Over the company's long history, there have likely been hundreds of women named Mary employed by Hallmark. But if you had strolled through the art department at any time from 1955 to 2015 and asked for Mary, you’d almost surely have been directed to just one woman. In the history of Hallmark artists, there has really only been one Mary.
Mary Hamilton was born in tiny Keytesville, Missouri, but her family moved to Kansas City when she was still a girl. The summer after high school graduation, she won a yearlong scholarship to the Kansas City Art Institute. She also applied for a job at Hallmark but was asked to come back after finishing her courses. On June 13, 1955, she returned to Hallmark with her slim portfolio of artwork. She was hired on the spot.
Mary began her career at Hallmark sketching flowers and finishing other people’s art. But soon she was creating her own illustrations from start to finish. Though adept in a variety of media, Mary perfected a signature style of watercolor that is instantly recognizable.
Often starting with a light pencil drawing, she painted over her sketch in light, “washy” watercolors, blending the subtle colors and adding darker tones that define each piece in just a few strokes.
"I try to put accents in each design to pop the little character or shape out of the background," she said. "I paint with a feeling in mind. I never have any set pattern. You learn to do it without quite realizing how."
Hallmark artists know that rendering emotion in brush strokes is tricky—and nearly impossible to explain. But Mary’s colleagues recognized that her ability to produce an "aw" response with her innocent, sweet-faced waifs and little animals is what most endeared her to fans—and generated the hundreds of fan letters she received in her career.
For the first time in 1988, a sweet, cherubic figure named Buttercup adorned people’s Christmas trees. Buttercup was the first of the iconic Mary’s Angels series that became loved by Keepsake Ornament collectors for 25 years. The series was inspired by Mary’s greeting card art and was sculpted throughout the years by Keepsake Artist Robert Chad.
"After all this time, Buttercup still is one of my very favorites. It’s very pleasing to me that people like them so much," Mary said. "They are not childlike, they are ageless. They make the heart feel good when you look at them. And from the beginning, I thought that Chad had really captured the drawing in the ornament. The face and the sweet, little eyes...Chad did the right thing."
Through the years, Mary created hundreds of the whimsical characters for Hallmark greeting cards and gift products, but she gained her greatest renown for her signature bears. In 1997, her artistic achievement was showcased in her own line of products. The "Mary’s Bears" line included cards, stationery, albums, plush bears, a tea set, ceramic plates, mugs, books, a puzzle, gift wrap and stickers.
Though she became a Hallmark icon whose work remained in constant demand, Mary Hamilton was always the same dedicated, self-effacing artist who came to Hallmark, portfolio in hand, in 1955. And she never stopped striving to grow and learn new techniques. When art directors asked for work that was looser, less detailed than her previous illustrations—in keeping with current trends—Mary delivered.
"I never want to say I’ve done it all," Mary Hamilton said. "I like the challenge of coming up with something different than the last time. As long as the emotion is there, I always want to try new things."
(Adapted from Hallmark—A Century of Caring by Patrick Regan)
Mary’s longtime friend and fellow artist, Craig Lueck, wrote the perfect farewell...
“Mary, we thank you for your beautiful devotion to loving well through your paint and brush and your life. For reminding us that tenderness matters. And for showing us that we, too, can discover our own lovely lives through opening our hearts to deeper connections with family and friends.”