I had been working on a rather grim post reflecting my thoughts in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook school tragedy. But at the rate I am making progress, I won’t get it done until Christmas, and it seems wrong to upload a serious (and maybe a little depressing) post on a holiday that is supposed to be joyous. I will post it later next week. Instead, I have a treat (I think) in store that goes better with the season.
For more than a decade I drew my own Christmas cards, had high-quality prints made of them, then signed them and sent them off to friends and family around the world. As we collected more and more friends in the pre-Facebook days, the list grew longer until it exceeded 300. At that point the whole project imploded under the pressure of keeping my remote viewing training business going, keeping up with my graduate studies and teaching load, plus all the stresses that come every year with getting ready for the holidays. I still have ideas for cards. I just don’t have the stamina to do the artwork and personalize, sign, address, and stamp all of them. Just color me discouraged.
In creating the cards I do have, I used the same stippling technique with a technical drawing pen that I employed while doing scientific illustrations many years ago at Brigham Young University. At the time, I was an art major but eventually went off to serve a church mission in Switzerland (yes – it was like winning the lottery!) and embarking on an Army career. Each Christmas card took an average 20 to 25 hours to do and, as you can tell, was quite painstaking. Below are images of the cards with the stories of their creation to go along with them.
“Angel.” I drew this card in 1987 with a 1977 Hallmark Christmas ornament as my model. The ornament was special – I and my first wife, Betti purchased it to celebrate the birth of our daughter, Mary Elizabeth, just two weeks before Christmas. She really did look a lot like that angel. By the time I drew the card ten years later, Betti and I were separated and on the way to divorce after 11 years of marriage. The card was a way of remembering happier times, and of acknowledging one of the three best things we ever produced together.
“Merry Christmouse” (1988) was a whimsical (and yes, I admit it – “punny”) idea that pretty much accurately portrays the family sense of humor. Though it was an afterthought, I particularly enjoyed having the mouse’s tail curve around outside the frame of the drawing. And no, I have no idea whether or not a mouse would really have anything to do with a poinsettia!
“Earth Ornament.” The Earth as a Christmas ornament came to me in December 1989 as a last-minute flash just as I was despairing of ever having either idea or time for a Christmas card drawing that year. As it was, I only had enough time to render it in pencil before going to press. Some day, perhaps, I might redo it in ink. (Nah, probably not.) The text inside reads “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year,” with the subtitle “In a year when it seems peace might really be possible.” Just weeks before, in November, the Berlin Wall started to come down, signaling the end of the Cold War that had defined my entire generation – and my Army career up to that point. It would be several months before I learned just how elusive true peace would turn out to be.
Mosque, King Fahd International Airport, Saudi Arabia
“Mosque” (1990). By the time the next Christmas arrived, I was off to war. My new wife Daryl and I had been married just four months when, the day after arriving back from a short vacation at the beach, the Army called to say that I had exactly four days to get my affairs in order and report to Fort Campbell, Kentucky for further movement to the Persian Gulf. In December my unit, the 101st Aviation Brigade, was still quartered in the shell of an unfinished airport terminal building in eastern Saudi Arabia, awaiting orders to strike north into Iraq with the rest of Gen. “Stormin’ Norman” Schwartzkopf’s invasion force. At first, I assumed there would be no chance that year to do a Christmas card. It turned out, though, that there was time. While I was off duty, and even sometimes when I was on during the late night shift when nothing was going on, I was able to work out what at first seems to be my least Christmas-like design. It is the mosque perched atop the parking garage adjacent to the terminal building at what is now King Fahd International Airport. Six thousand soldiers lived in the six-level parking garage under that mosque. This lasted for four months or more, two cots to a parking space. I managed to get the original drawing sketched, inked, and shipped back to Daryl for printing in time for her to send the cards out by Christmas that year. Inside she had placed a quote from Isaiah 57:19: “Peace to him that is far off and to him that is near, saith the Lord.” Three weeks later AH-64 Apache helicopters from our brigade launched the first direct attack on Iraqi, starting Desert Storm.
“Reindeer” (1991). I returned to the States in April, but was assigned to Fort Campbell until the following September. Finally back in Maryland with my family, I opted for something different as a card design. Somewhere I got the vision in my head of reindeer heading off across the tundra on a frosty night with their antlers silhouetted against the moon. It was a little tough in those pre-World Wide Web days to find appropriate reference photos of reindeer. The animals themselves were in short supply in central Maryland. I did find a few useful shots but, fortuitously, not far away I discovered some reindeer at the National Zoo in the District of Columbia, about a 45 minute drive (non-rush hour) from our home in Laurel, MD. Observing the live reindeer helped me get a better sense of how their antlers curve around, then splay at the ends. This is one of my favorite card ideas. I love how the negative space of the moon shadows the background antlers, and how the flowing shapes of the foreground antlers embrace the moon and deepen the perspective for the whole drawing. The only improvement I would make would be to get a better artist to draw it!
