Are you surprised to hear that fans want to know if you're a real person?
Well, I'm used to it now. People come up to me all the time and say, "I didn't realize you were a real person." They think I'm a fictitious character, like Aunt Jemima or Betty Crocker - or was Betty Crocker real? It is funny, though.
How did you develop your own style?
I taught myself by copying, but if you do that long enough, you start drawing your own little people, which for me happened when I was just about eight.
Where do the old-fashioned touches come from?
One source is the books my mother kept from her own childhood. She passed them on to me, so I was exposed early on to the work of classic children's book illustrators, like Johnny Gruelle, who did the Raggedy Ann and Andy books. For a long time, I practiced recreating something of their styles and, as a result, they are certainly influences.
Do you ever regret not going to art school?
Not at all. By the time I had reached my senior year in high school, I was ready to get to work. Besides, as a result of being on my own, nobody was ever telling me that this was or wasn't the way to do it, so I just drew the way I wanted to, and it happened to be different than anything else that was out there. Honestly, if I had been in school I don't think that I would be doing what I do.
What was your first job?
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 all kinds of working artists, and I realized that I really could make a living as an artist, despite whatever the nuns at high school told me. 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.
What medium do you use to create your art?
I use mostly colored markers. Before that, I did only black-and-white drawings because I was terrified I would ruin them if I used color. I moved on to colored pencils, and then I discovered markers. I'd do pen-and-ink outlines, follow that with markers, and then colored pencils to shade and highlight. Now I use colored pencils to completely color over the markers, which preserves the markers. Everybody thinks it's paint, but I actually can't paint, though someday I'd like to learn.
Who is your most famous "little person," Ann Estelle?
Ann Estelle was named after my maternal grandmother, but I suppose as a character she's actually me, my alter ego. I've been drawing her since I was really little, and she used to not have any hair, or I'd hide her hair under a big hat - like I did with my own. Eventually, though, I had to give her some. I also gave her the title my family gave me as a child because I was so bossy: "The Queen of Everything."
What would be your ideal working conditions?
I would do all my drawing in an empty house, and meals would magically appear at the appropriate times.
Have you ever considered going away to someplace very remote to work?
After two days, I'd be ready to jump out of my skin. No, I like to go to cities like New York and Los Angeles because traveling really helps give me fresh ideas. Or I take a long drive and stop when I see something interesting, like an antique shop or flea market. I especially love to hit flea markets.
Do you collect something in particular?
I collect a lot. My family calls it my "stuff." I have a weakness for products from the 1920s and 1930s, not just the books, but also furniture and toys. They're friendly looking. They're not over-designed to within an inch of their lives. Now things are mass-produced. I think part of the charm of older stuff is that it's closer to being handmade. It's a little more personal, a little more human.
How rigid are you about your schedule?
I don't make myself draw every day. There's nothing more demoralizing than sitting down in front of a piece of paper and having nothing come out. I'd rather just go off and do something else. Then all of a sudden, I'll get an idea. It usually happens at inconvenient moments, so I have to quickly scramble to write it down, invariably on the back of a napkin.
You use words rather than a sketch?
My work is very word-oriented, so it's the best way for me to capture an image. I get a lot of ideas from reading too. That's obvious with all the Proust, Goethe and Emerson quotes sprinkled in my work. But I'm just as enthusiastic about reading the backs of cereal boxes.
Why do you think people connect so well with your work?
A lot of people write and tell me that they buy one card for a friend and one for themselves so they'll remember a particular moment in their lives. It's great to know I can have that kind of impact on people. I don't think it's any coincidence that I found my audience at the time I started having kids, in the early 1980s. Before that, I was drawing fantasy, fairy tales, castles, dragons - bizarre things like that. After kids, your whole life shifts. Plus, the things happening were more interesting to me than unicorns and castles. And since we lived the same kind of life everyone else seemed to be living, I figured these things must be interesting to other people, too. So I started illustrating them, the way I felt about them. Everything filtered through that experience and the everyday experiences of my friends and family. I just started depicting the events, ideas and values that were important to me - and still are.
You've drawn about 4,000 images over your career. What's the most popular of all time?
"Life Is Just a Chair of Bowlies," probably. Funny, when you consider that this card was rejected by a greeting card company in 1979. My friends loved it. That idea, incidentally, was also a found quote - an old boyfriend's father said it.
You've gotten fan letters from some very famous people - like Mary Tyler Moore, Rosie O'Donnell, Naomi and Wynonna Judd, and Al Gore, who once used one of your posters in an environmental presentation. Does it get any better than this?
Once I was at a book signing in a tiny little bookstore in Santa Fe. A really lovely girl came up with her two beautiful kids, and they had me sign a couple of books. She was very sweet. She said, "I just want you to know that, next to my grandfather, you are my favorite artist and my children's favorite artist." I asked who her grandfather was, and she said, "N.C. Wyeth." I almost fell out of my chair. That's one of the highest compliments I've ever been paid.
Do people recognize you in public?
It seems to be happening more and more. Even flight attendants sometimes know me. Probably the most memorable incident happened several years back, when Will was 11 and I went to pick him up at the skating rink. There was a big crowd of kids following him, and when he saw me he came running toward the car, jumped in, and said, "Go! Go! Go!" I couldn't go because there were 50 little girls running toward the car. They all came up to the windows and asked, "Are you really Mary Engelbreit? Is he really your son?" Will was somewhat horrified but also pleased to discover he had a built-in way to impress girls. Finally, one bewildered little boy in the crowd brought us back to reality. He said, "What do you do? Who are you?" And I said, "You wouldn't know me - it's a girl thing."
What is the strangest rumor that you have heard about yourself?
That I was married to NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw and drove a BMW!
How do you handle criticism of your work?
Some people think my artwork is a too sweet or cutesy. 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. 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?"
Do you have any advice for young artists?
Experiment. Be adventurous. Try a lot of different things. Who cares if it doesn't work out? It's only paper! We actually have a whole section on our website devoted to artists, especially aspiring artists who want advice on how to break into the licensing business.
Your cards and books and gifts sell millions, and you have dozens of licensed manufacturers, which is an amazing achievement. Would you still be an artist if you were a starving one?
Absolutely! The major pleasure for me is just the act of drawing. It's such a wonderful feeling. I know it's ridiculous, but I think, "What do people do if they don't draw?" Of course, they probably have their own thing, something completely different, but what if they don't? It's just that I want everyone to feel that marvelous sense of contentment at least a few times in their lives. And to be able to make a living from drawing - I just can't describe what it's like. It's the most satisfying thing I can possibly think of doing. I'm just so fortunate.