Time Spent with Mary Paulsen of Mary’s Gone Wild
Folk artist Mary Paulsen has created a colorful world like no other in Supply.
PHOTOGRAPHY By Time 2 Remember
Minutes before the Holden Beach Bridge, I pull off into a dusty parking lot. At first, I miss my turn, not knowing what I am looking for. But, gradually, I find my way back to Mary Paulsen’s Mary’s Gone Wild.
There is no mistaking I am in the right place. I nose my car’s bumper up to colorful miniature houses built around a huge tree. As I leave my car, my eyes try to take everything in: faded paint, hand-crafted bridges, twinkling Christmas lights, overgrown weeds, antique China plates, furniture left outside for too long, and collected vintage items as far as the eye can see.
As I hesitate, a big, friendly voice greets me from behind. Mary Paulsen herself is standing at her mailbox. She gives me a smile that reminds me of my grandmother, one that feels like it was just for me. After I introduce myself, she promptly invites me to come sit with her “under the fans.”
Following her, I pass two miniature houses, walk a narrow and sloping wooden walkway, and find an old leather seat by a table laden with yellowed press clippings. The floor, ceilings and walls of the building we are in, Paulsen’s studio, are painted with beautiful, vivid images.
Paulsen seems used to visitors being overwhelmed and gently prods me to sit. I tell her honestly that I didn’t know where to begin. She laughs and starts to ask me the questions. Eventually, we are sharing jokes and chatting like old friends.
Surprisingly, getting Paulsen’s life history can require some work. She is cheerful and genuinely interested in those who have come visit her, so doesn’t talk much about herself. Yet she can tell you some things if you listen.
Paulsen was born and raised in Sunset Harbor. She was one of ten children, right in the middle. “Being in the middle was the worst – you can’t go where the oldest go, but you have to take care of the younger ones,” she says.
Her grandmother was a Cherokee Indian from Burgaw and her grandfather was from Germany; her mother was Irish, which is how she got her red hair. As someone who grew up in southern Brunswick County, Paulsen talks about how different it was then, how much quieter: “Oh, back then, you just knew everyone. You knew your neighbors and everyone around you. Now, things are just different. It’s much bigger!”
Paulsen says she was a feisty child. One school year she was sent to the principal’s office daily for fighting a bully on behalf of her younger siblings. Eventually, she met and married a local man and together they had two children. Tragically, her husband drowned when her children were 3 years old and 11 months old.
“The shock of it killed me,” she says matter-of-factly. This is not a euphemism. Paulsen has been pronounced dead twice in her life, once was after hearing the news of her husband’s death. But even though she was recovering from a tumor and at a slight 76 pounds, Paulsen knew she wasn’t done. She tells how she saw Jesus and he wrapped his arms around her and told her to get back down to Earth.
“Oh, I’ve been through some rough times, honey,” she admits. “But the Lord helped me through. Without him, I can do nothing and am nothing. This is not really for me, but for Him.”
Paulsen’s faith is evident throughout her property and is a major part of who she is and what inspires her. Upbeat religious music is blared from a boom box, heard throughout the property. All the proceeds she makes go to various charities, and the primary beneficiary is Feed the Children, which has honored her with numerous certificates and awards throughout the years. Paulsen knows what it is to have struggled and seeks to help.
She bought the property that is now Mary’s Gone Wild in 1980. At that time, she moved into the existing house and never even thought of creating art. Instead, she did some dumpster diving. She collected the best pieces she could, cleaned them up and set up a yard sale on the side of the road. She continued to curate found items for years.
In 1996 she says, the Lord told her to start building little houses, so she did. She had always been a dollhouse hobbyist and she grew up building and furnishing dollhouses for fun, so when the Lord spoke she listened. Today she has multiple buildings with various themes built entirely by her own hand from reclaimed wood and bottles. She uses a saw, nails and a hammer, she says. There is a schoolhouse, a Christmas building, a library, a boys’ clubhouse, and a miniature house dedicated to Coca-Cola, which has memorabilia and collectible items even the museum of Coca-Cola in Atlanta doesn’t have.
In 1998, Paulsen says, she her artistic calling, and she delights in telling visitors how it happened.
