Mary Newell – Illustrator Interview

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I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Mary in person at the fabulous week-long revision seminar led by Emma D Dryden that we both attended this summer on Martha’s Vineyard. I highly recommend it whether you are an author/illustrator like Mary or more of a novel-writer like me. Mary brought canny insights to all our works-in-progress AND peppered our discussion with humor!

[JM] Illustrator or author/illustrator? If the latter, do you begin with words or pictures?

[MN] I used to be an illustrator. Now I am an author/illustrator! Everything comes to me in fragments, words, phrases, pictures…each book is different. The Strange Egg, my first book, definitely started with a picture. I was painstakingly painting some very complicated illustrations and I remember wishing that I was an illustrator who made simple pictures. So I drew a round orange ball, called it an orange, and tacked it to my studio wall. The next day, the orange seemed lonely for a bird, so I added one. Then I wondered: ‘what if…an orange fell out of my grocery bag and one of the little brown birds in my backyard came upon it. Orange trees do not grow nearby; they might not know what it is…’ and a story was born! On the other hand, Bow-Wow Wiggle-Waggle definitely started with words. The rhyme came to me easily, (Bow-wow wiggle-waggle, yip, yap, yowl! Paw, paw, pitter-patter, meow growl!) but it took years to figure out how to illustrate it.



[JM] Where are you from/have you lived and how has that influenced your work?

[MN] I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. We lived within walking distance of the main branch of the Carnegie Library, which is attached to a natural history museum and an art museum! The building breathed memory and imagination. How fabulous is that? I marinated in art every Saturday. That was one influence. And I suppose the landscape– the strong lines of the steel beams of the bridges, the beauty in the textures of a city– rusted iron, bricks, beautiful old trees, were an influence as well.

[JM] Tell us a little of your beginnings and journey as an artist.

[MN] I am told that I took an assessment test for first grade where I was asked to draw a person. My person was apparently very complete, and attracted the attention of the principal, Sr. Mary Peter. She told my parents that they should nurture and encourage my talent in art. So they did! I took art classes at the Carnegie Museum on Saturdays, and then in High School I studied calligraphy with Arnold Bank, a crusty octogenarian, at Carnegie Mellon University. I was always drawing, knitting, or making one thing or another. I also read like a fiend, and because my neighborhood was chock-full of interesting characters: an elderly suffragette, hippies, a commune of Hare Krishnas, a vaudeville dancer, the gentlemen of Phi Gamma Delta, and a professor of Chinese who rode a unicycle to work, colorful oddball scenarios seem normal to me.

my-chair-inter-20-21-copy mychair1-copy

From My Chair by Betsy James acrylic painting

[JM] What is your preferred medium to work in?

[MN] I have tried everything! Color pencil, pen & ink, acrylic paint, collage…I like to challenge myself. Sometimes this experimentation is successful, other times not so much 😉 Watercolor is the one thing that really scares me and I actually painted two of my books in it–not well, I guess, but well enough! I have a lot of fun with collage, and I am also experimenting with digital tools.


From Happy 100th Day! by Susan Milord collage, cheesecloth, acrylic paint, and oil pastel

[JM] Do you have themes or characters you return to in your art?

[MN] There is a tiny little black bird that appeared in everything for a while. I think that was me, observing, being small and flying in and out. I also see that there is a theme of community, of cooperation in many of my stories. Maybe that is because I come from a large family? I have six siblings, and each of us has our own marvelous personality and areas of expertise, and we do help each other in all kinds of ways.



From Uh-Oh! by Mary Newell DePalma
The background pattern was inspired by textiles at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, where I had a day job doing data entry.

[JM] Can you share a piece or two for us, maybe from a work in progress, and the process of creating them?

[MN] I am working on illustrations for a book about a little bird that wants to cross the street, but can’t reach the walk signal button. I wanted it to be designed, rather than drawn, and have a nostalgic feel. The illustrations have a very limited palette, and I am cutting or tearing shapes out of colored paper. I use a dip ink pen for the sparse line, and colored pencil for limited detail. I like them so far!


