Over the past century, Dawn-Marie DeLara's house has worn a lot of hats.

The Belle Plaine cottage with the big front porch has been her home since 2006. But it also moonlights as her corporate and artistic headquarters, evolving along with her.

For a while, the house was a store, Nestfeathers, where she held occasional sales, or "once-a-months." "I tried the boutique thing, but I didn't want to be a shopkeeper," she said.

Now it's a studio where DeLara, a decorative painter, operates her business, the Art of the Home, teaches classes, hosts craft gatherings, experiments with finishes and techniques and shows them to her clients.

"The house is my living portfolio," said DeLara, gesturing to rooms that display an eye-popping array of faux finishes and paint treatments.

There are no plain-vanilla walls here. Every surface, including the furniture, floors and ceilings, has been embellished with something: faux bois and trompe l'oeil, painted lace, stencils, murals, metallic clay and even a patchwork quilt -- real, not painted -- on the dining room/studio ceiling.

When that ceiling started to crumble, DeLara, a resourceful DIY-er who tackles most of her own repairs, didn't have the skills to fix it herself. So she quilted it instead. "I collect fabric -- it makes me happy," she said.

Her quirky house has a name, Belle Ami -- "Belle" for the town, and "Ami," French for friend, in honor of Friend Whitlock, the man who built the house (which she refers to as a "she") in 1906 and lived there with his family for many years.

DeLara's house, in the heart of downtown, is something of a Belle Plaine landmark.

The city's first library was started in the house, which also had former lives as a beauty parlor, then a family home that appeared on several holiday decorating tours.

"The house sort of belongs to the town," DeLara said. "She has friends I don't even know about."

'Frees me up'

When DeLara bought the house, she knew it would become her canvas. The original woodwork had already been painted white, which gave her more artistic license. "I like white woodwork," she said. "You can put any color with it. It frees me up more if I don't have to respect the woodwork."

Room by room, she started unleashing her creativity on the house, adding a mural here, a stenciled border there. She pulled out all the stops in the kitchen, which features a faux marble counter, a faux stone floor and a "tiled" backsplash that she piped on, using a pastry bag and a little blue food coloring.

And then there are the cabinets. They're completely covered with a jungle of lush flora inhabited by a plump rabbit, all handpainted by DeLara.

"I went to paint my cupboards black, and you see what happened," she said with a laugh. "I was stuck with the cabinets I had; I didn't have the budget for new ones."

But plain black just wasn't her style. "Too dark. Too much a big solid blob," she said. The big surface needed pattern, she decided, so she picked up a brush, started at the top and worked her way down.

"I worked on the kitchen every morning for two months, for about four hours a day," she recalled. "From 3 to 7 a.m. I'm a morning person."

Her "garden" kitchen is arguably the boldest artistic statement in her home. At the other end of the spectrum is an understated tone-on-tone paint treatment she applied in her living room. "I wanted some subtle things," she said. She painted the walls palest apricot, glazed them, ran a squeegee through the glaze to make stripes, then used a finger to trace soft scrolls, "kind of art nouveau," she said. "You have to do it really fast before the glaze dries."

Honed skills

She's already redoing some rooms she painted earlier. Her front parlor, for example, she first decorated with a mural featuring a sunset and columns. But recently, she painted over that mural with a new one, a water scene that eventually will have a water-sprite sculpture stepping out of it.

"My skill level had come up quite a bit since the first mural," she said.

Even when she's trying to be edgy, her work tends to come out a little softer and more romantic than she intended. "I always make things pretty," she said ruefully. "I'm trying to be funky and cool, and it comes out pretty."

She isn't worried about faux finishes falling out of favor. "Faux has never been out," she said. "It got really trendy in the '90s, with strange techniques, like feather dusters and sponges."

But classic European faux techniques are widely varied and remain timeless, she said. And many homeowners also want to put a personal stamp on their surroundings, with custom murals that express their taste or a particular interest.

"It's about creating a space for people to live in, creating a feeling," she said. "When they get involved, that's when it feels good to me."

In the meantime, she's going with the creative flow. She points to the "Art Field of Dreams" in her parlor, a three-dimensional collage that sits on her coffee table. "It's like a personal gameboard," she said. Hers includes a lot of animal symbolism, such as a blue heron, which symbolizes "a life that looks unstable to other people but is stable in its way," she said.

"I've finally accepted that I don't know how I'm going to pay the mortgage -- but I always manage to."

Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784