Started at Hallmark:
Started at Keepsakes:
Kansas City, Missouri
The late Keepsake Ornament artist Donna Lee, who retired in 1991, designed Keepsake Ornaments since they were launched in 1973. During her tenture, she created such memorable Collectible Series as “Nostalgic Houses and Shops” and “Windows of the World.” Two Artists’ Favorites, Donder’s Diner and the Santa’s Streetcar Miniature Ornament, received well-deserved accolades.
Donna attributes her success at Hallmark to the support of colleagues and the late Jed Beck, her supervisor for many years. “Jed encouraged his artists to express themselves and not just do things that were safe. It was what I needed to hear,” Donna says.
Santa’s House (Starry Eyed Enterprise – 1998)
1st in the series
Someone tried to tell Donna Lee there was no such thing as Santa. At first, Donna was depressed, feeling tricked and let down. Then Donna decided that information was simply not true. When Donna was struggling with creating Santa’s house, her daughter said, “I don’t know why you’re getting so bent out of shape about a place that doesn’t exist.”
For Donna Lee, that place does exist. It’s a kingdom in her mind and heart, and it’s difficult to bring it into physical reality. But with every sketch, she got a little closer.
This ornament is part of Donna’s dream to build Santa’s Neighborhood. Creating this house has been hard work, but bringing a dream to life always is. She began by poring through a stack of architecture books from all over the world. Santa’s place ended up a conglomeration of European half-timber with Russian domes.
“Then there’s Santa’s weather vane, different from any other you have ever seen—all four directions are ‘south’.”
“South is the only direction you can go from the North Pole,” Donna explains. Both the weather vane and the star are real pewter. “I’m excited because I got to add the extra details that mean so much to me, like the folds in the bed, the flower vase and the bureau, and the cuckoo clock. The wood-burning stove has the texture of a real stove.”
In addition to all the indoor detail, Donna fretted over painting the exterior of the house. In the beginning, there was so much detail that the color looked spotty. So Donna muted the colors and toned down the exterior details.
Tannenbaum’s Department Store (1993)
Donna wanted to name the department store “Gimbel’s” after Macy’s rival in one of her favorite movies, “Miracle on 34th Street.” When Tina Hacker, a writer in the ornament department, suggested they call the store “Tannenbaum’s” Donna was flooded with nostalgia. “O Tannenbaum” was her grandmother’s favorite Christmas carol.
“While I was working on the ornament, I could hear Grandma’s voice and the rich German words,” Donna says.
Tannenbaum’s Department Store is a commemorative ornament. The three-story department store is one of the most complex ornaments Donna has made. Donna filled the store with loving memories.
“That kid reaching from the escalator to touch the star on the top of the Christmas tree reminds me of my kids. Those children cuddled beside St. Nick remind me of myself when I was a little girl.”
Donna’s glamorous Aunt Hymie inspired the upstairs cosmetics department.
“My other aunts stayed at home and took care of their families. Aunt Hymie worked in a department store and lived in an apartment instead of a house. She had a wonderful dressing table and beautiful jars of perfumes and creams.”
Donna was also impressed with the dainty dishes of candies that graced Aunt Hymie’s living room: wonderfully sticky Boston Baked Beans and tangy lemon drops.
“If you put candies out at our house, they’ll be devoured within five minutes,” Donna says.
Designing Tannenbaum’s Department Store, Donna wanted to recapture the universal specialness of the holidays: the sense of childlike delight, impish energy, and excited rushing around.
“For me, creating this piece was as sweet as Aunt Hymie’s candy, but the satisfaction has lasted a lot longer.”
The Five-and-Ten-Cent Store (1992)
9th in the Nostalgic Houses and Shops series
As a child, Donna’s toys came from the five-and-dime store and from Santa Claus.
“Designing the inside of the Five-and-Ten-Cent Store reminded me of those Saturday mornings visiting my grandma,” Donna says. “That store was always decorated for each of the holidays. The garlands, tinsel and wreaths they used for Christmas completely transformed the store.”
Upstairs, the meeting hall for the Order of the Buffalo reminds Donna of her days as a den mother. Her son’s boy Scout meeting rooms looked like this. Plus, her art director at Hallmark adored buffaloes.
Windows of the World (1985)
1st in the series
Donna was born and raised in the Kansas City area. Yet she always has been fascinated by foreign lands and foreign cultures.
“All of us are soup, made delicious by our different nationalities,” Donna believes. Her nationalities include German, Irish, English, Scottish, and Dutch.
“I love this series,” Donna says. “I like coming up with the images for the country, often things that are familiar to all of us, and personalizing them. For me, the ornaments say that even though we have different customs and languages, we are all part of one great family.”
“Making art from cliché” is the strategy she used for this series. She transformed the clichés into glowing illuminations of holiday traditions.
“I start out with my own impression of the country,” Donna says. “I have a small amount of space to evoke the country and its people.”
Donna always has loved surprises, and the piñata is a symbol of both celebration and surprise: What delicious treats and exciting treasures will pour out once the sticks break the piñata open?
Donna also consulted with an Hispanic friend. She wanted to make sure the things she was creating were fun and meaningful in the culture. The details, from the chili peppers on the back wall, to the mouse, to the sombrero that seems to overwhelm the small boy, remind her of a brief trip over the border into Mexico.
The concept of an Eskimo (Frosty Friends) ornament was submitted by Donna Hill (Lee).
– Jim Mahon (2016)
Heavenly Minstrel (1980)
Donna traveled to New York and saw the angel tree at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She read books about angels and about the creation of the Metropolitan’s angels, which were more the size of dolls than ornaments. Donna took inspiration from the gentle and elegant stylization of these angels. She believes the Renaissance angels she created represent some of the best work she did at Hallmark.
The wings on an angel can be delicate. In the Baroque Angel (1982), the wings were molded separately, then individually glued onto each ornament.
When Donna was given the assignment to design a large angel, she was elated. This was the first time she had done ornaments so big. She made the Heavenly Minstrel’s (1980) body, then draped the fabric around her, experimenting with the flow, so it looked like the angel was flying.
“With flying, comes wind,” Donna says. “I wanted the dress to have the feel of movement.”
She pinned the fabric to the clay body to hold it in place and get the right fold and flow. Once Donna was satisfied with the dress, she painted over it with Gesso to further the hardening. Then she filled in clay skirt so the manufacturing people could make the mold.
Donna visited many museums, including the Smithsonian, the Chicago Art Institute, the National Gallery, and the Nelson Gallery of Art.
“I went to get inspired,” she says. She looked at color, compositions, and form. “Sometimes I didn’t even try to have ideas—just being around all the great art made me feel creative.”