Written by Marla Hardee Milling | Photos by Anthony Harden
When approaching Diane English’s The Great Cosmic Happy-Ass Card Co., enter with caution—there’s side-splitting laughter ahead.
Diane English’s studio on Depot Street in Asheville’s River Arts District (RAD) is a space of amazing transformation, and it’s not just in how she changes a blank canvas into a colorful work of art.
Visitors often enter with a serious demeanor and steady facial expression, but after a few moments of reading her clever card sayings and observing the humorous paintings, their own change begins. First there are a few giggles or a ripple of laughter when a person points a specific card to a companion. The giggles often grow into authentic belly laughs as people recognize a universal truth presented through The Great Cosmic Happy-Ass Card Co. The tagline says the business “provides inspiration and humor for all those days when you just want to poke out your third eye.”
Her number one best seller is a print of a cartoon man standing in the bathroom holding a roll of toilet paper. His cat is sitting on the back of the commode. They are both gazing down into the toilet bowl, which emits a golden glow and stars. The title: “Holy Shit.” Another fan favorite features a depiction of God seated on a throne. He says to an angel: “Pull my finger.” The punchline: “Behold! The truth behind the Big Bang Theory.” Another shows a laughing face with the phrase, “Jesus Saves, Buddha Recycles.”
Don’t blame her if you find yourself in need of adult diapers (an item she’s thought of stocking). She has a disclaimer right on the door, right underneath an open sign that says COME IN!! I’m Already Disturbed:
The management of the Great Cosmic Happy-Ass Card Co. does not accept any responsibility for the following responses while you read and purchase the cards, magnets, and prints:
1. Belly aches from laughing hysterically
2. Lack of bladder control
3. Squirting milk out your nose
4. Gasping for air
5. Accidental flatulence
And so it is.
The humor breaks the ice and by the time customers are paying for purchases they are on a first-name basis with Diane and leave after hugs. They exit the shop feeling lighter and happier than when they entered.
That satisfies Diane’s main goal, which she has defined in one of her prints. This particular piece of artwork shows a cartoon face upturned in laughter. All you can see is the laughing mouth, nose, and snippets of hair around the head. Hearts and stars explode around the words: “If I can make at least one person smile or pee their pants a little then my day is not wasted!”
Diane also points to a saying posted on a billboard in the corner of her studio. It’s a quote by Oscar Wilde that resonates strongly with her: “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they will kill you.”
Customer Gloria Prendergast admitted Diane’s irreverent humor made her laugh “until I couldn’t breathe.” She recently stopped into the shop with her husband, Mike, during their first trip to Asheville. They live in Sebring, Ohio, which is about 50 miles outside Cleveland. They had picked up a River Arts District brochure detailing the artist studios in the community. When they spotted a listing for The Great Cosmic Happy-Ass Card Co., they knew they had to check it out.
“I think we need to laugh now more than ever,” says Gloria. “I think we need to lighten up. If there was more of this around, we would have better conversations and deeper conversations. I think humor makes us look deeper than we would without it. And it makes us love more because we don’t take ourselves too seriously.”
The Prendergasts lingered in the shop, enjoying the delight of reading the cards, and selecting a variety of prints and other items for sale, including a reproduction of Diane’s first storyboard totem painting. It features colorful flowers, trees, and birds, with sun and a face at the top. The words say, “Dear One, The trees, flowers and birds, indeed all of nature longs for your undivided attention.”
Not everything in this shop is side-splitting humor. The totem the Prendergrasts bought illustrates Diane’s more reflective side. There are other prints that reveal this softer spirituality. One shows one of her wacky characters with his dog and cat. They’re outside gazing at the stars. It reads: “There is No Death, Only A Change of Worlds.” A print titled “Thank You For Being My Friend” shows an angel swooping down to lift a person whose wings are limp and weary. It says, “Friends are Angels That Help Us To Our Feet When Our Wings Have Trouble Remembering How to Fly.” Another shows a person reaching for a star. The words appear on top, bottom, and both sides of the image: “Reach for Your Star! Divine Energy is Your Source. You Can Have, Do or Be Anything. You Are Amazing, Simply Amazing.”
Leap and the Net Will Appear
Diane began her career as a medical technician but, she says, “I didn’t have patience for patients.” It’s a claim that’s a bit hard to believe as Diane presents herself as someone with a magnitude of patience for others. It could be that her ability to be patient is connected with doing her current work that feels like a joy instead of a chore.
