For Mary Benagh
O'Neil, stamping is no small potatoes. It is big business, and her
famous rubber stamp company is called Hot
because that was how she got her start. As a Girl Scout, Mary
discovered the joy of carved potato printing. Creatively, she drew on
her family artistic lineage, as well as the godmother's nurturing: "
She gave me my first sewing machine and lessons, Mary recalls, “and
made sure I always had things to make with my hands." At the University
of Tennessee at Knoxville in the early 1970s, Mary studied metalwork
and printmaking. She went to work as a graphic designer, and soon
captured attention with custom potato-printed tee shirts she displayed
at the office. When Dino De Laurentiis set up his American movie studio
in Wilmington, NC, the studio artists discovered Mary's local tee
shirts - and offered her a job as a scenic painter. She loved the work,
but behind the scenes, Mary continued carving potatoes and printing
fabric and shirts.
Potato printing was just a sideline for many years, but at a textile
design conference in 1988, she happened upon a copy of RubberStampMadness
magazine. "That was a turning point," she realized. "I was suddenly
hooked on rubber stamps.' She developed a series of stamp designs and
within a few years, she was ready to make the leap into her own rubber
stamp business. With 11 stamp designs in her portfolio, she invested in
a printed catalog and advertising in RubberStampMadness.
An acquaintance produced a promotional video and sent it to the ABC
where Carol Duvall had a recurring crafting segment. ABC flew her to
Los Angeles for a segment on women entrepreneurs, and Mary was a hit
with viewers. When Carol launched The
Carol Duvall Show
in 1994, Mary was her first guest. Her fledgling rubber stamp business
expanded with each return appearance on the show over many seasons.
is recognized for her bold, crisp stamp designs. Her line now includes
hundreds of stamps, as well as fabrics, paints and dyes, and retro
embellishments. Along with her striking stamp designs, Mary is also
known for her innovative techniques with stamps. One of those is using
a stamp and hot iron to emboss velvet. From this richly textured
material, she has created many crafts and embellishments which can be
seen on her website, Hot Potatoes. She brought many of
her favorite techniques together in her 2001 book, Stamping Hot Potatoes Style:
Lush, Plush Projects for the Sophisticated Stamper.
is a dynamo, so we were lucky to be able to catch her in June 2010 for
a talk about the success of Hot Potatoes and a look back at how it all
VIC: Probably all of us
and printed with a potato in our childhoods. For you, it became an art
form. Tell us how the potato became your symbol as an artist.
"I have always been
intrigued with process, and for me the potato was so primitive and
simple. It just seemed like the most pure way to print. I
needed no equipment or chemicals, no special tools, just my imagination
and time. I first used the potato print to cover a stain on a
white tee-shirt. The first stamp I carved was not supposed to
be anything, but it really looked like a fish and I did
indeed turn it into a fish. I printed it randomly all over the
shirt. And people loved it! This seemed to be so different from
anything people were used to seeing and I never could keep up with
demand. It was very nice to have such applause from day one."
experiences, from your godmother through your university courses, gave
you a broad set of skills. What are some of the influences and
successes of these early years that have stuck with you?
"Art has always been in
my home. My grandfather was an oil painter, my brother is a
musician and there is artistic talent in each one of us (you too if you
look for it). My mother, a writer, encouraged us to
follow any artistic interest we ever had. She created a brood of
free-spirited gypsies. Even the wonderful Godmother she chose for
me encouraged me to use my hands for sewing and doing
"I have always been drawn to color. I can just understand it and see
it, and sort of cock
my head funny when people tell me they cannot tell what colors work
together. Some of this may be that my mother never held
us back from what we wanted to wear (and there were some tragedies), to
listen to, or to read. When I was little, things were
safer and so we did some daring stuff like hitch hiked around Europe,
hiked across parts of America, and just touched and felt the
earth. We also had lots of art in the public schools then. I always got
the ribbon, or won the
contest if art was involved. So of course those accolades are
fun. Math was not part of my glory I might add."
magazine launched in 1979 and contributed to the growth of rubber
stamping through the next few decades. How did this magazine and others
influence you to concentrate on rubber stamp design and production?
