When I Worked at Hallmark, the Corporate Greeting Card Giant

If you have a job you hate, you will not believe what I’m about to tell you. In fact, you might not want to read this because it might make you cry.

If you are a rabble-rouser, or an anti-capitalist, anti-corporate socialist ideologue, or a controversy-seeking dirt-digger, you may be disappointed that I have nothing negative to say about anyone or anything regarding my experience at Hallmark. It will actually read more like a fairy tale.

It is true that I felt like a fish out of water in the corporate environment. As though at any moment the security people might come down to inform me that it had been discovered that I was not cut out, after all, to be in a trendy corporate environment brimming with wealth and beautiful people. But I figured, until that day came, I would make the most of my Hallmark experience. I believe that I did.

For a decade after I graduated art college (KCAI,) I struggled with trying to find the balance between making art and making a living. This balance generally seemed to include persistent inner-city poverty. I told myself that this was a self-imposed poverty; the price I had to pay to be an artist. I knew I was intelligent and responsible enough to get a job and start climbing the ladder in pursuit of the American Dream, but that was not what I wanted.

I would drive by Hallmark and sneeringly think, “You couldn’t pay me enough to work there.” But I did wonder what was going on inside of those walls. I had desperate moments when I thought about getting a job as a janitor there, kind of like Matt Damon’s character in “Good Will Hunting.” Because hey… I was a fine artist, man! I wasn’t willing to prostitute my talent to churn out pictures of bunnies and leprechauns for a paycheck!

Ha! No way!

But then, newly married and a couple of babies later I was pounding on Hallmark’s door, pleading for them to let me in. “I’LL PAINT LEPRECHAUNS! I’LL EVEN PAINT LEPRECHAUNS!” I cried.

Originally I thought I would work there for a couple of years until I paid off my (and my wife’s) considerable art school debt. But all of my preconceptions about Hallmark were wrong. Insiders didn’t call it “the Golden Handcuffs” for nothing. At the time I was there, Hallmark turned out to be the most generous, inspiring, and ridiculously creative environment that I could imagine an artist working in.

I remember getting “the tour” after I got hired. Unbelievable. I had a carpet burn on my chin when it was all over because my mouth kept falling open. Eventually I stopped asking, “Wait…you mean they’re going to pay me to do this?”

In order to maintain their position as the industry leader, Hallmark aimed at recruiting the best “creatives” in the world – artists, writers, designers, photographers, and calligraphers. To keep this creative staff energized, outside speakers from various fields were regularly brought in. As long as we stayed on top of our work, we were free to attend these presentations. I leapt at this opportunity. This was like getting paid to go to school. I heard photographers (like Keith Carter and Robert ParkeHarrison,) poets (like Pattiann Rogers,) designers (like Barry Moser,) and a multitude of other artists and creative thinkers. This alone would’ve been enough to keep me there.

HM angel

Created in the RIC when Hallmark developed a line of cards featuring angels. This pieces features “drapery glass” on the angel’s garment – a dimensional, folded glass invented by Tiffany studios, which I was excited to use for the first time.

But then there was the Rice Innovation Center. The RIC was a cavernous, skylit wing at one end of the building. It contained an artist playground area, including studios for ceramics, woodcarving, printmaking, stained glass, glass blowing, batik and fiber, an old–fashioned letterpress printer, and a workspace for mosaic projects. Artists could submit ideas for cards that required the use of any of these processes. When such ideas were approved, artists could work in the RIC and create what they needed for the card. Furthermore, productive artists would often be rewarded with 2 or 3 day workshops in the RIC in a medium of their choice. Instructors were there to train us if the medium was unfamiliar. These workshops were for “creative renewal,” as they called it, meaning no actual greeting card application was expected. In other words, you could make cool stuff and take it home. They paid us to do this.

I found all of this to be brilliant and extraordinary. I heard that there were bean counters on the business end who had difficulty justifying these expenses compared to the artists’ output. I don’t know about all of that, but I can tell you that these perks certainly built a gratitude and company loyalty in me. Needless to say, I stayed longer than two years.