After her short stint in medicine she made a living selling newspaper advertising and eventually worked in Nashville training people for media interviews. She later moved to St. Augustine, Florida, where she opened a metaphysical bookstore called Dream Street. During her time at the store, she came up with an idea of creating and selling funny magnets and that morphed into the card business. It evolved naturally out of her love of joking around with customers, especially about spirituality. She’s a self-taught artist and also went through the process of trial and error to become efficient at Photoshop and other software to enhance and print the cards herself. She now uses Biltmore Press and Henco for her printing needs.
One day at the bookstore, as a crowd had gathered around Diane’s cards, a question came up about a name for her card company. “I could call myself the Great Cosmic Smart Ass,” Diane said to the group, “but that doesn’t sound very nice.” At that moment someone chimed in: “Then call yourself the Great Cosmic Happy-Ass.” It stuck.
After successfully running her bookstore for 14 years, it faltered when Barnes & Noble moved into town. “I was literally put out of business within a year by Barnes & Noble. And Amazon on top of that. It seemed like a good time to go after something else. Judging by the reaction of the cards in the shop, I knew the cards would take off. I just knew it,” she said.
Her partner, Karen Johnson, had been downsized from her job and the pair knew it would be a good opportunity to make a move to a new locale. When a friend suggested checking out Asheville, Diane’s first thought was “you’ve got to be kidding.” She had been to Asheville in the 1980s and remembered it as a depressing, desolate place—the antithesis of the thriving “must see” destination that it is now.
“We came up for a weekend and basically stayed,” said Diane. That was in 2000. “We got a house. We got in two weeks under the big price hikes here. I was working out of my home strictly wholesale, except for the Weaverville Art Safari, which I participated in twice a year.”
The quote “Leap and the Net Will Appear” figures in Diane’s artwork and in her life. When she made the jump from running a bookstore to expanding her card business, new opportunities came into view. She got a call from a distributor who wanted to carry her cards and sell them in stores nationwide.
“I was with them for 13 years,” she said. In 2013 the distributor dropped her cards because it stopped selling all types of stationery supplies. Diane was on her own and ready to reinvent her life once again.
Diane’s journey as a profitable artist in Asheville’s River Arts District is intertwined with her spiritual journey. She credits Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way and The Artist’s Way Morning Pages for helping her crystallize her vision and set intentions.
“For anyone who wants to go on a creative path, that book is a must as well as the exercises and the morning pages,” said Diane. “I guarantee if you do the morning pages, your life will change. It’s how I got this studio. When you’re putting your hopes and wishes down on the page, that’s when magic happens. I don’t know what it is, but it’s magical and it works.”
As she contemplated her new direction, Diane turned to her morning pages, which, based on Cameron’s advice, are three handwritten pages of stream of consciousness writing completed every morning. The content can be anything and everything on a person’s heart and mind.
One morning Diane found herself writing the same message three times: “Get out and be seen.” So she took action and went to the River Arts District to look around and daydream. Walking around the eclectic mix of studios, she asked herself: What if I had a studio here—what would it feel like? Well, it felt pretty darn great. And being in the “feeling place” is a tenet of the Law of Attraction, which in simple terms means we create our reality based on our thoughts and our feelings.
Diane’s positive feelings about her desired outcome led to amazing synchronicity. That evening, she and Karen hosted an artist friend for dinner. Their friend said, “I’ve decided to move out of my studio in the River Arts District.” Diane asked if she could have it. They contacted the landlord and the very next day, Diane moved in. She stayed in that space until her current, bigger slot opened up three years ago. The current space is about 375 square feet, but its high ceiling gives the illusion that it’s a much bigger spot. She dreams of having an even bigger space to create and paint. While she painted at home when she first moved to Asheville, she now devotes painting time specifically to her studio and works on business matters at home.
She has a long table set up in her studio where she creates. It’s surrounded by her desk and walls filled with displays prints, cards, magnets, calendars, playing cards, and totems. There’s also a mishmash of items and clippings she’s added to complement her fun environment: An Emergency Affirmation Smiley Face button at her door says “You’re Awesome!” when pushed. She also has a “YES” button to push, a metal plaque at her check-out area that says “HIGH WEIRDNESS,” a clipping that says “If it’s not FUN or FUNNY, I’m not doing it,” and a white clock with black hands and a jumble of numbers piled up at the bottom—the top says “Whatever.” A cut-out arrow suspended from the ceiling points to her artist table. It says “Artist Person.” When she has to dash out during the day, she has some yellow post-it notes at the ready. One says “I’ve been temporarily abducted by aliens. Back at 1:30.”
Paint brushes of all sizes are stashed in pottery jars that have sayings on the front: Brilliant Ideas, Elegant Solutions, Sense of Humor, Comic Relief. She has the ability to paint on her computer, but it’s not as satisfying for her.
