For several local artists, the notion that the future is "in the cards" has taken on new meaning.

A small, but ambitious District-based greeting card company called Songhai (pronounced Song-gay) has set out to introduce a distinctive group of artists and their work through greeting cards.

Named for a l6th century West African kingdom, Songhai is the only black-owned greeting card publishing company in the Washington area and the only one in the country that is a member of the Greeting Card Association, the national official organization of greeting card dealers.

"We decided we would be part of the industry as opposed to publishing somewhere out in the wilderness," said Marvin Holloway, who founded Songhai along with Jerome Patterson and Michael Woodlon, both of Baltimore.

Holloway, who is now running the company from his home in Northeast, said the cards come in a wide range of styles, which makes them universally appealing as well as attractive to a black clientele. They have found their way into the National Cathedral Gift Shop, Sun Gallery, Ginn's stores and soon will appear at Bloomingdale's, he said.

Songhai now publishes cards designed by eight local artists.

"We looked for people whose work was of consistent quality, people with a certain kind of imagination," Holloway said. He found three such persons in the District: Sylvia Keys, Linda Dallas and Julee Dickerson-Thompson.

Sylvia Keys refers to herself as a writer, though not in the Alex Haley mold. Keys' writing is lettering, or calligraphy, from the Greek words kallos (beauty) and graphein (to write).

Working on a drafting board with a T-square, Keys designs words and word arrangements, much like a graphic artist.

"It's a close cousin to graphics," she explained, because a calligrapher has to know how to do layout and design work. She painstakingly inscribes wedding invitations, diplomas, greeting cards and stationery by hand. Once it took her six hours to complete a single scroll, she said.

"If you make one error you have to begin again," she notes.

Choosing the correct nib (point) for a pen, as well as the right type of pen are extremely important, she said.

The consistency of her inks runs thick or thin, in colors ranging from the richest black to 24-karat gold.

A full-time technical librarian and former Howard University student, Keys said her interest in calligraphy grew out of having lived briefly in Europe and attending schools where penmanship was a required part of the curriculum.

In l976, she enrolled in her first formal calligraphy class while studying for a master's degree in library science at the University of California. Three years ago, a good job offer brought her here.

"Good things have always happened to me in Washington. I have friends here," she said. She said she was also attracted to the area because many organizations here use calligraphers.

"This is my destiny," she muses. "Sitting at this board, messing with this ink."

At a time when women with math degrees are increasingly in demand, Linda Dallas, who has one, works days as an assistant manager at the Hirshhorn Museum gift shop, then comes home to draw.

Despite the paintings that clutter her small Northeast apartment, Dallas did not major in art, and instead spent her college summers working on fusion energy experiments for the Atomic Energy Commission.

"My heart wasn't in it," said the nearly six-foot tall Detroit native. "So I began taking lessons at an art center."

Dallas' work, which has been exhibited in Washington galleries since l978, blends a black and woman's aesthetic with geometric shadings and pale colors. She views as a cultural boon the concept of greeting card art.

"The black images on cards are so poor and shoddy." Dallas said. "I want people to pick up a piece of black art work and get a good feeling."

Dickerson-Thompson, a native Washingtonian, has been designing stationery and cards for several years, in addition to creating graphics, illustrations and soft sculpture.

A soft-spoken mother of three, she said she conceived the idea several years ago after designing a logo for invitations to her own slide show. The show fell through, but the post cards sold.

Her graphics, which usually employ African imagery, have been chosen as an addition to Songhai's exclusive series of Kwaanza cards.

"So many people are aware of the Norman Rockwells, the Peter Maxes. It's important that we are aware of the quality artists in our own race, the black masters, like Romare Bearden," said Dickerson-Thompson.

Among other Songhai artists are Sylvia T. Spottswood, who specializes in hand-painted monoprints; Barbara Faison, a quill artist who creates designs from small, twisted bits of paper; Nathaniel Gibbs and Oliver Patrick Scott, primarily portrait artists, of Baltimore, and Hispanic artist Juan Bastos, also of Baltimore, an illustrator.