Its been a number of years, but I still remember the season I had to stand on each of our Christmas cards.
My husband says he has mercifully forgotten everything except how much he hated making Christmas cards. But I remember more: How he swore when the linoleum wouldn't cut easily for the wood-block prints. Our house was so poorly heated we hadtp put the tile in the oven to get it warm enough.
The heat for the house proper all came from what was called a one-eyed furnace-a grille in the hall that puffed up a lot of dirty smoke and a little heat from the coal furnace below. The kitchen, a generous-sized room that we'd put together out of the old kitchen. The pantry and the back porch, was warmer than most rooms because it had a small coal stove-you can see we were very avantgarde -for this was at least 20 years before the current stove craze.
We usually started making cards about midnight the week before Christmas, and usually persisted until the wee hours of the morning, fueled with many cups of Darjeeling tea and the fruitcake I'd bought formy husband's annual suprise birthday party on the 20th. We broke the monotony by listening to "Bob and Ray" (Remember "write if you get work or hang by your thumbs"?) and "Dimension X."
Some years we'd invite long-suffering friends to come over and bring their cards and we'd have a card-addressing party. Of course, all we ever did was eat, and the cards had to be done in another dusk-to-dawn effort.
But what I really remember is standing on each card individually.
Nowdays you can buy everything you need to do the most esoteric sort of craft. But back then, it wasn't that easy. Of course, there's also the possibility that we didn't know about using rollers; memory has dimmed some of the facts. Anyway, my husbamd put the ink on each block, spread the paper (newsprint, the cheapest pater you can buy) on the block and I stood on top-with stocking feet, I might add, to keep the reverse side reasonably clean.
For several years we made our own-I'm using the term "we" in the editorial sense, since my contributions were limited ususlly to addressing the cards, after I'd stood on them.
The cards, like all homemade cards, were concerned with something we'd done that year-our grand piano, our Belize (Central America) house on stilts, the skyline of Vienna with St.Stephen's dome and the Capitol Hill house (we printed that one in a riot of color, and riot it was because one color tended to pollute the next).
Not too many years ago, my husband rebelled and wouldn't do any more woodblock prints. I too was tired of standing first on one foot and then the other.So he made a series of Jackson Pollock prints: stiff paper cards with different color paints dribbled on them. These were a great seccess andwide frammed.
Another years he did paper stencils of various forms, and sprayed paint through the stncils onto the cards. That was the year he had bronchitis clear through until hay-fever season. We learned later that everybody but us knew that spray paints have to be used only in outdoors and with a mask.
The year he built a darkroom, he printed dozens of copies of a photograph of the back of the house. But by the time he finished them, it was already New Year's. We considered sending them out as valentines, but I never got around to doing it.
We aren't the only people crazy enough to make our own cards. Everyear, we get more in the mail. Homemade or custom cards tell you a great deal about the senders. Most often, such individual efforts seem to come from artists. One Georgia artist made his reputation by sending out his cards every year to a long list of people he hoped would eventually buy his works. And many of them did.
In oneupmanship, there are two steps above sending out your own efforts. One is to send a card showing an artwork that you, the art patron, have donated to a major museum. Above even that is to send a card showing a painting or sculpture you have made that someone else has donated to a major museum.
This year, Linda Simmons of the Corcoran Gallery of Art had the cheerful thought of an exhibit of homemade cards-cards done by artist who have sent them to the gallery over the years. She found quite a few from years gone by, but not many recent ones "because most of the gallery staff now take them home," she said.
The postcard from Edward Hopper of his painting "Nighthawks," showing a cafe, is inscribed to his freind C. Powell Minnegerode, then director of the Corcoran, and refers to a visit they had in spring 1943. Nobody remembers, but its likely that the Minnegerodes had sat with the Hoppers in that cafe.
Rockwell Kent's card is a lithograph of his "Portrait of Me (Improved), 1923." It's a great art deco design. It Mrs. Theodore Baldwin III. But she must have been really tickled with "To Janie Ralston, 1924." a sketch, presumably of her, by Kent, with an affectionate greeting."
Artist Paul Wayland Bartlett, on the waste-not, want-not theory, sent a printed announcement of the Academie Colarasse (1900) in which he is listed as an instructor. He wrote his seasons greetings between the lines.
That's reminiscent of the year when author Barbara Howar, then a Washington socialite hostess, was going to give a party for the Lyndon Johnson daughters. The Johnsons and Howar broke off diplomatic relations. So Howar, who'd already had the invitation printed, sent the cards out the following Christmas, with Merry Christmas written on them.
The World War II cards are especially interesting. They remind you of the patrotic fervor. As the war was winding up, John Taylor Arms sent a Christmas card reproducing three of his engravings of American warships, with a quotation from Abraham Lincoln on concilliation.
