Born with a paintbrush in her hand
By Bruce Holliday
From the time she was born, Marty Whaley Adams Cornwell had a foot in two very different worlds. The first was her Charleston home where she was immersed in a life of gracious creativity by a mother who was an accomplished painter, gardener and author. The second was at her extended family’s summer home in Flat Rock where her grandmother’s advice to a young granddaughter was simple and direct. “Marty, if you want it, make it.”
Emerging from this melding of Lowcountry and mountain life experiences was an unbounded creative spirit and “make do” attitude that imbue virtually every moment of Marty’s days. “I often say that I was born with a paintbrush in one hand,” says Marty. “And in the other hand, I had a needle and thread, scissors, clay, seeds, water and dirt.”
Those two worlds came together during Marty Whaley Adams’ first-ever art exhibition in the mountain home that has provided much of the inspiration for her artistic endeavors. This past July, The Gallery at Flat Rock presented an exhibition of Marty’s paintings entitled, “Moments in Time.”
Marty hasn’t exhibited for many years but she’s a prolific painter who creates daily —mostly in her favorite genre, still life, but also dog portraits, people portraits and landscapes. And much of that art happens during warm summer days on the porch of her Flat Rock home, Elliott Place, which she shares with her husband, Charles Cornwell.
Marty Whaley first came to Flat Rock in the summer of 1945 before she was old enough to walk. As she grew older, Marty and her sisters would spend part of their summers with their grandmother, Anne Sinkler Fishburne (Nan), at High Hills — a family home bounded by the shores of Highland Lake on one side and Highland Lake Road on the other.
Summer days with her Nan had a familiar pattern that Marty recalls to this day. “We would be awakened at 7:30 and then I’d hear my grandmother sing out, ‘Bathroom empty!’ We were all expected downstairs by about 8:15 for morning prayers and reading of the Bible.” Nan would take the girls to East Flat Rock to Hill’s Grocery where she would weigh the girls on the scale in the back of the store. “If we gained weight we would get a special treat,” Marty recalls with a laugh.
Summer mornings also featured tennis at the Smythe’s who owned Many Pines. “They expected everyone in the community to come every morning by 10.” There was also swimming in Highland Lake. “I remember my father teaching me the dog paddle down by the dam when it was still a wooden dam.” Marty adds, “Back then, the lake was still crystal clear.”
Marty still has vivid memories of using creativity and resourcefulness to “make do.” She recalls using crayons to recolor the faded flowers on her grandmother’s curtains one summer. “That's where I learned to never throw anything away and how to make do,” says Marty. “There was not a lot of money on hand, and so people had to be creative.”
Back in Charleston, Marty readily admits that she had a preference for drawing instead of doing her schoolwork. She also loved interior design from a young age and would use shoeboxes to create miniature rooms using scraps of her mother’s fabric and pieces of wood to make furniture.
Marty’s mother recognized her aptitude for art and helped foster Marty’s interests. “My mother realized that my creativity might be my road to success.” Then, she adds with a wry smile, “Because I was not a great student.”
At age 10, Marty’s mother put her under the tutelage of painter Corrie McCallum. McCallum was a well-known artist in Charleston and a friend of the family. “We would go out on the sidewalks of Charleston and draw and paint.” When tourists would stop to ask questions, McCallum taught Marty to not answer and stay focused on her art. “She told me an artist does not allow themselves to be interrupted. You cannot be distracted.”
Despite a childhood spent in a wide array of creative and artistic endeavors, Marty wound up studying Secretarial Science at the University of South Carolina — with predictable results. She was just 17 and she was miserable. “I remember saying to my mother on the way home after that first year, ‘Mama, I'm not going back.’”
Fortunately, Marty’s parents agreed, and she spent two happy years at a junior college in Washington, D.C. that nurtured her creative spirit. Her grades improved and she was accepted at the University of Georgia to study interior design. Marty Whaley was on a path that she and her family had been fostering from birth, but fate had a different plan. The summer before leaving for Georgia, Marty received an unexpected marriage proposal and she agreed to set aside her plans for college.
For the next two decades, Marty’s artistic endeavors, although never fully suppressed, understandably took a back seat to her new life as a wife and mother to two children. In 1982, Marty and her first husband purchased Elliott Place in Flat Rock which adjoins the High Hills home where Marty had spent so many agreeable childhood summers. Ultimately, however, the marriage that diverted Marty Whaley away from fully actualizing her creative spirit dissolved in 1985. Where marriage had arguably held Marty back from her calling as an artist, the dissolution of that marriage dramatically re-opened the door to her creative spirit.
