The Card in the Age of Digital Reproduction

1986 Handmade Ornament Card

Ornament Card, hand-drawn on card stock, 1986

Back in college, I drew 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.

Babar Christmas Card, 1989

Babar Christmas Card, Offset with 2-color printing, card stock, 1989

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 4th 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; 2009; text by KR - inside

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




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 day after Thanksgiving, I start badgering the family for card ideas. It’s a lot of pressure, coming up with a new one every year. When the girls were small, they clamored for the privilege of illustrating or writing the text, but now they’re too involved with their lives (Thanksgiving is just before finals!) to throw themselves into the project. And yet, they resist any suggestion that we let the project drop. Not only do they want a card; they want copies for their friends, teachers, colleagues. After this year’s brainstorming, we first thought the card would be about glassblowing: Santa-as-gaffer, blowing mini glass Santas, assisted by elves. Madeline was too busy to draw it– could I handle such a complicated line drawing? Would it look like he was blowing bubbles, or smoking? At the last minute, I got a poem from Lauren, “January” (earlier this year she had published set of poems, “June”, about two consecutive Junes). The poem begins:

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 card in the age of digital reproduction. My new 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. Sure, I could pull that off. I’d do it in Photoshop CS6. Hours, days later I finally uploaded pdf files to my digital printer, 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.)

These cards are my only point of connection with many distant friends and relatives. Sometimes, an envelope comes back from the post office marked “Moved: no forwarding address”, and I realize we’ve lost that person forever. As I cull through the list in early December, crossing off the names of the dead, it’s a small, second mourning. 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 early 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

[Link to Rile Smith Holiday Card Gallery]


The Card in the Age of Digital Reproduction — 1 Comment

  1. Beautiful! Your cards, and this telling of how they came to be and continue.

    I am truly honored to be a recipient of your cards over the past six years. (Or is it seven? I’ll know when I add this year’s card to the previous ones.) Your unique card is always a treat to find in the mailbox, every year so different from the year before. This year’s was a real gift. 🙂