February 2014: Starry, Starry Night, Carol Irving
Starry, Starry Night, Carol Irving

Featured Artist: Mary Couling

Last updated: February 4, 2014

Mary Couling aka River Lark Mary xxxxMary Couling aka River Lark Mary

Mary Couling aka River Lark Mary

People who work and volunteer in the arts have more in common than their passion for a particular art form.  The people we have featured share an enormous energy and drive.  The number of projects that they are involved in and the time and effort they devote look impossible to mere mortals—how can they do all that?  We don’t know how is in other areas, but in the EUP their generosity is overwhelming.  They are heavily involved in sharing their skills with others, in recruiting and in teaching others, and in promoting the efforts and accomplishments of others.  A case in point is Mary Couling.  She’s a story teller, a poet, a musician, an actor . . . there is hardly any limit on her activities.

You’ve probably been seeing Mary Couling’s name a lot.  Like many artists, she’s passionate in her pursuit and generous with her time and talents.  She is also a tireless advocate and a mentor and cheerleader who is heavily involved in recruiting others to enter the ranks of storytellers and poets.  Summers find her with her husband Jim, performing in the Sault and St. Ignace as “River Lark Mary” and “Wood Smoke Jim”, leading ghost walks and historical tours. 

Wood Smoke Jim and River Lark Mary at the Locksxxxx

Wood Smoke Jim and River Lark Mary at the Locks

The rest of the year she is just as busy, leading groups of story tellers who meet in the Bayliss Library and the Pickford Library and perform in various venues with “Fireside Stories”, as well as encouraging others in “creative endeavors”.  You may have enjoyed the tales of the storytellers at the Antlers, the Best Western or the Dancing Crane.  Mary meets with poets as well, leading the Pickford Poetry Night and participating in Superior Poetry Cafe in the Sault.  In between she performs in area theater productions, most recently last summer in the Soo Theatre Project’s Fiddler on the Roof.  Actually, in listing her activities and interests, it’s hard to know where to start or where to stop, there are so many.  Maybe the best way is to quote liberally from her answers to our questions:

My dear friend Sharon Brunner invited me to Creative Endeavors to read one very short poem. Creative Endeavors is a group of artist and writers who meet at Bayliss Public Library. There I was encouraged to keep writing and share whatever I might create.

When Susan Askwith, a friend from this group, started up a group for story tellers at Bayliss, I decided to join to learn what I could, to tell my own stories. The second year, which is this year, I offered to lead this group so that it would continue. Story Spinners went on. The first year we had an event we called Fireside Stories at Best Western. That year we had Susan Askwith, Gary Thurston, Peter Gianakura, Judy Arnold, Frank Blissett, Jim and myself.  A year later back at Best Western Fireside Stories Event we had all the above except Gary and we added John Kehoe.  We look for a place with a fireplace.

I also lead Pickford Poetry Night. This came about because I love poetry and Anne Marie Smith asked me. I had seen how magical Superior Poetry Café was in the Sault.  I loved going to these events and listening or reading at the open mike.  I love to go to Superior Poetry Café, Pickford Poetry Night, Pickford Poetry Spot Light, Creative Endeavors, Story Spinners or Fire Side Stories to listen to and enjoy other artists and share my talents.  I have no formal training in anything I do, just the joy of doing it. Libraries make the programs I lead possible. Bayliss Public Library with Susan James and Pickford Community Library  with Anne Marie Smith and Les Cheneaux Community Library with Jane French.

I recently found Pickford Pickers. This gives me a place to play my guitar and sing all the good old songs with great group of singer musicians who have a lot of fun. They play at Pickford Community Hall most Sat. 2-4 .

I am learning Tai Chi from Richard Askwith and my newest endeavor there is the Saber Set. I never thought I would be using a saber, but here I am, loving it.

This summer you may find me as a docent at the Historic Homes or at History Camp or Riverside Cemetery Walk, all Historical Society events.  Jim and I also work in the Johnston House Historic garden.

And now for some background on this enthusiastic dynamo.  We are going to quote liberally, since Mary tells her story better than anyone.  Our comments are not italicized.

I am a graduate of Haslett High School.  (Haslett is a small town, just east of East Lansing.)  I started writing in high school and continued to write after I married and had a family. As our family celebrated Christmas each year, I wrote a poem about Jim's and my family to the tune of a Christmas song in lieu of the usual form letter.  Each year it was bigger and more complicated, like our growing family.

My Dad was an East Lansing school teacher who did musicals with his sixth grade kids. I grew up singing all the songs from the Rogers and Hammerstein musicals. I nearly drove my sister crazy. My mother says I could sing before I could talk.  I have always loved theater.

I followed my husband Jim up to the Eastern Upper Peninsula in 1988.  We raised a family of gifted and talented artists, three boys and three girls Mike, Orion, Holly, Evy, Tommy and Emma. We carted kids to rehearsals in Rudyard; Cedarville; Sault, Canada; Cheboygan and later Marquette, LSSU, and STARS.  Two of our kids graduated with theater majors from Northern Michigan University. One year our whole family was in Brigadoon at Cedarville Community Theater, directed by Lisa Dunn—all six kids and me. Later when only Emma lived at home she and I were in Cinderella, again in Cedarville with Lisa Dunn directing, with Emma playing Cinderella.  I found this to be a special mother/daughter time.

In 2007 I joined my husband Jim in the local small business that he and Emma created. I had walked with them from the beginning in 2005.  The first year Emma was our singer complementing Jim's stories.  The second year Jim wrote a grant that allowed Sault area high school actors to join us. The third year we did not have Emma or the Sault kids, so I told Jim I could sing the songs and we became the husband/wife team of Twilight Walking Tour.  Jim is known as Wood Smoke Jim and I am known as River Lark Mary.  He is the Master Story Teller and I am the storyteller-folksinger.   Our tours are history or ghost walks that take place in Sault and St. Ignace.  In the Sault Ste. Marie we have “Thistle in Time” and “Lantern Light Ghost Walk”.  In St. Ignace we have “Voices in the Mist”.  We also team up to be bus or trolley guides.  “Voices in the Mist” is twice a week; Sault tours three times per week. These walking tours allowed me to meet fascinating and wonderful artists.

Encouragement is a gift I have been given. I want to use it to bless others.  I love beautiful thoughts, quotes, poems, art and the people who make these joys possible.  If I can encourage one person to share their heart with art that they create, that is enough.

Mary Elizabeth Couling

Mary and Jim at Home xxxx

Mary and Jim at Home

Sault Area Arts Council Home Page 217 Ferris Street, Sault Ste. Marie, MI 49783
e-mail: saac@saultarts.org Phone: (906) 635-1312