Interview with Mary O'Neil:

"I was born to stamp..."

Mary O'Neil photoFor Mary Benagh O'Neil, stamping is no small potatoes. It is big business, and her famous rubber stamp company is called Hot Potatoes 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 Home Show, 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.

Mary 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.

Mary 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 happened.

VIC: Probably all of us have carved 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.

© Mary O'Neil
potato print photo
"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."

VIC: Your early art 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 beautiful crafts.

"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."

© Mary O'Neil
Rubber stamps by Mary O'Neil
VIC: RubberStampMadness 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?

Sewing cards
©Mary O'Neil
Sewing cards by Mary O'Neil
"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.

© Mary O'Neil
Stamped shirt by Mary O'Neil
"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."

VIC: When 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?

Embossed velvet
© Mary O'Neil
Embossed velvet by Mary O'Neil
"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 other appearances?

"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."

VIC: Your 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?

© Mary O'Neil
Stamping Hot Potatoes Style by Mary O'Neil
"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."

VIC: You've 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?

Velvet scarf
© Mary O'Neil
Velvet scarf by Mary O'Neil
"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.

VIC: Hot Potatoes is 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 and professionally?

"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 will.

"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."

Hot Potatoes logoVisit Mary O'Neil at and her blog at Mary's book, Stamping Hot Potatoes Style: Lush, Plush Projects for the Sophisticated Stamper, is available on her website.


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