The Card in the Age of Digital Everything

December 2017.  A few weeks ago, our longtime friend Dick Dupuis texted me a photo of the handmade card I’d mailed him back in 1986, the year our oldest daughter was born:

Remember this?
Still in our ornament box!

1986 Handmade Ornament card

I replied to him that I would forward the picture to our daughter, Lauren, whose first baby, Elliot, was born last June.  Dick said,

Tell her it’s almost as old as she is.
An antique!

I promised him an echo of that old card in this year’s edition.

Over the years, our self-published holiday cards have morphed from hand-drawn editions of fewer than a hundred, to hand-colored offset prints, to pricey two-color offset prints (such as the 1989 Babar card, below), to cheap Staples-printed zines, to full-color digital prints. Sometimes our cards feature photography; other times, original writing, or hand-drawn images, or all three. This year we went fully digital with a drawing I composed entirely on a 10″ iPad Pro with an Apple pencil stylus.

Working with the iPad in a program called “Procreate” (what kind of focus group came up with that name?) was like being a guest in a magical artist studio. Suddenly I had every conceivable medium and tool at my fingertips. Yet there was no mess. No brushes to wash, no cracked layers of liquid paper larded over my ink-mistakes. And all the instant do-overs I could want.

Was the result any better than the cards of twenty years ago, meticulously drawn with my prized set of finicky, easily clogged Rapiodgraph pens? Probably not, but just as I have inevitably moved on from hand-printed silver gelatin photos to an iPhone, the lure of technology is difficult to resist. I think, on balance, I spent as many hours creating the digital card as I did creating the Babar-Santa card in 1989.

One unexpected difference is, the iPad recorded all of my drafts. Imagine a world in which your every attempt was, unbeknownst to you, exportable as a movie:

This year’s card went through several incarnations (as you can see from my notes, above), but I landed on a simple drawing of my new grandson floating above the world with joy at his first snowfall (which occurred the week I made the card.)

Elliot’s first snowfall, December 2017

For the inside of the card I borrowed loosely from Raymond Brigg’s 1978 children’s picture book The Snowman, which has always been a holiday favorite of ours.  (We also love the 28-minute wordless 1982 animated movie of the same name, and own the sheet music—every Christmas Eve Madeline sings the centerpiece song “Walking On Air” as Larry accompanies her on the piano, part of our family’s Christmas tradition that I hope Elliot will someday take part in.)

Elliot and the Snowman, December 2017

Babar Christmas Card, 1989, Offset Print

Babar Christmas Card, 1989, Offset Print

December 2016. This Thanksgiving, just a few weeks after the election that all of us fear will have terrible consequences for the future, we gathered as usual to discuss plans for our annual card. How could we send out a message of hope and comfort into this darkness? Should we even bother—at times like these, is optimism trivial, or even possible? But we also had good news: Lauren (the baby in the hand-drawn ornament from 1986) announced her pregnancy: she will have a baby in the new year. There is light, after all. There must be light. We pressed forward.

For this year’s card, “The Spinning Body”, a short version of the long spoken word poem written by Calla (Pascale), which she performed with Tangle Movement Arts in August at Dixon Place in New York:

The Spinning Body

During my time as a cicada
I burrowed deep underground
so that the turning of the earth slowed down.
The endless spinning made me dizzy.
The earth swallowed me and held me close, rose up
and cradled me like the arms I never had.
But you can’t stay underground forever.
The tectonic plates, they won’t allow it—
eventually they push you back to the surface. There is work to be done.
I’ve found there are so many things that fill me up
so I can no longer touch or smell or see—just
turn the lights off, shut the bedroom door, curl up
under the cold blue light filtering through my blankets,
swaddled like those arms I never had. The phantom tectonics
whisper: go on, get up, there is work to be done,
unfurling my linen exoskeleton, get up, go on,
crucial to the function of this spinning body, there is work to be done.

We spent a long time discussing the image the would appear on the cover; in the end we chose a 1998 silver gelatin print I made of Calla lying in the clover, wearing one of the Raggedy Ann costumes hand made for our children by our neighbor, Juanita:

Outside Card, 2016. Silver gelatin image, Calla in the grass, 1998.

