If you’re looking for a creative way to drive a wedge between yourself and a family member, may I suggest designing the annual Christmas card together.
This will be the tenth collaboration between dad and myself on our Christmas cards. In 2000 we turned a tiny little church painting I had done on a whim into a popular card, and we continued the project each year after. I’m not bragging when I say my cards are collectibles: Everyone in the family saves them and one of my uncles hangs them all up every year, including the new edition.
The year after the little church I scribbled a rough sketch on the back of a neon orange flier in the URI Union building and turned it into the 2001 painting. In the sketch there was a little log cabin and a deer standing in the front yard. The deer was ambitious and I am lazy; instead of figuring out how to refine a blob with four sticks and a triangle head into something resembling a graceful animal I changed it into a black Lab in honor of our good dog Skeeter. We had been without a dog for some time by 2001 and it was nice to add a little life to an otherwise still and quiet image.
The little black dog became the trademark, appearing on the envelopes and inside the cards along with a stand of tiny snowy spruce trees, my other hallmark. In 2002 I painted two black dogs, one for Skeeter and one for Shadow, and eventually Jack the border collie appeared. I promised if he was good, he could join the other good dogs on the front of the card. He wasn’t , but I added him anyway. There was only one year without dogs, 2007, when I painted an extremely tiny cabin on an extremely tiny piece of board for an art show. It was purchased within hours of being hanged – by my uncle.
So there are nine Christmas card paintings, as best as I can figure it. The 2007 original isn’t in my collection, the 2008 is missing (I have a good idea as to where it’s buried), and 2009 was an embarrassment. There was no 2009 painting. We did send a card out, but it was a repeat from a previous year. Last year I Actually Did It – I was feeling too low and miserable to draw, the ultimate failure in our creative venture.
There’s always some sort of “episode” when it comes to putting together the Christmas card. I don’t think it’s ever gone off completely without a hitch save for that first year – I doubt we would have kept doing it, if we had screwed up the first time around. The problems range from minor and irritating, such as DickBlick.com running out of the cards we use or the sheer amount of time it takes to print them – outside, inside, and hallmark on the back – to hugely aggravating, as when we feed the cards the wrong way through the printer and either double-print or produce an upside-down image, to nearly catastrophic, like the year dad listened to my propaganda and upgraded to a Mac. After years of Adobe Photoshop on his PC we were suddenly bereft of editing software and had to go as far as digging out and hooking up the old computer.
The best-worst disaster was the year dad was having a more miserable time than usual getting the justification of the cards right. After five or six wastes he figured it out and printed the whole damn stack, staying up until 3am just to get them all out of the way. After he went to bed I sneaked downstairs to check them out, acting on one of those “funny feelings.” I flipped over the first card in the pile and my heart dropped: Every last one had the message on the inside printed upside down on the top flap. Standing in the kitchen in that cold, dark preternatural predawn hour I felt a growing chill of horror from the inside out. This is it, I thought. This is the last straw. He is going to burn down the house.
I absconded with the entire pile and when dad went to work the next day I opened up Word (to this day I regret not learning Photoshop) and mashed together a lovely insert. I printed about fifty and spent the afternoon folding them in half and gluing them into the cards. At lunchtime dad asked where the cards were – he wanted to start filling his out – and I promised to return them after I had done my own. If he noticed the new deluxe edition he never said, and I got to say I legitimately saved Christmas.
Part of the problem with that particular situation, and indeed every year, is the vicious cycle of responsibility and procrastination. It always starts around Thanksgiving. “What are we going to do about a card this year?”
“Oh, I have some ideas. Have you ordered the blanks?”
It always starts with the intention of ordering blanks online, and with ideas and an image folder of inspirational and reference pictures on my desktop, and it always ends in a panic to finish the painting before it’s too late for dad to get the printing done. I usually end up handing out my cards in person, while dad gambles with the post office. Every year I say I’m going to do better. Every year I vow to start drawing the day after Thanksgiving. Every year I’m awake until 2 or 3am two weeks into December, drinking buckets of tea and going through two or three foil-covered paper plates of mixed paints. I think I need that panic for focus – as a rule I’m critical of my own work, but there has only been one painting that I felt was truly half-assed. The rest I rather like.
The image on top of this post is my brother’s favorite. It’s an idealized and composite version of our actual living room – there are about four times as many books on the shelves and three more clocks, but again, I’m lazy and am usually doing this right before dawn on the last possible day (also the fireplace is actually in my mother’s house; ours here is brick). The bottom picture is my favorite; I love the little cottage and this was the first year I figured out how to paint white pines. There are elements that appear in almost every card – dogs, marbleized winter skies, snowy spruces, something red – one year it was a highly impressionistic Farmall tractor, before dad went full John Deere. I expect this year’s card to have at least two of those features, unless I get crazy and try something completely new.
The 2010 process begins tomorrow, I swear – I have some ideas.