Chapter One: Home Is Where One Starts From
Many Engelbreit's earliest surviving artwork hangs framed on the wall outside her St. Louis studio. The subject: two stick figures holding hands. The medium: crayon, of course. Written above the drawing in a mother's proud hand are the words, Drawn by Mary on November 27, 1956: A picture of Mommy and Papa.
"She was drawing from the time she could pick up a pencil," recalls her mother.
Kids love to draw, and in this way Mary was unremarkable. Her childhood pictures would be at home in any kindergarten gallery. She was never a technical prodigy. But even as a child, Mary seemed to have something that set her apart--something, perhaps, in her eyes and the way she used them.
Mary got glasses in the second grade. I'll never forget that day. I had had my wisdom teeth pulled, and I was lying in bed with my jaws aching. She came in with these glasses on. I looked at her and I cried, which, I guess, wasn't a very nice thing to do. --Mary Lois EngelbreitBut seven-year-old Mary was oblivious to her mother's momentary lapse in composure. The newly bespectacled second-grader was caught up in emotions of her own. "Mother, the trees have leaves!" Mary remembers saying in awe of the world's new clarity. "I was amazed. The whole world was brought into focus, and I hadn't even known that it was out of focus."
"She didn't know that trees looked the way they looked," recalls Mary's mother. "She was so thrilled that she could see. I cried because she had to wear glasses, which was stupid, but she didn't mind."
Well, to hear Mary tell the story, she did mind. She loved the clear vision, but she hated the glasses. "Back then, all you could get if you were a girl were little kitty-cat glasses in pink or light blue that had the sparkles in the corners," Mary explains. (She chose the blue.) "They were so ugly, but I could see, and that was pretty amazing."
Seven-year-old Mary's awestruck response to getting glasses--"Mother, the trees have leaves"--is telling. And it may do more to presage her future than any crayon-on-Big-Chief-artwork she produced as a child. Her vision had changed, and she saw a new world.
Mary was eleven when she encountered her first "real" artist. A real artist, she quickly ascertained, had a studio. "One of the baby-sitters in our neighborhood was a really good artist, and she had a studio set up in her basement," recalls Mary. "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."
The vacuum, mops, and towels came out, and Mary's supplies--a desk, a chair, and a pen-and-ink set--moved in. "We jammed all this furniture in there for me," she remembers with a laugh. "I'm sure it was about 110 degrees, but I happily sat in there, in the closet, and drew pictures."
This may have been the most obvious first step in Mary's independent, artistic development, but long before she moved into her first "studio," Mary had discovered that the act of drawing held an unmatchable allure. She simply loved to draw. And though she didn't realize it at the time, her apprenticeship was coming at the hands of some largely forgotten giants of the illustration world.
In Mary's preschool and early grammar school years, her mother (referred to here by her full name, Mary Lois, for the sake of clarity) would read to Mary and her younger sister, Alexa, every night. Mary Lois had an affinity for the lavishly illustrated storybooks that her own mother had read to her as a child and had preserved a large collection of her favorites. In a fortunate coincidence that would profoundly affect her oldest daughter's future, Mary Lois largely ignored popular children's books of the day in favor of the timeworn but beloved books of her own childhood.
It was obvious from the start that Mary shared her mother's enthusiasm for the old books. But Mary's mother soon grew to suspect that it wasn't always the rhyme or story that held her oldest daughter's interest. "I read to the girls every night," she remembers. "Every once in a while, Alexa would say that she was going to watch television, but Mary always stayed for the read. She loved the stories, but I think mainly she liked the pictures."
"They were different from anything that was being put out in the 1950s," explains Mary's mother of the vintage books. "They were old-fashioned looking. Mary always liked the old ones--the same way she likes old pictures of people. She has all kinds of old photographs of our relatives: my grandparents, her fathers grandparents, Phil's family ... old pictures. I guess she liked that from the beginning."
Mary liked the pictures in the antique storybooks so much, in fact, that she began to copy them. She'd spend countless hours with her mother's Raggedy Ann and Andy books, recreating the colorful, loosely rendered drawings by famed illustrator Johnny Gruelle. At other times she'd imitate the softer, more painterly style of artist Jessie Wilcox Smith, whose illustrations decorated many of the other vintage storybooks.
