PLP#4 Mary Engelbreit: So Much More Than Cute

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© Sue Shanahan 2017

Porch Light People: Individuals who are fully themselves. They are not influenced by “shoulds” from the culture or other people. They instead live from their inner light.

For my mother, who always told me anything was possible. – Inscription from, Mary Engelbreit: The Art and the Artist

My subject for this Porch Light Profile is illustrator, Mary Engelbreit. Hailing from St. Louis, Missouri, she is best known for her endearing greetings cards, children’s books, calendars and journals. Her drawings are described as nostalgic and cute (“Nothing wrong with cute,” says Mary.). She is one of my all time favorite artists. I’ve been a fan of her wry humor since I first came upon her art as a young mother. Not only was I attracted to her illustrations, but I connected to the thought provoking quotations she incorporated into them. Oftentimes, those hopeful words where a beacon of light to me. Mary felt like a wise friend pointing me in the right direction. To this day, I have a print she signed for me hanging in my studio.

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Mary’s message to me, “Believe, Sue! “

Mary’s childhood was the perfect launchpad 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 because 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.”

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. After that suggestion Mary knew she didn’t want to work in advertising, “I tossed his advice aside and kept on going.”

At 22, Mary met her future husband, Phil Delano. They were married three years later. Even in the early stages of her 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. This year they’re celebrating Mary’s 40th anniversary of being in business.

Mighty Good Husband

Mary based the knight on her husband.

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 by a gunshot wound. The details are blurry as to whether it was self-inflicted or murder. After 17 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 is great. She basically saved our lives.”

After her son passed on, 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.”  

Previous 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 In the USA protesting gun violence and posted it on Facebook. 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.

In the USA

Click to purchase print.

Speaking her truth created a backlash Mary wasn’t prepared for. She confided that when she put In the USA on Facebook, “Some people responded to it by posting ugly, ugly things.” She has come to terms with that though. Being herself is something she won’t compromise. She may have lost some followers, but in the end, they were replaced by others who support her views. Mary now sells prints of that image on her website. 50 percent of the proceeds go to the Southern Poverty Law Center. And without as much as a backward glance, she goes on her “Mary” way.

“So I just went on my merry way and produced the kind of art I wanted to see.” –Mary Engelbreit

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*Coming up next: Profile of #1 New York Times best-selling author, Pam Grout

Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

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The Magic of Creativity

Snuggle Bunny

“Listen to the music inside. Can’t you hear what it says to you?” – Van Morrison

As an artist, I try to honor the muse that guides me. Over time, I’ve gotten better at paying attention and following its lead. Years before I was a grandmother, an idea took residence in my heart. I could clearly see a blue-eyed, blond haired baby, around six months old, being hugged by his mama. Around them were written the words, “Snuggle bunny, you’re my honey.” I neatly folded and tucked this concept away to be brought to life when I had a grandchild.

I became a grandmother for the first time in the spring of 2014. Shortly after my son, Brian, and his wife, Pam, announced they were having a boy, I began my search for the perfect bunny outfit for him to wear in my “Snuggle Bunny” illustration. One thing was certain, I did not want my grandson wearing a costume in which he could be mistaken for a girl. After combing the internet, I came across a darling grey, hooded sweater with bunny ears. Perfect. I was all set to photograph my grandbaby wearing it when the time was right. Now all I had to do was be patient and let the rest of the pieces of the puzzle fall into place.

Cameron John Shanahan was welcomed into the world on April 8th. I was over the moon for him. I couldn’t wait for my grandson to be six months old so I could draw him as my “Snuggle Bunny.”

When Cam was around three months old, Pam sent me the most endearing selfie she had taken of them together. In it there was something so enchanting about the look of wonder on my grandchild’s face. They reminded me of sea creatures looking through a porthole. Because Pam is enamored with the ocean, I had envisioned painting a watercolor of her and Cam as mermaids, but not until he was a toddler. Seeing that selfie changed all of that. Bam, my creative juices were flowing now! I began working on a mermaid portrait based on that image. It would be the perfect Christmas present for their little family.

Pam and Cam selfie

Pam and Cam selfie

Meanwhile, on November 17th, our oldest son, Rob, and his wife, Emily, gave birth to our second grandchild, Logan James. My husband and I were overwhelmed with joy. I couldn’t wait to capture our newest grandchild’s essence in a painting. I was certain the perfect scenario to place him in would be revealed after I got to know him.

Humming in the background, was my quest to get the perfect picture of Cameron in the rabbit sweater. He was already past the age I had envisioned for the baby in my bunny illustration. One day in December, I asked his mom to bring the bunny sweater over with Cameron, so I could photograph him in it. I had decided to move forward without having her in the illustration, as she had already been included in the mermaid portrait with her little guy. At one point, I thought that maybe Logan was the baby I’d seen in my mind’s eye, but quickly dismissed the thought. No, I had bought the sweater for Cam before he was even born. I felt bound to my original plan.