"That magazine was a pioneer. It was very loose and when I
first stumbled upon it, there was just so much freedom. As
stamping found its way into the mainstream, 'cute' became the
popular style. But also came some good things, with stamping leading
many people to real artistic ventures. I find style trends can
be tedious at times, when that is all that people can see,
whether it is in fashion or their own creations. I got dreadfully
bored by all the clock faces and inspirational sayings of 'hope' and
'dream'. I am much too sarcastic and cynical for
that. I suppose if you only see things occasionally... but it
has been driven home and back again.
"Magazines are a good way to learn, but hopefully you then break into
your own style. It is healthy for everyone to have some form of
creativity come from their own head and hands"
VIC: You are
known for expanding the
boundaries of stamping to include large-scale wall designs, textiles,
and stamping as a means of creating fabric texture. What are some of
the off-the-paper applications you most enjoy?
"It is all about fabric
for me. I love it! Also there is so much value to
creating something enduring that I can use and keep. I really only
want stamping on paper if it is a true piece. Cards are so
incredible and beautiful, but they get lost in the fray. I can
wear a skirt or a dress. I can have curtains that remind me
every day of skills I own and love. And I honestly love
fashion as art. Adorning the body simply speaks to me.
"When stamped art is on fabric or framed, it can become your
history. Another generation might love it and ask to own
it! What a gift. I am torn when I think about this. I love when people
actually write and stamp letters, and I have every single
stamped mail art I every received. They are special and I don't mean to
make light of
cards in any way. Our society is so 'throw away' now and in
such a hurry that a hand made piece is very meaningful. But for me,
my time is most productive when fabric is in my hands."
VIC: Both rubber
stampers and fabric
arts crafters claim you as one of their own. Tell us about your love of
fabrics and how that has contributed to your vision for Hot Potatoes.
"I did that very first
stamp for fabric. That was just all that made sense to
me, to work on clothing. I have done other art, but
it never grabs my soul like fabric does. And no one
else seemed much interested in stamping for fabric. I
felt if you want to invest in supplies and time then you
should really have something to show and that would last. Over time, I
am surprised at how few people honestly have the confidence to create,
much less make clothes. There is some sort of unfortunate fear
in people to do things on their own terms. We all want to wear
the 'in' style or make the type of design work that is current (going
back to collaged clock faces with words of 'hope' and 'dream' in umber
and sienna colors). But that is just part of human
nature. I am guilty of these very things myself.
"I have finally learned that I am better off to just design and create
what I like. It helps immensely, to be far removed from
conventions and the hubbub of activity. I do enjoy a
big show once every few years, but I often get side-tracked by what I
see that doesn't actually speak from my heart."
we Google Mary
O'Neil, your name is inevitably paired with embossed velvet. This is
one of your most intriguing techniques. When did you first introduce
it, and how did it impact your business?
"In a word, 'velvet'
changed my life. I was bored one afternoon by the onslaught of
football on TV and decided to work on an old vintage velvet
jacket. I stupidly ironed the collar, and left a
permanent imprint from my iron. I ran to the
fabric store to try and match the black velvet. I picked up a piece
of mass -produced embossed velvet. The design was
lovely, but it was strangely similar to the print made by my
iron. Iron-embossing was born!
"The secret was in the fabric content. The combination of
rayon and acetate was unique. The acetate permanently melts
down but keeps a lovely sheen. The rayon keeps the fabric from
actually burning. The result is magnificent. I was
immediately obsessed! I did up lots of sewn pieces
but didn't show them to anyone. I finally had an
occasion to show Carol Duvall, but I wouldn't let her take the piece
from me. I knew that this technique, making it possible to emboss at
home, would change my world. Not only did it make such a huge
hit on her show, but it was seen by Southern Living and
Better Homes and Gardens,
which in turn featured my technique in their magazines. I went
from one employee to nine and bought a building. I had a huge
run with this and it supported my family and few others. It
was a great time."
