By JEFFREY BISHKU-AYKUL
A quick walk through any pharmacy’s greeting card aisle will reveal that a few major companies — Hallmark and American Greetings, in particular — dominate the industry. But that hasn’t stopped Hyde Parker Otis Richardson from entering the market.
Since 2004, Richardson, an openly gay artist who works at the Chicago Tribune’s syndication department by day, has been on a quest to offer a multicultural, inclusive line of greeting cards with a Black gay and lesbian focus. Late last year his company LavenderPop began selling a series of cards he designed — dubbed “The Diversity Collection” — out of a rack at Hyde Park Grocery and Deli, 1390 E. Hyde Park Blvd.
“People will buy cards online, but nothing really compares to walking into a store and just having them there,” said Richardson, who approached the deli about stocking his cards there before it opened and began selling them there last fall.
Richardson, who has been involved in Chicago’s gay community since he moved here in the early 1990s, said his work was a response to a dearth of minority images. “I wanted to really gear the cards towards the Black gay and lesbian community. Because the few gay and lesbian cards that I would see — especially on the North Side – there weren’t very many people-of-color images. And so I thought, ‘wow this is a segment no one is really going after.’”
Richardson, whose greeting cards have been covered in Crain’s Chicago Business and The Advocate, also cites his Nichiren Buddhist practice as an influence in his work.
This isn’t Richardson’s first foray into the specialty greeting card market: Around the turn of the millennium, he and a friend, Hana Anderson, founded a company, BlackPop, which combined “Black culture and pop culture,” Richardson said, to create a “hipper version of Mahogany cards.” Richardson created the artwork for the cards, and Anderson wrote the text.
Although the company never turned a profit, it experienced brief success, both said, when Walgreens agreed to distribute their cards. But because they were required to distribute the cards themselves at around 50 stores, the arrangement ultimately came to an end. “I think with both of us working at the time, it was more time consuming than we thought it would be,” Richardson said.
Richardson’s evolution as a greeting card designer stretch back to his childhood interest in, and eventual academic study of art. “Ever since I was a kid I was drawing and painting, Richardson said. “So it was definitely an innate gift.” He studied art education as an undergraduate and video as a graduate student at Northern Illinois University. He has also worked as a freelance illustrator and his work has appeared in The Windy City Times.
“I think growing up, I was always sort of like this passive consumer of pop culture, of TV and movies,” said Richardson, who cited as an influence the Chicago Imagists movement – born in the late 1960s at the Hyde Park Art Center. “I started looking at movies and advertising and graphics and music videos, and sort of wanting to take those images and put my own spin on them.”
LavenderPop is mostly a one-man show. But Richardson has collaborated on cards with fellow entrepreneur Melody Vernor, founder of Fat Gurrl Ink, a small online business devoted to merchandise for plus-size women. Vernor – who met Richardson more than ten years ago – emphasized his devotion to his craft.
“I’m really very particular about features,” Vernor said. “If you look at the faces of some of the artwork that he has drawn, even just down to wrinkles or noses, or creases in the lips or brows, he just gets it. He just really is passionate about what he does. He tries to be very exact.”
Hana Anderson agreed. “He’s a perfectionist and he just wants to get things right. And he will work at something all day and all night, to get it right.”
Anderson added, “He’s a fine example to many Black LGBT artists – no matter what the medium is – to come up and come out and create your images that we need to see in our community.”
A painting by Richardson, entitled “Karen Victorious,” is on display at the Hyde Park Art Center, 5020 S. Cornell Ave., through March 30 as part of its new exhibit, “Not Just Another Pretty Face.” The painting, originally a birthday gift commissioned by a friend for her girlfriend, is Richardson’s first ever artwork exhibited in the neighborhood.