After Cameron arrived, I began trying to make him smile for the camera, but he would have none of it. He sat stone-faced as I tried to make him laugh. I gave up. Letting go of my inflexibility opened the door for Logan to come through. I came to the realization that he was the baby I had envisioned all along. With his blue eyes, blond hair and chubbiness, he was the snuggle bunny I had visualized!

Cameron

Cameron being very unsmiley indeed.

I immediately began making plans to photograph Logan with his mom when he was six months old. I pictured the background of the painting being a wash of yellow— sunny like Logan and Emily. I would ask his mother to wear blue to match Logan’s eyes. Relaxing my grip allowed for the realization that the sweater had to go too. Instead, I found the softest, plushest, bunny-eared bath blanket to wrap Logan’s chubbiness in. I began to “see” him with a carrot rattle in his hand. I googled “carrot rattles” and to my surprise, I easily found one. Finally getting the concept on paper was a full-circle moment for me. The image was a gift that had been given to me to pass on to my son and his family. As I type this, “Snuggle Bunny” is getting matted and framed. It will be wrapped and placed under our tree to be opened by Rob and Emily on Christmas morning. Shhhhhh.

The two photos I taped together to base my art on.

The two photos I taped together to base my portrait on.

“I am not in control of my muse. My muse does all the work.” – Ray Bradbury

I continue to be in awe of the creative process. Bringing forth art works best when I don’t try to force it, but get quiet and listen. The muse always makes its wishes known. Step by step, following its directions never disappoints. Creating a masterpiece from thin air is a simple process. It’s all in the allowing.

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Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

Don’t Let Go of the Glow

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I have a young friend, Andrea, who inspires the heck out of me. One day she told me how happy she was with the direction her life had been going. She said, “Things are going so good, I don’t want to let go of the glow.” Don’t let go of the glow. I really liked that. It’s so easy to let negativity creep in and take over. That’s why it’s important to watch our thoughts and steer them in the direction of gratitude when they begin to get off course.

I’ve learned that I absorb the message of whatever I illustrate  so I promptly rustled up a couple of models (Andrea’s son Adrian being one of them) and got this drawing down on paper. The next week when Andrea mentioned she was intent on “keeping the glow going,” I thought, “oh no, get me some paper. Here we go again.”

*By the way, I am looking for a little asian girl, around age four, (my model in the above art is now too old) to base the “Keep the Glow Going” illustration on. I see her walking along a path carrying a paper lantern. That image has lived in my mind’s eye since I first wrote this post a couple of years ago. If you know of a little one that fits my description, please get in touch with me at sue@sueshanahan.com

Paper Lantern

 

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Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

When Losing is Winning

Martha's Vineyard Ag Fair Poster

“Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose

And most times you choose between the two.” – Carole King, Sweet Seasons

I love my sister, Laura. After 34 years as a school social worker, she’s finally retired. Part of her bucket list is to attend the annual Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society Fair in late August. Previously, this wasn’t possible because she always had to be back at school in the early part of that month. This year our families’ summer trip to the island will include experiencing the charm of the Ag Fair for the first time.

Last March, when Laura read about the Ag Fair poster contest, she urged me to enter. If I won, it would be so much fun to see posters, featuring my art, hanging all over the island to advertise the fair. I was already envisioning how cute my grandsons would look wearing t-shirts displaying my design. The best part of all would be giving the framed original to my sister as a retirement gift.

I worked around the clock on my illustration to get it to the judges before the April 1st deadline. I was pleased with what I came up with and felt I had a real chance of winning.

On April 7th, I got a call letting me know that although my entry was a runner up, it wasn’t chosen to represent the fair. At first, the news stung more than a little bit. After awhile, it came to me that this was not a loss.  Granted my poster won’t be showcased around the island, but who cares? The important thing is the original art would be hanging on Laura’s wall. I knew all the hours spent creating it would make it even more special to her. As for the t-shirts? There was nothing stopping me from having them made for my favorite people, so I did.

Today, I’m even more sure that even though the poster competition didn’t go my way, it still worked out perfectly. None of our efforts in life are ever wasted. We can’t always see the reverberations of good intent, but they ripple forever outward just the same. Doing something out of love for another is no small thing. Winning and losing are all a matter of perception.

Getting pictures of my grandsons in my Ag Fair tee shirts was harder than I thought.

Getting a good photo of my grandsons wearing the Ag Fair t-shirts was harder than I thought.

The ponies down the street that my poster was designed around.

My poster was designed around a snapshot I took of the ponies that live down the street.

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Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

Plastic Has No Heart

Keeping it real: Three Friends in a Hammock © Sue Shanahan 2000

Keeping it real: Three Friends in a Hammock © 2014 Sue Shanahan

“You are imperfect, permanently and inevitably flawed. And you are beautiful.” – Amy Bloom

Lately, I’ve been conscious of a trend that makes my heart jump for joy. Have you noticed that more and more ordinary people are on TV and in the movies? For too long there’s only been room for Hollywood glamour. That standard was allowed to exist by a world that sought happiness from the external. As a young girl, I was indoctrinated and blindly aligned myself to that belief system. But not anymore. I, along with many others, have outgrown that life-view. Welcome tall, short, fat, thin, young, old and every color. Welcome me. Welcome you.

