Talk of the Valley
Mary Lou McCachren; Artist, Crafter, and Collector
By Alexe van Beuren
There are those who collect, and there are those who create. Mary Lou McCachren does both. Her home, which sits above a five-acre-lake in the woods outside Water Valley, has overwhelmed garden clubs, Sunday school classes, and writers from Mississippi Magazine; there is simply so much to see. From the whimsical bed frame crafted out of river bark to the collection of vintage kitchen sieves hanging from a beam, Mary Lou McCachren has filled her home with the work of her hands and others before her.
“I like to buy stuff they don’t make anymore,” Mary Lou tells me. It’s apparent that she also doesn’t like to let anything go to waste; she and Sam built her kitchen cabinets using wood from a barn on her father’s land, and the beam in their kitchen came from a torn-down house.
“Do you ever turn anything down?” I ask, and Mary Lou shakes her head, braid swinging.
“Not if I can bring it home.”
When it comes to showing me the work of her own hands, the scope astounds. Mary Lou is a ceramics artist, a woodworker, a seamstress, and a painter of objects; she calls herself a crafter, but she’s clearly an artist.
As Mary Lou begins to bring her work out of closets, she tells me that she loves Christmas especially; I view Santa after Santa after Santa, each one different. Mary Lou makes Santas out of beaver sticks, cypress knees, and collector dolls for which she’s been known to handstitch fur coats. Her Santas retail for as much as four hundred dollars (one sits in the office of Time Magazine), but Mary Lou says she’d never buy her own work.
“I’ve spent very little money on the things I have,” Mary Lou tells me. “Because if I see something I really like, I’ll come home and make it.”
Over the years, Mary Lou has sold her work at craft shows. She had a stall at the Oxford Mall “back when it was a going concern,” and for five years, she and her family ran a shop in downtown Water Valley called Mary’s Memories. She closed the shop in 1991; “it was too much,” she says. “We couldn’t keep up with sales.”
Now, the only people who buy Mary McCachren’s work are private clients– and there are precious few of those, since Mary Lou tells me that she likes to give away her work or save it for her family. “I’ve gotten to the age where I do what I want to do,” she tells me as we view the unpainted cypress knees on her deck (just beyond the cooing white doves, who enthrall me). “They’ll take whatever I get painted, but I don’t like to paint unless I’m in the mood.”
As we tour her house, Mary Lou brings out a quilt to show me. It’s completely handmade; she doesn’t even use a sewing machine.
“Why is that?” I ask.
“If you’re to do a quilt for an heirloom,” she says, “I prefer handmade.” While Mary sews on her own, many of her projects have a silent partner: her husband Sam.
Sam, originally from Pope, and Mary Lou, raised in a vegetable sharecopping family around Crystal Springs, married in 1958– a mere five weeks after meeting. They spent the first twenty-odd years of their marriage in Memphis, where Sam worked as a police officer and Mary Lou raised four children. When Sam retired from the police force in 1978, the couple and their grown children moved to Water Valley, where Sam and Mary Lou began to create together in a serious way.
“Sam doesn’t paint,” Mary Lou tells me as we look at a box she and Sam made, “but he cuts out wood pieces for me.” When it comes to Mary Lou’s ceramics, Sam is the one who pours the molds— so many that their mold collection now numbers about five thousand.
“Sam can do about anything he sets his mind to,” Mary Lou says. It’s clearly true; we’re standing in the kitchen of the house that she and Sam drew on a piece of posterboard and then built without any professional assistance.
This fall, after the weather gets cooler, the McCachrens plan to walk up the hill to their shop where they will take up glass melting. Mary Lou says they’ll use some of her old bottles to make cheeseboards and wind chimes; she and Sam seem completely unphased by the fact that they’ve never melted glass before.
“We’re going to try putting photographs in a bottle and then firing them,” Mary Lou tells me. She looks over to Sam, who is sitting at the kitchen island. “I think it’ll work,” she says, and he nods.
(If you know someone who would make a good Talk of the Valley subject, please email Alexe van Beuren at firstname.lastname@example.org)