I haven’t even told you about the Kearney farm.  The farm was a beautiful, sprawling property in Kearney, Missouri, about 45 minutes away from the downtown headquarters. This farm was once owned by renowned illustrator, Mark English. Hallmark bought it and fitted it out to be a place for off-site meetings; a place to get away from the city and the corporate environment. Another brilliant idea. The sensitively modernized farm house was very cool, in itself.

But then, there was the barn.

HM fishclock

This was actually created at a found-object workshop, but the tail pieces were left over from a blacksmithing workshop. The eye is a doorknob from our first house. The green lips came from an old toilet seat I found in the crawl space. The words are a poem written by my preschool son: Hours are big. Minutes are small. Seconds are hardly anything at all.

For me, as an artist, the Kearney farm was like a freaking piece of utopia. The barn was fitted out with creative workshop media that were not suited for the Rice Center at headquarters; workshop media like welding and blacksmithing.

Yes, I said blacksmithing. When I went to work at Hallmark as a greeting card artist, I learned freaking blacksmithing.

There were 3 forges, and an instructor who could give a crash course on safety and process so that a small group of artists could finish a project in 3 or 4 days. I couldn’t believe it. I lived for these workshops. There was something very satisfying about the art and physicality of pounding glowing, red hot metal over an anvil into something lovely. In the barn there were also 3 wood lathes for bowl-turning workshops, which I also took, and loved.

I must relate one ridiculously pleasurable story about the farm. I don’t know how my name got on this list, but I was somehow recommended to take a workshop with visiting artist, Diego Romero. Diego is a Cochiti Pueblo Native-American, who arrived at Hallmark wearing a T-shirt that said, “My heroes have always been Indians.” A contemporary ceramic artist from New Mexico, (you can google him,) he has a wonderful knowledge of traditional native ceramic techniques, combined with a modern sensitivity and a university ceramics training.

Our lucky workshop group started out in the Rice Center where Diego shared some slip glaze that he had extracted from a secret creekbed location in New Mexico. He showed us how to burnish the slip with a smooth rock. Then the next day we went to the Kearney farm to fire our pieces. Early in the morning we dug a pit, and split wood, and Diego created a completely low-tech pit kiln, by stacking the cut wood according to the knowledge that was passed down to him. Then we torched the entire thing with our pots inside, and had a little pot party. (Clay pots!) The whole experience was pure enjoyment; everything from getting to know Diego, to later digging through the ash to see the results of the firing. I will always remember this event fondly. Hallmark paid me to do this.

HM armadillo pot

Armadillo Pot
Created with Diego Romero. 3″ high.

It’s been some 13 years since I left Hallmark, and as I write this I’m still amazed at the creative experiences I had. I haven’t even told you about the trips…

Twice I was sent on week long, “blue sky” painting trips for the purpose of “creative renewal,” apparently just because my manager knew I was interested in painting. (God bless her.) The first was a week-long trip with a bunch of guys, to a cabin in the Conejos National Forest, in Colorado near the New Mexico border. Amazing. It was on this trip that painted the Colorado landscape in the open air for the first time. The experience marked me for life. It was glorious. Years later when I left Hallmark, I moved to Colorado to become a painter and plein air artist full time.

The second trip was a week-long painting trip to the Snake River in Idaho, to take a workshop with Russian expressionist, Ovanes Berberian. The trip included a visit to the Grand Tetons and the town of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. This trip left a big mark on my art as well, and is a story in itself. It was also a great community-building experience. Hallmark paid for everything including airfare and the considerable list of artist materials that Ovanes required.

MM parable

Parable of the Wheat and Tares
Created at a raku workshop at the Kearney farm. Based on the parable of Jesus from Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43.
19″ high.

I’m pretty sure that Hallmark put these remarkable practices into place when the greeting card industry was thriving, and the economy was healthier. The company prided itself in having never laid anyone off during its entire history. It had as a goal each year to be listed in Forbe’s Top 100 companies to work for. But changing demographics, shopping patterns, and technologies changed the ink and paper greeting card industry. While I was there the entire company underwent a restructuring. I honestly don’t know what it’s like to work as an artist at Hallmark now. At the time of the restructuring, when I didn’t get the new position I hoped for, I chose to leave rather than take a less creative position. My wife and I viewed this as an opportunity to pursue our postponed dream of making a living as fine artists. This is the reason we made the move to Colorado. I don’t think I would have had the courage to leave a great job, and move my family down an uncertain course if I hadn’t been downsized, so I am even thankful for getting downsized.

