PILLAGER—Putting art into people's hands may not have taken the expected path for one lakes area artist, but his work is doing just that—literally.
It involved a new way of thinking.
And it meshed two of Gary Guderian's long-term passions—art and horses. Inspiration for his work began early in life and the path to re-imagine art and business took an entrepreneurial leap.
A love affair with horses and admiration for the beauty and grace of movement they possess started when Guderian was a child and never left him.
"You can't get rid of it even if you wanted to," he said.
The middle child of seven, Guderian grew up about 20 miles south of Alexandria on a dairy farm. Riding Princess, the family Shetland pony, meant getting a good run and timing a jump to reach her back before she could turn or find a soft spot to plant her flat, even teeth. As a teenager, Guderian was given the choice of a class ring or a horse. With his response, his parents bought him a 2-year-old gelding. The cross-bred dark blue roan was a horse he could work with and train.
Guderian's career path after graduation took him to college for graphic design and led to Helena, Mont., for work at an ad agency. His experience with horses grew as he worked for a ranch one summer. Between haying work there was plenty of time for riding fearless, sure-footed mountain horses.
"It was a great experience," Guderian said.
In Montana, he spent a decade of work for one of the largest regional ad agencies with clients like Yellowstone National Park, the Montana lottery and tourism, along with ski resorts, major businesses and political campaigns. He met his wife there and started a family. In the late 1980s when living in Montana became more expensive, his friends moved out to the Seattle area. Guderian said at that time Californians were migrating to other western states fueling a real estate market that made 5-acres of undeveloped land in Montana rise from about $5,000 to $70,000 in four years. The Guderians decided to go in an entirely different direction—back to Minnesota. His friends, he said, thought he was nuts.
Back in Minnesota, Guderian continued his work as a graphic artist. He worked at a Brainerd agency for 16 years and spent a couple of years in the metro before he was laid off. Guderian saw the writing on the wall. By the time he was laid off, Guderian was freelancing at night.
'It was terrifyingly scary'
In 1996, he had an idea for a startup venture of his own. A card player, he considered the opportunities to design, make and market a cowboy playing card deck.
"I liked horses, played cards," Guderian said. "I liked the West and I'd say, 'Why don't they have a deck out there?'"
Getting from the point of an idea to an actual product—and a marketable one—took a couple of years. Guderian started sketching. But without a product to show, he had to print enough of the decks himself without potential buyers for the lot in order to reach a sellable price.
"It was terrifyingly scary," Guderian said. "I had to borrow the money for the mailing."
He started with what it would cost to get the plates ready at the print shop and an initial run of 10,000 card decks. Using his marketing background, he mailed out brochures and waited. And waited. And waited. For two weeks, he never heard anything. It was nerve wracking.
"Then finally I got two orders for like 24 decks. ... This is not going well," he said, seated at his dining room table surrounded by examples of his wildlife art and horse designs. He started thinking the worst. "Within like two weeks, I had 5,000 decks ordered."
So he gave the printer the go ahead. By Christmas, he sold 8,000 card decks and then found out he wasn't going to experience a post holiday slump as shops in Arizona began buying decks in February for snowbird tourism.
"That's the risky part," Guderian said. "You have to print all these decks first."
Then distributors began ordering 1,500 at a time. Guderian expanded his cards to include a wildlife deck and Sportsman's Warehouse ordered 10,000 at a time.
The cards did well, but Guderian never had the distribution channel he needed to get into massive numbers. Even so, he said in a decade about 200,000 decks of cowboy cards were sold. Later, some of the companies Guderian was working with decided they would create their own cards, effectively cutting him out of the mix. He said artwork can only be copyrighted to a certain extent. He got out of the playing cards for a time.
But it beckoned again later.
"I really wanted to get back into horses," Guderian said. "By that time I'd been painting a lot."
He saw other horse card decks and often thought the images were too cartoonish or strayed too far into novelty territory that they were nearly impossible to use for actual card play.
He wanted to create a card deck true to the horse with eye-catching illustrations but more than a novelty.
"I'm kind of a stickler too, I always wanted to make sure you could have a deck people could play with, that was my No. 1 thing," he said. By now, the internet was a thing. He set up a company he named G-Bar-6 under Gary Guderian Creative Design. This time, he mailed out a small card directing potential distributors, buyers and stores to the website. Locally, his cards are available at spots, including J&B Western Store, Outback Trail Rides and Madden's Resort.
His artwork has now transcended even the playing cards but continue to be part of something people can use everyday. Ohio-based Kelley and Co., with stores buying from them across the U.S. and Canada, sought him out and picked up his horse playing cards. The package of two cards in a box deck are now a top seller in the Kelley and Co. catalog.
When Kelley and Co. asked if he'd design for their lounge wear, he said, "sure, if it means drawing horses I'll go for it."
So he came up with a concept of dreaming higher, with a horse jumping over the moon. Kelley and Co. took it to their buyers to see how it would sell and that led to a partnership for multiple items. He's designed logos and artwork for a shirt and pants, a sweatshirt, hat, wine glasses, water bottle, a special moments coffee mugs series and insulated beverage containers. Guderian said he suggested they add a wine glass and Kelley and Co. liked the idea so much they added both a long-stemmed glass and short glass.
"It's a good connection," Guderian said of the partnership.
Once he started painting, Guderian found an outlet for his art. He even paints on camping trips. Those paintings, many on hardboard, adorn the walls—from floor to ceiling—in his studio and are throughout his tidy home. Paintings range from those so detailed they resemble photographs. An eagle on a high ledge seems so real a breeze from a window could ruffle its feathers. But he found his more impressionistic wildlife paintings, more watercolor in appearance, are more popular now than the detailed work. He sold canvas paintings for $175 but said he's always been more of a creator than a seller. And without a known name, he said it's hard to find an outlet to sell those paintings.
He said he goes from creating a card a week to two cards a day when he's ramped up and spurred on by a looming deadline. Getting the horse deck designs takes about eight months of work. Guderian does the artwork and then matches the design to a card with a mix of English and Western styles, draft horses to ponies, hunt seat to western pleasure. The artwork is scanned into the computer where Guderian uses PhotoShop to create each card with numbers, background and suits. It was challenging to figure out who should be the king of hearts (Clydesdale) or the queen of spades (a striking black and white paint). Guderian then decides on colors and how much chrome, or white markings, the horse may have be it a star or blaze or white stockings. Then it goes off to the printers.
What makes horse art satisfying for Guderian is being able to sketch and paint horses and know his art is accessible.
"People struggle to buy prints on a wall to get that art out there, but on a deck of cards they'll throw down $5 on a deck of cards to kind of get my art out there so that's been pretty cool," he said. "So that's a way to put art on something people will buy and people will use."
• Gary Guderian designs his work in rural Pillager on a quiet stretch of countryside where heavy wooded areas open up into pasture and just a short distance from where the pavement ends.
• His G-Bar-6 name came from his initial and the six members of his family and sounded appropriately ranch like.
• His cowboy design poker size cards sold about 200,000 decks.
• Guderian worked with another noted area artist, Ron Finger, on a sportsmen's card deck featuring fish.
• It takes Guderian about eight months to complete a card deck design, creating the artwork first before scanning it into the computer and creating each card with numbers, suits and backgrounds.