Started at Hallmark:
March 19, 1987
Started at Keepsakes:
March 19, 1987
Fair Lawn, New Jersey
Robert Chad’s drawing style took a turn when three-dimensional art captured his attention. He began sketching with the goal of making his images look like they were coming right off the page. He then tried three-dimensional pieces but never liked how they turned out.
Not one to give up on a challenge, Chad kept trying until he succeeded. Today, he makes rough sketches of Keepsake Ornaments that jump off the page and onto people’s Christmas trees.
Chad began his career at Hallmark with the start of the Mary’s Angels Keepsakes Ornament series. In 1987, Chad was a freelancer. When the Keepsake Studio asked him to bring Mary Hamilton’s designs into a new medium, he was willing to give it a try. It was trial by fire—if Hallmark liked his work, there would be a job waiting for him. Chad became inspired by Mary Hamilton’s angels and her ability to blend colors with interweaving accents and tones. It’s been a beautiful partnership ever since.
At signing events, ornament enthusiasts often share with Chad what makes Mary’s Angels such a meaningful part of their Christmas celebration. “Collectors tell me about the personal connection they have with the series. The angel often symbolizes a family member, sometimes a child, that has passed away. The robe’s color reminds them of something they loved about that special person,” Chad says. “Memories become all the more vivid during the holidays.”
Sweet Trick-or-Treater (2016)
So, funny story…shortly before Mary Hamilton retired late last year, Robert wanted to see how she’d feel about taking the beloved Mary’s Angels and trying a few Halloween versions. He brainstormed a few ideas, one of which was Mary’s Devils. Not surprisingly, longtime churchgoer Mary was not exactly excited about it.
Robert chuckles when he recalls the exchange.
“I was pretty gung ho about the idea,” Robert says. “And I thought, well, maybe I should just go upstairs (to her ninth-floor space at Hallmark’s headquarters) and make sure she’s okay with this.”
Sure enough, she said she didn’t really want her name attached to something that turned her sweet angels into little devils.
“We respected that,” Robert says. “Her name is on these, and she’s such a sweet person.”
The basic idea of giving the angels a Halloween twist remained. They just became a little less…devilish.
“I started to see the cloud as a pumpkin and the character dressed up for trick-or-treating,” Robert says. “I’ve got a long list of costume ideas for these, if we keep doing them.”
29th in the Mary’s Angels series
Since working on his very first Mary’s Angels ornament 30 years ago, Robert has designed every single one in the series. Through the years, he’s developed plenty of experience adding subtle variations. And since it’s one of the most popular series in the Keepsake Ornaments line, he wants to make doubly sure the fans are getting something special every time.
“I’ve got sketchbooks upon sketchbooks of different situations, and every year there are three or four finalists that our team picks from,” Robert says.
Each angel is named for a different flower (Zinnia this year) and the color of the clothing reflects that flower. He created this year’s ornament as somewhat of an homage to vintage china dolls (the angel is holding its own doll).
“It’s a sketch that’s been around for a while,” Robert says. “I just keep coming back with things I think are relevant.”
Robert didn’t meet Mary Hamilton, the legendary Hallmark illustrator and original creator of Mary’s Angels, until three years into working on the series. After 60 years at Hallmark, Mary recently retired, but over the years, people often told her how much they loved her angel illustrations and the ornament versions as well. Robert said Mary was quick to point out that the ornaments were inspired by her work but that Robert designed them.
“She has always been so gracious.”
Mary’s Angel Surprise (2016)
Robert felt a little nostalgic when he saw this year’s Mystery Ornament, a golden-winged version of the very first Mary’s Angels ornament he designed 30 years ago. Back then, Robert freelanced for Hallmark and hoped to get a wing in the door, so to speak.
“It was my trial by fire,” Robert says. “At the time, I was barely a sculptor. It took me 10 weeks to make this.”
Until that point, Robert had worked on stuffed animals and Hallmark’s Little Gallery figurines, which is how he first heard about a job opening in the Keepsake Studio, known back then as Trim a Home.
“All that started to change around the same time that I started,” Robert recalls, adding that the Keepsake Ornament Club is also about to turn 30.
What was the studio like back then? Well, it was long before rough sculpts and final designs could be finished out digitally. And although he has done a few of the Mary’s Angels designs digitally, he still prefers the tactile quality of working with wax.
“It’s what these things were made for,” Robert says, holding up his hands. “Pushing a pen or moving a mouse is fine, but to me it just never feels quite the same.”
And speaking of tactile rewards, whoever buys this ornament won’t know if they’ll get a “golden ticket” version (gold versus silver wings) until they open up the box!
Buttercup, the first in the Mary’s Angels series was one of Chad’s first freelance assignments for Hallmark. Although it took him 10weeks to sculpt, it landed him a full-time job at Hallmark. Since then, Chad has created all the Mary’s Angels series ornaments and, with all that practice, it now takes him about 5 days to sculpt each angel.
Disco Inferno (2014)
After researching a few classic ’70s looks, Robert found the perfect floppy hat to inspire this snowman’s outfit.Such detailed research came in handy as Robert was designing a stylish jacket and coal necklace for an ensemble that’s almost too hot to handle.
This master of funk even comes with his own soundtrack, playing a version of “Disco Inferno” that will have you swaying along with every beat.
“The Goonies” Sloth (2014)
Robert turned into a true “Goonies” fan when he started work on the Sloth ornament. As soon as Robert got the assignment, he sat down and watched the film for the very first time. And as he said, “It’s easy to see why it has such a strong following!”
Robert’s art director grew up when the film was first released, and so he made sure that Sloth was in this year’s line of Keepsake Ornaments. With pirate ships, treasure and a ragtag team of kids, there’s more than enough to reminisce about when this gentle giant is hanging on the tree.
Partridge on Par 3 (2014)
Everyone loves a good joke, but even Robert can’t help but call this ornament a groaner! When it came to sculpting, however, he really wanted to bring this bird to life. After a bit of research on what partridges look like, Robert got to work on incorporating just the right mask and coloring.
Adding golf details was an especially fun part of the process. Robert told us, “I put little saddle shoes on him that were cute, with spikes on the bottom. I wanted to give him argyle socks, but there was already so much going on!”
Portrait of an Artist: Robert Chad (1989)
Robert Chad began sculpting for Keepsake Ornaments because he wanted to add another dimension to his drawing – a third dimension.
“I reached a point with my work where I felt I needed to do something different,” Chad said. “I was looking to make a change.”
Even so, his previous work helped point him in the new direction that ultimately led him to Keepsakes in 1987. There always was a dimensional element to his drawings over the years, Chad noted, both while studying at the Dayton and Kansas City Art Institutes, and later in his work as a print maker and animator.
“But with drawing,” he explains, “you can never see all of a figure, you have to allude to its roundness. With sculpting, however, there are no such ‘tricks of the trade.’ You have to show everything in a believable way,” said the New Jersey-born artist. And believability is important to the 36-year-old artist, even when sculpting the fantasy figures (such as elves) that he prefers. It can be seen in Chad’s designs, which include such 1989 Keepsake Ornaments as: “Moonlit Nap”; “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer™”; “Mary’s Angels: Bluebell”, the second in the series; “Child’s Age Collection: Baby’s First Christmas”, and “Balancing Elf”.
“I guess when I try to do is bring ‘me’ to Keepsake Ornaments. When I sculpt a figure, my basic goal is to make it look real, as if it really exists.”