Mary Paulsen says she heard the voice of God for the first time in 1996. The message was clear: construct a village in her front yard for the 6,000 dolls she had accumulated since childhood, when she would rescue discarded toys from trash bins around her Sunset Beach neighborhood.
Two years later, Paulsen received another decree from on high, this one with instructions to take brush and paint to canvases of window glass, illustrating her visions of colorful creatures both holy and psychedelically secular. The third and final mandate came five years ago—collect bottles, any kind of bottles, and use them as glass siding for a new gallery.
Though she had no experience as either an artist or a carpenter, Paulsen wasn’t particularly troubled by the new direction her life had taken. “The Lord gave me visions in my head; he gave me the knowledge of how to do all these things,” she explains.
Through a process that’s as hard to define as the place itself, Paulsen has managed to combine her spiritual directives into a sprawling fantasia equal parts childhood wonderland and Gothic nightmare — Mary’s Gone Wild Folk Art Garden and Doll Village.
Located a few miles off U.S. 17 in the small Brunswick County community of Supply, the village unwinds like a mashup of “Pee Wee’s Playhouse,” “Sanford and Son,” and “The X-Files.” It also recalls Paradise Garden, the rambling sculpture museum created by another well known — and divinely inspired—Southern folk artist, the late Rev. Howard Finster of Georgia.
Other than a welcome sign by the highway, the only greeting offered visitors to the village is written on a piece of cardboard taped to a dusty curio cabinet:
from here you have just
the Lord not me
and He will be your judge & jury
“I don’t know whether to be impressed or freaked out.”
So says Brian Weber, a Jacksonville native on vacation with his family, as he navigates a series of lopsided treehouses that tower over the village’s entrance. The reaction is understandable — Mary Paulsen’s singular vision made reality is, undeniably, both impressive and freaky.
The main village consists of large-scale dollhouses, each roughly the size of a small shed, which have been constructed to represent specific themes. Bible verses, cryptic quotes, and bits of Paulsen’s singular advice decorate many of the walls. Dolls in various states of ruin and undress peer out from behind boxes or beneath weeds. Several staircases lead nowhere or simply terminate in mid-air. And throughout, nearly every available space is overflowing with the decaying odds and ends of daily life: rotary telephones, novels, coffee mugs, rooster figurines — they’ve all found a home in Paulsen’s other worldly art project.
Each dollhouse leaves its own, peculiar impression. In the school building, wall length paintings of cartoon characters Tweety Bird and Sylvester guard over an assortment of dusty children’s toys, sports trophies, and comic books. A sign at the school’s entrance declares, “Jesus Christ is Lord over this school and over all this village.”
One of the most striking buildings is the chapel, a quaint mauve and ochre hut with an interior that is either charming or unsettling, depending on one’s attitude towards inanimate toys shaped like blank-eyed children. On each side of the chapel’s small alter a congregation of ragged dolls, some dressed in their Sunday finery, others sporting Bubble Yum T-shirts and gypsy scarves, sit expectantly in miniature pews. Watching over it all, a weathered watercolor of Jesus rests atop a grime covered organ, his eyes turned toward windows painted with images of dancing angels.
Navigating Paulsen’s surreal playground, visitors will find little in the way of guideposts or explanations. Some may be left with the inescapable feeling that there is meaning, dancing just at the edge of consciousness, hidden in the juxtapositions of the commonplace and the bizarre, the religious and the ribald.
It would take days, weeks maybe, just to see, much less make sense of it all.
Out back behind the dollhouses in the Folk Art Garden, Mary Paulsen is bent over a new project, trawl in hand. Slapping mortar around the base of one green jar after another, she carefully places them around a metal hoop stretched over a small garden of flowers.
Dressed in a light blue top and matching slacks, her copper hair ruffling in the slight breeze, the 66-year-old is relaxed and in rare humor.
“Sometimes I look this good and sometimes I look even worse,” she jokes, breaking into an infectious cackle. “Most people my age don’t do as much as I’m used to doing. The Lord has kept me in good health. I still climb ladders and hammer nails.”
Paulsen’s latest project is situated between several buildings, composed mostly of bottles and painted windows, that are startlingly different than those in the dollhouse village. Stepping into those structures is not unlike walking into a church, the rooms aglow with light filtered through their multi-hued glass walls.
Across the street, a haughty, scarlet haired mannequin in a yellow polka dot bikini beckons the curious towards Paulsen’s art gallery, which contains hundreds of her larger than life, day glow window paintings of frolicking mermaids, amorous fish, waltzing turtles and other improbable wildlife.
Paulsen remembers her family was initially less than enthused with her artistic calling. “They thought I’d gone off the deep end. They kept telling me I should do something useful. But they stopped talking when I did my first painting and had it sold for $80 before 10:00 the next morning.”
Paulsen says visitors come from across the U.S. and beyond to take home one of her original works. “People say it wouldn’t be a vacation without if they didn’t stop here. Some of them have started what they call ‘Mary’s Rooms’ with my art that they’ve collected.”
Paulsen donates a portion of the proceeds from her art sales to Feed the Children, a nonprofit hunger relief organization.
Though her life has seen its share of heartache — both her father and first husband were killed in accidents at sea — the woman some have labeled “Crazy Mary” seems at peace with the turn towards the alternative her life has taken. Her newfound carpentry skills even helped bolster her romantic life — the artist and her current husband, Paul, were married in the chapel dollhouse.
“I’ve done a few wedding’s there,” notes Paulsen, who also happens to be an ordained minister.
And in her sixth decade, the young girl who once rescued unwanted dolls is still recycling her neighbor’s discarded goods. According to Paulsen, most of the bottles and windows she uses throughout the Folk Art Garden and Doll Village are donated.
“It’s like the things I need just materialize when I start a project,” she remarks, sweeping her hand across an adjacent lot filled with stacks of glass materials she’s yet to find a use for.
According to Paulsen, the Smithsonian has already laid claim to her schoolhouse. Beyond that, she said she’s given little thought to what will become of her life’s work after she’s gone.
“I hope my grandyoungins might want to take it over and carry on, but you never can tell about that,” she says.
In the end, it matters little whether Paulsen is divinely inspired or touched with madness: her mission to create a space outside the confines of the “normal” world is a holy one, either way.
“There’s nothing here that’s gonna’ hurt anyone; it’s here for everyone to walk around and look at,” she explains. “It’s here to show that there are still good things in this Earth. We already have enough bad.”