Q&A: Mary Engelbreit on Art as Activism and Doing Something About It

Mary Engelbreit has the market cornered on good vibes. The St. Louis area based illustrative artist is best known for her endearing pictures on American Greetings cards or puzzles and journals. Her work can be found around the world.

But, in 2014, she became an unlikely voice among the shock of the Michael Brown murder and the emergence of Black Lives Matter. During the Ferguson unrest, Engelbreit posted a sketched image titled ‘No One Teach’ and posted it to her Facebook page.

‘No One Teach’ is an image far less consistent than the typical Engelbreit message of carefree sunny days where rosy-cheeked children pluck sunflowers. In it, a mother cries. She’s holding her toddler-sized son on her lap. She’s reading the newspaper. ‘Hands up! Don’t shoot’ is the headline. Her son’s arms stretch up into the air. Framing the two are the words, “no one should have to teach their children this in the USA.” 

Reality had pounded its way through Engelbreit’s world. The next day, she awoke to an online storm of ridicule and praise. Some fans vowed never to return. Others swore they would buy more of her art. Engelbreit defended her work and in the following years created more.

Today, she is still churning out the characteristic scenes she’s known for. But, now her website has a tab for social justice prints where 50 percent of the profits go to Planned Parenthood, Southern Poverty Law Center or the Native American Rights Fund.

Engelbreit chatted with Ms. about her creative process, how her business has changed since she first posted “No One Teach” and her most recent sketches benefiting Planned Parenthood and the Standing Rock movement.

In times of struggle, art has always been a mirror into how a culture is doing. What part do you think you play in the U.S. political climate today?

I’ve been doing this [art business] for over 40 years. And then when Michael Brown was killed in St. Louis by the police, I thought, ‘well I can do something’. I guess I was expressing my grief and my outrage, which I never did before because you don’t want to alienate customers or licenses. I didn’t tell anyone in my office that I was going to post it, I just did it one night. It got a lot of attention, so we decided to raise money with the print. And I thought this is a good way for me to use my art talent; to raise money for causes that I’m interested in. And, if people aren’t interested in those causes then they don’t have to buy that print.

So, it wasn’t too much of a thought process, you just drew it out and posted it?

Just that night. It was such an awful thing and I felt so bad for his mother [Lezley McSpadden], having to look at him lying dead in the road for four hours while all these people tried to get their stories straight. My son died 15 years ago, my oldest son. He was shot and we’re not really sure what happened. The police said it was a suicide but we don’t know. At any rate, I understood the pain she was feeling and I think that’s what triggered the drawing.

So, you drew ‘No One Teach’ that night and, I assume, you eventually went to bed?

And thought “oh no I’ve just ruined by 40-year-old business!” But I hadn’t. There have been a lot of responses, but mainly good. I would say that for every follower we lost on the Facebook side, we gained two or three more. So, it actually it all worked out in the end. But, I was pretty panic stricken on that first day.

Some artists may have dipped their toe into stating their opinions, then after shirking something they may have stepped away because of the occasional negative feedback. But, then you decided to create another print, then another?

Because it [police shootings] keeps happening. And now of course it’s only going to get worse with this person, this president. It’s mind-boggling. What’s terrifying are the people who think that the way he got into office is perfectly fine, and what he’s doing and the people he’s hired is perfectly fine.

I don’t like posting these things and getting these hideous comments and backlash that really didn’t occur in my life before I posted these things. I know the next day is going to be ugly. But you just cannot sit back and do nothing while this kind of thing goes on. I don’t have any plans to stop what I usually do, and that’s what I mostly do—the books and the greeting cards and the calendars. That’s what I do for a living.

So you recognize that the next couple days might be annoying, the ugly comments.

Yeah they certainly have been.

It seems like it, if these people claiming that they actually were following you before—if that actually is true—they’re outnumbered by people posting on your Facebook page saying positive things, encouraging you for your social justice prints.

And, yes, that is nice. But what I don’t understand is that if they [the negative commenters] have been following me, where have they been? I’ve been doing this for a while now and I don’t know why it comes as a surprise to them.

It’s a little confusing, at first, when all the ugly comments start coming in. I basically walk around with a headache. But then the supportive comments start coming in and the sales shoot up and we make a lot of money for Planned Parenthood or for Black Lives Matter or the Southern Poverty Law Center, and so it’s worth it.

Can you talk a little bit about the ‘Our Bodies, Our Business, Our Rights’ print?