1986 Handmade Ornament Card

Ornament Card, hand-drawn on card stock, 1986

Back in college, I made them all by hand, late at night, half-dizzy from the Xylene fumes drifting from my deluxe Pantone marker set: simple, joyful, athletic dancing Santas. I tucked them into my professors’ mailboxes along with my final papers. I slid them under my hall-mates’ doors. I mailed them to my aunts and uncles. I handed them to puzzled cafeteria workers in the dining hall. Every now and then, one of those cards will find its way back to me, as did one this, when a longtime friend returned it at a dinner party, more than twenty years later.

For all I know, many of them were tossed away in their envelopes, unopened. But it never occurred to me to stop, even as the scope of the annual project crept steadily upward. When the list expanded past 200, I decided to stick with a single design and found a cheap offset print shop willing to deal with my small order. I went to that shop for a more than a decade with camera-ready illustrations, painstakingly drawn on sheets of typing paper with my precious Koh-I-Noor Rapidograph pen and augmented by liberal concretions of White-Out. The shopkeeper, who kept an uncaged parrot that flew around shrieking indignant greetings and cries for help, always seemed glad to see me.

The first few years, I hand-colored each a black-and-white card. The most challenging year was 1987, when I drew a calendar, each panel laboriously hand-colored over a month of evenings. The work was so hand-crampingly intense and the cards so precious that I gave each one away, on the theory that they were too valuable to keep. My mother-in-law had one on her refrigerator for years, but I’ve not seen it a long while.

O Come Little Children, 1993

“O Come Little Children,” Offset, paper stock, 1993

The illustrations always referenced our lives, although I never included straightforward information. No mention of graduations, accomplishments, or awards, or sorrows. In the 1993 card, I hinted at a pregnancy by drawing a large angel-baby above the heads of the girls (a fourth stocking hangs from the fireplace on the card’s back.) Some years the drawings or text was by one of the children; most years it was mine.

1995 "Four Girls"

“Four Girls” cover – Silver Gelatin reprinted in half-tone, 1995

The 1995 card featured a simple nonfiction story that begins mid-sentence: …kicking through the wet leaves in her shiny new red shoes, she said, “Mommy and Daddy? Can we go back to Christmas sometime?” It was only then that we realized Caeli believed that Christmas was a magical place we’d once visited together. A perpetual party with music, gingerbread, velvet dresses, grandparents, cousins, jingle bells, elves, and candlelight. But how to find our way back? [Click to view full text.]

From this sentimental (it still chokes me up to read it) offering to mini-zines, haiku-cards, and a non-card (“Our Excuse for a Card”) that detailed all the reasons we had not created a card that year:

Our Excuse of a Card, 2008, Staples Xerox

Our Excuse of a Card Staples Xerox on card stock, 2008

“…Somebody was singing flat. The lights were on all night. We were feeling very peppy. The bus went by without stopping. It was delivered to the wrong address. We were teaching the kitten to play the violin. We lost the charger. There was a circus in town. Our shoes were too tight. We got lost in the woods. It was a very long line. We ran out of sugar. We ran out of time. We couldn’t help ourselves. We were driving around in a blizzard. We had forgotten the rules of football. There was a loud crash in the hallway in the middle of the night. Nobody wanted to sit in the back seat. We were upholstering chickens.…”
[Click to view full text.]

The Card in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, our tour de force, was a footnoted PoMo meta-card, inspired by our family discussions around the fireplace over Thanksgiving break: ‘…“I urge you to consider the spec(tac)ular (re)engerization of past(a)iche in the context of lingui(ni)stic transparen(t)cy!” declaimed Madeline, as Calla frantically hunted for her earbuds, and, not finding them backed slowly from the room. “You are arguing by example!” cried Lauren, and not for the first time, her voice hopscotching an octave to be heard above the sudden explosion of violin music in the corner of the room.  Caeli looked up briefly from her Paganini caprice. “What does that even mean?” she said, and when no one answered she plunged back into the music…’ [Click to view full text]

The Card in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction; 2009; text by KR - inside

The Card in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction; 2009; text by KR – inside

When my daughters were small, they clamored for the privilege of illustrating or writing the text. Now they are too involved with their lives to throw themselves into the project. And yet, they resist any suggestion that we let the project drop. Every Thanksgiving, I badger them for card ideas. In 2012, after days of brainstorming, we decided the card would be about glassblowing: Santa-as-gaffer, blowing mini glass Santas, assisted by elves. But Madeline was too busy to draw it—and I was too out-of-practice to handle such a complicated line drawing. (Would it look like he was blowing bubbles, or smoking?) At the last minute, Lauren came to the rescue with a poem, “January” (earlier this year she’d published set of poems, “June”, about two consecutive Junes). The poem began:

Hard to trade a sure good thing,
but we do it every year. Warmth falls away,
each time a fresh surprise. Then the first snowfall
is an intricate kiss— a ghost outline which fills
until the entire city is one softened line.