It’s hard to believe that when I began my career as an illustrator, I couldn’t find work because the people in my drawings looked too “real.” I was advised to stylize my children like the Gerber Baby because more women would relate to it. Can you believe that? I was exasperated by the assumption that only blue-eyed Caucasian babies were relatable. There was and is a place in the world for every mother’s child.

© 2014 Sue Shanahan

© 2014 Sue Shanahan

Fast forward to today. My illustrations, featuring children of all shapes, sizes and colors, are viewed as politically correct and affirming. Plastic surgery and the coloring of grey hair are being reconsidered by strong women in the limelight. The doors for self-love and self-worth are now open wide enough for everyone to fit through. We are fine just the way we are.

“When you’re always trying to conform to the norm, you lose your uniqueness, which can be the foundation of your greatness.” – Dale Archer

I would go so far as to say that embracing “who we are” is what helped launch Pharrell Williams’ song, Happy, into the stratosphere. That tune went nowhere until its video was released showing people of all ages, ethnicities, and body types dancing to it. To add to the explosion Pharrell’s fans posted videos from across the globe grooving to his song. Happy became a celebration of life and the beauty of humanity.

And what about Colbie Caillat’s song, Try? Its video blasts Photoshop and the unrealistic beauty standards put on women and girls. During the film, Colbie removes her hair extensions and her make-up bit-by-bit. At the end, what’s left is someone we can connect to. You see it’s nearly impossible relating to someone who’s body is decorated and molded. There is no heart in plastic. Being who we are is where our power lies.

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Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

The Big Picture: Perspective is Everything

The Big Picture - Version 2“I’m like the painter with his nose to the canvas, fussing over details. Gazing from a distance, the reader sees the big picture.” – Author Steven Saylor

My sister Ann passed away, without warning, on the morning of October 9, 2008. An undiagnosed heart condition, hypertrophic obstructive cardiomyopathy, took her life. How could that be? She was only 51! She all but sparkled she was so alive. Her death didn’t seem possible. Being thoroughly devoted to each other, I had no idea how I was going to live without her.

For the first ten years of our marriages, I had the luxury of Ann only living a mile from me. We got to raise our children together and see each other whenever we liked. In 1998, her husband took a job three hours south of where we lived. I felt the sting of our separation even before she moved. When what I dreaded came to pass, I was shocked that our relationship only deepened. Even though we no longer got to be with each other in person, thanks to cell phones, we were connected more than ever.

Ann and I had gotten into the habit of speaking to each other every morning and at times throughout the day, being detached from her was unfathomable to me. What would I do without her to run every aspect of my life by? There was such a hole with her gone. The minute I learned she had departed, I heard a voice say, “It’s time to stretch.” My soul knew it was a chance for me to face the world standing on my own two feet. The comfort of leaning on Ann had run its course.

After the shock of her passing lifted, the grief settled in. I went from deep sadness to despair. Worse than my loss was witnessing what her husband and children were going through. Their broken-heartedness pulled me even further into misery.

As the months moved on, slowly, slowly, I began to heal. I still remember the first day that went by where I wasn’t consumed with sorrow. As I lay in bed that night, a little pang of guilt pulled me back. Did my happiness mean I was being disloyal?  And what about Ann’s children? I began to feel what I imagined their anguish to be. I was sinking.

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances.”- William Shakespeare

And then she came to me. Ann was in the form of an angel with wings. She reached down, lifted me by the hand and deposited me on a cloud next to her. If my body didn’t literally feel the whoosh of being pulled upward, I would have thought I was dreaming. As we sat, she put her arm around me and pointed down to Earth. She told me that whenever I felt myself slipping to look at the big picture. I knew exactly what she meant. I shouldn’t let myself become absorbed in the drama on our planet. In the big picture, nothing had changed. She had never left any of her loved ones’ sides. It was time for her to move on, but nothing could keep us from her love. She indicated to me that life would be so much easier if I wore my trials like a loose garment and didn’t allow myself to become engrossed in them. When looked at from a higher perspective, the sufferings we go through don’t seem so overwhelming. Ann’s insight was a gift from one who knew me so well. It proved to be the missing link in the healing of my many of struggles. That experience marked the beginning of my acceptance of what I had considered a loss. Sometimes I still ache for the physicality of Ann being with me, but I no longer resist these feelings. I simply let them move through me. They are part of being human. When I get to the other side of them, I realize nothing has changed…..not really.

I love hearing from you! I’ve heard so many comforting stories about people who have died and reached out to those they left behind. A great book on the subject is Hello from Heaven. Have any of you had an experience with someone you love who has passed away?

Marianne and Kate

My cousin’s Marianne and Kate modeled to help bring my vision to life.

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Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com