Cartoonist Barbara Dale is a 'working woman' in Roland Park

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Barbara Dale's cartooning work includes the iconic Working Woman character.

Barbara Dale's idyllic life could make a funny greeting card.

What's Barbara Dale doing these days?

Anything she wants.

"I'm at this incredibly lucky point in my career, where I can do whatever I'm interested in," said Dale, 64, a successful cartoonist,writer and greeting card designer, and winner of the 2015 Jack Davis Lifetime Achievement in Cartooning award from the southeast chapter of the National Cartoonists Society in October.

Dale's longtime house including an office in Roland Park is a vivid place to hole up, filled with eye-catching modern art and odes to cartooning, from mustachioed wooden dummies from an old amusement park in a corner of the living room to a life-sized doll of her friend Cathy Guisewite's famed comic strip character, "Cathy," which sits on a chair in Dale's third-floor studio.

Dale isn't living vicariously through her famous friends. She's plenty popular in her own right, as founder of Dale Cards, an alternative greeting card company that she started in 1979 with the help of her now ex-husband, Jim Dale, who became a partner. (She said she has since bought him out.)

Among the cards are chestnuts like the one that announces on the cover, "For your birthday, my very talented dog Rover will tap out your age with his front paws. Watch!"

The punch line inside says, "Oh no, you killed my dog!"

Or the one that asks, "Mom, remember all of the aggravation I used to cause you? I'm almost done."

Then there's Dale's iconic cartoon character, "Working Woman," who gives humorous words of wisdom like, "Behind every working woman is an enormous pile of unwashed laundry.''

Working Woman has no name, "but in my head, she's Barbara," Dale said. "It's an avatar."

The character is ubiquitous on everything from coffee mugs and stationery to "The Joys of Motherhood," a 1985 book that the Dales co-wrote. Some of the witticisms are reprinted on the backs of boxes of Celestial Seasonings teas, several of which are in her studio.

The Dale Cards canon also includes many that are sexual or profane in nature, or both, and although fit to give to a friend or relative, they're risque for the general public, or unfit to print in a family newspaper. (Printable example: "You're perverted, twisted and sick. I like that in a person.")

The Dales even had a short-lived syndicated comic strip in the early 1990s called The Stanley Family, about a hard-working, mixed-religion family with three kids and a "mixed-heritage" dog named Spot. It ran in more than 70 newspapers, and didn't last long only because Barbara Dale grew tired of the characters, the deadlines, the licensing work and the tameness of the strip, and gave it up.

"I'm kind of known for my edgy work," she said. "You can't be that edgy in syndicated work."

Some of Dale's edginess seeped out in her October speech as keynote speaker at the National Cartoonists Society Southeast Chapter Conference. She told the audience that the No. 1 selling card in the early days of Dale Cards said, "Happy Birthday! When people ask you how old you are, tell them what I tell them. It's none of your (expletive) business."

She also told them that her mother had "a potty mouth," and that her father had written her mother love poems illustrated with cartoons.

"I guess it shouldn't have surprised me that I would grow up to become an edgy greeting card artist," Dale, a graduate of the Cranbrook Academy of Art in the Detroit area, said in her speech.

Blush-worthy brainstorm

Dale sells her work online, including at www.zazzle.com, www.cafepress.com or www.barbaradale.com. But she is also immersed in a new phase of her career, as a writer of illustrated novels. One, which she calls a dramedy, is already in the hands of an agent — "It took three years, but it's done," she said — but she wouldn't give away a working title or the plot.

Born in Louisville, Ky., Dale moved with her family to Stamford, Conn., then Toronto, then Detroit, and then Baltimore. Her father, Stanley Burkhoff, was former president of the advertising agency W.B. Doner and Co. Guisewite worked for the company, too, and Jim Dale was Guisewite's boss.

The first Dale greeting card (it was blush-worthy) was Barbara Dale's brainstorm in 1979, conceived at dinner in the Florida Keys, where she and Jim Dale, then the parents of a 1-year-old son and living in Detroit, were in a restaurant while on a romantic getaway at her parents' house.

"I have an idea for a greeting card for a new mother," she told her husband. It went like this:

"Congratulations, Mom! Soon your new baby will be sleeping through the night. A couple of months later, rolling over. Then the baby will crawl. By 14 months, walking. Soon, talking. Then, it's grade school, junior high (and) high school!! And then pretty soon after that . . . your episiotomy will start to heal."