There is a lot that I don’t know about this first downsizing in Hallmark’s history, but I do think Hallmark lost its human face in the estimation of many. I was probably the only one fist-pumping the air when given the word that I was being let go. Mostly there was a lot of hurt, crying, and anger from a lot of people who had planned on retiring from Hallmark. I’ve heard many people say, “When one door closes, another door opens.” I don’t think that is necessarily true. My experience has been, when one door closes, sometimes you have to feel around in the dark for a hammer or pick-ax and use it to bust out a hole in the wall.”

Our options aren’t always as easy as walking through an open door.

HM cedar bowl

Cedar Bowl
Turned on the lathe at the Kearney farm. 7″ high.


46 comments on “When I Worked at Hallmark, the Corporate Greeting Card Giant

  1. Michael Bingham says:

    Same boat! Thanks for the memory walk. My friend. M Bingham

    • Yo Michael! As I was preparing this post I looked over my journal from the Rexburg painting trip, and saw it was your recommendation that lead me to the “High C” area. There I completed my first plein air painting. (The earlier ones were only unfinished studies.) I don’t know if I ever thanked you for that. So, thanks!

  2. Alice Kenney says:

    I retired in 2005 after 35 years with Hallmark. My friends and I agree that we had “the very best” years. Thank you for writing this article…I always envied the artists & their freedoms, but I had a wonderful job in market research and now have many friends from those years.

    • Thank you for reading Alice. Yes, it’s very common to hear “I retired after” 30, 35, or 40 years at Hallmark. I hope the Hall family feels blessed that their “little greeting card company” turned out to enrich the lives of so many. Not to mention their community involvement.

      I would be interesting to talk market research with you sometime.

  3. Susan Pauli says:

    So glad to have found you here Scott-miss our intellectual conversations friend………Susan Pauli

  4. Marsha says:

    I loved reading this, and love your arm (that armadillo pot – I want it!). I worked at Hallmark (IT) for 17-18 years, and left in 1999. It was my pure joy to work in and around all the amazing creativity. When my pounded IT heart and soul needed renewal, I would walk through the creative areas and just soak in the art being created. I experienced the farm house, the RIC center, the visiting lecturers, and I still have dreams of viewing the exhibits in the 9th floor library. Working at Hallmark Cards was a great experience for me.

    • Marsha, Thanks for reading and commenting. Yes! I’ve hardly scratched the surface of all the cool stuff that went on there, and I wasn’t even a senior artist, and never got to do a “rotation” in the RIC. Or a research trip to Europe. (!)

      It was amusing to stand in a hallway that divided a “creative area” from a “business area.” On one side were tidy cubicles with people quietly working, and across the hallway were people who apparently had an extreme aversion to tidy cubicles. It was like the circus had come to town and forgotten to pack up their things when they left. The things people would do to un-cubicle their cubicles!

      (And thank you for gently reminding me of the proper name of the Rice Center – I’ve duly corrected my post.)

  5. Garry says:

    I support that Hallmark was a great place for imaginative, creative people to work… I was there from 1973-1988. As was my wife. We still look back with fond memories of 90% of our experiences there. But if Hallmark is saying now they never downsized before, or “laid off” people “in their history” (released them from working), it is a bit of a stretch, if not flat disingenuous — or the Hallmarker making such a statement didn’t do his/her history homework. In the mid-80’s there was such a downsizing, hundreds of people out of my organization were gradually let go over a year’s period…and there was worry then of the impact the digital media would have on paper greeting cards, note cards, etc. That said, I’m sorry to read they are experiencing it again (or still)? They still own 40% of the huge greeting card market…some small solace, I guess. Hallmark has been a beacon on the business-world’s hill, of what to do right.

