Master Artist Ken Crow, one of the most beloved Keepsake Artists, delivered the very best craftsmanship and magic functioning ornaments over 40 wonderful years. Ken retired almost one year ago in August 2019, shortly after hosting the biannual Keepsake Ornament Club convention. Prior to his retirement, Ken met with Historian Samantha Bradbeer on multiple occasions to donate sketches and ornaments to the Hallmark Archives. He also recorded an oral history interview with Samantha, so future artists – and now collectors – can learn from his creative process. Here are some excerpts from that interview.
Ken Crow (1954- ) grew up in Long Beach, California, and, even at a young age, he was constantly inspired by his surroundings. One of his earliest memories – which he credits to his lifelong passion for drawing and mechanics – was visiting Disneyland for the first time. “I’m sitting on Main Street U.S.A, and, as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs came out in a parade, Grumpy walked right up to me and stepped on my foot,” Ken recalled. “I knew it was a person in a costume, but I was touched by that magical, animation moment.”
After visiting Disneyland, Ken began experimenting – taking apart his toys and making puppets in his father’s garage. He happily pursued that spark, and occasionally sought out his brother’s belongings, unbeknownst to him. “I put my brother’s Mickey Mouse watch in a vice when I was 5 years old. I didn’t tell him I broke it just to see what made it work on the inside until I was 22,” giggled Ken.
Although Ken never took a formal art class, his family, especially his grandmother, encouraged his creative talent. Ken was constantly doodling in his notebooks, and his grandmother always smiled when she looked through his drawings. “She said ‘Kenny, did you create all those drawings right out of your head?’ and I replied ‘Yes, Grandma,’” Ken remembered. “I needed that smile.”
Ken soon realized that others also enjoyed his drawings, and using his creative talent could be a real learning experience. In his 11th grade history class, he discovered that his pictures were worth a thousand words, as his teacher, Mr. Ciriello, let him use sketches in lieu of class notes and assignments. Mr. Ciriello’s encouragement was the ‘green light’ Ken needed to express his artistic sensibility. “It was validation that maybe I can communicate through my art in such a way that someone can understand it,” explained Ken. “And, so from that moment on, I thought, I’m going to do more of this.”
After graduating high school in 1974, Ken attended the University of Missouri in Columbia where he studied art and journalism, as he thought editorial cartoons were a great way to tell a story. His first professional work experience was as an editorial cartoonist for the Columbia Missourian newspaper. “I was the first person there in the morning and the last person to leave at night. I got paid 90 cents an hour. It was a fortune to me. They didn’t have to pay me anything,” Ken laughed. “But I learned, ‘Ken, it’s due at 3 o’clock.’ And there was no saying no, you had to fill that spot and it had to be something good enough that they wanted you to keep doing it. So, I learned, I learned production dates. I learned what was suitable, what was correct. And that experience, the school of hard knocks, was the best art experience for me.”
Hallmark recruiter Arch Unruh visited the University of Missouri on several occasions, and, during one visit, he came to Ken’s art class and looked at his portfolio. “I had a black and white newspaper portfolio, and I remember he looked at it and he said, ‘Ken, you need to focus on what they sell in the card shop.’” With that advice, Ken went to a card shop, studied it, and created his own portfolio. “I spent three months painting cute fuzzy animals, and I submitted it and I got the letter that said I was accepted!” he exclaimed.
Ken began his Hallmark career in August 1979, just three months after earning his degree. One of his first projects was illustrating The Muppets, Peanuts, Pink Panther, and Scooby-Doo for use on greeting cards, party ware, and stickers. “I couldn’t get enough of it,” said Ken. “I was constantly inspired. Hallmark even sent me to The Muppets Studio and Disney World for inspiration.”
Over the next few years, Ken illustrated licensed properties and helped develop Hallmark’s in-house characters, including Rainbow Brite and Shirt Tales.
Ken worked with Duane for roughly 9 months, and, then when it came time for his next creative rotation, he asked his manager, Gary O’Neil, if he could move to Keepsakes, then known as Trim-a-Home. “It only had a few artists in it, but, my gosh, they’re making Christmas ornaments. And that was extremely magical because they were making not only static ones, but things that moved,” gushed Ken. “Nothing wrong with greeting cards, but I really wanted to do three-dimensional things.”
Meanwhile, artist Duane Unruh, brother to recruiter Arch Unruh, was working on the company’s line of pewter figurines – Little Gallery. Duane began looking for other Hallmark artists that could sculpt, and had heard that Ken might be a good fit. “So, I started sculpting, and I learned how to sculpt in wax through Duane,” Ken concluded.
With his manager’s encouragement, Ken started in Keepsakes in November 1983, and was welcomed by artists Donna Hill (Lee), Ed Seale, and Linda Sickman. “I learned from them, but they didn’t just sit down with you to teach you,” Ken explained. “Instead I looked over their shoulder and absorbed, and thought, my gosh, look at how they do that! It was so inspirational, in such fertile ground, and no fear. I wasn’t afraid. They just wanted me to do my very best.”
He quickly realized that each artist brought something new and different to the table, and, like Santa’s workshop, they could all flourish. “There isn’t a dud in the whole group. They all shine. They are all in,” Ken emphasized. “I am so fortunate to be one of the elves in that great workshop.”
