“God has a sense of humor, but it sure isn’t one that we can understand.” The way that this bittersweet one-liner was uttered by Pastor Mary E. Onley, the renowned folk artist of the Eastern Shore better known as Mama-Girl, I felt that if anyone could gain such divine insight, it would be her. We were sitting at a watermelon-adorned kitchen table inside her home studio in Painter, a remote town of Accomack County with only a couple hundred residents. Surrounding us were the the fruits of her labor: scores of paper-based figurines, reliefs, and paintings, each adorned with the glossy sheen of her signature joyful color palate. Though the room was tidy and modestly furnished, her artwork covered every bit of wall space, producing a kaleidoscopic quilt of mermaids, crabs, kittens, giraffes, and faces beaming with warmth. And yet, in typical Mama-Girl fashion, upon reflecting on this workspace, her reaction was as plainspoken as it was stoic: “You know, I may not be doing this art stuff for much longer.”
Such a sentiment is unexpected coming from a person so energetically dedicated to her craft. Onley can produce hundreds of individual pieces a week and regularly travels to participate in various art shows and craft fairs. The morning of our meeting, she had not only driven several hours returning from such an event, but had also hosted a religious service in her home chapel, a small room in the back of her studio with a podium and makeshift seating for a handful of congregation members. Though she is an ordained pastor and extremely knowledgeable about Christianity, she has not always had the best relationship with organized religion, at times being labeled a prophet and at others, a witch. That friction stems from an idiosyncratic devotion to her internal spirits. These voices, which she has heard since childhood and has spent a lifetime learning to appreciate, dictate what artwork she should make, how to practice her faith, and decisions as simple as what time to wake up in the morning. To understand this spiritual guidance is to understand the art of Mama-Girl.
Born in the early 1950s, Onley is part of a multigenerational family of vegetable pickers. Her parents were farmhands who managed the other field workers. Onley herself had to leave high school in tenth grade, in part because of debilitating seizures caused by allergies, a condition she suffers from to this day. In spite of her physical limitations, she was legendary for her work ethic and would consistently outpick the rest of the team. When she turned 18, Onley inherited the position of team boss. In that role, she fiercely guarded the well-being of her employees, helping them with their taxes and making sure they were paid fairly—going so far as to organize worker strikes when she felt that that wasn’t happening.
Onley doesn’t have any siblings, a circumstance that has made her life a lonelier one. That may be part of what drives her to be such a caring individual. She raised four children, plus twins from a close relative, and even today makes regular rounds visiting widows and the infirm in her community. David Rogers, her third child, was part of the last generation in the family to pick vegetables. "I always tried to pick more than Mama,” he said. “I never did, but it instilled a strong work ethic in me."
As Onley grew older, her allergies became more troublesome, causing her to have to quit field work altogether. At 40 years old, desperate to provide for her family, she asked her spirits for guidance, and was compelled to make art from the materials that she had available to her: paper, water, and glue. By mixing these ingredients just so, she could make sculptures like she remembered doing as a young girl. She briefly considered using coat hanger wire to construct skeletal frames for her pieces, but after accidentally stabbing herself—causing a still-visible scar on her palm—she decided against it. The resulting technique is a frameless approach to paper mache sculpture, one that has been a defining characteristic of her work ever since.
At first, Onley simply gave away the pieces to friends and family. However, upon the advice of a mentor, she brought several of them to a local fair. When a customer asked for her prices, Onley genuinely did not know what to say. Coming from a poor agricultural community, she felt that money was meant for providing for your family, not buying superfluous things like her artwork. Hesitantly, she answered, “$25?” The customer responded, “How about $35?” At that moment, she realized not only how artwork could offer material support, but also be beneficial to others. Jon Lohman, Director of The Virginia Folklife Program at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, has been collecting her art since they met in the early 2000s and definitely finds it to be uplifting. "I love the playfulness of it. It just makes me happy to look at it," he said. "Her energy is part of what draws me to her work. It's a very positive worldview." Over the years, Onley has put that positive energy out into the world through thousands of pieces, all adorned with her “Mama-Girl ©” signature.
One of Lohman’s first acts as Director was to establish the Folklife Apprenticeship Program. Funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, it offers support for folk art masters to take on apprentices, helping to ensure that traditional artforms get passed on to the next generation. Last year, Rogers became Onley’s apprentice in the program, and he will continue on through the 2017-2018 season. Although it’s not the first parent-child apprenticeship that they’ve funded, it is a bit outside the norm as far as the actual skillset being fostered. "When we're talking about folk art, we usually mean art with a tradition within a particular community,” Lohman explained. “What she does is something more akin to visionary art or outsider art, the idea being that it's something that came to her through a spiritual experience." That begs the question, how do you teach a craft that originates from such personal sources?
For Rogers, the answer is that it’s all about learning to hear his own internal voice the way that Mama-Girl does. His background is in military and police work, so he never imagined that he would be learning to make art full time. "She made it look easier than what it was," he admitted. "When you're doing this artwork, you have this fear. You're worried how it's going to turn out. You want it to appear the same way it appears in your head." His most recent paper mache work depicts the faces of African American women, focusing in particular on capturing the texture of their hair. Rogers has been travelling to shows and spending time in the studio with his mother, and predictably, that sometimes leads to butting heads. “In the apprenticeship, she tells me listen to my voice, but it's not always the same as the voice in her head.” When asked what she plans to do next with her art, Onley’s answer is resolute, “I’m not planning to do anything! I’m only doing what the spirit tells me to.” It’s that dedication to the spirit that she hopes to pass on in the apprenticeship. As Rogers said, "In life, you're supposed to be writing your own gospel. You should live by your gospel."
Mama-Girl and David Rogers will be sharing the art made during their apprenticeship at the Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Showcase on May 7 at James Monroe’s Highland in Charlottesville. The event is from 12–5 PM and is free to the public. For full schedule, visit virginiafolklife.org.
Photography by Pat Jarrett / Virginia Foundation for the Humanities