By LIBBY CUDMORE • Special To AllOTSEGO.com
There’s something special, James Mullen believes, about a Christmas card.
“Because there’s an exchange at the same time of the year, they’re a lot of fun to receive as well as to give,” he said.
And Mullen would know – the former dean of SUNY Oneonta’s Fine Arts Department, he has been making cards for 64 years. “I made 200 this year,” he said. “It’s the most I’ve ever sent!”
His cards are in the Archives of American Art in the Collections at the Smithsonian, including several in their book “Handmade Holiday Cards From 20th Century Artists,” and the subject of a recent show at SUNY’s Martin-Mullen Gallery that ended this week.
A Penn State graduate, he made his first card in 1955 as an assignment. “We had to use a Wrico Pen, which you filled with India ink and used it to draw freehand,” he said. “I did a stylized Mother and Child,” he said.
The pens were used for plastic lettering stencils, to allow duplicating in the day before Xeroxes.
And when he arrived at SUNY Oneonta in 1963, card-making was all the rage in the art department.
“Artists are unique to exchange with because they are sending something they consider to be so personal,” he said. “That exchange is always very special to me.”
He’s made cards with letterpress and etchings on zinc, relief prints and, most recently, in Adobe Illustrator. This year’s card, “Star-Rose,” was a lithograph carved in limestone and pressed at the Corridor Press Studio in Otego, then reproduced and printed at his home studio at Good Shepherd Village in Endicott.
Martin-Mullen Gallery Director Tim Sheesley reached out to him in June, and asked him to think about announcement cards. “I was making a lot of birthday cards, and rose is the birthday flower for June, so that motif became this year’s card,” Mullen said.
Fifty of the cards included an original lithograph of the Star Rose. “Last year I created a Santa Claus card, but I got so into the process that I created more than one card!”
He collects cards as well, including many from former students. One is Elaine Downey, who participates in the Artisans’ Guild and also studied with Art Professor Emerita Nancy Callahan, sent him a card.
“When I opened it, it was sublime,” he said. “Another student sent me one that’s a letterpress printing on rice paper. That’s the fun part of it. You never know what you’re going to get.”
Mullen’s late wife, Sally, is credited for the revival of what is now the Greater Oneonta Historical Society, and many of his cards are in the GOHS archives.
“A lot of people received Jim’s cards,” said GOHS Executive Director Bob Brzozowski. “And a lot of people, myself included, still do!”
GOHS also has more than a decade’s worth of former SUNY Art Department Dean Minnie Martin’s cards. “Minnie was my chair,” said Mullen. “She had experience in almost every kind of art – ceramics, jewelry, printmaking, and she made beautiful cards.”
In addition to the Mullen and Martin cards, GOHS has cards that Ronald Rowley, the former city judge, and wife Marjorie sent to friends, made from images of Otsego County winter life that the husband painted over the years.
“Christmas cards are true ephemera,” said Brzozowski. “People keep Christmas cards, and we still send them. It’s a very personal way of sending greetings at the holidays.”