“John 15:5″ (1992). John 15:5 reads: “I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing” (KJV). But that’s not what the card said inside. For that text, Daryl picked a line from a Czechoslovakian carol (Czechoslovakia still existed then; it went out of business the following year). It goes like this: “Mary’s little baby, sleep. Sleep in comfort, slumber deep.” Where I got the idea for the design I no longer remember. My only disappointment with it is that I didn’t get the left hand of the lute player quite right, even though I drafted one of my kids to be a hand model. But it is commonly known in art classes that hands are among the hardest things to draw convincingly. (At least, that’s what I keep telling myself.) I enjoy the way the vine emerges from the pattern on the lute’s sound hole to create the vigorous growth that frames the upper half of the instrument – it more than makes up for the trouble I had with that darned hand.
“Ancient Star” (1993). In addition to the Bible, Mormons also accept the Book of Mormon as scripture. Hey, if one “Good Book” is good, wouldn’t two be better? It certainly gives us Mormons more to read! – including the account of Jesus Christ bringing the gospel to the New World. Ruminating on this one day, I got to thinking about Christmas trees and Mayan glyphs, and about how funny it would be if some day archaeologists were to find the two incongruously brought together – and “Ancient Star” is the result. The inside text is from The Book of Mormon, Helaman 14:5, which reads “And behold, there shall a new star arise, such an one as ye never have beheld; and this also shall be a sign unto you.” (The effect of the passage was somewhat dampened in the card by my use of an ornamental but nearly indecipherable type face. Oh, well – you can’t win ‘em all!)
“‘Santa’s Reflection’ (with apologies to M.C. Escher)” (1994). Anyone familiar with the visionary artist M.C. Escher will recognize the genealogy of this drawing. I no longer have any recollection why the idea popped into my head, but I had a lot of fun with it. I managed to get the hand right in this one (maybe because it has a glove on it?), and I borrowed a little from “Christmouse” in having the ornament’s hanging hook curling around outside the frame. On many of the “Santa’s Reflection” prints I mailed out I colored in the reindeer’s nose with red pencil. Never one to let the opportunity for a pun to go unrealized, the interior text reads “We hope this Christmas season will be one you’ll reflect back on with fondness!”
By now, it should be obvious that whimsy and bad jokes run neck and neck through my Christmas card ideas. Such is definitely the case with “…and a Happy Gnu Year!” (1995). Like “Reindeer,” getting suitable photo references for wildebeests was a little challenging. Thank goodness for National Geographic! Still, as far as I can remember I could find none that had the right view to serve as a model for the drawing, so I had to interpolate the correct angles and perspective as I sketched. I made a few false starts, but finally got it mostly right – I think. The idea of the critter nibbling on a wreath was another fortuitous afterthought (suggested by the tradition of leaving cookies and milk out for Santa), but I’m doubtful that a real gnu would want to have a mouthful of prickly holly. Maybe he’d do that in lieu of flossing? Anyway, since we lived in the Washington, DC area at the time I drew it, I thought I’d include a sketch of the photo we had hanging in our house of the DC Mormon temple. When the comic strip “Pickles,” drawn by Mormon artist Brian Crane, began running in the local paper I noticed him copying my idea by occasionally including pictures of Mormon temples on the wall behind his comic characters. Funny, though. I don’t at all remember sending him any of my cards, especially this one…so just maybe he got the idea somewhere else!
“Christmas Boot” (1996/97) was a two-year card. During this period I was in the process of retiring from the Army, starting my remote viewing ESP training company, and moving the family to Austin, Texas. Along with the stockings all “hung by the chimney with care,” it seemed to make sense to have a combat boot full of toys and goodies hanging there as well, symbolizing the end of my Army career and my “civilianizing” of the remote viewing skill I had learned in the Army but which was no longer needed to help fight the Cold War.
“Texas Cactus Christmas”
“Texas Cactus Christmas” (1998/99) was another two-year card, for some of the same reasons as the previous one. But I was also now enrolled full time in my philosophy Ph.D. program at the University of Texas, and being challenged by discovering that it is a lot harder to “think for a living” than it sounds. Daryl’s ghost-written memoir of legendary journalist Jack Anderson, Peace, War, and Politics was finally being published, and just a few months prior to Christmas, in October, 1999 I had signed the contract for my own book about remote viewing, which would eventually be titled Reading the Enemy’s Mind. “Texas Cactus Christmas” served notice that we had arrived, that we were truly Texans – my wife Daryl and my daughter Mary Elizabeth Texans by birth, and me by adoption and decree of the University, which agreed that I should be counted as a resident for tuition purposes. The cactus in the drawing grew across the street from our house until they built a church there. The lights, now obsolete energy-hogs (but nonetheless awesome-looking), were sketched from ones we recycled shortly afterwards. As of now our only Texas Christmas card, the text inside reads “Sending Warm Pricklies Your Way from the Lone Star State.”
Well there you have it – all eleven of my self-drawn Christmas cards (so far). Who knows, next year there may be a new one to add to the collection. Or maybe not. Only time will tell!
[If you would like to have one of these cards for your own, I still have prints available of most of them, plus some of my other drawings. Click here to order your signed copy, suitable for framing now (some prints are in limited supply).]