Mary Engelbreit: So Much More Than Cute
Updated: May 1
For my mother, who always told me anything was possible. – Inscription from, Mary Engelbreit: The Art and the Artist
Mary Engelbreit is one of my all time favorite artists. I’ve been a fan of her art since my early twenties. Not only was I attracted to her illustrations, but I connected to the thought provoking quotations she incorporated into them. Those hopeful words were beacons of light to me. Mary felt like a wise friend pointing me in the right direction. Once, I waited in line for six hours to have prints and cards of her’s signed. After I gushed on and on about my love for her art, I showed her a print of my detailed fine art painting that Oprah Winfrey had bought from me. She looked at me quizzically and said, “You like my art?” I assured her I did and told her what a great marketer she is. “That I am,” she answered wryly.
Hailing from St. Louis, Missouri, Mary is best known for her greeting cards, calendars, children’s books, and giftware. At one point she even licensed a series of dolls based on characters from her drawings. Her images are described as nostalgic and cute (“Nothing wrong with cute,” says Mary).
For over 40 years she has produced images without any guidelines for her art licensing company. Mary feels fortunate that she has always been able to draw from her heart. As a rule, she never follows the market trends. Although her licensing company did begin producing adult coloring books when they came into vogue. To that she said, “We aren’t stupid.”
Mary’s childhood was the perfect launching pad for her to make a living illustrating the world as she sees it. She grew up under the loving gaze of parents who believed in her talent. Her light was allowed to shine from day one. Her mom and dad never questioned her plan to become an artist or what that actually meant. All they knew was that Mary’s dreams were sufficient to earn their respect. She had a passion for drawing and was encouraged to create and develop her artistic ability in whatever way she saw fit. Mary believes that since she was self-taught it was easier to stay true to her vision. Never having anyone trying to shape her talent, left her wide open to explore.
“Because I didn’t go to art school, I didn’t have any influences except the beautifully illustrated fairytale books that belonged to my mother and grandmother. I poured over them and taught myself to draw by copying their pages. The way I draw now was influenced by those books. There was often a quote under the pictures to explain what it illustrated in the story. That’s where I got the idea to incorporate quotations into my drawings. Because I was the only one doing that at the time, it set my work apart. It wasn’t my mission to get noticed or anything. It just worked out that way. My goal was to create images that expressed myself.”
“So I just went on my merry way and produced the kind of art I wanted to see.” –Mary Engelbreit”
After Mary graduated from high school, she immediately moved into her career as an artist. She worked at an art supply store, a newspaper and an advertising agency. While trying to get freelance work from another ad agency, the art director told her she had to settle on a single style to attract clients. Mary immediately knew if she couldn’t create from her inner impulses, working in advertising was not for her. “I tossed his advice aside and kept on going.”
At 22, she met her future husband, Phil Delano. They were married three years later. Even in the early stages of Mary’s career, Phil recognized her talent. He saw how people reacted to her art and was certain it was going someplace. Mary counts her lucky stars that he came into her life, “He always believed in me and encouraged me to keep at it. Even when we were broke.” In 1986, they formed their own licensing company, Mary Engelbreit Studios.
Up until 2000, it looked like Mary Engelbreit was leading a charmed life. On June 21st of that year, everything changed. Their 19-year-old son Evan was killed from a gunshot wound. The details are blurry as to whether it was self-inflicted or murder. After almost 23 years, Mary is still recovering from that loss. She believes it shifted her focus to what’s really important in life. She and Phil adopted Evan’s child after he died. Mikayla was only three months old at the time. Mary credits her granddaughter for helping their family to move forward after Evan’s death, “She basically saved our lives.”
After her son died, Mary found herself shifting artistically. She explains it like this, “I was always open to what came my way as an inspiration for my art. That loss opened a door that nobody wants to open. But there it is, and I had to deal with it. I’m lucky to have this artistic outlet to express my feelings. I don’t know what I would have done without it. I’ve felt that all my life, even for small things and for fun things. It’s really important to get your emotions outside of yourself so you can move on.”
Prior to Evan’s death, Mary was a quiet activist. She created drawings about subjects that mattered to her but nothing too controversial. In 2014, that all changed when she made a drawing titled, No One Teach protesting gun violence and posted it on social media. Her illustration was inspired by her outrage over the police killing of teenager, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri. To Mary, the shooting death of Michael felt personal. Her heart broke for his mother and the community.
Speaking her truth, created a backlash Mary wasn’t prepared for. She confided that when she put No One Teach on social media, “Some people responded to it by posting ugly, ugly things.” She has come to terms with that though. She may have lost some followers, but in the end, they were replaced by others who support her views. Today Mary continues onward and upward with her activism. She will not stay silent so others can remain comfortable. And without a backward glance, she goes on her “Mary” way.
Text and artwork © Sue Shanahan