“I realized that I had to figure out how to support myself,” Marty recalls. As she tried to reorient her life, Marty submitted a painting to the S.C. State Fair in Columbia and won a blue ribbon. That was the turning point. “I really knew I could paint. That’s when the dam broke and a whole new world of possibilities opened up.”
In 1989, Marty blew back into Charleston — just two weeks ahead of Hurricane Hugo — with a head full of dreams and an artistic spirit ready to break loose. Both Marty and Hugo made an immediate and dramatic impression on the venerable Southern city.
Determined to jump feet first into her new endeavor, Marty resolved to open her own gallery. She rented the first floor of a warehouse around the corner from her house and started making plans. She didn’t receive a lot of support from her family initially. Her rent was $250 per month and her family questioned whether she could afford that. Far from discouraging her, the doubts only served to fuel Marty’s fire. “That gave me the impetus to succeed. I thought, ‘I’m going to show you.’”
In less than a year Marty held her first show and it was a success. At age 46, Marty Whaley Adams was an up-and-coming figure in the Charleston art scene. The Post and Courier did a profile piece featuring Marty and she was doing six shows a year. For Marty, it was proof that life can be rekindled with the courage to pursue your dreams.
Marty operated her gallery in various locations for the next 13 years and enjoyed a renaissance of confidence and acclaim. During this time, she also met and married Charles Cornwell who quickly became “her rock” as she navigated the often-uncertain nature of an art career and the loss of her beloved mother in 1998.
This exceptionally fertile period of Marty’s career came to a sudden and tragic halt in 2005 with the death of her son, Sinkler. “The wind just went out of my sails,” she says now. Marty put art on the back burner and devoted her grief-fueled energies to renovating her parent’s home on Church Street, taking care of her mother’s iconic Charleston garden, her relatively new marriage, and — most unexpectedly and life-altering — adopting and raising her grandson who was born seven months after his father’s death.
In the intervening 17 years, Marty has gradually returned to her art in fits and starts. She’s spent more time renovating Elliott Place, poured herself into shepherding her grandson, Sinkler, into adolescence, and created her signature garden in Flat Rock — all against a constant backdrop of painting, sewing and a stream of interior design projects.
Then in 2021, fate stepped back into the picture in the form of an email from Suzanne Camarata, owner of The Gallery at Flat Rock. She was inquiring whether Marty might be interested in taking a plein air painting class sponsored through The Gallery. A lifelong learner who has taken dozens of classes on painting, Marty signed up for the class. She didn’t realize it at the time, but she was walking through another of life’s doors into a new and exciting phase of her long art career.
The class was hosted at local artist Marsha Hammel’s studio and Marty was enchanted by the people she met during that class. “Suzanne was perfectly adorable. Marsha is so interesting and such an accomplished artist.” Through the class, Marty met several local artists and later took another class taught by Marsha. The classes, beyond advancing her painting technique and knowledge, introduced her to a local artist community she had not yet encountered. “It was like an instant key into a whole other world in Flat Rock which was just thrilling for me. I love all those people and there really is a lot going on here.”
Marty’s relationship with Suzanne’s studio ultimately led to conversations about The Gallery hosting Marty’s first show in more than 15 years. The artworks featured in the exhibition were created in the last two years and include a section of landscapes of Flat Rock’s Highland Lake. “It’s everything, from people to things I love and catch my eye.”
When inspiration strikes, Marty is quick to document it as a potential painting later. “When I come upon something in the house that is just caught with sunlight, shadow and is beautiful, I have to get a picture of it,” she says. Inspired by the Impressionists but mostly by her own muse, Marty finds joy in representing light, reflection, and a virtual garden of colors in her still lifes.
Marty and her show were recently featured in The Laurel of Asheville magazine:
Domesticity and love of home inform Whaley Adams’ work. “I think my paintings tend to encourage people to see the bright side of things,” she says. “It is my hope that people who come to see the show will be inspired to see life as exceptional, and to see the miracles that exist around us every day.
“I honestly feel that the creative spirit in me cannot be suppressed,” she says. “There are times when I have been unable to paint, when my muse has left me, and, looking back on it, those are the only times in my life when I have been truly unhappy.”
Fortunately for all of us, Marty’s muse has returned, and we are the beneficiaries of her boundless energy and her gift for capturing on canvas the beauty that surrounds us. For her part, Marty is loving every minute of this creative phase of life and considers her painting to be a form of spiritual sustenance. “As I walk through the house, I see things that would make a wonderful painting. Home really is food for my painting soul.”
Bruce Holliday lives in Flat Rock, NC and is the director of marketing and communications for Interfaith Assistance Ministry in Hendersonville, N.C. He is also editor/writer for flatrocktogether.com — a weekly newsletter/blog about the people, places and events in and around Flat Rock, N.C.