“I love the smell of the paints, the texture of the paints, the feel of it,” she explains. “I have to use a brush. I use really bright colors from a company in California called Nova Color Acrylic Paints.”
She places an almost-complete vibrantly-painted totem across the table and applies finishing touches. It features her characters, arm in arm, or some with a hand on a shoulder, walking among the hills and valleys of the board. At the top, a Ram Dass quote: “We’re All Just Walking Each Other Home.”
The next day, Diane posed with the totem in a snapshot that she posted to her Facebook account. Within two hours, she was wrapping the art to ship to a couple in Washington State who spotted it online. Priced at $499 + shipping, it’s easy to see how Diane’s art brings in a profit. But there’s something for just about every budget in her shop—from $3.99 cards to signed prints as low as $10 and reproductions of the original totem paintings at $45. “My stuff is accessible,” she said.
There are times when she feels a twang of regret when an original piece goes out the door, but letting go allows her to make room for new creations. There is one print, however, that she hopes will always be in her collection. The painting features brightly colored hearts popping out of the chimneys of a row of houses. Windows and doorways show silhouettes of some of the people inside, with a glow emitting from the openings.
“I have it priced so high that no one will ever buy it. I love the colors in it and I love what it implies,” says Diane.
Have a Happy-Ass Day
Diane’s sales are split almost evenly between her studio in the RAD and the wholesale/e-commerce side of the business. Her cards are available at Mountain Made in the Grove Arcade and Gaea Gifts on Lexington Avenue, along with Seven Sisters Gallery in Black Mountain, as well as a couple of shops on the coast. The majority of long-distance sales come from Colorado.
She’s cautiously watching the rising rents and gentrification in the RAD. Buildings in the area are selling for millions, but right now, she’s content to just focus on the present moment. Asked if she foresees a time when she’d have to move out of the RAD, she replies, “I don’t want to live that far in the future, but I won’t move out if I can help it. There are over 220 artists in one square mile here. There’s so much talent, it’s a privilege to be here with all the other artists and talent.” Diane works in her studio on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, and half a day on Saturdays.
For artists dreaming of opening their own studio, she says profitability really depends on what you sell. There are those whose creations carry hefty price-tags and require a specialized audience of customers. Her inventory is more affordable, and she finds that humor plus affordability equals a very good profit margin for her. Her card line features more than 120 choices, but there have been a few that fell flat in terms of sales. The winning cards, however, remain consistent sellers. “The cards and magnets carry the studio,” she says. “That gives me the fantastic opportunity to paint.”
She also finds it economically smart to continue expanding her inventory with items such as The Great Cosmic Happy-Ass Adult Coloring Book!, decks of playing cards with 54 different designs, and T-shirts. She’s currently working on a new book showcasing her designs along with commentary.
Regardless of what an artist chooses to produce or at what price, Diane is adamant that “Just do it!” should be part of their mindset. It arcs back to her encouragement for other creative souls to embrace the advice in The Artist’s Way and the magic that comes from producing the morning pages each and every day. “No excuses,” she says, firmly. “It’s the same as when I opened my bookstore—I just did it.” She maintains a small shelf of books in her shop where guests can get a glimpse of the types of metaphysical titles she appreciates. She’s still an avid reader and loves giving book recommendations. Becoming Supernatural, by Dr. Joe Dispenza, is a title she suggests.
She also continues to follow the advice she received in her own morning pages of “Get Out and Be Seen.” Every time Diane hits the road in her grey Toyota Scion, she’s giving visibility to her company. The side of her car is painted with a laughing face with THE GREAT COSMIC HAPPY-ASS CARDS highlighted in a changing hue of red-orange-yellow. Underneath the image, the website is spelled out: www.greatcosmichappyass.com. The back of the car features a cast of her crazy characters hovering above her license plate: HA!HAHA!
What’s next? She’s always dreaming up new designs and card concepts, but she’s also toying with the idea of selling the greeting card side of the business. “Anyone with marketing experience could take it and run with it,” she notes.
Of course, she’d want to retain the rights to continue selling in her studio while she continues doing the work she loves—creating art that makes people smile, laugh, and sometimes “pee their pants a little.”
“My cards touch a core with people that’s irreverent in the best possible way,” says Diane. “It gives them a release. They think, ‘Oh, someone thinks like I do.’ My main customers are women, but I’m amazed at the numbers of men who come in. It’s an experience. It’s not like going to Hallmark. It’s me and gin.”
Diane rings up another sale, and instead of goodbye, she says what she says to all who enter and leave: “Have a Happy-Ass Day!”
The full article continues below. Click to open in fullscreen…