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These Christmas cards draw on memorable holiday images from the past


Diane Dempsey of Clearwater can easily lose herself in yesterday. Dempsey and her husband swing dance, do the Lindy Hop and listen to the classic White Christmas throughout the year.

"We are vintage lifestyle people," she said.

Six years ago Dempsey, a commercial artist who owns and runs The Studio, an ad agency in St. Petersburg, parlayed her love of all things retro into a vintage Christmas card business, the Retro Christmas Card Co. She was initially inspired by her love of the old Christmas spectaculars on TV, featuring crooners like Bing Crosby, Dean Martin and Perry Como.

As the former creative director for two of the Florida International Museum shows in St. Petersburg — Alexander the Great and the Splendors of Egypt — Dempsey felt confident about reaching into the past for artistic ideas.

"I felt I had a strength in accurately portraying different decades," she said. "I've worked with museums for years."

That nostalgia for days gone by is shared by others as well, she said.

"There is a whole culture of people who love vintage lifestyles," she said. "Some are wild for the '20s and '30s and will dress and dance the part."

For aficionados of the dances of the Roaring Twenties, of the war music of the 1940s or the saddle shoes and poodle skirts of the 1950s, Dempsey has lines of vintage Christmas cards they can send to friends and family who treasure those same memories.

"We have 65 images now," Dempsey said of herself and her husband Brent, a Tampa optometrist who set up the artist's website ( and does the marketing for the cards. "And we keep growing our line."

They work in a large, well-organized studio in the back of their house, where thousands of the cards are packaged in groups of eight and boxed by motif and decade on shelves lining one wall.

Most cards depict innovative collages. Many combine Dempsey's original drawings with photographic images — such as her sketch of a young child on Christmas morning perched atop an old wagon. The wagon image was culled from a decades-old Sears catalog.

Her retro snapshot series, one of five categories of cards, features photo montages of Christmas memorabilia, such as vintage bubble lights for Christmas trees, 45 rpm records and tin toys.

Other cards also conjure familiar images from Christmases past. Neon road signs flash Christmas greetings, old diner doors advertise eggnog and fruit cake images adorn the window of an old bakery. On the front of one card, a teenage couple in bobby sox and saddle shoes is dancing the jitterbug. Dempsey drew this image herself.

Particularly popular are vintage tropical cards depicting mermaids, flamingos and bathing beauties perched under palm trees.

"I might take an image of a flamingo and combine it with Christmas objects like lights or Santa's sleigh," Dempsey said. "These cards are popular with local residents, but also with people from all over the country."

Creating the cards is no small task. Dempsey begins by researching the typeface, colors, styles of lettering and even facial expressions appearing in cards, catalogs and advertisements from the 1920s through the 1960s.

The computer is a key player in the creative process. After Dempsey sketches a design, she scans it onto the computer and, using Adobe Illustrator, works in layers of color to create the effect she wants.

Scanning photos and drawings then and assembling a finished product on screen did not come naturally to Dempsey, who graduated from the Ringling College of Art and Design in 1982.

"I had to transfer the skills I learned before computers and translate those skills into the digital world," she said.

She spreads the word about her creations mostly through her website, with some selected designs in the Mad Hatter General Store in Tarpon Springs. The website has even drawn some international sales.

"The Europeans are wild about retro-American culture," she said. "One client in Genoa, Italy, throws swing dance parties."

Customized greeting cards are available on the website, but mostly the artist sells her groupings of eight, some of which are variety packs. Most packs of eight sell for $12.

Dempsey values the good feelings that come from positive memories of Christmases long ago.

"What makes life rich is being nostalgic and sharing these old memories," she said. "I try to create cards that offer my customers an image to give to their loved ones that will remind them of their ties to the past."

Correspondent Elaine Markowitz can be reached at

. Fast facts

To learn more

For more information on Diane Dempsey's vintage Christmas card collection, visit or call (727) 470-9313.

These Christmas cards draw on memorable holiday images from the past 11/30/12 [Last modified: Friday, November 30, 2012 7:54pm]
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