Mandy Steward, Gypsy Journalist


I can't remember life before Messy Canvas and I wouldn't have it any other way.  We talk of our past like it's some vast, distant forest we journeyed through long ago and forget a little more of each day. Truthfully, it doesn't matter when we first connected in the flesh because Mandy is someone my soul loves outside the boundaries of time. We are rooted in an otherworld which resists pinning down shadows.

It's an honor to present Mandy Steward here for you.

Hillary Rain: I have to tell you that when I receive Messy Canvas mail, whether it's secret message art or your soul-stirring new Secret Message Society 'Zine (volume two is already on it's way! Wow!) it's like the world stands still and a holy hush falls over me. I could swear that holding your work in my hands feels like something living, breathing, rising, falling. I almost expect it to stand up and talk to me. Actually, it does. Your work speaks to parts of me so wild and deep that I've had to create a new language to commune with it. Your art makes me feel daring and brave and loved. How do you do it? Where does it come from, this wild river pouring from your soul?

Mandy Steward: It comes from a source deep within, a spring that seems to never go dry, but sometimes I get scared to let it out. After all, how much me can the world handle? So I have to coax it, hold my own hand, remind it to be brave and try to daily uncork whatever gets lodged in the way.

It is me, but it is also other than me, so I both want to show it off as mine, and hide my face because I’m embarrassed everyone will think it’s due to something I’m doing “right,” when I know it’s just there at my disposal.

HR: As a prolific art journaler, what do you tell others who consider themselves new to the world of art journaling and feel a little intimidated or uncertain where to start?

MS: There is so no wrong way to do it. The goal is to get out what is asking to be released. to give the internal a voice. Even a blank journal page with the words scribbled, “I can't do this. I am not creative. I have no clue where to start, is a start. You've let those words be released, and the hope is that others will follow. Don't have words? Start with images. A magazine, scissors and a glue stick are my go to on the days I feel unexpressive. It's kindergarten cut and paste that keeps me sane me some days. You don't need to try to make the art journal look like anything specific. This is hard because we all want to create pretty things. To me, art journaling is not about pretty.

HR: Speaking of art, you have a vibrant shop filled with soulful cards, colorful prints, and secret messages. I'd love to catch a sweet glimpse of your creative journey. Can you describe the process for me? All the way from design conception to the moment you publish the listing on etsy ~ what does that look like for you? Do you have a guiding design philosophy? And I'd love to know how you feel along the way. 

MS: The initial concepts almost always come from my art journal. Sharing snippets from my art journal on Instagram gives me a good idea of what people respond well to. I tend to work in a series based on what I'm obsessing over. For instance I drew and painted birds for a while which got made into greeting cards. And that bird obsession transitioned me into a bicycles with wings obsession. So I find an obsession and then I just create like crazy until I'm burnt out on it. And then I fill my store with whatever that series has birthed. This takes a lot of time and energy, so restocking the store has to come at a time that I have large chunks of time to focus. But once I clear my schedule to work on it, the work comes out almost like I'm in a trance. I lose track of time and forget to make supper. :) My design philosophy usually comes back to, "Stop freaking out. Stop seizing up. Let out what wants to come out. Who cares if it's messy or if it's not like the other 'good art' that sells well. You are creating your own way and that's not been done before."

HR: I love how freeing this concept is, and how letting go of expectations invites deeper authenticity. As you create your own way, tell me something you'd like the world to know. What is important to you?

MS: I am not sorry for who I am and you don’t have to be sorry for who you are.

HR: Mmmmm free. This means free without apology. I love this concept so much and it is at the heart of my bohemian spirituality. It's what gypsy souls are made of ~ being unapologetically free. I read a quote by Thich Nhat Hanh which illustrates another way to look at this: “Whether you are sitting, walking, watering the vegetable garden, or feeding your child, it is always possible to practice “I have arrived, I am home.” I have run all my life; I am not going to run anymore; now I am determined to stop and really live my life.” Isn't this what freedom is all about? And I think it starts with exactly what you said: not being sorry for who you are. Living without apology.

Current playlist

HR: I express much of how I live without apology through music. Certain songs move my soul more deeply than I can explain in words. I'd love to hear about what music moves you these days. Create a soundtrack for me with songs that make you feel alive or express your YOU. And please describe your favorite way to listen to them. 

MS: Music for me is usually about lyrics first and sound second. So if I find a new sound I like, I always go check out the lyrics first before I'm sold on it. And much like my art, the songs I like have to do with what I'm obsessing over. Lately I've been into expressing Love in new ways, so a few of my favorite songs right now have to do with that.

"Just a second - we're not broken, just bent,
And we can learn to love again."

~ P!nk, Just Give Me a Reason

And when you're needing your space
To do some navigating
I'll be here patiently waiting
To see what you find

~ Jason Mraz, I Won't Give Up

"And I'll tell you baby, it was easy
Comin' back into you once I figured it out
You were right here all along"

~ JT, Mirrors

"Then you tell her that the only way her heart will mend
Is when she learns to love again
And it won't make sense right now
But you're still her friend"

~Robyn, Call Your Girlfriend

I love Macklemore and Ryan Lewis' album, The Heist. This is "I need to get moving" music. And the kind of music I listen to alone on my back porch with earbuds and sitting under the moonlight ~ perhaps smoking a clove ~ is something that always grips me spiritually. These are very tender empowering moments where I feel like I'm communing with A Something Other that is full of wildness and love. I'll listen to the same song over and over again until the moment ends. The last two songs I did this with were:

"When my hands begin to shake
When bitterness is all I taste
And my car won't stop
Cause I cut the brakes
I hold on to a hope in my fate."

~ The Lumineers, Morning Song

"Where did all the people go?
They got scared when the lights went low.
I'll get you through it nice and slow,
When the world's spinning out of control."