    • Garry,
      I’m the author, and I will absolutely confirm that I did zero history homework to confirm what I was told. I’m going on a 13 year old memory of what I was told by one of my mentors or managers. I was told that when someone was laid off, the company would work at finding another position for them somewhere in the company, and that the Halls really did aim to treat their employees like a big extended family. By all accounts they seem to have succeeded at this for a few decades at least. But I fully admit I may be misremembering what was said, or my mentor may have been mistaken. I just don’t remember if this philosophy was supposed to extend to outlying plants, or whatever.

      When I was downsized in 1999(?) at headquarters, I definitely got the impression that it was unprecedented. I don’t have the interest or bandwidth to take time to find out, but if you want to send me some documentation I’ll make the correction.

      • Gary Clark says:

        They have been doing it since the 80’s like the one person said. And it is a joke that you are asking for documentation, do really think that Hallmark would be writing it down so the world could see it. I work there from 1970 to 1993 and it was a great place work for the first 18 or so years, but last five you had guys making decisions that would stab their mother in the back if it would advance there careers.

  6. Jane Maday says:

    Loved reading this, Scott. I remember taking you to lunch and showing you around a little on your first day. You did seem a little overwhelmed by it all! I had a wonderful experience working for Hallmark, and I look back at it with gratitude. It really was an incredible experience.

  7. Bruce Duckworth says:

    I also was in the Hallmark IT division. I worked from 1988 to 2004 when I was outsourced along with 120 others. But Hallmark made many provisions about us to the company we were sent to. But I have since left that company now also.

    • Interesting. The downsized group I was in had 10 months to prepare before our employment actually ended, and they made provisions for us as well. I used that 10 months preparing to launch what I hoped would be a new fine art career, (besides working, of course.) Severance pay and profit sharing enabled me to get into a modest house after my move. I really can’t complain. After all, it was a job, not hospice care.

  8. Genece says:

    Scott, I am so glad that I was blessed to know you at Hallmark. I thought of you the other day when I saw a painting at Or HaOlam that your wife had painted. I am so glad that you are doing well. I love your raku angel.
    Not having been in the Creative Division during Hallmark’s golden years, I never experienced creative renewal trips, etc. (jealous), but I was grateful every day for being able to support my family in such a lovely, creative environment. Hallmark truly hired some incredible talent.

    • Genece! So good to hear from you! Sometimes when I paint, I still listen to the Steve McConnell disc you gave me. I was actually just thinking of you the other day; about the time when I put my foot in my mouth with your friend at Or HaOlam. You might be interested in clicking on the words “Messianic Judaism” in the topical directory at top right of this blog. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
      Thanks for commenting.

  9. Patti says:

    They can take away your job…but they can’t take away your TALENT.

    • Better to have been employed and lost, than to never have been employed at all. Or something like that. (I think I came out ahead.)

      • Lisa Megahee says:

        I just flashed on a conversation I had with Gordon MacKenzie in his “black hole” office one day. I went to him when I was seriously thinking of leaving Hallmark during the glory days, to start my own herbal business. I was torn with the idea of actually finding the golden key to the handcuffs and not sure if I could survive financially. Gordon said ” what’s the worst thing that could happen if you leave?” I said that,” it wouldn’t sustain me and I would have to come back here to work.” His words of wisdom were “Better to try and fail than never to have tried at all.”
        I loved Gordon…

        • Kelly Wagner says:

          I had the pleasure of meeting Gordon when he did a presentation at the company I was at in 1992 or so. It is something I have never forgotten; he has stayed with me all these many years. I am so envious of those of you at Hallmark who worked with him. And worked in golden handcuffs!

  10. Sue says:

    What a beautiful history! It obviously helped form you into the spectacular artists you are now. It will be fun to see where God takes you from here and how each of those experiences will play into your art in the future.

    One of my best friends’ husbands worked there his entire life until retirement/lay off a few years back. He spoke highly of the company and the Halls, too.

    Love the wheat and tares! God bless you and Mollie. Off to read her blog now… 🙂

    • Sue, Thank you so much for taking the time to read. Yes, it certainly was an enriching experience in many ways, and definitely helped to prepare us for what followed. If you’d like to see Mollie’s work, I recently made a post entitled “Did I Mention that My Wife is a Great Painter?”
      Thanks for the kind words.