From these early-twentieth-century illustrators, Mary also picked up a habit that quickly became her artwork's stamp of authenticity. Many of the artists she emulated enclosed their signatures in boxes or circles, she explains. "So, I did it too. Engelbreit was way too long to write out, so I used my initials instead." The fact that her initials spell me is a pleasant coincidence and fitting for a woman who puts so much of herself into every drawing that she creates.
Young Mary even turned television viewing into artistic training as she copied characters from Popeye cartoons. "I also had the John Gnagy Learn To Draw kit," she says with a smile. "He was on TV every Saturday morning, and I would watch religiously. I would follow along with him and do all the lessons."
Her sister Alexa was occupied with her own childhood pursuits. Her parents were inclined to let their oldest daughter do what kept her happy, busy, and quiet. And Mary, in those often solitary hours, was teaching herself to draw.
"Mary's all-time dream was to illustrate children's books," her mother remembers. "That's what she talked about all the time. She just loved to look at those old books. She could envision those fairy tales coming to life."
Before too long, Mary's imagination began to carry her beyond the worlds created by the minds and pens of others. Naturally and instinctively, she moved from recreating to creating. "I taught myself to draw by copying," she explains, "but if you do that long enough, you start drawing your own little people."
In childhood, recurrent themes and characters often sprang from Mary's pen. One of the first "little people" to emerge has become synonymous with her work and, to many of her fans, synonymous with Mary herself. "The girl with the glasses in the hat and sailor suit," Mary says. "I've been drawing her in one farm or another since I was little, around ten or eleven."
As the only recurring character in Engelbreit's universe, the little girl with hat and glasses is the only figure to be honored with a name. Mary calls her Ann Estelle, after her grandmother on her mother's side. But while the name may be her grandmother's, the physical characteristics, audacious attitude, and quick wit are pure Mary. To those who know Mary and her work well, there's no doubt about who Ann Estelle really is.
Mary Engelbreit's illustrations depict childhood as a carefree time when best friends are made, promises are kept, and there is always time to dream. Her illustrations reflect the childhood she thinks every kid deserves, a childhood not too far removed from what she experienced growing up in a suburb of St. Louis.
Occasionally, a critic will charge that Mary's work is overly idealistic. "Some people think my artwork is a little too sweet," Mary admits. "They just flat out don't believe it, but what I draw is taken from my life. I had a fantastic time as a kid. I had a great family, and we lived in a fun neighborhood. A lot of people talk about how awful their childhoods were, and I feel so bad for them. I honestly had a wonderful childhood."
With adulthood, Mary admits, comes cynicism, but she tries to retain a child's innocence in her art. "When you're a kid, you don't see a lot of the negative stuff," she says. "I led a very protected, sheltered life, and I'm glad I did. I can't see anything wrong with that. I think it's ashame that kids today are exposed to so many hideous things. So, to people who say, `You're drawing an idealized world where you'd like to live,' I say, `Of course I am. What's wrong with that? Don't you wish you lived there, too?'"
Mary is the oldest of three sisters. Her youngest sister, Peggy, was born ten years after Mary, but only two years separate Mary and her middle sister, Alexa. The two older sisters grew up best friends and roommates. Together, they rode bikes and played in the woods, the creek, and later the construction sites that surrounded their suburban home. They played school in a little room their father built in the basement. Mary played teacher and all the other traditional big-sister roles. "I used to follow her around all the time," the younger sister says. "She was the leader in our family."
According to Alexa, her older sister hasn't changed much since they were kids. "She's always been headstrong ... always been honest," Alexa says. "She's very opinionated, just like my mother. She has her own beliefs, and she sticks to her guns."
Mary's mother remembers her eldest daughter as a willful child, "full of old-fashioned stick-to-itiveness." Mary is a little less charitable in describing herself as a girl. "I was bossy," she says with a laugh, admitting that the trait would later win her the well-known title: the Queen of Everything.
Although reading and drawing were always her overriding passions, Mary wasn't the type of child who practiced violin while the other kids played outside. "I was right in there--in the action with the rest of the kids," she says. "I did spend a lot of time alone--reading, drawing, or playing with the dollhouse my father made me, and I liked to be alone. It didn't bother me at all. But we also had a lot of kids in the neighborhood, and as I look back, I'm sure they all thought I was obnoxious. I was always the one directing everything, but we had a lot of fun."