A successful Keepsake ornament starts with a really great idea – the kind Ken gets when he imagines giving one of his creations more ingenuity, action, and entertainment value than anyone has seen in an ornament before. “I just dream, I get so into it. In fact, I’m so wrapped up all the time on it. I’m thinking about it constantly,” declared Ken.
But between his initial inspiration and the successful ornament, there’s a lot of inspired craftsmanship, collaboration, and approval-seeking. “You can’t wait to go into that room where managers are sitting, and you show your ideas, and if you think you’ve got something really good, it’s like opening a present,” Ken emphasized. “I can’t wait, because the thing that makes an artist like me work is, my gosh, I just might get to work on this.”
First, Ken translates his idea into a line drawing to show how the dramatic scene might be composed on an ornament. “You get about two weeks on a project you try to outdo the last drawing you did. It’s a horse race,” said Ken. This drawing will be approved by one of the Keepsake art directors, as well as an approval committee.
Ken then shows the rough concept drawing to an engineer. Since 1999, Ken has collaborated with engineer Ron Carlson to bring his ideas to life. “We will sit down with a big piece of paper and draw. And, through brainstorming, we can have the best motions, and we can have the best feelings,” Ken gushed. “And I’ll say, ‘Hey Ron, could you move the motor over just a little bit and can we have just a little more motion here, and can it twirl rather than just do this?’”
From a block of synthetic wood – or, in recent years, using computer software – Ken then sculpts a rough version of the ornament. With this prototype, he’ll have to show that the ornament not only will fit into its retail packaging but that the components will all fit inside. This rough prototype will be examined and okayed by the approval committee before Ken proceeds in sculpting, fine-tuning, and painting the finished prototype.
Throughout the entire process Ken is constantly thinking about ornament collectors. “What is the thing that is going to make them happier than anything? What is it that they can’t live without it? What makes somebody look at it and they already know, wow, there’s something special about that?” said Ken. “The final prototype is what plucks all those heartstrings.”
Over the past 36 years, Ken has made an estimated 500 ornaments and gifts for Keepsakes. Among his favorite ornaments are The Mistletoad (1987), Arctic Dome (1991), Our Little Blessings (1995), Circus Railroad (2002), Polar Coaster (2003), I’m Melting! Melting! (2004), Mickey’s Firehouse Brigade (2015), Christmas Cabin (2020), and Disney Fantasia 80th Anniversary (2020).
These ornaments often include personal memories and Christmas traditions. “The Mistletoad has my wife’s kiss on it and it’s whimsical, and Our Little Blessings has my son and daughter on it. Jason was four, and Michelle was two. I was inspired to do that because I saw a photograph of my Grandpa with his brothers and sisters, and I thought, oh my gosh, look, they’re captured forever in a photograph. And I thought, wait a second, I am going to capture my kids forever in a Keepsake ornament,” Ken recounted.
Ken has shared these personal stories and many others with countless collectors over the years, but, he says, “They still ask, ‘Ken, what’s your very favorite ornament?’ And I would always say, ‘Well, it’s the one I haven’t worked on yet, because it’s the best one that I’m about to make.’ But, now that I am retired, I can honestly say it’s Christmas Cabin,” explained Ken. Christmas Cabin, which is available on July 11, is a ski lodge ornament, and it was inspired by Ken and engineer Ron Carlson’s Christmas traditions. “It’s a combination of Ron’s home and mine. If you look in the window upstairs, that’s his three grandkids decorating the Christmas tree. If you look on the pond, that’s my family ice skating on it. The kids on the toboggans represent kids of our friends, and then the carolers represent collectors – or just the greatest people you’d ever want to be around. And so this is like a Bing Crosby Christmas special. It has music, more than one song, and it’s, it’s just the best of my life now.”
Although Ken has always been quick to point out that he’s not Santa Claus, he does have a lot in common with him. His coworkers and friends often describe him as cheerful, even jolly. He loves making toys, and even has a white beard. “The Toymaker Santa series represents me as like a Geppetto Santa Claus expressing the greatest toys I ever got to play with,” said Ken. Over the past 20 years, Ken has depicted Santa in a woodworking apron with a variety of toys – from trains, dolls, wagons, sleds, rocking horses, race cars – and the secret is…even though Ken is retired…there’s more coming out.
The last ornaments Ken worked on before his retirement was Toymaker Santa (2020) and Toymaker Santa (2021). “That’s really, really fitting. I have the greatest joy. I identify with that. That’s me,” Ken concluded. “I’m not Santa Claus. Nobody could ever be as great as that image, but, you know what I think, I really, really honest to goodness am one of his master elves. I really, really do identify that strongly with it.”
And collectors agree. Countless collectors at last year’s Keepsake Ornament Club Convention expressed their love for the series, and one even said Ken’s retirement was like Santa Claus leaving the North Pole. “That was by far the greatest compliment I could ever get. I’m a toymaker. I get to work on Christmas. I get to make people happy. So, maybe I am just a little bit Santa Claus. I guess I kind of look like it,” Ken laughed.
(Editor’s Notes: Quotes featured within the article have been edited for length and clarity. Samantha’s full interview with Ken, and with other Keepsake Artists, will be shared in other channels in the future).