"January" (poem) surrounded by text

“January” (poem) surrounded by text, 2012

"Winter Writer" 2012, outsideFireball Printing

“Winter Writer” 2012, outside
Fireball Printing

The next idea was to encase her poem in a wall of prose, so that the prose, contiguous with the poetry, would lend the verse a complementary, perhaps brighter meaning. It would be a puzzle to work out, a puzzle to read. But I knew that with some patience I could pull it off with Photoshop. Hours, days later I finally uploaded pdf files to a digital print shop, fretting that the low-contrast color scheme I’d chosen might not look as good on in person as on the screen (does it ever?) The printers sent me a sample through postal mail—doable because, unlike with offset printing, there is no volume discount. I made a slight adjustment to the bleed lines and re-uploaded the files. The card in the age of digital reproduction. The results weren’t bad. “Best card ever,” Larry said loyally (he says that every year.)

2007 Cranberry Tea Loaf Zine, p 4- written and illustrated by Lauren

2007 Cranberry Tea Loaf Zine, p 4- written and illustrated by Lauren

Over the years our publication process shifted from monkish hand-reproduction, to offset printing, to digital xeroxing at Staples (for an 8-page ‘zine, complete with a recipe for Cranberry Tea Loaf, written an illustrated by college-age Lauren), to full-out digital printing. I’ve traded in my Rapidograph pens for digital design tools. The manual SLR camera has been replaced by an iPhone 7s. Not long ago I was walking through my local Staples store when their copy shop manager flagged me down to say hello.

I was surprised to recognize him as the former owner of the offset print shop we’d used for all those years. Hardly anyone does offset printing anymore, and his business had to shut down. Now that he works for Staples his parrot has to stay at home. I felt a twinge of guilt—just as I’d felt guilty when I stopped hand-drawing every card, or hand-coloring them, or drawing and laying out the originals on paper.

In 2015 I almost didn’t make a card. The kids are older now—they aren’t kids, really, and I don’t want to keep up a fossilized tradition just because I don’t know how to stop. The day after Thanksgiving, an eerily warm, damp afternoon, as we trudged together through the leaf-scattered woods, Calla reminded us all that it was the twentieth anniversary of the 1995 “Four Girls” portrait I’d made of the kids lying head-to-head in the leaves, an offset reproduction of a silver gelatin print from my own darkroom. Ten years later when the girls were mostly teenagers, I’d made a second portrait of them with a digital SLR and had that card offset-printed in black-and-white. And now another ten years had passed. How was it possible that ten, and twenty years had gone by? Where will we be in ten more years?

Outside 2015

Outside panels of 2015 card, Fireball Printing

My daughters lay down in the leaves, in the same configuration they’d made in 2005, and I snapped them with my iPhone. Inside the card, a no-brainer: the original silver gelatin print, scanned and digitized, and the little flash non-fiction story from 1995. If this were to be the last card, at least it had a sense of cycle, and closure.

These cards are my only point of connection with many distant friends and relatives.  As I cull through the list in early December, crossing off the names of the dead, it’s a small, second mourning. When an envelope comes back from the post office marked “Moved: no forwarding address”, I realize we may have lost that person forever. On the other hand, adding new friends to the inventory is a tiny celebration.

Each Christmas, when we decorate the tree, we unpack the envelope of cards we’ve saved. The earliest ones are lost, but we have one from 1986, and then a copy from each year beginning with 1989. The gallery presents a quirky retrospective of our lives, truer to who we are than our medical records, our stacks of family photo albums, our Facebook timelines. If we stop making cards, does it mean we stop, too?

–Karen Rile, December 24, 2012
Updated December 15, 2015
and again on December 24, 2016
and once more on December 25, 2017

[View the complete archive of Rile-Smith cards, 1986-present.]