A day in the life of Mary Engelbreit

With a range of licensed products that stretches from cards and calendars to dinnerware and fabric, a successful retail store in her hometown, an award-winning magazine, more than 150 book titles published and hundreds of millions of greeting cards sold, the most apt description of artist Mary Engelbreit may be a line pulled from one of her well-known greeting card designs – she truly is “The Queen of Everything.” Mary’s unmistakable illustration style, imbued with spirited wit and nostalgic warmth, has won her fans the world over. PEOPLE magazine dubbed her a Norman Rockwell for our times.

In the following interview Mary had with SQE Professional™, she reveals a little more about herself as an artist, a little about her successes and accomplishments, and a little more about “a typical day in her life.”

SQE: How would you describe yourself, your personality and your area of expertise?
Mary Engelbreit: Well, a lot of people think I’m just like my cards. They think I’m sweet and nice and cute, and that’s not 100 percent true. Sometimes I can be a little cynical, but I hope in a funny way. I enjoy humor with an edge to it, but I don’t like it when it becomes hurtful.
I’ve been asked before if I mind being called an illustrator, which I find funny. I guess some people think it’s more prestigious to be a painter or a “fine artist,” but I’ve always wanted to be an illustrator, so I don’t mind being called that at all! I use colored pencils and markers to create greeting cards, calendar images, and book illustrations. My drawings are then licensed for use on a variety of home and gift products, including fabric from Cranston Print Works.

SQE: How did you discover your niche?
Mary Engelbreit: I always wanted to be a children’s book illustrator, but a publisher I met with suggested I try illustrating greeting cards. At first it was kind of a disappointment because I’d always had my heart set on illustrating books, but it obviously worked out for the best. I ended up finding that my illustrations lend themselves to greeting cards because they work well as an individual snapshot-type image and sentiment. Though, I am excited that after all this time now I’m illustrating children’s books, too. It’s the best of both worlds.

SQE: What did you dream of becoming when you were younger?
Mary Engelbreit: I’ve wanted to be an artist for as long as I can remember. My mom used to say I’ve been drawing since I could pick up a pencil. When I was 11 years old, one of the baby-sitters in our neighborhood was a really good artist, and she had a studio set up in her basement. I can’t tell you how impressed I was. I was insanely jealous of this cool thing, and I went home and told my mother about it. I said “I just have to have one. I have to have a studio.” So she cleared out the linen closet. We jammed all this furniture in there for me — a desk, a chair, and a pen-and-ink set. I’m sure it was about 110O, but I happily sat in there, in the closet, and drew pictures.

SQE: What progression of events led you to where you are today?
Mary Engelbreit: I had my first full-time job at Artmart, an artist’s supply store here in St. Louis. The job was such an eye-opener because I got to meet people who were making a living making art, and it was very inspiring and exciting. After that, I worked at a tiny ad agency. I think I learned more there in 18 months than I would have in four years of art school. It’s where I really found my medium. In 1977, shortly after I got married, I set off for New York City to meet with children’s book publishers. All of the publishers liked my work, but told me their companies had in-house artists and they rarely hired freelance illustrators who didn’t have an established name. One art director suggested I try going into the greeting card business. I was kind of crushed because, as I said earlier, at the time I really had my heart set on illustrating children’s books. Still, I decided to turn my attention to greeting cards. I sent my drawings to two companies. One paid $150 for three illustrations and the other signed me to a short-term contract. After the cards sold so well, my enthusiasm for the greeting card business grew quickly. After a few years of this type of work, I officially founded my own company in 1986. With the help of my friend and business partner Greg Hoffmann, the licensing of my art has grown tremendously ever since.

SQE: Tell us about your successes and accomplishments.
Mary Engelbreit: 2006 will be the 20th anniversary of our first major license. Though it’s sort of unfathomable, we’ve sold $1 billion worth of product at retail in those 20 years! Two great honors for me were being asked to create illustrations for the White House Easter Egg Roll and the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Our business has been honored several times by trade organizations, as well, and I’m very proud of that.

