Find Your Happy Place

Recycled wares brighten artist’s corner of the world

Mary Jo Stephenson doesn’t have to close her eyes and imagine her happy place — she’s created it right outside her front door.

A walkable wonderland of sun-catching color, nestled in greenery and hanging from maple branches, Stephenson’s world can’t help but induce smiles. Her unique, hand-painted garden art, recycled from lamps, pot lids and more, is why.

“Everybody needs to find things that make them happy; this is it for me,” said the Garner-based artist, her sparkling eyes and eagerness to share proving her a woman content with her world.

Stephenson’s talents have earned Best of Show honors at the N.C. State Fair, and four of her pieces are on display in the rose and English gardens of the Governor’s Mansion in Raleigh, along with a fifth “chili pepper” design decorating its vegetable garden.

Her hanging pieces also appeared in open house festivities for the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences’ 2012 “globe” addition.

A former chemist holding a science degree, Stephenson’s painting was initially inspired by the cheerful art inside books she read to her now-grown-up children.

“I made my first bird feeders by putting Christmas lights in the bases of old lamps,” she said. “Lamp parts just make sense to me; they all have holes, so there’s no drilling.”

Shelves in her Garner garage studio, where Sammy the dog is “shop supervisor,” are stacked with lamp parts of every shape and size, from glass globes to metal fixtures and stands. All are waiting for re-creation via the cheery touch of Stephenson’s paintbrushes.

Her favored medium is weather-resistant acrylic enamel paint, made for glass and tile. Following the painting process, each piece designed for the outdoors is baked at 350 degrees for a half hour to set the paint — believe or not, in a standard kitchen oven set in her workshop.

Pot lids, turned upside down, become bird baths; old bowling balls are transformed into glistening orbs via colored glass beads.

Leftover parts, such as lamp cords, are sorted into bins for recycling.

“The painting is my favorite part, but I’ve also always loved taking things apart and putting them back together,” Stephenson said. “My motivation is both creating something that makes you happy, and keeping these things out of landfills.

“Beads on bowling balls? It’s like meditation to me.”

Metal barrel lids become kaleidoscope-like mandalas; remnants of insulation foam board have become a giant dragonfly.  

Stephenson, with help from her husband, Mark Phillips, gathers the materials from thrift shops and “dumpster diving.”

“People also bring me things — you should see what they bring to our family reunions!” she said.

“The family jokes that if you stand still long enough, she’ll paint you,” Phillips said. “And if I take her away for the weekend, she can’t wait to get back home and paint.”  

“I create something every day, even if it’s while we’re watching a movie,” Stephenson said. “No matter what’s going on in the world, painting centers me.

“I love that other people like it. I feel so lucky.”

Where to buy: Stephenson’s works are available for sale via Etsy and

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