- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 15, 2005

Michele Tapp puts on her mitts before pulling a baking pan out of the 550-degree oven. Smoke rises as she places the heart-shaped tin on top of the stove to cool.

“They’re done,” she declares.

Ms. Tapp isn’t baking cookies. She’s baking heads — made of birchwood — for her greeting cards.

For a decade, the Bronx native has been hand-making cards for her company, C.U.E. (Creative Unique Expressions) Cardz, which she operates from her home in the District.

“I’ve been the creative one in my family since I was 4,” said Ms. Tapp, 39, who sold her first greeting card when she was a Girl Scout. “The entrepreneurial bug hit me early.”

Ms. Tapp said she started C.U.E. Cardz because mainstream lines don’t cater to all cultures. Her cards are available in Spanish, French, Czech, Russian and Braille. Her cards cover the conventional holidays, of course, but some of them also target pet lovers, soldiers’ families and cancer survivors.

“One of the things that was important for me is to make sure that the card is reflective of the people that purchase them,” Ms. Tapp said.

Ms. Tapp sells her cards primarily via the Internet and word of mouth, but they have been featured at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport’s Pen & Prose shop and at specialty stores in New York City. Ms. Tapp sells her two-dimensional designs for $2 and her more labor-intensive “angel” cards — with three-dimensional angels on the front — for $5. She said she sells more than 200 cards a year.

“It’s been a labor of love,” said Ms. Tapp, who selected her materials largely through trial and error.

Because she wants her cards to have a natural look, Ms. Tapp uses wood, wool and handmade paper from exotic countries. She dyes circles of birchwood with coffee, tea or henna to achieve the three different skin tones of her angels, which she bakes in the oven to solidify the color.

“I was trying to boil and bake them in anything, just to see what would happen,” Ms. Tapp said. “One day, I got all these coffee and tea bags and just dumped them into a pot and I was like, OK, all these heads are going in here and we’ll see what happens.”

In her home office, Ms. Tapp’s creative side collides with her full-time career as a freelance proposal writer. Her computer stands in one corner of the room, facing a pile of stencils and cans of spray paint on the floor at the opposite end. Her card-making schedule varies: Ms. Tapp said she has been up at 2 a.m. working on her angel cards.

“My mind is always churning,” she said, likening the creative process to background music in a restaurant. “The greeting cards are always going on.”

But getting the right look is only half the battle for Ms. Tapp, who personalizes cards with her own poetry and prose.

Cards can say a lot, but they can’t — and shouldn’t — say everything, Ms. Tapp said.

“I am simply a facilitator of your emotions. I can guide you but you’re a thinking person, you can fill in the blanks,” she said.

Valorie DeVonish, an analyst for the Department of Health and Human Services, said she relies on Ms. Tapp’s eloquent cards for holidays or personal occasions throughout the year.

“I’ve talked about what I’ve wanted to say and she was able to come up with the language,” Ms. DeVonish said.

Though she has worked with Ms. Tapp professionally on government proposals, Ms. DeVonish said she encourages her friend to expand her card-making business. “I think that is her dream and where her passion is.”

In addition to her natural creative impulses, Ms. Tapp is aided by a master’s degree in journalism and public affairs from American University and an undergraduate degree in English from Bucknell University.

Ms. Tapp, who also serves as minister at Faith United Ministries in Northeast, said she wants to make cards full time someday.

“I like making people happy,” she said. “To see their face when they get [a C.U.E. Card] — oh my gosh, that makes me feel good.”

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