Mary Carol Williams, former Essex and Dundalk resident who became an artist and coffee shop owner, dies

Mary Carol Williams, a nurse who changed careers and became a coffee shop owner and later a prolific artist, died of leukemia July 24 at Geisinger Medical Center in Danville, Pa.

The former Essex resident was 65.

Born in Baltimore and raised in Dundalk, she was the daughter of John Matthai, a Bethlehem Steel pipe mill foreman, and his wife, Ruth Benbow, a homemaker.

She was a 1970 graduate of Seton High School and obtained a nursing degree from then-Essex Community College.

She was named the 1970 and 1971 fire queen of the Maryland Fire Chiefs Association.

As a registered nurse, she served at the Fort Howard and Loch Raven veterans hospitals. She later joined the Hanover (Pa.) General Hospital and served in its coronary care and critical care units.

“The veterans hospitals in the wake of the Vietnam War era were a hard place to work,” said her son, Tim Zink, a press secretary in the office of U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin and a Towson resident. “In Hanover, she worked one day a week in a medic ambulance unit and would often come home with her uniform covered in blood from a traffic or industrial accident.”

She decided to change careers in the middle 1990s. She and her husband, artist John M. Williams, opened The Mercantile, a coffee shop and art gallery at the Morning Star Carriage House in the center of Lambertville, N.J.

“For a decade, my mother’s smile and kitchen creations greeted her customers,” said her son. “It was an offbeat coffee shop. She baked the brownies and muffins and had them ready for people who caught a commuter bus to New York each weekday outside the shop.

“But after 10 years, she had enough,” he said. “It takes a lot out of mom and pop to run a mom and pop shop.”

Her son said the business suffered a decline in patronage after the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center. “Her business was in New Jersey, but her customers began to be wary of going into New York City,” he said.

She decided to take up art and sold the coffee shop and gallery. She and her husband relocated to Washington Crossing and later Kulpmont, both in Pennsylvania.

“My mother then picked up paint brushes in earnest and never put them down,” her son said. “Her self-taught, primitive style of painting developed a strong following — her works have sold to collectors in every state. She had patrons in Europe, Asia and Australia as well.”

He said his mother sold her paintings and prints through eBay, and also from a website and her home. They were priced from about $40 to $400.

“Every day it seemed she would go to the post office to mail them to her collectors,” her son said. “Her art spoke to people, and she sold more than 2,000 paintings.

“Her knowledge of art was amazing,” he added. “I once accompanied her to the National Gallery and heard her describe the works there. The American Visionary Arts Museum was her hall of fame. Those artists really spoke to her.”

He said his mother “attributed her artistic success to her ability to insert a smile onto every canvas. She was hard-working, too, and wound up sharing those smiles with the world. [She] was deeply proud of her family’s history in steel production and had a passion for gardening — the scenes from each became frequent subjects of her artwork.”

“I never really fully appreciated what that meant until I searched eBay for ‘Mary Carol art’ and scrolled through the hundreds of works she had posted for sale,” he said. “I see the smiles now. They are the same green-eyed invitations to a happier day that defined her life.”

She was also an avid reader of art history as well as romance novels. As a grandmother, she read children’s classic stories to her grandchildren.

Graveside services were held Aug. 3.

In addition to her son and her husband, survivors include a brother, Charles Matthai of Fort Wayne, Ind.; a stepdaughter, Jaimesin Breach of Elysburg, Pa.; a stepson, Graham Williams of Bloomsburg, Pa., and four grandchildren.

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