When I meet Ethan Anderson outside his house in Tahoe Vista in mid-August, he is dressed head to toe in different shades of pink. It’s no surprise that Anderson likes bright colors. His greeting card collection is full of colorful images of animals, holiday symbols, and nature that he hand draws with colored pens.
Anderson, 47, is autistic with hearing loss and a severe speech impediment. But his disability has not stopped him from becoming a small business owner who has been making and selling greeting cards for over 30 years, and whose cards can be found in almost 20 stores in Tahoe/Truckee.
“Ethan is the best art hustler on the North Shore,” said Nicole Stirling, owner of Chickadee Art Collective in Kings Beach, which has been carrying Anderson’s cards since it opened two years ago. “If all artists worked as hard as Ethan, they would make a ton of money.”
Anderson was exposed to art at a young age. His mom, Deborah Hakam, has been a face painter for 40 years and makes children’s accessories like wands, tutus, and hair ties. (She was also a school bus driver for the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District for 28 years.) She started bringing Anderson with her to craft fairs as a child. In high school in Auburn a supportive art teacher encouraged Anderson to do his own art. He started making greeting cards his freshman year and never stopped.
Anderson’s half brother, Morgan Larsen, said Anderson likes to collect coins and baseball cards, and would go to coin shops in Auburn to barter with the shopkeepers.
“That’s where he learned his sense of value and turning a small profit. It all started from there,” said Larsen, noting that selling the cards helps Anderson be part of the community. “Being a small business owner gives him community outreach. He is one of my heroes. I admire him.”
Anderson works on his art every day. His cards feature animals like frogs, turtles, fish and butterflies, and he makes holiday cards for Valentine’s Day, Easter, Halloween, and Mother’s and Father’s days. He said his most popular card is the one featuring a rainbow.
“It’s hard to keep up [with the demand],” Anderson said of the rainbow card.
While it’s challenging to understand everything Anderson is saying, and he doesn’t say a lot at one time, I am able to get the gist of what he is communicating.
He estimates that he sells about 3,000 cards a year. Anderson also makes notepads personalized with names of people or businesses, or phrases like “Chore List.”
Stirling says her customers love Anderson’s cards.
“They are colorful and creative and whimsical and affordable, everyone loves them,” she said. “He puts out more holiday cards than any other vendor we work with. He brought us Fourth of July cards, which we sold.”
Stirling said that Anderson stops by the store at least once a week to check on his stock and bring in more patterns.
“He is very motivated to find out if people like specific designs,” Stirling said. “He is always aware of what he is making and how it is being received. He is a very conscious creator — he creates with the customer in mind, which is not what everybody does.”
It also means a lot to Anderson to make his own money.
“It’s very fulfilling for him and he really loves creating cards and really loves selling cards to people,” she said. “He takes advantage of every opportunity that is given to him and creates more success for him. That’s an amazing attribute for him as a person and a disabled artist.”
Stirling asks me if I have ever seen Anderson walking around Kings Beach and Tahoe City, making the rounds to all of the businesses that sell his cards. When I say no, she seems surprised. Then, on the last Monday in August, I spy him walking the streets of Tahoe City, holding a satchel of his wares with his shoulder-length brown hair tucked behind his ears.
“If everybody went out and frequented businesses as much as Ethan does, they would be successful,” Stirling said.