There’s no telling how many people have walked through Mary Martin’s two galleries and four hotel show spaces over the last three decades. Window shoppers, art lovers and serious collectors have stopped to admire the curves of sculptures, the colors of oil paintings, the grain in woodworking, and mosaic of glass pieces by local and international creators.
Countless customers have stepped inside the gallery and its subsidiaries. They come and go; that’s the nature of the business after all. But when you’re lucky, there are people who walk through the door as strangers and leave as friends.
That was the case for Martin and a couple who relocated to the Charleston area. Since 2007, they’ve shared a deep love and appreciation of art and culture.
“I have to tell you, it’s one of the joys of my life, the relationships I have with other art lovers,” Martin says. “Art lovers tend to be very caring people, and it’s really nice to know that these people will stand by your side. It’s a deep kind of friendship; it’s just different and very special.”
After retiring from a life in the ministry, the couple was eager to return to their roots in the South and found their new home in Summerville. They were enamored with the small-town feel and enveloped in the dogwoods, azaleas and crepe myrtles in full bloom. The two were used to living in small parish houses, and now they had the chance to build the home of their dreams. Armed with a building plan inspired by one published in Southern Living magazine, the couple worked with general contractor George Tupper to build the quintessential Southern abode, complete with a front porch. But most importantly, the home was able to fit all the artwork they had collected since 1981.
“Mr. Tupper, he said: ‘Most people buy a house and then they buy stuff to put in it. You had the stuff to put in it, and then you built the house around it,’” the retired minister says, laughing.
Their very first piece was a spalted walnut bowl by woodturner Mark Lindquist purchased at an art fair in Maryland, where they also met David Ellsworth, a founding member of the American Association of Woodturners. It began a decades-long love affair with woodworking that would lead to retreats, conferences and curation opportunities.
“I love wood because it has its own character,” the husband says. “God made it, and when you’re working with it, you can’t just impose your will on it. You have to work with it. And that’s very much like being a pastor, because you have to work with the gifts and talents and the flaws that people have.”
Starting with pieces made from wood and glass, the couple’s collection has expanded to include sculpture and paintings from art shows, craft fairs and mission trips around the world. In her collection, the wife—a practicing attorney—has 70 artfully crafted perfume vials. The two have also had custom goblets made, and in an arched window at the top of their staircase, light pours through a colorful stained glass piece that they commissioned. With their new home, they suddenly had more wall space than ever before.
“It just makes me happy to be able to live in a place that’s so beautiful,” the husband says.
When they arrived in the greater Charleston area, the couple attended the First Friday Artwalk, pursuing the galleries’ endless landscapes of the scenic Lowcountry. But it was the Mary Martin Gallery, which has been recognized as the best in South Carolina and one of the top 25 in the nation by the American Art Awards, that stood out the most.
Their very first piece from Mary Martin Gallery was by Jean-Claude Gaugy, who incorporates wood carvings with paint to create abstract artwork, and they even hosted a reception for the artist. The collection from the Mary Martin Gallery has grown over the last two decades and includes works by Cary Henrie, John Sherman, Hessam Abrishami and Norman Cable. The wife was inspired by a sculpture of a woman by Martin Eichinger called One with the Universe, her head facing the heavens and her arms outstretched, and it now resides in their sunroom between two corner windows.
“Everywhere we look, we see a story,” the husband says. “And it’s connected to a person and the experience that we had.”
Because he is so well versed in woodturning, Martin invited the retired minister to curate a wood art show for the first time, and he was able to introduce her to the country’s best woodturning artists. In 2015, she offered him the opportunity to host another show, which was shortly after nine parishioners were shot and killed at a Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, so he challenged the 35 participating artists to create a memorial in their honor. One that struck him the most was by Oregon-based Christian Burchard: nine wooden panels connected by a wood-burned mark running across the 12-foot-wide span, titled You Cannot Erase Us.
“We said, ‘That’s what we’ve been waiting for,’” he recalls, and the couple placed it in an empty space between two doorways in their home, an area that had long waited for the perfect piece.
Martin describes the accomplished couple as discerning art collectors, “to the point where every item in their house is a work of art.” And since that fateful Artwalk where the trio met, they’ve bloomed their relationship from gallery owner and customers to close friends.
“I just really enjoy them as human beings. Their art, their home reflects who they are, and that’s the beauty of art when people do buy pieces that speak to them,” Martin says. “Their homes become more than a house. They become their refuge and a place to meet with friends and family, and it means a lot to them that the house is surrounded by lovely, fabulous art.”
Works from the Mary Martin Gallery are also on display at The Andell Inn, The Vendue, Bella Grace and The Harbour Club in Charleston. *
Christiana Lilly is a freelance journalist in Pompano Beach, Florida. See more of her work spanning the arts, community news and social justice at christianalilly.com.