Parents Talk Back by Aisha Sultan

Disrupting an Empire of Cute

Walking into Mary Engelbreit’s studio is like stepping into one of her books -- a whimsical, bright space brimming with preciousness and a sprinkle of sass.

Eight decorative birdhouses are perched on top of a short wall by the entry. There’s a checker-print sofa with Scottish terriers on the throw pillows. A cheerful quilt hangs on the wall and a cacophony of dolls, figurines and stuffed animals are crammed on the shelves.

The artist who created this licensing empire -- with more than 13,000 pieces of saleable art, including calendars, books, tea sets, ribbons and fabrics -- is a 67-year-old St. Louisian, and she’s now calling out her own sheltered world of cuteness.

Engelbreit enters her workspace wearing a printed floral scarf and red-framed glasses, appearing every bit the Midwestern grandmother you might expect.

That is, until the conversation gets political.

“Now I’m focused on how many senators are willing to sell their souls to cover up for this moron,” she said during a recent visit. If there’s any doubt who she’s referring to, a scroll through her Instagram feed makes the subject of her ire crystal clear.

“This is WAY more than Democrat/Republican,” she wrote in response to a follower upset by one of her recent posts. “This is moral/immoral. You can be a Republican and not support Trump. But if you do support him, you are a supporting a white supremacist, uneducated, lying, grifting, racist, narcisstic, evil sexual predator, and all of your ‘Can’t we all just love one another?’ is meaningless and insulting to all the people Trump seeks to disenfranchise.”

But tell us how you really feel, Mary.

Her artwork changed forever the day police fatally shot teenager Michael Brown in 2014.

The morning she heard about the shooting, she felt compelled to draw. Years earlier, her son Evan had died of a gunshot wound when he was near Brown’s age. She and her husband adopted his biracial daughter as their own. Brown’s death triggered those painful emotions -- and her anger.

The image that emerged that day was unlike the lighthearted drawings for which she’s known. A black mother held a black child in her arms, a tear falling from her eye. She looks at a newspaper that reads: “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” Mother and child are framed by Engelbreit’s stark caption: “No one should have to teach their children this in the USA.”

She didn’t tell anyone in her family-run company about the image before posting it on the company’s Facebook page. She was 62 at the time, and until then, she had not faced any serious criticism about her work.

That was about to change.

Her son Will Delano, the president of the company, said they lost 11,000 followers that first day.

“Our key demographic is middle-aged to upper-middle-aged women, who may not have ever had negative issues with the police,” he said. “I’m ashamed to say I was very scared when she spoke out.”

He tried to talk her into toning down her comments for a week or two, and fielded some threatening calls from enraged fans.

Engelbreit was shocked at the ugliness of the comments, and worried about the impact the backlash could have on her employees and her family. She wondered if she had destroyed a 40-year career with a single drawing. But at the end of the day, that fear wasn’t enough to deter her.

After decades of drawing cute, she needed to speak her mind.

“I didn’t care if I lost or gained followers,” she said. “These things were important to me. These were the things I was going to draw.”

Sales from that print ended up raising $40,000 for the Michael Brown Jr. Memorial Fund.

Friends who have known Engelbreit for decades describe her as generous and genuine. But she’s well aware that the world can be far from a bowl of cherries -- or a chair of bowlies, as she famously coined early in her career.

In order to share the snarkier side of her personality, Engelbreit launched an edgier line of black-and-white cards, called “Engeldark,” a few years ago.

“I was a little uncomfortable with that reputation of being a sweet, nice person,” she said. “It’s nice to be able to have it all out there.”

It can be jarring to see these worlds collide on her Instagram. Pictures of her adorable 7-month-old granddaughter appear next to inspirational quotes and colorful drawings, alongside an archival black-and-white photo of children behind barbed wire. Engelbreit posted that picture on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, drawing parallels to the current administration’s policies in her caption: “Children ripped from their families, kept in cages, dying of neglect -- sound familiar?”

If Trump supporters are troubled by her opinions, Engelbreit says they are free to leave her page.

“If you support him, go, because these drawings just aren’t meant for you,” she said.

Her son keeps a close eye on her social media pages, and has read thousands of critical comments since she started speaking out. But he can also recall three instances in which people changed their minds after interacting with her.

That makes him “insanely proud” of his mom, he said.

They may have lost followers initially, but they’ve more than made up for them now.