The Power of Joy

Brunswick County artist Mary Paulsen has found the true path to happiness

By Anne Barnhill

About 25 years ago, I first discovered the artist Mary Paulsen as a roadside attraction in Brunswick County. Each year, my family would migrate to Holden Beach for a week at my dad’s “fish camp.” Of course, my mother and I would drive around the area, scoping out restaurants and consignment shops. We rode by a cluttered-looking place with a sign that said “Hundreds of Dolls and Doll Houses — $1.00 to go inside.”

Years later, I did.

Mary Paulsen, red-haired and spry for 68, leads me through the labyrinth of what she calls the “treehouse,” a group of 14 shed-sized dollhouses built around the branches of the large tree in her front yard. Linked by a boardwalk that rolls up and down like something from a Tim Burton film, this fanciful conglomeration is painted with bright colors and free-flowing designs of sunflowers, ladybugs and mermaids. “I built and painted every one of these boards,” says Paulsen. “I started out building dollhouses. I just love doll babies and I have over 8,000 of them. I wanted them to have a home.”

As we climb to each section of the “treehouse,” we find a chapel, a school house, a tearoom and a kitchen, to name a few. Dolls are positioned within each: sitting at tables, lying in cribs or reclining on couches.

“I was in the middle of 10 children — we didn’t have much. Daddy fished for a living and worked in tobacco fields. We didn’t have a lot of toys. I only got one store-bought doll, a Tiny Tears — I still have her,” says Paulsen. (I, too, got a Tiny Tears for Christmas one year.  Sadly, I lost track of her.) Paulsen did have toys her parents made for her, dolls fashioned from rags and corn shucks. Her parents’ ingenuity inspired her to create things herself, like clothes for her Tiny Tears doll from leftover scraps.

Like many girls from her era, Paulsen married at a young age.

“I was just 18 when I got married. When I turned 21, I started collecting dolls,” says Paulsen. Eight years and two children later, Paulsen began building.

“My son, Toby, was 8 years old when I made my first doll furniture. I made a canopy bed, then marble nightstands. I didn’t have any power tools — I did it all with a saw, a hammer and some nails.” says Paulsen. “Toby told me I couldn’t do it. I said, ‘Watch me.’” She got a router for Christmas that year.

Sadly, Paulsen’s husband died early in her marriage, leaving her with two small children, Toby and Penny, to raise on her own.

“I’m proud of my children and my grandbabies. The kids were raised in the power of the Lord. There were times when I didn’t think we’d make it, but the Lord will provide,” says Paulsen. The idea of Divine Providence is a concept Paulsen has always held onto.

“Almost 20 years ago, I was standing at the kitchen sink. The Lord gave me a vision — I was supposed to ‘reverse paint’ on glass. I’d never painted or taken art lessons in my life. But somehow. . . I knew exactly what to do,” remembers Paulsen. The next morning, she painted her first “reverse glass” painting and sold it the next day. “Each time I pick up an unpainted window pane, a vision will flash before my face, quick but very clear,” says Paulsen.

Paulsen will paint on any surface that strikes her fancy: rocks, bottles, plates, even surfboards. Her method is simple and fast, allowing her to produce an enormous quantity of work.

Words like cheerful, colorful, fun, innocent and contemporary describe much of Paulsen’s work. The energy and joy she takes in creating her art is transposed into the work itself. Though a “folk” or “outsider” artist, she has exhibited in galleries in Chicago and Charlotte and the Marietta Cobb Museum. Private collections in Australia, Brazil, China and all across Europe hold her work. Countless articles have been written about Paulsen as well as one book, We Will Have Color, and a documentary film, Mary’s Gone Wild!. She adopted the title of the film as the name of her studio/house/gallery.

“People tell me my artwork makes them feel happy, full of joy and peace. God told me my painting would be worldwide to the glory of His kingdom,” Paulsen says of her art. “I think of it as a ministry.” Though a deeply religious woman, she doesn’t attend any particular church. Nestled in the center of her elaborate compound, she raises her arms and says, “This is my church.” She says people visit her for prayers and healings and the evidence of her divine protection is all around. “I’ve been protected through nine hurricanes and not one of the buildings has been harmed.”

Her faith also directs the practical parts of being an artist. “I don’t price them — the Lord does,” explains Paulsen. Prices range from $4 – $4,000 depending on size and complexity. Though she sells a lot of work and receives countless visitors, she isn’t getting rich. Most of her earnings go to feed hungry children.

“Struggling early on, I feel for people who are going without,” says Paulsen, “I’ve been through hard times and have been weeks without a dollar. When I was growing up, we might get a candy bar for Christmas. We had to split that candy bar into 10 pieces, one for each child. I’m happy to know I’ve helped feed lots of children from my small house in North Carolina.”

If you head to the back of Mary’s Gone Wild, you’ll find even more strange and unusual things: a round room built with wine bottles; a boat made of bottles along with a wishing well; a Coca-Cola house filled with everything from old-fashioned Coke glasses and bottles to a Coke mini refrigerator; a Betty Boop house, which also contains an Elvis corner, a Marilyn Monroe section and a few James Dean items;  a jailhouse built of beer bottles; and a chapel made of glass bricks.

And Paulsen’s not finished yet. “Next, I want to build a Pepsi Cola house, but I won’t put it near the Coke house — they might fight!”

It has been said that creativity is the antidote to violence and destruction. Paulsen, who happily makes art daily, is one of the most contented people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. “This is the best therapy you’ll ever have,” she says, pointing to her smiling mermaids and her sunny yellow flowers.

These days, on the wall of my office hangs one of those colorful mermaids with blonde hair and a glass-beaded tail on a bright aqua background. Slivers of a mirror are scattered throughout the hair and two purple Mardi Gras strands curl like snakes on top of her head. I bought it for 75 bucks to remind me of the joy of creating — in my case, writing novels. Now, when I feel discouraged, I look at Paulsen’s mermaid and remember: joy — it’s all about joy.

Visit Mary’s Gone Wild, 2431 Holden Beach Road SW, Supply, NC Hours of operation: 9 a.m. — 9 p.m., 365 days a year. Admission: Free (donations are accepted and will be given to Paulsen’s charity of choice). More information at

Anne Barnhill’s latest novel, The Beautician’s Notebook, set on the NC coast, will be released in April, 2017.

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