recession. But she also didn’t seem like the person to give up her life’s passion so easily. Going off of an old email address she’d given me, I decided to reach out and try to contact her.

Kristina Nelson created the pseudonym "Tiona Marco" to represent her art, taking inspiration from her mother's name and Don Marco, her mentor in crayon art. Photo provided by Kristina Nelson.

To my surprise, she answered in a few days. From there I was able to contact her by phone to ask about her supposed disappearance. And firstly, she wanted me to make it clear that Tiona Marco was only her artist name. Her real name is Kristina Nelson, and she hasn’t really left.

“I closed my studio back in November of 2011,” Nelson told me. “I was at a crossroads about what to do with my art. I received an opportunity out in Massachusetts so I went out there for a while. When I was out there my health just deteriorated.”

She described to me how her muscles got really weak and she felt tired all of the time. Nelson was seen by a number of doctors, but none of them knew what was really wrong with her.

“I came back to Duluth in August of 2012 and I saw more doctors for about the span of a year,” she said. “It turned out that I had lupus.”

Systemic lupus erythematosus is an autoimmune disease wherein the immune system, responsible for fighting infection and disease, becomes hyperactive and begins to attack healthy tissue and muscles in the body. Essentially meaning, your body starts to fight its own structure as if it were a disease. It is often hard to detect as its symptoms are similar to those of other diseases. Lupus is difficult to live with as it comes with chronic pain and flare ups of inflammation.

“You wake up every day and you don’t know how your body is going to function for the day,” she told me when describing living with the ailment. “I get tired easily so I have to be careful about stress.”

Dealing with lupus day-to-day, Kristina is not able to create works like these because of how laborious the process is. Photo provided by Kristina Nelson.

When asked about her art, Nelson told me that she does a little here and there.

“It’s mostly sketching or watercolors, easy stuff I can just pick up and put down." Nelson said. "Crayon art is a very laborious process and with lupus, I’m not able to do it anymore. It would take a radical shift in my health before I would be able to go back to the way things were.”

From my own observations of her working, it's understandable that she gave up crayon art due to lupus. Pieces of art take days or even weeks to complete due to the hours of shading and marking with wax. Hundreds of layers could go into one surface shade. One needs to be completely aware of the amount of wax already on the page and what needs to be added in order to achieve the desired look. This is something not reasonably feasible for Kristina.

Most of her work as Tiona Marco was sold off in a final sale before she closed her studio. Yet she kept a few select pieces for herself and donated the rest to charitable organizations around Duluth.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever get back into art professionally,” she said, lamenting the obstacle to her passion, “but I’m still an artist. At the end of the day, an artist has a creative energy; it can go into crayons or painting. As long as it’s creative, I’ll find something.”

Nelson described the cold weather of Duluth as wreaking havoc on her health. She expressed an interest in staying because it’s the place she considers her home, but she said that she will possibly be moving to a warmer climate. With any hope, Kristina will recover and Tiona won’t be gone from our community for good.

Photo provided by Kristina Nelson.

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