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51st and Telegraph: Greeting card art

on August 15, 2009

Lauren Wilson is a Fruitvale artist who sells greeting cards around 51st Street and Telegraph Avenue. The story describes her day-to-day routine, and the slideshow features her larger, more elaborate pieces. Altogether, it completes my two-part series on informal economies. [The slideshow is no longer available.]

Too proud to panhandle, the handicapped artist sells cards for extra cash.

Artist Lauren Wilson takes her homemade greeting cards where the money is – Berkeley.

But before she joins the incense and bead vendors along Berkeley’s northernmost stretch of Telegraph Avenue, she starts her sales where Telegraph’s trendiness and higher disposable income begin – around 51st Street in Oakland.

“It’s sort of like a warm-up,” she said. “I go there first and then I go to Berkeley.”

Wilson has cerebral palsy, and her hands are not steady enough to hold a pen. To draw, she clinches a Sharpie permanent marker into the left side of her mouth and leans down close to the canvas, carefully shaking her head to color in angels, watermelons, and crosses. Although she receives Social Security disability checks each month, she takes about two-dozen cards to the streets whenever she needs a little extra cash to buy art supplies, birthday presents or a new set of nails.

“If my baby needs something, I buy him whatever he needs,” she said, referring to her 3-year-old son, Patrick. “I spend the money on me, too, because I need my hair done.”

Her blunt, roughly sketched cards are $1 to $2 and are a lot less saccharine than anything found in a Hallmark store. Most of them focus on death, with many of them simply reading, “I’m sorry for your loss.” One Father’s Day card featured nothing but a burning cigarette on the front.

And the sketches often net more than Wilson’s asking price.

“People give me $20, $30 for a card,” she said. “They’re like, ‘Here you go.’ Sometimes, they don’t want the card. They just give me money. Sometimes I make $100 a day.”

Wilson sells cards on Tuesdays and Thursdays – her days off from the National Institute of Art and Disabilities, an art center in Richmond. Her ritual consists of riding AC Transit’s 53 bus to the Fruitvale BART station around 9 a.m., taking the train to the MacArthur BART station and heading north along Telegraph Avenue on her electric wheelchair until 6 at night.

Sometimes “Big Patrick,” the father of her child, accompanies her and helps her show off cards and tuck bills into her pockets.

But she often peddles alone, never staying in one place for too long because she doesn’t have a vending permit, and she doesn’t want another $25 fine. She said she would get a permit if she knew how.

“I just want my peddling license because I don’t want people thinking I’m panhandling,” she said. “I just don’t like that.”

Wilson, however, does get some guidance from Oakland entrepreneur Shirley Everett-Dicko, owner of the Everett and Jones Barbeque chain. In addition to helping publicize Wilson’s art on Facebook, Everett-Dicko has opened her Fruitvale event center, Charcoal Park, to a showcase holding Wilson’s more stylized canvasses.

“This is a good, safe place for Lauren to exhibit her art,” she said of the center, which is at 2727 Fruitvale Ave. in Oakland.

1 Comment

  1. […] story reminds me of another informal-economy story I am working on. Artist Lauren Wilson also passes through the intersection, selling handmade greeting cards from her wheelchair before […]

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