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.
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.
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 creek bed 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.
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 weeklong 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 weeklong 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.
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 best 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, you might try feeling 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.