Mary Mack

Juggling as You Go

Mary Inabinett-Mack was born the third child of eight on a tobacco farm in Colleton County, South Carolina. Her family has lived in the Lowcountry since before the arrival of the Mayflower on her mother's side, and since the 1700's on her father's side. Her African-American ancestors arrived here in the early 1800's. After her father died, her mother moved the family to St. Helena Island where her tight-knit family continues to flourish. As a matter of fact, Mary's kinfolk have been formally congregating for more than 40 years for an annual Thanksgiving family reunion.

Mary is a local icon in the world of art collecting. Her gallery, The Red Piano Too Art Gallery on St. Helena Island, has launched the careers of more than 20 emerging artists and featured the folk art of hundreds of artists. But there's another side to Mary. Her career in the health-care industry has spanned 50 years as a registered nurse in New York and later the Deputy Executive Director of the Beaufort-Jasper-Hampton Comprehensive Health Services.

In 1949, at age twelve, Mary entered Penn School, the site of one of the country's first schools for freed slaves and one of the most significant African-American historical and cultural institutions in existence today. "When I first saw Penn it was the most beautiful school I had ever seen," Mary said recalling her childhood. Little did she know that years later, as an adult, she would serve as the first African American female Chairperson of the Penn Center Board of Trustees.

A registered nurse named Margaret Saunders, who took care of Mary's ailing mother, advised Mary, "Go to nursing school. You won't get rich, but you will always be able to take care of yourself and you will never be without a job." This advice took her to New York City where she graduated from nursing school.

It was an open-air art exhibit in Greenwich Village that ignited Mary's passion for art. "I began buying paint-by-numbers kits and secretly painted them at home," Mary confessed. She enrolled in art-appreciation courses and enjoyed an occasional painting class along the way. To some extent, collecting art alleviated her longing to fill a canvas.

In the 1970's Mary's collecting evolved into a business, and in the early 1990's, Mary became the owner of The Red Piano Too. Juggling dual careers did not leave much time for painting, but she kept it going on a small scale. "Last year I decided to finish a painting so I could donate it to Penn Center for 'The 1862 Circle Gala Art Auction fundraiser," Mary said. "The painting sold before I could donate it, and that set me on fire!" Over the last couple of years, Mary has transformed images of the St. Helena Sound into a series of paintings called "Women and Water."

In May 2010 Mary was inducted into the Penn Center 1862 Circle, the extension of Penn Center that recognizes local and national leaders who embody the spirit of Penn Center and who serve as advocates for the enduring history and culture of the Sea Islands. Mary was a celebrated honoree along with award-winning actress, singer, producer, activist, and preservationist Phylicia Rashad.

When asked about her personal philosophy, Mary said, "People shouldn't put life on hold. We can't spend our whole life planning then stop one day and do it. We have to keep juggling as we go." Apparently, Mary has taken her own advice. Years of juggling have paid both healthy and rewarding dividends - for her and countless others.

Up Close:

Infatuated with: Interior design, art books and magazines, granddaughters, Simone and Monica
Ideal vacation: Two weeks in NYC, going to restaurants, theaters, museums and galleries
Lowcountry favorites: Natural beauty, laid-back lifestyle, the people -including tourists who ask, "What's Goo-la?"
Not so favored: Heat, bugs
Currently Reading:The Other Side of Color- African American Art in the Collection of Camille O. and William H. Cosby, Jr. by David C. Driskell. 
Favorite saying: "There is nothing you can slice so thin that there is only one side to it."