First we offered this ‘Our Bodies, Our Business, Our Rights’ print as a free download for people to make signs for the Women’s March or put it on a t-shirt or whatever they wanted. And then we just decided to do a high-quality print and give a percentage of the proceeds to Planned Parenthood. When you do that, you have to publicize it, you can’t just hope that a few people will see it on the website. You have to put it out there, that it’s available. And I knew that we’d get a lot of flack when we did the free download. I knew that it would happen again with this. But, it’s okay.

I did see a few signs from your Women’s March download dispersed throughout the Boston March.

It was cool because people sent pictures from literally all over the world. People had downloaded the illustration and made signs, so I have pictures of people. I was going to go March, too, but I was actually ill and couldn’t go. So people started sending in all these photographs from all over the world of people carrying the sign and it was really cool. So, I had kinda been there.

Where were some of the countries and areas that you received photos?

France. England. Australia. And this country, of course. It was cool to see.

Do you think that your customer base has shifted since you posted your first social justice print?

We’ve had a lot of younger people interested in my website and my drawings, so that’s a huge plus… I think it came because of the social justice stuff. I’ve been around so long and a lot of kids grew up with it, so they’ve had it when they were little. They look at it [my work] like it’s their mother’s or their grandmother’s kind of thing. And with these prints we did manage to bring in a whole new crowd, which was really a lot of fun.

Looking at your past illustrations and some on your website, you’ve always been speaking your mind about topics that are important to you. For instance, you have a print of a little girl cutting out images of whales and putting them into a cut-out book with a caption under it ‘save the whales.’

And I was like 36 years old when I did that. It’s been a while. Why are people are surprised?

So this has always been you being you?

Yeah, I’m not drawing just to make a buck. I mean, I’m happy to make a buck. But, I draw because that’s what I do and that’s how I express myself. So I’ve always put the things that are important to me into my drawing. When I can, obviously. Most of them are greeting cards and calendars, but it’s always fun when you can find a really good quote and illustrate it and hope that it opens some eyes or some hearts.

With what you’ve experienced raising your voice about topics that are important to you, do you have any advise for other artists or others not sure what to make of the current political climate in the U.S. or which direction to take?

Well no I don’t, because everybody’s business is different. I wouldn’t have done this so blatantly probably even 10 years ago—not that there was that much reason like there is now. I probably wouldn’t have done it so blatantly because I have a business and there are artists out there who just are starting out or in the middle of their business and they can’t afford to alienate customers.

I’m going to be 65. I’m celebrating my 40th anniversary of being in the licensing business this year so I’ve been doing this a long time. I feel that I’ve done my part. Now I’m going to do exactly what I want and you know exactly what I feel. And if some[customers] don’t like it, they don’t have to buy it.

I just feel very strongly about these issues and I feel like if you can do something then you should do something. If you feel strongly about it, it doesn’t do any good to sit at home and say ‘what are we going to do?’ Call somebody. Show up at somebody’s office. Go to one of the marches, do something.

What projects are your working on now?

This month I’m working on the 2019 calendar, I just started that. And I’m working on a new coloring book. So, I’ve always got a lot of things going on. There used to be a break back in the day when people would just buy things closer to Christmas but now this kind of work you’re just doing it 24/7. It’s fine with me.

Engelbreit is offering a free download for the March for Science on Saturday, April 27.

Kristen Strezo is an award-winning writer and journalist who focuses on women’s issues, caregiving and elder care in America. She has written for Harvard Magazine, Penn Stater, Library Journal and Harvardwood, among others, and is currently writing a book on caregiving and its toll on American women. She has a Masters degree in journalism from Harvard University Extension. Follow her @strezo_is_write.

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  1. Nicole T says:

    I would ask Ms. Strezo whether she recognizes that she is centering whiteness in this article. There are many, many WoC artists creating feminist work who didn’t start only in 2014 – and whose work I have not seen promoted with a Ms interview. The reason Ms. Engelbreit’s facebook fans were so shocked is that her work, for the last 40 years, has been 95% smiling little white girls with blonde curls. The images she has created in “dipping her toes” into social justice art are mainly based in cultural appropriation. I would encourage both Ms. Strezo and Ms. Engelbreit to question their work through the lens of intersectionality.

    • Robin S says:

      Wow. How about – isn’t it awesome that Mary was profiled – her art is incredibly beautiful, empowering, inclusive and has featured people of every color and ethnicity for years. There is room for EVERYONE to be catalyzed to speak up for what they believe in. If we are all trying to right the wrongs, what is the point of picking on your own team? Save that negative energy for something else. Cultural appropriation and intersectionality are not the point here. An amazing artist was featured and interviewed. Would it be more credible if she were a victim of social injustice herself? Lets not bend over backwards and trip ourselves trying to be so precious the focus comes off the injustice and onto those who are doing their part to change it. Have you walked in Mary’s shoes?

