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Her Small Paintings Have Become Big Business

Marketing: A friend transformed the works of psychologist-turned-artist Kiki into merchandise that brought in about $5 million last year.


ST. PAUL, Minn. — Kiki Oberstenfeld de Suarez views every one of her paintings and etchings as a little miracle--something that just happens.

Those little miracles have blossomed into a much bigger miracle--a big business.

The work of Kiki (she is known by her first name), who lives in an isolated mountain town in southeastern Mexico far from traditional resorts, has a following throughout the United States, Mexico and Japan.

Her folk art is reproduced on a variety of merchandise: mugs, plates, magnets, calendars, cards, tote bags, watches, computer mouse pads, T-shirts and posters. About $5 million in Kiki products was sold last year.

That's small compared with the $88-million-a-year sales of Mary Engelbreit, the popular suburban St. Louis artist whose cute drawings decorate similar merchandise. But it's incredible to Kiki, 45, who never picked up a paintbrush until she was in her late 20s.

"I get these ideas and it just comes out," she said during a recent visit to St. Paul, where one of her two U.S. marketing companies is based.

The story of Kiki the artist began in 1977.

A native of Germany, Kiki had been working with disabled people and abused children as she completed an advanced degree in psychology. She needed a vacation and a friend persuaded her to go to Mexico.

In San Cristobal de las Casas, the unexpected happened.

"I met my husband, I fell in love and I stayed," Kiki said. Five months later, Kiki and Gabriel Suarez de Macieras, a photographer and businessman, were married.

But you can't work as a psychologist if you don't speak the language, and Kiki didn't know Spanish.

Depressed and lonely, one day Kiki picked up some brushes and paints she found on her husband's desk.

"I did a little picture. It helped me out of the depression I was in."

She had discovered a new outlet for the passions that occupied her as a psychologist. They became the main themes of her artwork.

Kiki's work exudes hope. It speaks out against racism, shows concern about the environment and always portrays strong women.

"There are several consistent themes. One is friendship, especially between women. Another is family, parents and children together, dreaming about a better world," Kiki said.

Although very detailed, Kiki's wise and whimsical drawings are childlike. Her best seller, "My Head Is Full of Children," portrays the head of a woman with a divided face--half brown and half white--with children in brightly colored clothing, a gold cat and a potted plant sprouting from her scalp.

Another of her most popular works, "Book Woman" shows a wild-haired woman dressed in bright colors sitting in a library reading, surrounded by books.

Kiki began with sketches, then branched into small copper etchings and large watercolors as she and her husband raised three sons, now teenagers, and built a gallery, hotel and restaurant business.

A chance meeting developed into an international market for Kiki's work.

In 1979, Minnesotan Larry LaBonte was photographing indigenous peoples in Mexico and needed a darkroom. Kiki's husband had one.

LaBonte's wife, Kathryn Shaw, traveled to San Cristobal the next year during a law school break and met Kiki. The friendship that developed led to further visits and changed both women's lives.

Shaw brought back a few Kiki etchings for a gift shop in St. Paul and they sold quickly. Then she took etchings to an art show in Dallas. From there, she moved to street shows and art fairs.

Shaw quit her law practice in 1986 and began marketing Kiki full time. But when her husband and his brother, Dennis, who lives in Texas, decided to make a T-shirt sporting "Book Woman," Shaw wanted no part of it.

"I said I didn't want to be a T-shirt salesman. They started out without me." Her determination didn't last.

They began licensing Kiki images to companies that made other products and developing a dealer network of small gift shops and bookstores. Kiki's designs are now sold by about 3,000 dealers and are offered in some mail order gift catalogs.

Since 1993, annual sales for The Kiki Collection, the St. Paul business run by Shaw, have been around $1 million.

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