[JM] You have set up a little free library. What have been some of the fun books you’ve seen in there?

[MN] To be honest with you, I don’t keep tabs on it that much! I look in every two weeks or so, and the books are always different! There are a real variety–cookbooks, books of jokes, children’s classics, YA novels, poetry, car magazines, fiction. Recently, I’ve enjoyed Girl Reading by Katie Ward, The Sunlit Night by Rebecca Dinerstein, and Lab Girl by Hope Jahren.


[JM] What does your work space look like?

[MN] It seems messy, but it’s not, really. I have a book dummy on the drawing table, my computer to the left, and a long table where I cut, paste, and assemble. I hang my inspiration, reference, and work-in-progress on homosote panels attached to the walls. Everything is in reach as I spin around on my ‘buoy’ chair.


[JM] What artwork do you have hanging in your house?

[MN] SO MUCH ART! All of the art is by my friends or by myself. I also like to decorate with random objects and toys.

A tiny hallway filled with my own book illustrations, including this one from Rembrandt’s Hat by Susan Blackaby.


A painting made by my son when he was a child, and my calligraphy.

Some kind of family meeting on the mantel, right?

OK! I lied. I don’t know who made this one, but isn’t it cheerful? It is from Guinea, but I found it in Cincinnati. >>>>>


My best friend, Liz, lived in a vast house filled with paintings made by her father, John Garvey. He was a tax lawyer, and painted just for fun. Isn’t that wonderful? Now he is gone, and I remember. My little friends like to bask in the reflected glory. The whole assemblage makes me smile.

This is a mask I bought in Bora Bora, and two paintings by my friend, Kathleen Volp.


FIVE FUN ONES TO FINISH                                                                                          [JM] What’s your favorite park (state/urban..) in the world?

[MN] I am a homebody…I enjoy the Emerald Necklace in Boston–the Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Pond, and the Fens. And I just love the courtyard, gardens, and greenhouse at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum where this picture was taken.


[JM] Cats or dogs?

[MN] Ummm…I had a goldfish pond in the backyard that I really loved.


[JM] Fact that most people don’t know about you?

[MN] I learned how to pack parachutes when I was 13, and did it on a regular basis. That must be illegal now, right?

[JM] What as your first paid job?

[MN] I typed my dad’s business correspondence. He was a civil engineer and worked out of a home office. That must’ve been crazy! My mom maintained that it was a fire hazard for only one adult to be home with seven small children. So he couldn’t go anywhere, and most of us worked for him at some point.

My mom read the want ads every day. When I was 14, a local designer advertised for a hand knitter. I spent that summer tanning on a lawn chair in my back yard, knitting mohair sweaters.

[MN] Go to snack/drink to sustain your creative juices?

belVita breakfast biscuits, cranberry orange flavor! And dark chocolate, of course.


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5 Responses to Mary Newell – Illustrator Interview

  1. Enjoyed the interview ladies. I loved to hear Mary’s parents nurtured and encouraged her creativity as a child. Not all parents do. I chuckled about how she came up with the idea for her THE STRANGE EGG, developed it in her mind, but took five years to illustrate it. I’m also glad she shared such the variety of mediums she uses in her art. And, I like the humor in her work. Mary, you are so gifted!

  2. Anne Belov says:

    Wonderful interview! I also lived in Pittsburgh from 1st grade through high school and took art classes at the museum and at CMU when I was in high school. I really enjoyed your work and the interview.
    Well done, guys!

  3. Patricia Nozell says:

    I love getting into the minds of the illustrators, Joanna. I always learn so much – especially with this interview. Thank you!

  4. Erik - TKRB says:

    Great interview! She sounds like a neat person!

  5. Always enjoy these interviews! The supportive principal and parents are making me smile right now. Heartwarming when kids interests and talents are nurtured–and also to see the lovely outcome of that. 🙂

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