    • kate lyons says:

      You must not be familiar with her work…I was introduced to it back in the early 90’s when she did a poster for the AIDS quilt and allowed us to use it, free of charge, for all of our exhibitions. I have been a fan since and think that she represents diversity wonderfully!!!

    • Karen in Santa Fe says:

      Oh my, Nicole. You really need to look more closely at Mary’s work. Your 95% characteristic is far from the mark. And to highlight her work does NOT denigrate the admirable social justice work of any other artist. We benefit from all voices raised together.

    • Why does it have to questioned?

    • Never, ever ever ever is it necessary to criticize someone for becoming woke enough to stand up and speak our regardless of consequences. I have been an activist since I came out of the womb and I know the courage it takes to stick your neck out. We are human beings — all of us come from the same source and the same genetic root. Why do we have to fight so hard, when we are on the same side? Why do I feel so offended by this post? Cultural appropriation? It’s like being called any of the innumerable gun shot words. Like racist, no matter what your heart feels, because we collude in a racist world. We are stuck in a paradigm, a system, we are trying to change, those of us who are trying to change it… and we must. We must see that this is a system and comments like this just fit right into the system. Art like this is attempting to join the movement of movements to shift that system to one of love, compassion, partnership instead of domination. Please look deeper… all of us, and our children and our future and the future of the planet depends upon us softening and looking deeper and seeing through our holier than thou defenses… where is the love and support for what we truly want… a far more thriving world in every way… which starts with our relationships.

  2. Linda korte says:

    My hero. Love the article. Spread the word

  3. Dorothy Bartlett says:

    I’ve always loved Mary Engelbreits’ art. Now that I find she is a feminist I love her even more. There will always be haters. Her art has been about empowerment and beauty of soul.

  4. Nancy Docken says:

    I wasn’t a fan of Ms. Engelbreit’s work in the early years. It was always too “frilly” for my taste. Nevertheless, she persisted, and won me over because her art has developed a strength and a heart. There are always critics. You’ll always reach too far for some and never far enough for others. I hope you’ll always reach as far as your heart leads you.

    Well done!

  5. Barbara says:

    Yikes many love her work! Glad to see these new ones with social justice themes! But hey I am an activist if more than 40 years on a variety of women’s issues and justice issues! Every artist creates her own area and each has value! These works may teach people new to issues ! Sorry that political correctness colors this good article!

  6. Some people express themselves and their opinions through big protests and demonstrations. Other prefer more…subtle…methods. Thank you very much for sharing her expressions to all of us!

  7. Vicki B says:

    For those of you who don’t know Mary Engelbreit’s story, you should really look into an article or two about her adult life. Also find some pics of her family. You might be surprised. Everyone has a story. I love her work! I love that she does stand up for what she believes and shares it in her art. We can all find strength together! Thank you Mary Engelbreit! I have certainly carried her art at marches and I will again. (Loved the science poster It’s A Thing also, but not shown here). Thank you, Kristen Strezo, for a really good article bringing a little more light to our world and featuring an artist I admire so much!

  8. Cathy Gould says:

    First saw Mary’s art in the early 80s, and loved her immediately because she often used bright colors and black accents. She wasn’t ‘cutesy’, and her quotes and her own captions were apt and clever. One of her main characters was Black, fairly unusual even then. One of my favorite illustrations, on friendship, had a child in a wheelchair, and several had glasses.
    Then, as I found everything of hers I could, I saw more and more captions on equal rights, and fairness. I saw her art for the AIDS quilt.
    She (too briefly) had a magazine, which featured folks of various ethnicities doing good works for others of various ethnicities.d
    Then, her No One Teach cemented my love forever. I knew she had lost a son to a gunshot of undecided origin, from an early article I had read, though she didn’t immediately cite that as a reason for the drawing. She shouldn’t have had to. Most mothers, parents, humans can empathise with the pain of losing a child. The fact that some people felt the need to “racialise” it appalled me. (Besides the fact that there is No Such Thing As Race because it is a man-made construct created from fear of melanin and needing to Feel superior without Being superior) the idea that only people of equal melanin can empathise with a mother’s pain is just So Wrong.
    Anyway, her page of free downloads for the Marches is wonderful, and her recent page of Social Justice fine prints gives 50% of the profits from those sales to the ACLU, with a clear explanation why.
    Mary Engelbreit is one of my rarified favourite handful of artists for so many reasons (have you found her “Mary Engeldark” pages? Delicious!

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