  11. Terry Runyan says:

    Great article Scott! I’m still at Hallmark and love my job! It is so refreshing to hear some positive words from someone who has left the company. Thanks for sharing your fond memories! 🙂

    • Good to hear from you Terry! Thanks for enjoying my fond memories. I’m glad to hear you’re happy there!

    • Kelly Cottrell says:

      Awesome article! I left Hallmark in 2000 , I still retained my job during the down sizing, but decided to leave and move back to Ohio where all my family was. Hallmark was a wonderful place to work( I was there from 1984-2000 ) I still have so many friends in KC! I miss everyone 🙂

  12. Julie Sutton says:

    I was a “word person,” and every bit as overwhelmed daily that I was paid to be there. What a wonderful place to work. Research trips, creative renewal, the Kearney farm workshops…I feel tremendously blessed to have had the opportunities I was given. I’d like to add that I was hired without a college degree, based on my portfolio. I’m certainly thankful for the open-minded manager who made that decision. I left in ’97 to homeschool my children and be a freelance writer. No regrets there, but I sure am grateful for my years at Hallmark.

  13. I love you word people!

    Hired with no college degree – that’s great; and as it should be. I’ve always thought that in a creative field, one’s academic credentials shouldn’t matter as much as one’s portfolio. It’s nice to hear that someone in management recognized that.

    I hope you feel the homeschooling investment in your children paid off. We (I should say “my wife”) did the same thing in our children’s early years, and I’m so happy we did.
    Thank you for commenting.

  14. Nicole says:

    Thanks to Hallmark, I have a Scott Freeman portrait of myself hanging in my foyer. It isn’t autographed but I will never forget sitting still for an hour over lunch while you practiced using oil on canvass to capture my kinky, coily, locks.

    • Thanks Nicole – I’m glad you came away with something from the experience.
      I recently also did a post on this site called “Portraiture” where I talked about the Hallmark Wednesday painting group. You might enjoy reading it…

  15. Larry Greenberg says:

    I knocked out 41 years, a big part of that doing a job I got to invent (Special Effects Tech) in a pre Mac era, man really loved doing that. I was always challenged by artists and others and got ton’s of support from management them morphed on to other things. I left when I wanted to and missed the carnage. I even go and volunteer on certain creative projects as a retiree. Hallmark, I have no complaints.

    • A lovely testimony, Larry. I think it is inspiring to see that one family can start a company and enrich themselves, but also enrich the lives of so many other people. 41 years! What a blessing to be at a job you love for that long.

  16. Chuck Crossland says:

    I was blessed to be a Hallmarker for 43 years. No regrets from me. I was given a chance to learn and move ahead in the company. Yes, I was there in the fat times as well as the low times, but always felt I belonged. I feel that the Halls are feeling as much pain as those who have been asked to step down. Don Junior has a soft heart and loved what his grandfather started, A passion and love for art and family!! It’s not the Halls who have failed, no one has failed. The cyber world is there to stay and difficult to compete with. Which requires more innovation on Hallmark employees. Be thankful you had the time there with such a Wonderful company..

    • I certainly am thankful. Things change. I never really knew the Halls personally but by all accounts I’ve heard from people who did, they were (are) big-hearted people. In addition to the company they built, their generosity with respect to the arts in Kansas City attests to this.

  17. Laurie Ullrich says:

    Scott I was there when you left and i am still here and feeling blessed. I entered a religious artshow with you and your wife before you left town. So happy you are doing well. Thanks for a wonderful memory.

  18. Carole Rothstein says:

    My two sisters, Julie Forsyth and Sue Tague both work(ed) for Hallmark and I have seen them develop as a result of their professions and the friends they have made there. Even I have benefitted from the rub off and am delighted to have vicariously followed them through their careers. I continue to send the very best, some of their designs of course.

  19. R.J. Stebbins says:

    What a fantastic heartfelt read. I currently work at Hallmarkcards (going on 5 years now). I couldn’t be more proud to work for a company with such a tremendous and positive impact on the world as well as its own community. The talent here is still to this day mind boggling. This is my 9th month at Headquarters; I can totally relate to the jaw dropping reality one gets while touring these halls for the first time. Thank you for your inspiring history with Hallmarkcards. I look forward to having the same life-changing experience.