A war theme is in many cartoons by the most prolific of the artists in the Corcoran show, Clifford K. Berryman. He was the cartoonist for The Evening Star for many years before his death in 1947. Fourteen of his cards are exhibited. Most are tied to events of the day. For instance in 1938, just before the beginning of World War II, he showed the teddy bear (his creation) with a holly wreath telling Cuncle Sam, "What a better place to have a Merry Christmas," while newspapers telling of the horrors in other parts of the world are strewn around. In 1940, though, Berryman's Uncle Sam is trying to keep the Hun out. But in 1945, his teddy bear, Generas Dwight Eisenhower and Douglas Macarthur, President Harry Truman, the Democrat donkey and Republican elephant are all congratulating each other on winning the war.
As you might expect, many of the cards in the exhibit are by local artists, several of whom are still not only living but still sending out Christmas cards.Two in the show are abstractions by Jacob Kainen - one a drypoint, the other an etching. A pleasant sketch of a small musical ensemble at St. Elizabeth's Hospital is by Prentiss Taylor.
Artist and diplomat George Viddle's lithograph of black mother and child of 1951 reflects the interest in civil rights in that year. Hugette clark, daughter of Sen. William Clark, a Corcoran benefactor, made a very art deco card in the '20s-'30s period, showing a top hat and cane and a harlequin doll.
Washington artists of today are merry minded.Franz Bader, who not long ago had a show of his photographs at the Phillips Collections, always sends his freinds cards ornamented with his color pictures. He usually makes up several a season, so he can suit picture to person. Bider's photographs are a rare genre-abstractions of everyday objects, photographed so you see the design, not the obvious identification-spider webs, ocean on sand, car lights, drops of water on glass, rocks. One year, though, after Bader and his wife Virginia went to Africa, their card was a marvelous picture of two lions affectionately sunning and snuzzling on the veldt.
The John Eisenbergs (Devra Kleiman), who both are zoologists at the National Zoo, always send a photo of a funny field. This year it's a hedgehog.
Lou Stovel, a long-time Washington artist, has progressed from a making his own Christmas cards to executing commissions for other people. This year he has done six. Stovell does the design and a poem for the inside. Bob and Judy Elliott of Chevy Chase, Ann and Donald Brown, Sam and Dorothy Gilliam, Carl and Vivian Rowan and Sally and Tersh Boasberg are among the card commissioners this year. Each cards says on the back that the design is by Stovall for the patrons. Stevenson Lithography prints the cards. Stovall charges $100- $300 for the design. He figures with the printing in color, the cards cost about $1 each.
John Michael of Stevenson's makes his own cards every year, sometimes with a photograph. He says you can reduce the price of the cards a great deal by having more printed.
Clarence Wood, a Philadelphia artist, one year sent out photographs of himself, looking to the skies with hope. Maria Josephy Schoolman, a Washington graphic designer, several years had made rubber stamps with different designs so she could vary each card.
Unichi Hiratsuka, a Washington woolblock artist, sends colored woodblock prints of flowers and California missions, each actually a small work of art. His daughters, Keiko Hiratsuka Moore, makes charming black and white woodcuts of flowers and branches, in the family tradition.
In 1974 Claudia Da Monte made individual watercolors. That must have taken a fair number of long winter nights.
Paul Arlt draws local scenes-people going up the Jefferson Memorial, the Kennedy Center reflected in the Protomac, a maze a statues and the Capitol Dome mirrored in the reflecting pond-expressed mostly as a series of horizontal and vertical lines. They have a way of being funny as well as fine.
Virginia Devine, a Washington artist now living in Vienna, two years ago sent an eerie drawing of stars and trees-perhaps the Vienna Woods-but people don't always send adequate labels with their Christmas art work.
Every year friends of Sue and Joe Clifford expect one of her silkscreens.
Sue Clifford is mostly a potter, but every Christmas she cleans the clay off her worktables and produces handsome abstracts that may be pots and may not.
Another potter and poet, Elizabeth Mccarty of Knoxville, Tenn., produced her own cards for years.But now that her children are grown and artists themselves, she and her husband Bruce sometimes send designs by the new generation.
Not all custom-made Christmas cards are artistic. Some are merely posh. Ambassadors favor sending cards with the ambassadorial seal as did the Marion Smoaks the year he was chief of protocal (which carries an ambassadorial rank). Sen. Howard Baker and his wife Joy (a good Christmas name that) send cards with the senatorial seal-very impressive on your mantlepiece. Another former ambassador, Ralph Becker, in Tegucipalpa, Honduras, in 1976, modestly abjured the seal in favor of a picture of a family wedding.
Jane Brooks, a White House Staffer, sends out poems by her late husband, Rober Brooks, beautifully calligraphed and suitable for framing.
Even one president was stricken by the do-it-yourself flu. Dwight Eisenhower's cards were usually copies of his own paintings. Former British prime minister Winston Churchill was paid the supreme compliemnt-a card company made cards of his paintins.
So far, President Jimmy Carter has been too busy trying to arrange peace in the Middle East to do much about making his own Christmas card. Mrs. Carter did find a nice 1877 print of the White House to send out this year. But Carter is a photogrpher, in case you didn't know. And one year he and mrs. Carter took a correspondence graphic art course. So next year, if he's got that Middle East business settled, who knows, they may get around to doing a design. Or there's always Amy.