~ Gavin Degraw, Solider

Secret messages and the writing life

HR: I love that you listen to the same song over and over through sacred moments. I do the same thing. It's very holistic for me, engaging my soul and spirit in deep, cleansing ways. And my body, too, carrying me from an eyes-closed reverent sway to an all out earth-pounding, fire-blooded, moon-witnessed tribal dance.

Your life is beautifully lavish with full, spellbinding moments. You have a magical way of translating what you see and feel into words that offer up brand new worlds. You are an evocative writer. You compose books, articles, and maintain your website with fresh content, all in addition to your Secret Message Society magazine. I wrote about your 'zine recently, saying:

It captures the beating of her pulse in real time. It's poetry and art, reeling questions and soul-staggering revelations. It's hand-stapled, coffee splashed, mascara-smudged, black and white, and feels a little bit anarchist, a little bit beatnik, and all the way bohemian. 
Actually, it feels like an intimate letter from a very good friend. Like an enchanting message from a mysterious, smoke-shrouded writer scratching away longhand in a musty Irish pub. Imagine that Ayn Rand sat down to write her thoughts to you, that she folded them up into a journal and stapled them tight. Or maybe Anais Nin. Anne Lamott? Yes. And no. Mandy Steward is all of them and none of them. She is all her own, and this provocative new offering leaves me plunged into another world that looks strangely like mine, only with more color in it. And desire. And the intoxicating invitation to be alive.

All of these things are so true, not only about your words but about you. For a moment I want to pull back a little and peek into a different kind of window. I'd love to see you in your writing space. Can you describe it for me? Desk? Window? Dark, with a candle flickering? Curled up under a quilt with the kiddos? Do you have any writing rituals or practices you'd like to share?

MS: It's always different. There isn't a ritual to it. I've had moments of ritualistic writing, like when I was writing my first book. I walked downstairs and sat at the desktop computer every morning for a few months.

Now my writing is more scattered. On the star couch some mornings, waking early before anyone else in the house with a glass of water and some incense rolling. Laying on my belly on the bed pounding out a blog post while my pre-school age son watches a movie downstairs. On my iPhone, feverishly typing in notes on the go before I lose a thought. In a coffee shop late at night or in the morning, whenever it works into our schedule for me to get away alone. Right now I'm sitting on the gaudy olive and cream colored floral patterned chair by our fireplace, the windows open, my dog asleep on the couch, my pre-school son playing on the floor. Sometimes I write in my tiny clothes closet, which doubles as my writing studio. There's a little altar with candles in there and it's a sacred space when I need to (w)hole up.

messy canvas mandy steward.jpg
“Think of me like a gypsy with a beauty mark and head scarves, a fortune teller of sorts minus the crystal ball but definitely with big hoop earrings, a shaman leaning in close and whispering to you the words you're most looking for.”

HR: Your custom #secretmessages have become an integral part of your offerings in your etsy shop and online. In fact, your description of them itself makes me want to order {another} one right now. Who creates #secretmessages for you? What is it you most need to hear? Compose a spontaneous secret message blurt for yourself this very moment. Can I listen in? What did you say?

MS: I'm looking out my open window right now, and I'm seeing my prayer flags dancing on the fence. My prayer flags are bringing me this secret message, and I'm going to type it out as it comes. No edits, so you can listen in:

“There is something coming to you on the wind, Mandy. It's that something you've been waiting for, and it's going to blow in nice and slow so you have time to take it all in. It will speak to that love you've forgotten and that voice you've grown embarrassed of and it will touch that raw place on you and call it destined for greatness.”

HR: Okay, that gives me chills. It sounds like a fresh awakening. Is it possible to run out of new awakenings? My heart tells me no, that I can have as many awakenings as breaths. This feels good in my bones. Thank you for translating this soulful message.

Speaking of soulful messages, I have a fun assignment for you. First, what is your favorite color? Important: don't think about it ~ be spontaneous with your answer; accept the first color that comes into your mind and don't analyze your choice. What is this color? 2) Now: visit this link, find your color, read the expanded description, and tell me ~ was this accurate for you? Why or why not?

MS: Blue.

“Lovers of blue have a deep need to find inner peace and truth, to live their life according to their ideals and beliefs without having to change their inflexible viewpoint of life to satisfy others.”

Yes, of course it's accurate. Just compare it to my secret message I shared above. Dead on.

And for some quick heart-bursts ...

HR: You're filling a gift box with your top five favorite things. What's in it?

MS: A book. A bottle of wine. A talisman. Incense. A fountain pen.

HR: Describe a daily ritual you can't live without.

MS: Yoga.

HR: You have a completely free, no-obligation day to do anything you like. Describe your dream day for me. :-)

MS: 90% of the day, I would spend alone. Yoga. Thrifting. Used bookstore. Ride my bike to some place new. Read a book outside on a quilt. Art journal on the go. Eat good food. Drink good beverages. Smoke a clove. Have an in-depth conversation (no small-talk) with someone I love. Meet a stranger and converse (no small-talk). Take photos. Write. Hot bath. Snooze.

Thrashing about with God by Mandy Steward

Thrashing about with God by Mandy Steward

About herself, Mandy writes:

I wander rowdily and create what I am searching for. I find the sacred in everything. Holy ground follows me around because I declare it is so. I am a gatherer of secret messages. If I can paint and write and collage, I can live. I have oil pastel smudged fingertips and chipped nail polish. I fly with the feathered people. I am a storyteller. I have a way of thrashing about with God and my book about that will be published in October. My kids taught me how to find my fashion. My husband taught me how to find my voice. I honor alone time. I find self-portraits invaluable. I get lost in books. In general, I get lost often. Let’s get lost together.

To connect with Mandy, visit her online at