Otis Richardson studied painting and illustration on the undergraduate and graduate levels, obtaining a Master of Fine Arts degree from Northern Illinois University in 1990.
He's still sharing his art with the masses decades later. In fact, he's expanding his offerings.
Richardson, 48, who lives in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood is the owner and an artist for Lavenderpop Greeting Cards, a line of greeting cards geared for the LGBT community. Lavenderpop Cards offers a diverse mix of cards for everyday occasions, such as birthdays and more. More specialty cards address HIV prevention, gaydar humor, youth pride; there's also a line honoring pioneers such as Bayard Rustin and Audre Lorde.
In addition to select bookstores and gift shops, Lavenderpop would like to expand its reach into non-profits, health, HIV/AIDS, and social organizations.
"I started with a bang in 2004," Richardson said. "I was really inspired to create Lavenderpop cards because the few gay cards I saw didn't have many African-American images. I felt this was a market that wasn't being served. We were in about a dozen stores nationwide the first couple years. Stores were very enthusiastic because the cards were different. It was difficult for me to really give the attention and follow up that the stores needed [to expand the cards' availability]. I also had to figure out the best ways to reach the Black LGBT community.
"A couple factors caused me to re-examine the focus of the cards. When the economy slowed down, so did the customers who bought my cards. People just had less money to spend on specialty items. Also, many of the businesses who supported my cards were bookstores. With the slow economy and competition from Amazon, many of those stores went out of business. When you look at the number of gay bookstores that have closed in the last year or so, this unfortunate trend is continuing. So, I had to alter my business plan from bookstores to adult novelty stores and gift shops. I also decided to evolve my line to not only have African-American cards, but to have more multicultural designs, so they appeal to all races and ethnicities."
Richardson truly brings a personal touch to the cardsfor his online customers, he has always included a handwritten note thanking the person by name.
Richardson's most popular card is the "Sexy Birthday card," with male and female versions. It says, "I want you to have your cake and eat you, too."
"I've been really touched by people who have said the cards really served a deeper purpose for them," Richardson said. "A few years ago, I was contacted by the Chicago Abortion Fund, [which] wanted to order cards for their leader organization. They really liked the 'Honoring The Pioneers Among Us' design. It's a card I created to honor anyone who is contributing in a positive way to the community. It's not a card that falls into a typical greeting card category, so I was so pleased that it reflected the ideals of their leadership group."
Plus, Richardson heard from Frank Walker, president of the Youth Pride Services, that the Youth Pride card that Richardson created to affirm LGBT youth serves as the mission statement for the organization. Last year, YPS honored Richardson with a Living Legend Award. "To prove that the youth members have to learn the text of the card, Frank asked one of them to recite it to me. The young man recited it perfectly from memory," Richardson said. "I was so impressedthat something I wrote in a greeting card really made a connection to someone."
Richardson said his card buyers are split evenly between men and women.
"I love designing cards and coming up with interesting illustrations. I dig pop culture and the social and cultural influences we contribute as LGBT people," Richardson said. "I want my cards to celebrate that.
"It's great that the Black LGBT community can see cards that reflect our relationships. But if you are a gay white male, or a Latina lesbian, or an Asian transgender, I want to have designsfrom the unique to the traditionalthat speak to that diversity, too."
Lavenderpop has one East Coast-based sales representative, and Richardson is looking to expand. "I'm seeking outgoing, creative guys and gals who may be party promoters or entrepreneurs who are the movers and shakers in their circle of friends," he said. "Much like a Tupperware party, I'd like people to have Lavenderpop Card Parties."
Richardson said working in the greeting card industry definitely, "has been a learning experience."
"There are several models out there and you have to find the one that works for you," he said. "There are advantages of working within an existing card company. But there are many self-publishers like myself who like the freedom that comes from doing your own designs without having some kind of corporate approval. Of course doing it yourself is more of a challenge. It's very much like self-publishing a book as opposed to having Random House doing the sales and marketing. Independent card makers have to hustle more, but I kind of like the road less traveled. I think the payoff is going to be great.
"I'm really excited about our new series of Pride cards I'm currently working on. I'll have a design for twinks, bears, leather daddies, lesbian couples, etc. I hope people will want to collect [all.] I also am looking forward to building up my presence in gift shops and adult-novelty stores. As the economy slowly rebounds, I urge people to support the brick and mortar independent stores as well as online businesses in our community."
More Otis Richardson:
Is an active painter. "I'm currently working on an exhibition of portraits of Black, lesbian, gay, bi, trans and same-gender loving icons."
Is an active member of Soka Gakkai International Buddhist organization. "We have a strong and committed group of LGBT Buddhists here in Chicago. There are a growing number of people looking at Nichiren Buddhism and seeing the encouragement and openness it offers the gay community, and I love being a part of that dialog."
Ran the 2011 Chicago Marathon in 2011 for the third time as part of the AIDS Foundation of Chicago's endurance-training program, Team To End AIDS (T2). He likely will run the marathon again in October for T2.
See www.lavenderpop.com .