TRENDER: My Little Pony Illustrator Mary Jane Begin

Tuesday, April 16, 2013


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A local interpreter of the My Little Pony legend--writer/illustrator Mary Jane Begin.

Who are the Rhode Islanders leading in arts, fashion, food, and style? They're Trenders, and GoLocalProv offers glimpses of the people you most want to know on the scene. Today, Mary Jane Begin, writer and illustrator of a new (and iconic) My Little Pony volume, My Little Pony: Under The Sparkling Sea, a brand new My Little Ponyunderwater adventure. Begin will appear at Barrington Books on Saturday, April 27, from 1-4pm for the book's official launch, and again in May for Children's Book Week. 

Local cred: Born in Pawtucket; educated at RISD and now teaches illustration there. 

1. What set you on the path to be an illustrator?

I’ve always loved to draw and paint but never imagined it as a career path. I didn’t know any illustrators and was clueless about the profession. I was in high school, thinking that I would be a veterinarian, because I did well in science and loved animals, when my art teacher, Jill Berry, suggested that I consider becoming an illustrator. First I asked “What’s an illustrator?” I really wasn’t sure; then I thought about my favorite, Garth Williams, whose pictures graced the Little House on the Prairie books as well as Charlotte’s Web... and started to think, why not?!

She suggested that I consider going to RISD. I discovered my grandfather had taken night courses in drafting there, and decided not only to go to RISD, but later to become a professor teaching—what else—illustration!

2. Were you a My Little Pony fan? If not, how did you get "into character" to do the book?

I was not a My Little Pony fan back when the brand first launched, as I was in college at the time and didn’t really start to think about the ponies until I was approached by Hasbro to write and illustrate a book about them. I started to read their back stories, and learn about the world of pony, and quickly got hooked.

I love the personalities of each pony and the incredibly imaginative stories and landscapes that Hasbro has created for the them. The hardest part was developing something that was new, and my own creation. The brain works in mysterious ways, and when mine blended a desktop image of my kids in a turquoise pool from Las Vegas, with a cluster of toy ponies that were sitting on my desk, something magical happened!

The two things blended in my mind while I took a nap, and a dream created the foundation for the story. I woke up, jotted the whole thing down, and started sketching. I created the creatures in the story based on the idea of blending land and water creatures: crabs + rabbits = crabbits, Manta Rays + Hawk = mantahawk, and water + weasels became water weasels. The underwater world that I have the ponies travel to—Aquastria—is meant to feel mythical, like Atlantis and is a play on the word Equestria—the land where the ponies are from.

Bouncing off of something that existed already and taking it to a new place with new characters, was both a challenge and a fantastic experience. It required an open imaginative playground, and Hasbro was amazing enough to encourage me to play there!

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3. My Little Pony has become a phenomenon way outside of its original market--little kids. How do you feel about that?

I think that the storylines for the cartoon, and the character development are so strong, that they transcend age—like most classic stories.

I have RISD students who love My Little Pony, have created fan art, and are incredibly excited. They can’t wait to see the new book, and they’re in their 20’s! I think it’s great, and have no issue with people of all ages celebrating art + stories designed for kids.

4. If you could illustrate any book that already exists, what would it be, and why?

I have always wanted to illustrate the story Hansel and Gretel, because it symbolizes the darkest and most difficult journey a person can take. The idea of descending deep into the forest and discovering what appears to be something wonderful, only to realize it’s something monstrous symbolizes a very real, and deeply held fear that we all have. I think that the symbolism of conquering a dark and frightening experience, and coming “out of the forest” stronger and wiser, resonates with me. I would love to illustrate this in, dark tones, perhaps black and white charcoal, and find the most expressive marks and gestures to capture the story’s spirit. I’ve never illustrated a book like that, but know that someday I must; as it keeps whispering, like wind through trees, the idea that I should.

5. What's the best thing about being located in RI as an artist? The most challenging thing?

Little Rhody has: RISD, the best beaches, a support system for artists through RISCA—the art council, a vibrant culture in our capital city of Providence, a deep sense of its own history, and good, down-to-earth people who think independently about their place in the world and in our country. I’m incredibly proud to live here, and to have been born here!

I was born in Pawtucket, went to RISD as an undergraduate, and have lived here for 25 years. Both my mother and father’s French parents emigrated from Canada to live in Rhode Island, and many of my aunts, uncles and cousins live here too. I think the business climate is a big challenge,  and that we could toot our Rhode Island horn so much louder to the rest of the planet than we do. The state has such an incredible natural resource in its art and natural beauty! People who visit are always so surprised at how wonderful a place it is. I always wonder why they are surprised!

One of my favorite things to do, is to walk with my dog Chance, down to the Barrington Beach, to look for heart-shaped rocks, shells and sea glass. Maybe they will land on a shelf in my studio, or maybe they’ll inspire another story. There’s no question that my daily treks to the edge of the Bay was working its way through my imagination when my dreams invented Under the Sparkling Sea!


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