Like her love of drawing, Mary's penchant for decorating and design surfaced at an early age. "My mother and I were always redecorating the house," she says. "My sisters didn't care about that at all, but Mom and I were always rearranging the furniture, and we'd go out and look at wallpaper for hours at a time."
Antique shopping was another passion shared by mother and daughter. Even today, Mary Lois will often receive a call from her daughter saying "I need a fix--let's go shopping."
Prowling antique stores together, they don't always agree on what constitutes a great find. Their difference in perspectives dates back to Mary's earliest purchases. "I collect baby plates," says the illustrator. "I bought the first one when I was twelve, at a flea market. I bought that plate because I loved the drawing on it. And I remember my mother saying to my father, `Do you see the stuff that this child picks out?' She thought they were odd things for a kid that age to want, but she definitely encouraged it. A lot of the collections I have now, I started when I was a little girl."
"She buys things that I remember from my childhood, which was the '30s," her mother explains. "She'll say, `Isn't this darling?' and I'll say, `No, I think it's horrible. I didn't like it then, and I don't like it now.' But she just loves that period."
Mary doesn't exactly know why, but she admits to having a weakness for products from the '20s and '30s, and not just for children's books and baby plates--her fondness for the period extends to architecture, furniture design, and especially toys.
When Mary's on a junkstore junket, antique toys are among her favorite quarry. She's drawn to the old toys, she says, for the same reasons she favors antique books. "Great design, great color.
They're just very friendly looking. They're not overdesigned to within an inch of their lives," she says. "Now things are mass produced. I think part of the charm of the older stuff is that it's closer to being handmade. It's a little more personal--a little more human."
Mary has always been a voracious reader. According to her husband, she often goes through three to five books a week. As a child, reading and drawing proved to be highly symbiotic activities. "I loved to read, and I would draw pictures to go with the stories I read," she explains. "That's really why I started drawing.
Among her favorite books were The Secret Garden, Jane Eyre, The Little Princess, and the Nancy Drew series. "All those `girl books' mostly," she says, "but I'd read anything." When she set down a book, she'd pick up her pen. "I wouldn't necessarily draw a scene from the book, but I would draw a girl dressed like the girls in the book," she says. "I would draw little scenes from that time."
Her illustrating supplies were minimal. By the time she'd set up her linen closet studio, she had foregone crayons for a more professional medium. "All I used was a bottle of ink and a pen," she recalls, "because I read somewhere that that's what some famous illustrator used. I never colored anything in."
At about the age of ten, Mary first encountered the work of writer and illustrator Joan Walsh Anglund. The discovery would have a profound effect on the budding artist. "She was a major inspiration to me," Mary says of the artist who became well-known for her small, often inspirational gift books. "I mean, she just drove my life for a while. That was the very first time I had ever seen a little book like that, a picture book that was for children and adults. They were five by seven inches with one sentence and one little illustration on each page. I just loved them. I'd ask at the bookstore when they expected a new one in, and I'd be so excited while I waited for it. Then I'd buy it and try to imitate her." Anglund's spare illustration style seemed accessible to the young artist "They were pretty simple drawings," explains Mary, "and I thought, `I could do this.'"
More than thirty years later, Engelbreit's gift books dominate the same industry that Anglund's work helped create, a fact that Mary still has trouble believing. "As a matter of fact, I was so thrilled when I went into our neighborhood bookstore not long ago and went to the gift book section--it's always filled with Joan Walsh Anglund's little books. Well, there were my books right next to hers! It's so wonderful! I felt like I had come full circle."
A Little Book About Books
A passion for reading and the early influence of writer/illustrator Joan Walsh Anglund led Mary to write and produce her own book at age eleven. She titled the twenty-page volume A Little Book about Books and gave it to her mother as a birthday gift in 1963.
Although Mary's family always encouraged her in her artistic endeavors, the Engelbreit household was not particularly artistic. "I don't know where she got her talent," her mother says. "I can't draw a straight line. And my mother used to say she'd draw chickens with three legs, so it didn't come from us." But Mary's mother knew enough to recognize that her daughter had special gifts--of determination as well as artistic ability. "Her father would say, `Mary, can't you do anything but draw? Go do your homework! Go do something!' But we could both see that she had talent, and we thought that it was marvelous."
