Mary Jane Begin: Author & Senior Critic, Illustration Department at RISD

My NativeAdVantage:


Mary Jane Begin is a Senior Critic in the Illustration Department at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), where she has taught for twenty-four years and serves as the Internship + Professional Development Advisor. Her latest teaching venture includes on line video courses with The Foundations of Color, Elements of Composition for Illustrators, Artist at Work series and Character Development and Design. She is an award-winning illustrator and author known for her acclaimed picture books; Little Mouse’s Painting, A Mouse Told His Mother, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Willow Buds, tales inspired by The Wind in the Willows, a classic tale that she also illustrated. Mary Jane wrote and illustrated her latest picture book, My Little Pony: Under the Sparking Sea published by Little Brown and Company in collaboration with Hasbro, with a new book in the series, The Dragons on Dazzle Island, was published in September 2016. Her work has been exhibited throughout the country with one-woman shows in New York, Beverly Hills, the National Museum of American Illustration in Newport and the Rhode Island State House. She has also exhibited at the RISD Museum, the Society of Illustrators (NY), The DeCordova Museum, and Storyopolis in LA.

What do you do best?

My happiest, most successful moments are when I connect the dots.  The “dots” might be two creatives who should work together, a mind-bending idea and a passionate open student, a story and a person who needs to hear it, or an inspirational insight and a spirit open to transformation.  When things connect, I am likely to hop up and down, clap my hands, twirl around or grin like a hyena.  I LOVE these moments more than anything, and know that it’s the best thing I can bring to and share at the universal table.

What makes you the best?

I typically don’t think of myself as ”the best” at anything.  I imagine myself as a perennial student, always needing to learn how to do things with more insight, clarity and vision. Perhaps that desire to learn, that curiosity to see things anew… is, itself, what makes me my best self.  I constantly take on new projects that test my limits and require me to fly by the seat of my pants creatively. When I was first asked to author and be filmed for courses… I thought “Can I REALLY pull off a Bob Ross moment and teach effectively?”  It’s been a project that’s tested my writing skills and caused me to reevaluate how to teach in a completely new way, without students in the room! Link:

What are your aspirations?

I continue to aspire to be a good parent.  My kids are 19 and nearly 22, but I can say with certainty, that the job is really never done. Inspiring young people to be their best selves is what I do for a living at RISD, but on the home front, it’s more than inspiration; it’s perspiration, exasperation, elation, infatuation and profound gratification.  Parenting, like illustration and story telling, requires listening and communicating.  In both my life and my art, I aspire to hear and be heard.

Biggest Success?

In my life, my two kids are, without question, my biggest success. They are incredibly bright, creative, and kind. What more could a person ask for than that, when thinking about success? If I think about my biggest success artistically or professionally…it’s hard to put a finger on it. I’m immensely proud of my picture books, because each one that I write and illustrate brings me closer to my deeply held beliefs about life, and a continued effort to communicate these beliefs. My latest picture book, My Little Pony, The Dragons on Dazzle Island, speaks to the necessity of one species caring about the offspring of another. The most important line in the book is spoken by a young dragon who pleads with the ponies to help hatch the baby dragons “…the dragons need you and every pony who has a heart!” I’m convinced that if this message resonated with every child, it would engender profound compassion for others, and change the way of the world.

Most Challenging Moment?

I’ve navigated through the rough waters of divorce, and come out on the other side of the storm a stronger, more confident human being.  The experience of losing love requires deep courage, and a steely resolve…even when you feel like you’re made of tinfoil. The best part, has been finding deep love on the other side, and a sense of greater openness to the world. The hardest part, was being diagnosed with breast cancer, so shortly after finding freedom and the love of my life.  In 2013-2014, I took a sabbatical from RISD to work on my latest picture book, and instead, found myself in a battle for my life. The book was miraculously delayed, and my professional life experienced an eerie radio silence for the first time ever. It terrified me not to have projects at hand for once in my life, but in a mysterious gift from the universe, it allowed me to spend my time researching and making decisions that will forever impact the course of my life. I had a double mastectomy followed by radiation and reconstruction surgery. The experience rocked my world and left me reeling, emotionally and psychologically. Shadowy images swirled through my mind and haunted me like a dark cloud. My sweetheart encouraged me to get them down on paper, to help with the healing process. I found for the first time, a way to draw out, quite literally, the darkest most frightening part of my journey through a series of large charcoal drawings.  I shared the images and provided talks at various events and fundraisers, and exhibited the images at the Rhode Island State House during the 2014 Breast Awareness month. Art helped heal my soul in a way it never had before.  Link:

Favorite Motto?

In the form of favorite quotes:

Fall seven times, stand up eight. ~ Chinese proverb

I like nonsense; it wakes up the brain cells. ~ Dr. Seuss

Favorite People?

I shall name my most favorite person on the planet, and she knows it- my mom. No human has ever believed in my potential, supported me with unfailing faith and loved me unconditionally the way that she has.  She’s the best of the best. I’ve become the parent, the artist and the person I am because of both my parents, but my mom is the heart of the equation. I’ve never met a person who personifies love as she does. I know I hit the parental jackpot, and am forever grateful.

Favorite Places?

My favorite place to be is most often, wherever I am at the moment.  A few most favorite places: Paris, France with my sweetheart, Santa Fe, New Mexico, leading a group of artists and writers, and in my back yard, nestled in the heart of lush green vines and sweet smelling flowers, hanging with my family. A new favorite place that I discovered recently, is Shanghai, China.  I spent several weeks traveling from Beijing, to Guangzhou and Shanghai lecturing and providing workshops for Chinese art students. I’m now serving as a Special Consultant for the educational group, SIA, and visiting China again in June of 2017. The people are gracious, the food is fantastic and the cityscapes are surreal…especially Shanghai, with it’s view from the Bund that looks straight out of a sci-fi film.

Favorite Products?

When I paint, I’m a big fan of Windsor Newton Water colors, Arches watercolor paper and Windsor Newton Series 7 sable brushes.  I’d eat Raman noodles for a week to save for them when I went to RISD, and indulge myself regularly now. Speaking of indulging, there is no more favored product than Lindt Dark Chocolate with Sea Salt.  It is sitting in my kitchen, enticing me with a most enchanting siren song at this very moment.

Current Passions?

We live a mere three streets away from the East Bay in Rhode Island, so I’ve rediscovered the joy of kayaking with Fanta, my friendly orange kayak, and swimming as often as possible.  The water rocks my spirits gently back in place when I’m out of sorts, and brings great calm to my senses. In the studio, I’ve returned to a way of painting that involves layers of color with my home-made acrylic technique.  The color is intense and rich, like Old Master oil paintings, but without the clean up time!  I’m also beginning to tickle the iPad Pro tablet, a first for me, as I’ve always worked traditionally.  I think it’s critical to keep yourself at the edge of knowing, both in art and in life. One of my other favorite quotes is a motto I live by:

“You can’t have excitement…without a little terror.”