SQE: What are you most well known for?
Mary Engelbreit: The drawing I’m probably best known for is “Life is Just a Chair of Bowlies.” Funny, when you consider that it was rejected by a greeting card company in 1979! It turned out to be the one that started everything for me. It just clicked with people, and we still have that image on dozens of products today.
Most people would say my work is “cute,” and I don’t mind that at all. There’s a lot of ugliness in the world, so I think we could use more cuteness.

SQE: From where do you draw inspiration for your work?
Mary Engelbreit: My family and everyday life are my primary inspiration. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that I found my audience at the time I started having kids and illustrating the things that were happening in my own family. If there’s a universal topic that I think other people relate to, like relationships with family members and friends, then I know it will work for an illustration.
It’s not always easy, though. After more than 20 years, sometimes I think I couldn’t possibly think of another way to illustrate a birthday or a holiday card, but then I see or hear something that sparks an idea and I just keep going. Something one of my sisters or my family says or a quote I read will just strike me and I’m on a roll again.

SQE: Tell about a typical “day in the life of you” when you are at home. Share how family or significant others are weaved into your day.
Mary Engelbreit: During the day, I go into the office for meetings and run errands. I also spend time throughout the day and in the early evening with my family. Even though my family is my inspiration, they’re also a distraction! I have a hard time focusing on drawing until later at night when everyone else is quiet. Working until 2 a.m. is not unusual for me. I’m the first to admit I’m not a morning person, but a lot of that is because I stay up so late drawing!

SQE: Who or what has been instrumental in supporting your dreams as you pursue your career?
Mary Engelbreit: My parents and my husband have always given me tremendous support. They’ve always encouraged me, though later in life I found out that early on my parents were pretty nervous about my chosen profession! After I got married, my husband never said “Go get a job,” even when we had no money and a second steady income would have made a big difference. He understood from the beginning that drawing was really the only thing I wanted to do.  I can’t overemphasize how important this support was to me.

SQE: What aspirations do you have for the future?
Mary Engelbreit: We’re exploring a lot of new things with the business right now, mostly because the children’s books I’ve illustrated have changed our focus a lot. My illustration of The Night Before Christmas was animated for direct-to-home video for the 2004 holiday season. That was such an exciting and amazing process, so we’re looking into animating more of my books. There are more books on the way, too. Mother Goose is being released this fall, and I can’t wait for that because I spent so much time illustrating it. I’m starting to work on Nursery Tales, which is the companion book to Mother Goose and will include 15 classic short stories, like “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Cinderella.”
Sometimes people say to me, “Don’t you want to quit? Don’t you want to travel? Don’t you want to do this or that?” No! I never want to quit! I don’t think I really have a choice. What else would I do? I’d go crazy if I didn’t draw.

SQE: What appearances do you have planned for the rest of this year and into next year?
Mary Engelbreit: This fall I am enjoying a book signing tour for the launch of the Mother Goose book. The tour, which began in September, travels to 11 different cities. I’ll travel through November. It is a whirlwind, but I’m so excited about the release of this book. Tour details are on the Web site, www.maryengelbreit.com.

SQE: In the meantime, where can our readers learn more about you?
Mary Engelbreit: The best way to learn more is through our Web site (www.maryengelbreit.com). On the Web site, we list thousands of stores that that carry our products throughout the U.S. and even some stores in other countries. There’s also a whole section with crafts, recipes, coloring pages for kids and free desktop background and screensaver downloads, too. It seems to have a life of its own – it just keeps growing!

Another good source of information is my magazine, Mary Engelbreit’s HOME COMPANION. We started the magazine because I was tired of reading articles in other home magazines on how to clean carpets! I like to hear how people really live. We feature homes from all over the country that express the owners’ personalities and passions. We try to offer women a few hours’ diversion and some good ideas, and hope they come away feeling encouraged and inspired. Our magazine is really about leading an artful life, whether you’re an artist or not.

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