August 27, 2020
Twenty-one years ago in August, I was hired as a graphic designer for the first time, and six years ago on September 1st, my father passed away. I have been reflecting a lot about my parents these days, who valued art and creativity — which influenced my career in the arts and fueled their small business, Wildlife Country.
When I was just over two or three, my parents signed up for their first craft sale. It was in Cedar Rapids, my hometown, around Christmastime. They made and sold ornaments and Santas, displayed on a table draped with a tablecloth. Under that table, my sister and I had sleeping bags and toys to keep us occupied, as my parents talked to customers and made sales. I don't remember anything from that particular sale, but perhaps its because it was the first of many similar experiences. Many years later, until my sister and I were in college, we went with my parents from city to city and state to state. We found projects to occupy our time, and later we helped sell, memorizing my father's marketing points, and finding the confidence to talk to strangers.
The products we sold evolved into wildlife art and the business was named Wildlife Country. My mother's previous career was as an art teacher and an illustrator for Hallmark Cards. Her style was ultra-realism, and she used a brush with one hair while looking into a magnifying glass. Every feather, every detail, was painted. This attention to detail meshed well with their love of nature and wildlife. Their initial offerings at fine art sales across the midwest were walnut wood clocks decorated with acrylic paintings of pintails, Canada geese, and other birds.
The work was taxing and tedious. My father had a better idea: make smaller, more affordable wildlife miniatures. A customer could buy one or several, creating a collection. The early miniatures were handpainted by my mother, but later, they got the idea to make high-quality lithographs of the miniatures. These images were glued to walnut wood, and my father cut each one using a scroll saw. This process enabled them to produce more series of wildlife miniatures, which included Christmas, fish, and owls.
My father sold the miniatures wholesale in art galleries and welcome centers, high-end fine art sales, and nature centers as the business grew. Their art was all over the Midwest and as far as Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and Albuquerque, New Mexico. Every year, I am contacted by people who have bought things on eBay or collected their art many years ago.
What makes this more impressive is that my father had rheumatoid arthritis as a young man, leaving his hands gnarled. He had surgery to replace the joints, and for a while, the fingers were straight, then they once again curled. Despite this disability, he was an expert craftsman and woodworker.
The business was my father's passion, and he loved all of the people that he met through the art shows. Growing up in this kind of environment, surrounded by a community of artists and traveling, was unique. I hope someday to write more about this, but for now, here's my family story.
Some of the original miniatures that my mother handpainted.
The original paintings were arranged on a larger sheet of paper that was later lithographed. Each sheet was very large and contained many miniatures. This is a small segment of the original paintings.
This is the series of fish that hangs on my wall today. There were many series including owls, Christmas, backyard birds, ducks, and more.
People could buy one or collect a series. We also sold the shadow boxes that see here, but they were actually made by another company.