  20. Thanks for sharing R.J. ‘Glad to hear that you’re enjoying your time there!

  21. Olawale Okanlawon says:

    It’s interesting reading your thoughts as one of the Hallmark creative artist. It’s inspiring reading other artists’ notes and experiences as well. I grew up noticing the uniqueness of design and quality of print of Hallmark greeting cards each time I saw vendors displaying cards for sales in Lagos, Nigeria in the late ’80s. I am an artist and also design handmade greeting cards for VIPs. I am on a self renewal break. but still wish to show case my creative ability in a technologically advantage world. Please let me share some of my designs with you Michael.please forward an email address to post the pictures

  22. Daniel Klein says:

    Hello Scott! Thank you for this wonderful accounting. We must have crossed paths at KCAI at some point. I was there in Photography from 1979-83.

    AND, I ended up shooting as one of Hallmark’s main independent photography contractors at the Hallmark studios both on Union Hill and at the card factory. It WAS a wonderful place. I shot from ’83 through almost 1990. We freelancers called it the Gravy Train. It was the bulk of my studio’s revenue at the time and I kicked myself many times for moving away to Iowa to be in an ill-fated marriage. Many times I wished I could have gone back. It was such a wonderful place – we had the very best in studio photography equipment and plenty of it. I can’t imagine the overall costs of us all shooting 8×10 transparency with 8×10 polaroids! I got to show up at 8:30, was assigned a designer and an assistant, and left at 5. Don;t forget about that great non-profit cafeteria. I miss the place.

    AND I’ve since become a follower of Jesus as well. I’m out in Los Angeles after years of photography and digital media design, then a very short stint at acting. And after some really lean years, I recently ended a ten year stint at Apple as a Creative/Trainer (talk about Golden Handcuffs!). Now I’m up for a Chief Innovation Officer position at a big private school because of all my adventures.

    I came across your blog because I was remembering Gordon MacKenzie who I was fortunate to have lunch with a few times. He’s been my creative hero since then. The Creative Paradox was THE only job I’ve ever heard of that I thought would satisfy me. I think I may be close if this CIO position comes through.

    God bless you and your family! Keep on Keeping On!

    • Daniel,
      What a ride you’ve had! I walked through the Union Hill studio a couple of times. Photography is not my field but I could see that it was a well outfitted artists playground. It looked like a lot of fun. It seems that part of the beauty of working for a large, corporate industry leader was that they were able to be outfitted with the best stuff. This was even true of something non-essential like the blacksmithing workshop. It would be overwhelming for an individual like me to amass all the tools and equipment they had on hand.

      I think Gordon MacKenzie left Hallmark the year I arrived, but I’ve heard so many stories about him. Would like to read his book someday, “Orbiting the Giant Hairball.”

      I’m excited to hear of your decision to follow Jesus. ‘Best wishes to you in getting the new position. Thanks for taking time to share your story!

  23. I also began as a Hallmark artist. They recurited me right out of art college.
    I said no to their first offer because I didnt want to move halfway across the country.
    About six months later they offered again and i accepted. The learning experience was really great. I often compare it to a couple of years in grad school.

    But at the time, late 1970’s, coming from a large city in the Northeast, KC just didnt do it for me. I left, sorry to leave the actual work but happy to return to a not so mid western life. But having been a Hallmark artist opened doors for me for years afterward. The greeting card industry is not what it used to be and I’ve read that they had to let go of hundreds of their artists, but back when i was there, before the PC and on demand card companies it was a busy, thriving place for a young artist to work.

    • Thank you for sharing, Carmella.
      Yes, I knew some other Northeasterners that felt the same way. One writer described it to me as “nothing to do and no one to do it with.” I guess being a native mid westerner I didn’t know any better. I live in a small western town now, and am happy as a clam.

      I do resonate with your feeling that it was like grad school (except that they paid US.) I was computer-illiterate when I was hired, and left very proficient in Photoshop.

      My best wishes to you.

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