“One day I was standing at my kitchen sink, washing dishes, when I had a vision from the Lord,” she says. “He just showed me what I needed to do with reverse side painting. I went out and told my husband and mother-in-law, who were sitting on the front porch, and they laughed. They were making fun of me! But sure enough, my first piece of art sold the next morning before ten o’clock.”
Using primarily reclaimed materials, Paulsen’s work is simple, colorful and contemporary. She will paint on anything, including old surfboards, but her favorite canvases are old glass windows. She loves the way the light shines through. Original art can be bought at Mary’s Gone Wild from $4 up to $4,000. It all depends on the size and scale of the piece.
Paulsen is now one of the leading established folk artists, even if she doesn’t realize it. Her artwork hangs in all 50 states and has gone global. She is included in the Marietta/Cobb Museum of Art in Georgia as a Folk Art Visionary. She has been the subject of books, multiple documentaries and many news articles. Collectors come from all over.
In my wanderings through her space, I unearth a photo of a beautiful woman and her partner sitting in their magazine-ready bedroom, which was decorated solely with Paulsen’s art. I see many other things in my wanderings, too. For this place truly is “wild.” While walking through one of the bottle houses, I find a decoupage table tucked away, holding old journals doodled on by visitors years ago, next to a box of plastic spoons you buy at the grocery store. Above are old Coleman gas lanterns strung from the ceiling next to glittered girls’ tennis shoes. In a corner are old bottles of body lotion, abandoned EXIT signs from office buildings and old telescopes.
The girls’ clubhouse is what I had always wanted as a child: lace-ruffled curtains, pink-flowered wallpaper and an Easy Bake Oven. Even though items and debris are scattered all over and I dare not enter, nostalgia overwhelms me.
In another area of the property, an entire shed is crammed with pieces of dishes and décor for sale. Paulsen doesn’t dumpster dive anymore, of course, although even at the age 67 she certainly has the energy to. But she laughs and tells me that they won’t allow it. Paulsen does have a big heart, though, and will buy, trade or barter with nearly every soul who comes in.
“Oh, honey, I’ve heard all the stories,” she says. “Need this for medicine, that for my bills … I just can’t say no.”
Those who love the thrill of a good hunt will be in heaven in Paulsen’s antiques room. You’ll need to allow hours to go through the racks and shelves of stuff, but antiquities are there, waiting to be unearthed.
It is hard to describe Paulsen’s world in words, but it drives visitors to come back again and again. It is a place that begs to be seen repeatedly, taking in a new corner or trying to trace down something from memories. And Paulsen isn’t done creating yet. Now that her chapel is complete, she has her sights set on a way to display her collection of 8,000 baby dolls.
Walking the property, I speak to a family visiting while on vacation in Holden Beach. I ask them if they had been here before.
“Oh, we come here every year,” the teenage daughter says. “My grandma is an artist, too, so we just love everything about this place.”
Paulsen doesn’t have a computer or email (“If I did, I know I would spend all day on that thing on eBay, hunting for antiques,” she admits) so you can’t make an appointment to see her, but she stays on the property most days, greeting guests. She has no set schedule for her studio time; she creates when the Lord tells her, but there is always a new addition to see.
When my time is over, I go to say good-bye. A visitor from Wrightsville Beach who owns a house in Holden Beach is excitedly introducing her out-of-town brother to Paulsen. While two hours ago I might have thought this odd, it now makes sense.
Because the thing that matters most about Mary’s Gone Wild is Paulsen herself. This strange hamlet that many visitors unknowingly drive by isn’t just about art or hoarding or collections, it is about Mary Paulsen’s life. It is about her amazing story, her uniqueness, her creativity and her love for people. Paulsen asks me to come back and see her again, and I am already looking forward to it. Mary’s Gone Wild is a place for everyone to come step out of the bustle of life and back to childhood. There is no place on Earth quite like it.
Want to go?
Mary Paulsen’s Mary’s Gone Wild
WHERE: 2431 Holden Beach Rd SW, Supply
WHEN: 9 am to 9 pm, 365 days a year
PRICE: Free (donations accepted and given to Paulsen’s charity of choice)