Her sister Alexa tended to take Mary's hobby in stride. "Alexa wasn't really interested," Mary remembers. "That's just what I did, and she went off and did her things." Mary's art was simply a fact of life in the Engelbreit household. Alexa remembers that once while she was playing, she heard her mother call repeatedly for Mary to come and set the table. Alexa went instead, telling her mother matter-of-factly, "I'll do it, Mom--Mary's drawing." They knew even then that when Mary was drawing, it was serious business.
Mary's first experience mixing business and art came at an early age. Her mother remembers, "Mary's father built the girls a playhouse in the yard. They loved it, but I guess after awhile it wasn't exciting enough as a house and Mary decided she wanted to make a store out of it. She painted combs and barrettes, rocks and driftwood, doll furniture, all kinds of stuff, and she opened her store." The twelve-year-old Mary proved to be a savvy shopkeeper. "She sold a lot of stuff to the neighborhood kids and kids from her school," her mother recalls. But when Mary decided to expand her inventory, problems ensued. The store was forced to close when Mary sold her mother's graduation dress. Mary had neglected to get the supplier's permission first.
Mary's mother Laughs about the incident now and holds the store up as a prime example of her daughter's fierce determination. "She decided to have a store, and come hell or high water, she was going to have a store," Mary Lois says. "Mary was relentless. So, when she said she was going to be an artist, I didn't doubt her. I knew she was going to do something with her art. I didn't know what, but I knew she'd do something."
Mary's schoolmates were also well aware of her artistic aspirations, and they didn't hesitate to press their talented classmate into service. All through high school, friends would ask, "Will you do a birthday card for my boyfriend?" Of course, this didn't pay much, but it did wonders for the confidence of a somewhat shy girl--and provided her with lots of practice. Mary never minded obliging them--she was going to draw anyway; someone may as well put her efforts to good use.
The subjects of Mary's work in her junior high and high school days were probably typical of any adolescent girl growing up in the '60s. Even then, she was illustrating quotes, mostly favorite lyrics from the songs of Joni Mitchell and Crosby, Stills and Nash. She drew nature scenes of mountains, flowers, and cozy cottages tucked among the hills. There were remnants from her storybooks, too, like elves, fairies, and wizards. And there were lots of little girls. The children she drew were thin limbed, often doe-eyed, and curiously, frequently footless. Mary had a terrible time getting feet to look right, so often she simply ended the drawing at the ankles. The frequent appearance of hats on the little girls is evidence of a lifelong Engelbreit insecurity. "I've always hated my hair," Mary explains with a laugh, "so for a long time, I drew my girls with hats and no hair." Not surprisingly, many of the little girls she drew also wore glasses.
The fact that Mary loved drawing in high school is no surprise, but she also excelled in a less likely area: drama. Although she battled fierce stage fright before performances, Mary found great artistic satisfaction once on stage. "I loved it, and I think I was really good at it," she says. Good enough, in fact, that after graduation she was offered and accepted membership in a local theater group in St. Louis. "Acting and drawing were similar in that you get to create a whole situation--any situation you want," she explains. The difference, of course, is that you don't have to draw in front of an audience, and that difference would spell the end of Mary's thespian aspirations. "I was cast in a play, and I panicked," she explains. "I quit, and haven't done it since." It may be the only artistic project that Mary has started and failed to finish.
Mary's classmates' enthusiasm for her handmade cards was all the encouragement she needed to take her hobby (and her passion) to the next level. Inspiration struck during a visit to one of her favorite neighborhood shops. On the following page, Mary recalls the day she struck her first distribution deal.
"Foelich's was a very nice card and gift shop. They sold all kinds of greeting cards, little painted wooden figures from Germany and some really beautiful German toys. My friends and I would always end up there on Saturdays and spend what little money we had. So one day I went in with some cards like the ones I had made for my friends at school and asked the couple who ran the store if they would sell them. I remember the day. I was very nervous, but I was so happy when they said they'd put them in their shop. And they sold them all! I couldn't make them fast enough. She'd call and say,'Well, I need about four dozen more,' and `Could you do some birthday and some wedding ...' She'd call with an order every week, but I didn't mind because they were really simple. They paid me a quarter for each card and sold them for fifty cents apiece. Eventually, they raised the price to one dollar and paid me a handsome fifty cents apiece! " --Mary Engelbreit
Looking hack now, Mary marvels at the popularity of those early cards. "People would wait for them and buy them as soon as I delivered them--and they were so ugly," she laughs, "truly horrible!" But despite Mary's harsh critique of her early work, she believed in it enough and was buoyed enough by her success to never question that she would someday make her living as an artist.
