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In Search of the Greeting Card Poets

Who's Responsible for the Verses that Announce Every Holiday Imaginable? If You're Thinking Blue-Haired Ladies, Think Again.

June 09, 2002|HOWARD ROSENBERG

My wife is a greeting cards scholar, a human archive of Father's Day and other card-sent messages for every occasion, committing them to memory as book-burning foes do great literature in Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451."

No wonder it can take her an hour to select just the right card.

My own method is a bit more pragmatic. I call it close-my-eyes-and-pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey card buying. In and out in five minutes.

What I wonder after receiving cards, though, is who writes these suckers? Who belongs to this faceless literati, and do they know their iambics from their pentameters? Are they legitimate writers and artists with imagination and original thoughts? Or are they hacks and manipulators who strum heartstrings like banjos?

I envision a greeting card mill. Inside are not writers in the usual sense but doyennes of schmaltz, an assembly line of blue-haired grandmothers in tennis shoes, dabbing at their eyes with hankies while turning out verse for satin hearts and pop-up Santas.

My card savant tells me I'm wrong and points me in the direction of Erika Oller.

This peek at the creative process begins, high up the food chain of fertile minds, in Pasadena. It's where my wife and I sit on a sofa, settling in comfortably, when a large German shepherd climbs onto her lap. He's not moving.

"There's a card," says Oller, a painter and former social worker. "Only [in the artwork] he'd be twice as big, and you'd really be scared."

Actually, this is life imitating card art. You can already buy Oller's "Lap Dog," which portrays a massive, spike-toothed bulldog contentedly seated on a woman in a chair like a fat Buddha while mostly blocking her from view. The expression on her melon face says she's resigned to being pinned down until he decides to leave. The caption: "It's Nice to Be Close!"

There's other evidence that Oller is guided by personal experience: the card that shows two women on a beach, aghast at a bald man in a bathing suit as he walks past, flaunting his titanic belly just before he gobbles a hot dog. The caption: "Moving Violation." Oller says the man is her brother-in-law.

Her keen observations, sharp wit and talent for painting have converged in these greetings for a decade, and she's built a micro empire of cards, cocktail napkins, coffee mugs, wallpaper, T-shirts and gift bags.

It's true that Hallmark Cards Inc. in Kansas City, Mo., and American Greetings Corp. in Cleveland are the Hertz and Avis of this industry, controlling 53% and 40%, respectively, of a "personal expression" market that generates $7.5 billion in annual sales. But Oller's own yield, through Salt Lake City manufacturer/distributor Bottman Design Inc., is stratospheric for an independent entrepreneur. It rose to 431,000 card sales in the U.S. and abroad in 2001.

First she creates the images--some in watercolor, some in an oil process called monotype--then she writes the lines:

A female dumpling embraces a cat while blissfully reclining in a chair as three other cats watch from above. The caption: "Waiting Their Turn."

A 400-pound cat looms on a bookcase behind two tiny women on a settee. The caption: "Fluffy's House."

Oller not only adores animals, she displays an acute awareness of ways that pets relate to humans, which accounts for their prominence in her work. "I'm more comfortable with them," she says. "People can be awfully tiring."

And obese. In Oller's card universe of whimsy and irony, her human figures, especially the women, are often as wide-bodied as she is tall and slim. And frequently tempted by food. "I always felt huge as a young person," says Oller, 59, "and that stayed with me."

Over the years her bestseller has been a card titled "Happily Dying of Chocolate." Her inspiration? "Me, myself."

Another card shows a couple on a bench, their eyes on an aging woman with flaming red hair and sagging breasts in a mini-dress that exposes her bird legs. The caption: "Sixty Years in Sixties Dress." Says Oller: "I always knew it would come to this."

Her figures are not chic, highbrow or "people belonging to clubs," she says. "I feel for people on the outside."

An avid reader, she visualizes scenes from the books of some of her favorite authors, William Faulkner among them. "In one card, I have this guy who's sort of a redneck hunched over with his shotgun, and he's on the porch with his woman."

Ignorant poor whites inspiring greeting card mirth? In Oller's cosmos, everything seems possible. Everything but escape.

I shift uncomfortably on the sofa. Big Dog is back, and this time he's eyeing me.

Hallmark is only one of almost 2,000 card publishers that operate in the United States. Yet this Mt. Rushmore of personal greetings is so synonymous with the industry that it's spoofed on the Internet by a Web site titled "Hallmark Cards you'll never see." Sample: "Happy vasectomy!"

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