FAQ with Mary
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'm actually not that great at painting-- though someday I'd like to take the time to learn.
Are you surprised to hear that fans want to know if you're a real person?
Well, I'm used to it now. That doesn't happen very often anymore. People used to come up to me all the time and say, "I didn't realize you were a real person." They thought I was a fictitious character, like Aunt Jemima or Betty Crocker—or was Betty Crocker real? At any rate, I am.
How did you develop your own style?
I taught myself by copying old illustrations from my mother's storybooks, and if you do that long enough, you start developing your own style, which for me happened slowly but surely..
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.
Who is that little blonde girl in the hat and glasses you always draw?
That's just a little character I came up with, called Ann Estelle. I named her after my maternal grandmother, but I suppose she's sort of like my alter ego. She's the only recurring character I draw.
What would be your ideal working conditions?
I would do all my drawing in a little cottage by the sea, and meals would magically appear at the appropriate times.
How rigid are you about your schedule?
Not very. 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.
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 so many images over your career. What's the most popular of all time?
It's hard to tell. "Life Is Just a Chair of Bowlies," is probably the most recognizable. Funny, when you consider that this card was originally rejected by a greeting card company in 1979. They couldn't imagine anyone you would send it to, but my friends loved it.
Who are some of the artists that you admire?
So many, including Joan Walsh Anglund, Norman Rockwell and Georgia O'Keefe. 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.
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!
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.