Mary was never shy about revealing her future profession to family members, teachers, or friends. But one declaration in particular stays with her mother. "One day I was cleaning the house, and I was showing Mary how to clean the bathroom and sweep down the stairs with a whisk broom," Mary Lois recalls. Mary, however, failed to see relevance in the lesson. Ann Estelle herself would have been proud of Mary's response to her mother's attempted domestic tutorial. "Mary said to me, `Mother, I don't have to know how to do that. I'm going to be an artist and I'm going to have a maid.' She was willing to pull her share of the load," her mother explains, "but she didn't want to devote her life to learning how to clean the house." (Mary laughs about this now and muses, "Why I thought being an artist and having a maid were Connected, I'll never know.")
Though Mary's desire and talent were never a question, the practical matter of becoming an artist, and specifically a book illustrator, was a mystery to Mary. Her parents' support was unconditional and unwavering, but beyond their encouragement, they had no real practical knowledge or experience to impart to their talented daughter.
"I thought it was marvelous that she loved drawing so much, and I knew she had talent, but I knew nothing about art." her mother explains. "I certainly couldn't guide her, although I would tell her if I didn't like something. I never said, `Oh that's wonderful' if it wasn't. She had to educate herself about it. She just slowly built the knowledge she needed. Looking back now, I don't know that she knew exactly what she was doing, but she did the right things."
She didn't find much artistic guidance at school either. Little attention was paid to fine arts in either the elementary school or high school that Mary attended. In grade school, art class was conducted only once each week. High school was worse. She wasn't allowed to take art or drama because her grades weren't good enough.
Her love of drawing continued to grow, but what she learned was gleaned from her mother's antique picture books and her own experimentation, not from any teacher or mentor.
One incident in a fourth-grade art class remains with Mary to this day and reminds her of the frustration she often felt in school:
Once, in grade school, we had the assignment of drawing a bowl of fruit. At the end of class one day I put my picture away, and the next time we had art, it was gone. I wanted to start over, but the teacher said, `Oh no. You lost it. That's your responsibility. You're just going to have to sit here while the rest of us draw this fruit.' Well, I knew somebody took it. It certainly wasn't my fault! I remember I was absolutely furious that they wouldn't let me draw that stupid bowl of fruit over. I thought, `Who is this going to hurt? What in the world is going on here?' I was so irritated. I'm still irritated! I had to sit there while everyone else drew pictures. It made no sense to me and I think that's where my lifelong distrust of schools began. --Mary Engelbreit
Always among the brightest students throughout most of her tenure in grade school, Mary's interest began to wane in junior high. "I was a really good student in elementary school," she remembers, "but I hit seventh grade and just quit. I was not interested at all. I got terrible grades, and it kind of got worse as it went on."
Yet, even as she rejected schools, her love of reading, like her love of drawing, remained unshakable. "When they'd give us a reading list for the summer, I would read every book on it," she says. "You know, you're supposed to pick out five books to read, but I'd go through the whole list. I really loved reading. But then I'd be so annoyed when I'd get back to school after the summer, and the teacher would ask, "In what chapter did such and such happen?" just to make sure you'd read the book. Nobody was really interested in talking about the book. It was so frustrating. My distrust of school deepened into intense dislike."
Her mother was aware of her daughter's discouragement. "I knew she was bright, and her teachers knew she was bright, but she didn't apply herself the way she could have. It just wasn't in her to do that. Her teachers would say, `Mary never participates in class. That's a big part of her grade.' I'd tell her, `Mary, just raise your hand. Answer some of the questions.' And she'd say, `Mother, I know what they're talking about, why do I have to raise my hand?' How do you answer that? I told her it was part of her grade ... but she couldn't wait to get out of school, to do what she wanted to do."
Back to the top