Seeing Art: Marriott Little’s Eight Decades of Painting

The Raleigh native has shown her work all over the state — and her birthday has a unique tie to Mother’s Day, too.
by Lori D. R. Wiggins | photography by Joshua Steadman

Marriott Little

Marriott Little sees every thing as art. She suspects she always has. “A lot of people never look at what surrounds them,” says Little. “So many people just don’t look. They move about without paying attention to the sky, the clouds, the sunset, the flowers. But to me, it’s all art — especially nature.” Trees, in particular, inspire her, especially in winter “when you see all those bones.”

Little has shown her work in more than 25 solo and group shows. She lists more than 60 awards that span every genre and medium in regional and national juried exhibitions.

She’s received everything from honorable mentions to Best of Shows, like the award she won at the North Carolina State Fair competition in 1993 for Best NC Scene, for her pastel painting of the fair, including its ferris wheel and other attractions.

Her art is in the private and corporate collections of former Gov. Bev Perdue, actor Alan Alda, SAS Institute, Duke Children’s Hospital and Elon University, and others. “And I’ve donated many of my works to auctions for different charities,” Little says.

“Everybody has a Marriott Little painting,” her daughter Marriott Sheldon says.

“Well,” Little quips. “Not so much anymore. Not many of them are left, I told you!”

At 93, Little hasn’t stopped painting “things that give me joy,” she says. She got her start early: the third of four children, she remembers respectfully breaking ranks to request art classes instead of the piano lessons her parents insisted on once they turned 10.

Since then, she’s done pieces in every medium, every genre, inspired by the natural world as well as her travels and scenes around Raleigh. She started with oils. The years brought on watercolors, pastels, acrylics and painting in realism, impressionism and abstract styles.

Little grew up in Raleigh’s Cameron Park (now Forest Park). She went to Broughton High School and then graduated high school from St. Agnes Episcopal School in Alexandria, Virginia.

After a year at Smith College in Massachusetts, she earned a degree in art history from Duke University. After college, as a stay-at-home wife and mother, Little painted in the basement, followed by the kitchen table. And when her kids all went away to college, “I took over their bedrooms to paint.”

Years after she became an empty-nester, in 1989, Little opened an art studio at Artspace downtown. She’d been a member since it opened three years earlier, but until then, “I’d never thought about going anywhere to paint,” she says. She kept a studio there for 20 years. She continues to paint and teach classes from her home studio.

Little also carved time to be active in the community with volunteer roles and memberships. But she always saved space for her passion, studying in classes and workshops under notable late artists like Wolf Kahn, Charles Reid, Joe Cox (a longtime professor at North Carolina State University) and Dong Kingman, a famous Hong Kong artist.

But it’s Raleigh abstract artist Gerry Lynch she counts as her mentor and dear friend. “She has certainly been an influence on me as an artist,” Little says.

Paintings from the Fair View series.

Little says Lynch’s tutorial on imagination and subconscious inspired Fair View: Garden Abstracts, the latest and largest of Little’s series, each a collection of paintings along a theme.

It features 22 abstract paintings born of the beauty in the devastation she discovered in her backyard after Hurricane Fran in 1996. The series was displayed in the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences for the 14th anniversary of the storm.

Little’s series painting began in the late 1980s with Cherries and Berries. Next came an Asian series inspired by her study and trips to China when her daughter Marriott lived there. The series has been featured by the Durham Arts Council and the Page-Walker Hotel in Cary, as well as exhibits in Raleigh and Chapel Hill.

In the early 2000s, Little produced Poppies, a series inspired by a field she spotted on a road trip from the beach. In the same period, Little created Red, a group of paintings made by using red paint to almost completely cover some of her own original paintings, which Little decided she didn’t like after all.

Little’s painting Foo Dog and Cherries.

Though her work has been shown broadly and collected awards, she considers it an even bigger accomplishment that she has passed her passion and talent for art along to her family. Her daughter Corneille Little, 66, taught elementary school art in Wake County until she retired in April.

She now teaches private and group classes in her home studio. Corneille’s son, Stan Mallard, 35, is a graphic artist.

Marriott Little’s daughter Marriott Sheldon, 67, was a stay-at-home mom who later earned a master’s degree in fine arts and taught college-level painting, drawing and art appreciation classes. Now she’s an art coach at her Boylan Heights studio. Her son, Will Sheldon, 33, is an artist based in New York City.

Little’s late husband of 56 years, Bill, was an artist, too. His father was an artist, too — but both father and son were stock brokers by trade. “Bill had to work, so he didn’t do much art,” she says.

The couple’s other two children, Elizabeth Barnes and Bill Little, III, are “art appreciators and very supportive,” Sheldon says of her siblings. “In fact, I’d say they are the biggest collectors of our art.”

Flanked by Corneille and Marriott at the kitchen table, she turns towards them, first left, then right, as she delivers a message she wants to stick: “I love it,” she says. “I am just thrilled that you are artists.”

That investment in her children’s love of art hints at another generational commitment that Little herself is carrying forward: celebrating motherhood.

Little holds photograph of her mother.

Little turns 94 on May 12. The year she was born, that date was Mother’s Day. And it wasn’t by chance. Her parents, Madeline Jones and Raleigh native and obstetrician Dr. Ivan Marriott Procter, chose the date. Little’s mother, who was born and raised in the Philadelphia area, was a cofounder of Mother’s Day.

She spent ages 15 to 25, from 1909 to 1919, as the personal assistant to Anna Jarvis, the woman credited for establishing the national day to honor mothers in 1914. “I was not due for two weeks,” Little says.

But, in honor of her connection to the holiday, her mother asked to be induced. “My Daddy delivered me; he gave her a tablespoon of castor oil and I was born on Mother’s Day.”

“So, this May, we will celebrate her 94th birthday as well as the 109th anniversary of the founding of Mother’s Day,” Corneille says.

The family has always honored the holiday’s original intent: never gifts, just letters of thanks and words of appreciation for your mother. They did cook an occasional breakfast in bed. “I just hated it,” Little says. “I’d be all alone waiting in bed, and I wanted to be with them laughing and talking while they cooked.”

In this instant, though, Little is surrounded by all things familiar. The easy-to-get-to gadgets and goodies dot her kitchen countertops. Family candids and portraits blanket the refrigerator. And on the walls, there’s art; some by her children, more by her grandchildren.

There’s a bold yet muted piece in metal and acrylic by Lynch, her mentor and friend, and another by Lynch’s son, Bill. And there’s a hanging centerpiece: a large canvas boasting an acrylic painting from Little’s post-Fran series Fair View.

“This was a great life; still is,” Little says. “It gets better and better. Yes, indeed. And I’m still working. I’m blessed.”

This article originally appeared in the May 2023 issue of WALTER magazine.