The Fabulous Folk Art of Mary Paulsen

Inspired, she gives the proceeds to charity


By Pam Sherborne

Mary Paulsen paints on anything.

She paints on plates, furniture, bottles, drinking glasses, surfboards, shoes, ceilings, floors and windows, thousands and thousands of windows.

“You heard of drive-thru?” she asked, smiling as she waves her arm toward her long back yard. “Well, they just drive up, drop ‘em off, and drive on through.”

Mary’s colorful folk art has become popular with vacationers to this area near Holden Beach, North Carolina. At least, that’s where it started. Mary says her paintings are now hanging all of the U.S. and all over the world.

But for those unaware of her and her location, it would be easy to zip pass the entrance into her driveway off Holden Beach Road. The driveway looks more like a break in the undergrowth, not an entrance into a labyrinth of small buildings erected as a village for her doll collection or the myriad of other structures she utilizes as a showroom, workshop, retail store for antiques and collectibles, and her home.

She even built several exotic structures incorporating walls of bottles, bottles also brought to her through the “drive-through” method.

The sign that hangs askew on the roadside says simply: “Mary’s Art Sold Here. Yes We’re Open. Welcome.”

Mary’s art uses mostly primary colors and images of mermaids, crabs, sunflowers, seahorses, fish, fishermen, birds, and flying insects. Her pieces are hanging from ceilings, walls, trees, fence posts, porch columns, and sitting on floors inside and outside on the ground.

She calls herself a “visionary” folk artist because she paints what she sees in her mind. She painted her first piece in 1998.

“God told me to paint on the reverse side of old windows,” she says, smiling, red hair tucked loosely under an old straw hat. So, she found an old window and began to do just that, beginning with the outlines, filling in details, then finishing with a spray can to create the background.

“My husband and my mother-in-law were makin’ fun of me, tellin’ me I should do somethin’ that was gonna turn into somethin’ and I told them I was,” she said, laughing gregariously. “And, sure enough, I had it sold before 10:00 the next morning at $80. Then they said, ‘God, get her more windows. Help her. Get her paint and get her windows.’ ”

She said her first vision came in 1996 and led her to create a village of small buildings to house her dolls she had been collecting and repairing since a child. The village includes a chapel, a schoolhouse, a train depot, a library and a general store.

Mary has donation boxes all over the grounds. The money she collects from these and some of the proceeds from her paintings she sends to Feed the Children.

Mary feels she has been successful and feels fulfilled. One tip she would give to other artists who have not reached that level of satisfaction is “to get free.”

“Don’t try to be a perfectionist,” she said. “See those different sized leaves in that painting over there? That might drive some people crazy. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It’s still pretty.”


Photos by Pam Sherborne

Mary was born one of ten children in Brunswick County, located about 45 minutes south of Wilmington, North Carolina, and 30 minutes north of Myrtle Beach. She has lived most of her life along the sandy coast. Times were hard for her family and grew more difficult after her father, a local shrimp fisherman, drowned at sea. Yet Mary has many fond memories of growing up and delights sharing them.

Like her mother, Mary married a shrimp fisherman. And, like her father, he also succumbed to the sea. She raised their two children by being a waitress in Calabash, N.C., for 25 years.

She now has three grandchildren and is married to Paul Paulsen.

When suggested she just might be famous for her art, she sat quietly for a few moments, letting the sounds of gospel music wafting from her boom box fill the void, and then said, “It don’t mean anything.”


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