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Idea came from Graham Blair's 2013 woodcut print 'Fishing, Hunting, Sealing, Shearing'
Centuries ago — long before mass production existed — card players relied on decks made from a woodcut printing technique. The designer would carve an image into a piece of wood, leaving the ink-covered printing parts level with the surface of the card.
This fact wasn't lost on St. John's artist and graphic designer Graham Blair when producing a woodcut print in 2013 titled "Fishing, Hunting, Sealing, Shearing." It depicted 12 imagined face cards, drawing upon some of the traditional activities and resources people on the island of Newfoundland depended on to make a living.
"With this one, I thought it would be cool to do one that had the king and the queen, and then the jack would be the animal, and each suit would be themed on a seasonal Newfoundland activity," Blair said.
Some suggested it would be fun for Blair to redevelop the print into a full deck of cards, and the idea stuck for years.
Blair was ready to make this idea a reality in 2020. But the double whammy of last January’s snowmageddon weather event and the COVID-19 pandemic put those plans on hold.
A year later and in the middle of another lockdown, Blair decided to revisit that idea.
"I thought, everybody's home right now, I'm just going to make this happen, hoping that the response would be really good, because more people would be on social media and seeing it," Blair said. "And I think that was the case."
They weren't wrong. From the moment Blair first shared a Kickstarter campaign to back their vision for the Newfoundland-themed deck, supporters got on board. The campaign was launched last Thursday, with a fundraising goal of $5,000. As of midday Monday, the campaign had attracted more than $18,000 in pledges.
"One of the things I really find in Newfoundland and in St. John's, because it is such a tight community, people have been fantastic about buying local and buying from craftspeople," Blair said. "I am really thankful for that, because in times like this, the community really does come forward. And it's been great, and I've definitely benefited from it."
Blair knew there would be interest in the cards, given their work has built up an audience over the years.
"But honestly, I didn't think it would be that fast or that much," they said, regarding the Kickstarter campaign's success.
The United States Playing Card Company — the largest manufacturer of playing cards in the world — will print the decks. Blair needed about $7,500 to manufacture an initial run of the cards. In light of the Kickstarter campaign's success, they are now looking at increasing the size of that order.
Beyond those already claimed as rewards through the Kickstarter campaign, Blair intends to sell the decks alongside their original art prints at the St. John's Farmers' Market and through retail stores. Blair believes the decks will do well with tourists and locals alike.
There's still some work to do on the design end for Blair. The kings, queens and jacks are looked after, and they're putting the finishing touches on the joker cards, which will feature mummers. Blair will move on to the aces and numbered cards from there.
"Everything is going to be 100 per cent custom, and then I'm going to design my own tuck box for it as well," they said.
The Kickstarter campaign ends in early May and the United States Playing Card Company takes about three months to turn around an order. Blair initially expected to have the decks ready to sell and distribute by August. However, with the fundraising goal already reached and exceeded, they're now working toward getting an early start on manufacturing. They expect to finish designing the cards by the end of this month.
As an artist, Blair has missed out on a lot of sales opportunities because of the pandemic. Blair often gets freelance design work for public events, and that revenue stream disappeared for the most part. The parent of three children said if it wasn't for programs like the Canada Emergency Response Benefit and the provincial government's Artist Support Program, they would have been left in a tough spot financially.
"After that year, I just thought, OK, I've got to do the cards now," Blair said.
Andrew Robinson is a business reporter in St. John's.