Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - February 3, 2006

Greetings and vegetation

Perky greeting card line by local artists features carrots, elephants, monkeys and other creatures

by Rebecca Wallace

At a table that nearly fills the apartment dining room, in the company of empty pizza boxes and scatters of paintbrushes, four artists are busily sketching and painting.

Make that three artists. Kay Hatta has painter's block. "I am stuck, I am stuck," she chants, leafing through an old sketchbook for inspiration. She knocks her forehead with a fist.

"Paint with your left hand," her son Royd suggests, adding pink acrylic paint to his charcoal sketch of an elephant.

Kay gamely scribbles a singing carrot with her left hand. "Does this look like Elvis?" Even in his younger, thinner days, it's a bit of a stretch.

No matter. You can't get a masterpiece every time, and there's always next week. Part quilting circle, part writers' group, and part kaffee klatsch, this knot of artists gathers regularly to eat dinner, create, and give each other feedback. The fruits of their labor become original blank greeting cards that they sell under their own line, ella and monk.

Royd Hatta is a trained designer whose cheerful, cartoony images of elephants and monkeys (hence the name "ella and monk") reveal a practiced hand. The creations of the others are more laissez-faire, including the quirky children and barnyard animals Kay paints and the swirling abstractions dreamed up by Royd's wife, Shu-Hsien Ho. Rounding out the foursome is Palo Alto resident Jayme George, who specializes in anthropomorphized carrots (they ski, take baths and ride unicycles).

But this informality is just what Ho and the Hattas envisioned in their Mountain View home: a regular circle of artists growing creatively in a relaxed way, fashioning cards that look anything like corporate graphics.

"I like seeing a painterly hand. There's a warmer feel to it," Hatta said. "It's not an airbrushed style. That's boring to us." And if a new greeting card can be created in one night, so much the better.

"This isn't gallery art," Hatta added later in an e-mail. "It's people art."

Originally, Hatta had dreamed of an artists' group that would write and illustrate children's books, but that gathering didn't last. So greeting cards seemed like another good small-business idea.

Meanwhile, the artists still aspire to someday create children's books, even as they balance greeting cards with other work. Hatta takes on other design projects (including his recent seal design for the Asian Pacific American Literature Award), and Ho is a substitute teacher at the International School of the Peninsula in Palo Alto, along with other part-time work.

The group always welcomes new artists, and there are some other regulars, including Moscow transplant and Palo Alto resident Karina Kudymova, who is absent tonight but represented by her lush tropical painting on the wall. Nearby is a "work-in-progress" by Royd Hatta in which a judo-themed ella the elephant throws monk. The work was commissioned by a man who sells judo uniforms.

To sell the cards, the artists walk the walk, visiting shop owners and private "card parties" (similar to Tupperware parties) in hopes of selling their creations. Several businesses, including the Treasure gift shop and Linden Tree Children's Recordings and Books in Los Altos, and Crossings CafÈ in Mountain View, carry the cards. The retail price is typically $4.50 to $5 per card, Ho said.

Aric Kerhoulas, the manager of Treasure, said his shop has been selling ella and monk cards for about two-and-a-half years. "They're whimsical; they're colorful. They're our best-selling cards," he said.

He particularly likes the humor in Kay Hatta's cards, which include "choco bunny," in which several real-life rabbits apprehensively regard a giant chocolate Easter bunny; and "pilgrim on a stick," in which two Thanksgiving turkeys tote away a hapless man.

When asked how many cards they regularly sell, the artists admit they could be more aggressive. Ho, though, says they recently sold about 170 at one holiday boutique. "Christmas was a good season for us," she adds.

In the Mountain View apartment, which is also packed with drawing tables, plastic sales racks of cards and computer equipment (the artists print most of their cards here), Ho smiles over one of her own creations, "Dreaming Baby." While she usually makes faceless, surreal images, this time she found herself painting a serene child wrapped in scarlet under the moon.

"My niece had just been born," she says. "I started out with curvy strokes, and she emerged."

Back at the table, Jayme George, clad in a carrot-patterned apron, ponders painting a different vegetable than her trademark. A rutabaga, someone suggests.

"Or a turnip," George muses aloud. "What does rhubarb look like?" For now, she settles on a Valentine's Day theme: the girl carrot with the pink hair bow gets all the valentines.

Royd Hatta dips his paintbrush into a plastic cottage cheese container filled with water, making lavender swirls. He's painted ella dancing on monk's head, but he's not altogether happy with the card.

"This may be one of those ones that don't make it," he says. Then, undaunted, he goes back to painting.

Info:For more information about ella and monk cards, call (650) 559-1589 or go to www.ellaandmonk.com.

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