Jim Dale wrote it on a cloth napkin, which the couple pilfered.

"We should write more cards," Barbara Dale said later.

"Why?"

"Because there aren't funny cards out there and we can send them to our friends."

Back in Detroit, she took several cards she had drawn (badly, she said) to a Jiffy Printer shop near a strip mall art gallery where she worked. As she walked back to work, Harold Goldberg, who owned a gift shop between the gallery and printing shop, walked out of his store and said, "What do you have there?"

He decided the cards were funny and charged $1 each for them in his store, putting them in a shoe box next to his cash register, where they quickly sold out.

Soon, the cards were selling in more stores and Dale was hiring other mothers in her neighborhood to pack cards. "They'd bring their babies and we created an ad hoc day care center in my kitchen," she told the conference attendees. "We listened to soap operas and gossiped as we worked. It was an estrogen-fueled cottage industry, growing by leaps and bounds."

The Dales added mugs and other products and struck gold at the 1979 New York Stationery Show, where they were discovered and bought by Recycled Paper Greetings, a leading purveyor of greeting cards, including the popular line of Sandra Boynton cards, Dale said.

"It was a very successful partnership for many years," Dale told her conference audience. "Recycled had access to manufacture in Asia, so we made lots of mugs created overseas."

Dale Cards became a major name in the greeting card industry, and Dale became a member of the National Cartoonists Society, rubbing shoulders with cartoonists like Gary Larson of "The Far Side" fame.

In 1985, Dale made a greeting card to raise money to fight famine in Africa. She convinced more than 500 leading cartoonists to contribute images of their iconic cartoon characters for a group shot, in which, according to People Magazine at the time, "Betty Boop rubs shoulders with Mike Doonesbury and the venerable Mary Worth hobnobs with Gary Larson's whacked-out cows."

Dale gets kudos from her former Stanley Family comic strip editor, Lee Salem, retired president and editor of Universal Uclick, who first met her in 1990 — "after the ground-breaking Dale Cards had made their indelible mark on the greeting card business," he said in an email. "She was an editor's dream: she accepted ideas she knew would work, discarded the ones that wouldn't and improved on the ones that were questionable."

Salem said he admires Dale not just for her creativity and business acumen, but as "an examplar for younger women in a creative area that is dominated by men.".

Plates and puppies

Today, in Dale's house, a fanciful framed gouache (an opaque watercolor painting) by cartoonist Al Hirschfeld of film director Alfred Hitchcock rubs shoulders with functional dinner plates designed by the Italian painter, sculptor and engraver Piero Fornasetti. The plates, many of which feature the face of 19th-century opera singer Lina Cavalieri, are showcased in Dale's kitchen, and she sets her dining room table with them when she gives dinner parties.

"I let people sit at the plates they like," she said. As for the Hitchcock drawing, "I think it's a masterpiece."

Elsewhere in the house, where Dale lives with her platonic roommate, Richard Lovell, and her verbal dogs, Alfred and Harvey, are a portrait of Dale by the contemporary American painter Raoul Middleman, as well as her own large mono print etching, called "Zen Eyes," which is all white except for a pair of eyes with splotches of black around them.

There's also a menorah shaped like a dinosaur and called a menorah-sauras (Dale is Jewish), and a large head of the fictional character Reddy Kilowatt, with a light bulb for a nose, which was used as a pitchman for the Alabama Power Co. in the 1920s.

There's also Dale's own "A Tough Nut to Crack," a chalk pastel painting, in which a character that looks like something out of Mad Magazine or the mind of R. Crumb tries to literally crack a large nut in its teeth.

And there's what she calls her "shelf of tragedies," which includes artifacts from the Holocaust and 9/11. "Pompeii is in here," she said. "That was a helluva tragedy."

On the second floor is a Mac-based digital monitor that she uses for graphic design, and on the third floor is her happy mess of a studio, filled with everything from Working Woman mugs to a monkey holding cymbals that peers over her drawing desk. There are pictures of alien "relatives" with green faces that she dreamed up. And there's a framed announcement from 1992 of 75 million Dale greeting cards sold.

How many has she sold since then? "I have no idea," she said.

But she knows this: "After selling enough cards, I was free to do whatever I wanted without someone having to pay me for it. I just feel like I'm the luckiest artist in America."

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