VIC: Television played a
role in your
early business boom, partially because you were such a natural talent.
What were some of the memorable moments from TV for you, from The
Carol Duvall Show to
"Nothing in my career
compares to my experiences on The
Carol Duvall Show. She
is my friend and she has changed my life. We have a very, very
special friendship that has gone on for years. Carol has
touched the lives of many crafters in the most wonderful and
positive ways imaginable. My best memories are probably some
that are more personal and that have made our friendship special and
unique, as we really do know each other quite well.
"I do know that I was brought in most seasons for the the first week of
taping because they said I got the show off to such a kick
start. I don't know if that was true, or if it was
really because I am such a handful that they wanted to
get me in and out while energy was running high."
2001 book, Stamping Hot Potatoes Style,
brought together many of your signature projects and techniques. How
did you come to write it and what was the feedback from your fans?
"I had to write that book because as I just admitted, I am a
handful. I had offers from book companies, but they wanted to
tell me what to create. I wanted to do it my way, so I did. I
had two very competent folks in my office and I could never
had done that project without. The book did very well and
people enjoy it still. But it is actually more of a
self-promotional piece as all of the projects use my stamps. 33 of the
48 projects involve fabric stamping and embossing, but only a few are
wearable. I believe the book serves to give people
ideas of what to do with stamped fabric if they do not sew very much."
been a frequent
guest at crafting retreats, from Carol Duvall's 2006 cruise to more
intimate events. What kinds of creative events do you enjoy personally?
"Carol has often invited a few select friends to spend time
together at her house. Originally, we would bring supplies and
makes some pretty amazing things. Over time, we began to find
that getting together without the stress of planning and prepping was
really so enjoyable that we have gone back to simple friendship and
yes, some wine and kazoo playing, too. Carol has a beautiful craft room
and so it is fun to be on the lake at her home and in that room full of
inspiration and toys. I have made my studio much more friendly
by making things orderly and pleasing to the eye. I keep
thinking I may like to have some evening classes here and spread the
word that a creative heart and hand brings a lot of joy into a life. I
haven't acted on this except for a trial class where I had four or five
friends over and we made some inspiration boards to go along with some
energy work we had been involved in. I am so
torn between making that dollar and having personal creative
time. It is a constant battle I fight within myself."
definitely not cooling down, so how do you keep the fire going? What
are some of your dreams, plans and wishes for the future, personally
"I was gliding along happily
answering questions and then along came this one! I had to
really stop and think long and hard to answer this. I don't
seem to want the future that most people do. I am not driven
by money or success so much as I want to have a peaceful
place. I say this with so much sincerity that sounds
corny. But when you see the weather getting so volatile and the Gulf
full of oil and the sadness of people depending on pleasures, it all
slaps me in the face and hard. I think how dangerous and
polluting the world is. Art and crafting are no
exception. We buy, buy, buy and then waste it. Using all the
hazardous glues scares the pants right off of me. And all the
materials it takes to make pieces that are not really art but just
stuff kind of creeps me out. It may do me more harm
than good financially, but we would all benefit greatly from
spending less and using what we have.
"With that said, my goal is to find a place where I can share
information with a small group of people that truly love to sew and
create. I need to make a living but my needs are not huge.
I see a future of interactive, online classes
with folks I don't even know yet. I would also like
to take full use of blogging as this is such a fascinating area and I
have not yet disciplined myself to this medium - but
"I see my future as full of time to spend with my mom, my dearest
supporter. I'd love time to give to charity in
Nashville. I love taking care of my home and yard, with my
husband and pets benefiting and making my life complete. And
finally I need enough time to create and share and make a living,
enough to continue to travel and enjoy this wonderful world."
Visit Mary O'Neil
and her blog at blog.hotpotatoes.com. Mary's book,
Hot Potatoes Style: Lush, Plush Projects for the Sophisticated Stamper,
is available on her website.