Remembering Mama-Girl

Master of paper sculpture Mary “Mama-Girl” Onley in her studio in Painter, Virginia. Photo by Pat Jarrett/Virginia Folklife Program.

With profound sadness, we mark the passing of one of Virginia’s most beloved folk artists, Eastern Shore painter, sculptor, and pastor Mary “Mama-Girl” Onley, at age 64.

Well into adulthood before she attempted her first whimsical paper sculpture, Mama-Girl (a name bestowed by her grandmother) produced a dizzyingly prolific body of work, filling the world around her with her colorful and fanciful creations. Her muse was the voice of a spirit she had heard since childhood, during days spent picking vegetables in the fields with her parents and extended family.

“I have no idea how to make this art,” she once explained. “Really, I have no clue what I’m doing. I just do whatever the spirit tells me to do.” Often the spirit led her to create dreamlike and fanciful figures: flying green pigs, pink polka-dotted hounds, young ballerinas dancing upon a globe, or angels with watermelon slices for wings. At other times Mama-Girl was inspired by everyday moments: a young mother cradling her child, a farmer milking his cow, a group of young brothers and sisters sharing a bubble bath. But regardless of subject matter, the single most defining characteristic of Mama-Girl’s work is its joyfulness—“happy art”—as she liked to call it. Her pieces can’t help but make us smile, leaving us longing to wander further into the fantastical forest of her imagination.

Yet the magic of the art was equaled by the magic of its creator. Mama-Girl never sold her work in galleries or online, preferring to do so in person, setting up her tiny booth in arts and crafts shows and farmers’ markets across Virginia’s Eastern Shore and beyond. She was most in her element when framed by the splendor of her own colorful creations, where any divisions between the artist and her art ceased to exist. Like her beloved sculptures and painted images, Mama Girl radiated joy, amusement, wisdom, compassion, gratitude, and tenderness. She was also generous, sometimes refusing payment for a piece if she felt that the admirer was meant to have it. Many people over the years were struck by her uncanny perceptiveness—the way she always seemed to know exactly what piece caught someone’s eye, or the way she seemed to anticipate someone’s next thought. On a number of occasions I witnessed her remove a piece from display and begin to wrap it, accurately sensing that it would be chosen by a stranger arriving moments later. This foreknowledge, Mama-Girl would tell you, was also with her since childhood, and she credits the spirit for this gift as well.

Mama Girl at home in 2017.
Pat Jarrett/Virginia Folklife Program

The art world often defined Mama-Girl as an “outsider artist,” meaning that her work emerged not from a particular artistic community or cultural tradition, but rather from her own spiritual visions, eccentricities, and the creative depths of her mind. Much of this is true. Yet while those who were fortunate enough to have met her likely thought of her as one of the most unique and interesting people they ever had the opportunity to meet, “outsider” is probably not a word any of them would use to describe her. Mama-Girl was deeply connected to those around her—her children, grandchildren, and extended family; the tiny congregation who attended her sermons in the makeshift church she built in her art studio; the hundreds and thousands of folks across the Shore and the region who passionately supported her work; and the residents of the tiny town of Painter, who always knew that Mama-Girl Onley was someone they could count on in a time of need.

Mama Girl photographed a the makeshift church in her home in 2014.
Pat Jarrett/Virginia Folklife Program

Although we often say it on these sad occasions when we must say goodbye to another dear friend and brilliant artist whom we were blessed to know and work with, Mama-Girl was truly one of a kind. There simply has never been anyone like Mama-Girl before her, and there never will be one after. Her life was a gift to us all, and she left us her vision for a loving world in the thousands of visual tales she wove from the simplest materials—newspaper, paint, glue, and the ability to listen with grace to the voices that guided her.

–Jon Lohman, Virginia Folklife Program, August 20, 2018

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14 Comments on “Remembering Mama-Girl”

  1. Slavin Rose

    I’ll cherish even more the happy green crab by Mama-Girl that lives in my kitchen. May she frolic forever in a kaleidoscope fantastical paradise.

    1. Betty MARGUGLIO

      I am proud to have 1 of her paper machete chickens and a shirt, HER SON IS JUST AS GENEROUS, i know he will miss her greatly as will the rest of mamas family,

  2. Angelia Fleming Loggie

    One of her watermelon cats travels with us in our camper. It makes me smile every time I look at it.


    We love her artwork and her support of the Historical Society of the Eastern Shore of Virginia. We will miss her smiling face at events and at the Onancock Market on Saturday mornings.

  4. John H Verrill

    I was introduced to Mary many years ago when I was director of the Eastern Shore of Virginia Historical Society. She was a very kind and generous person who was always willing to give of her art for the purpose of fundraising. Her art inspired by her relationship with God was just wonderful. It was playful, serious, colorful and meaningful. Her legacy is her art, her family and all of us who were inspired by her spirit.

  5. Sue Johnson

    I own one of the few shops that Mama-girl allowed to sell her work. Her pieces still surround me at Blue Crab Treasures on Chincoteague Island, reminding me daily of her love and indomitable spirit. She often surprised me with extra pieces in addition to those I had chosen to purchase for sale at my shop. Her gift of love and heart for sharing God have touched my heart forever and I look forward to the day when I will see her again in glory when we share the streets of heaven together. Thank you, Mama-girl for all you did for me and so many others during your time on earth. ~ Sue Johnson

  6. Tom Ridington

    Mary was a fully human person with divine inspiration always flowing from her. We happened upon her home and studio and what followed the next few hours was really special. We will miss her, but now she is with the Lord she loved so much

  7. mk mulligan

    One day I was admiring a Mama Girl painting of the Last Supper. On the table, she had painted platters of bread, fish and watermelon. I asked, “Watermelon??” She replied gravely, “They need their fruit.”
    She was an American original. She’ll be missed.

  8. Ava Baum

    I have taken great delight in Mama Girl’s art and one of her “chickens” lives with us. I will remember her joy and generosity with love.

  9. Marie Houseworth

    A dear friend shared the VA Folklife article with me today. My regret is never having known of this cherished artist until now. Those who have crossed paths with Mama-Girl and enjoyed her unique art are truly blessed!