Helen Chappell - June 2006

Seeing What Spirit Sees
Helen Chappell

     She’s barely five feet tall, and gray is beginning to fleck through her dark hair. Her skin, the color of rich mahogany, is smooth and lustrous. But it’s Mama-Girl’s eyes that hold you, even behind her glasses. Her deep chocolate, liquid gaze can hold you spellbound for days, so deep and lively you wish you could see what she sees. A warm, welcoming woman, she is ready to greet her visiting friends with a strong embrace that belies her small stature.
      Mama-Girl is one of the Eastern Shore’s most famous folk artists. And she’s getting quite a name for herself in collector’s circles for her visionary work. People who make the long drive down the Eastern Shore of Virginia’s Route 13, then out through the rural countryside are in for a rare treat. In her small studio, just outside Painter, she’s surrounded by her unique art visions. Brightly painted, deceptively simple shapes are all around her, created in her unique style of papier-mâché.
      On one wall, brightly colored turtles and frogs, angels with watermelon bodies and white wings, primitive paintings of angels and children greet the eye with splashes of yellow, green and red.
      There are fish. There is a crabby crab. There are birds, and dogs and cows. There’s a Noah’s ark, bursting at the seams with Noah, his family and a whole load of animals that lights up from inside to show even more animals hidden away in the hold. Everywhere you look, there’s something to gladden the eye and touch the heart.
      Dappled paper snakes hang from the ceiling, together with flying kelly green pigs. African men in primary colored clothes dance on one shelf, while African women, in tisanes and robes dance on another.
      An almost life-size Indian with thick braids and a dark, inscrutably painted expression sits like a silent sentinel against a wall. The Indian was Mama-Girl’s first artwork, made more than ten years ago.
      There are papier-mâché mothers sitting in papier-mâché chairs, holding papier-mâché babies. There are Noah’s Ark’s, bursting with uniquely Momma-Girl animals, and small Adam and Eve pieces, each one a little different, featuring the first couple, a tree fruiting with watermelon slices, with a deceptively charming snake. Trying to describe the joyful and exuberant charm of her work in mere words is a challenge. At first glance, they seem deceptively simple, but a longer study reveals not just a thousand tiny, lovingly handled details, but a steady and observant eye that is both subtle and sophisticated.
      On the advice of a mentor, when she first started, Momma-Girl trademarked her nom d’art as well as her creative methods, which involve strips of newspaper, Elmer’s Glue and acrylic paint. In spite of her patent, she is generous with her time and talent, and often gives workshops and classes in her technique, which are as much spiritual as creative exercises.
      True to her mystical nature, she opens each workshop with a silent meditation in which each student is asked to allow Spirit to inspire their work.
      A calm and pleasant teacher, she is often as inspiring to her students as the spirit she invokes. Students have been known to take more than one workshop, simply to work with her. Art is her ministry.
      She also does several shows a year up and down the Eastern Seaboard. Momma-Girl shows in traditional art shows as well as folk art events, and her legion of fans and collectors grows larger every year.
      On the heels of a recent trip to Hawaii, Momma-Girl is experimenting with life-sized flowers. Stop sign yellow sunflowers, red and white roses, passion flowers and lilies,
      Like Momma-Girl herself, her atelier is neat as a pin. Even her working outfit, a paint dotted lab coat and sweats is neatly pressed.
      A deeply spiritual woman who feels her work is guided by God, she credits her faith for her creativity. “Whenever the spirit get to me, I go to work and do it,” she says.
      Like other artists, traditionally trained or folk, Momma-Girl feels her art is guided by a divine presence for whom she is a conduit. She shares a belief held by many creative people that their talent is a gift from God, to be used at His pleasure and direction. The line between the creative and the mystic is very thin indeed. Many of her works reflect religious themes, such as the nativity’s she makes, which she calls her “activity scenes”.
      Born Mary Onley fifty-two years ago and nicknamed Momma-Girl by her grandmother, she’s the mother of four grown children, six grandchildren and two foster children. She’s buried two husbands, and endured ill health most of her life.
      The child and grandchild of field workers from Painter, she’s known a lot of hard physical labor herself. She started working in the fields when she was about 12. “ Name it and I’ve done it all,” she says. “I’ve picked tomatoes, beans, cucumbers, greens, peppers- - -
      You name it.” She had worked her way up to field foreman when she had to quit, overtaken by allergies so severe they caused her to pass out.
      Severe allergies have plagued her all her life, and they caused her to be continually hospitalized when histamines caused her to faint. “I was paralyzed, so my family thought I was dead. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t see, but I could hear what people were saying around me.” She laughs. “So I’d wake up and tell them what they said about me!”
      Once the doctors told her she could no longer work in the fields, she was deeply depressed. Not only was she used to working, she was saddened not to be to be outside. “I still love being outside, even when I know it’s no good for me,” she confides.
      But Spirit, as Spirit will, came to her rescue. Around 1995, she was inspired to try her hand at making art, using what she had lying around the house. “I took glue, cardboard boxes, clothes hangers and every color paint I could find around the place,” she recalls. She holds out a hand to show a dark scar on top and on her palm. “When I first started, I accidentally put a clothes hanger right through my hand.”
      But she persisted. “I asked God to make me do something no one had ever done before.”
      The Lord answered her prayers, fortunately for all of us who love her work. As her fame spread, so did her faith.
      Several years ago, a woman she had never met before appeared on her doorstep, telling Momma-Girl she was there to ordain the artist. So now, she’s Reverend Onley, who preaches at Bethel Baptist Church in Franktown. When she had a disagreement with a male pastor, and he reproved her for being an uppity woman,
     “I told him I wasn’t saying it, Spirit was!” She chuckles.
      In 1997, she started showing at in Cape Charles. “Spirit told me to take only birds to that show. And I sold them out.”
      For an upcoming show, Spirit has guided her to show only cats. Spirit is wise. Cat people will buy anything that has a feline theme.
     “And I started to make what spirit told me to make. I was starting good just before my second husband died,” she recalls. “I got so mad at that doctor. He told me because of my allergies I couldn’t do anything. I said ‘I’m going to make a liar out of you’.”
      And so she did. The hospital where that doctor is on staff recently commissioned her to paint a set of child’s table and chairs for their pediatric ward.
     “I’m not only dealing with this art, I’m dealing with people’s lives. This artwork- - - God gave it to me to make people happy.”

      Momma-Girl’s studio is open by appointment only. She can be reached at Box 599, Painter, VA. Her phone is 757-442-4485.
      Examples of her work are also on sale at the Ward Museum in Salisbury.