Shari Jenkins Schmit was visiting a friend in Butte when her friend remarked with dismay, “I wouldn’t have to pray so much if I didn’t misbehave so often!” Jenkins grabbed onto the remark, but not in the way her friend expected.
“That’s a great jingle for one of my cards. May I use it?” she asked.
Jenkins, 60, lives in Great Falls, Mont., but she is known throughout the nation for the Leanin’ Tree cards she designs.
Living in the West provides her with card themes that she always writes herself. One-liners spouted by her father, Jerry Jenkins of Lewistown, have given her the best material to adapt for her cards. She starts with the jingle and then designs the card around what she wants to say. Always listening, especially to the joke’s punch line, she has an unconventional sense of humor, which is an asset, because “Funny is what sells.”
Professionally, she uses her maiden name. Leanin’ Tree markets her cards under her moniker, “Hotter Than a Pistol, Shari Jenkins.”
Instead of marketing boutique cards, Leanin’ Tree, with headquarters in Boulder, Colo., provides racks to 20,000 different businesses, such as convenience stores, farm supply stores, airport businesses, and box stores. Some racks display only Jenkins’ designs. At all times Leanin’ Tree uses at least 45 of Jenkins’ designs. If a design sells frequently, it will continue to be displayed. Adding to what is popular, she provides the company with new designs throughout the year.
Jenkins is especially busy January through June. That’s when she needs to finish her Christmas and Valentine card designs. Birthday cards are her best sellers, followed by friendship cards.
Mostly women buy her cards, so Jenkins frequently features women in her artwork.
Cowgirls are prevalent theme in her work, due to her love of Western history. Black, red, and turquoise are her favorite colors to use. As a digital collage artist, her trademark designs are easily recognizable.
“From antique stores’ dusty corners to thrift shops’ aisles, from picking up dead bugs in my driveway to pulling a shock of chokecherries from a bush, you name it, my scanner has seen it. I scan everything from barbed wire to vintage petticoats, from shotgun shells to buttons, from jewelry, and, yes, to a dead dragonfly,” said Jenkins.
The artist proud of her roots. She grew up riding horses and doing ranch work southeast of Big Sandy, Mont., with her two sisters and parents.
“I am the self-proclaimed rock-picking queen of Chouteau County,” she said with a laugh. She attended Montana State University, graduating from its Northern campus.
“I often wish I had majored in art, but instead I studied marketing as a business major,” she said. “I know how to market my work, but sometimes I wish I had studied art to have gained insight from others.”
Following her husband, Mike Schmit, who works for Northwestern Energy, she has lived in Havre, Lewistown, Butte, and now Great Falls. During those years, they raised six children.
For many years, Jenkins’ career was in fundraising. She has a degree in planned giving from the College of William & Mary and worked as the development director for Central Montana Medical Center in Lewistown. She also did fundraising for the Great Falls’ Poor Claire’s monastery. She was hired to do fundraising at The History Museum; however, when personnel learned that she was talented as a graphic and exhibit designer, she spent considerable time designing at the computer.
Starting out in 2008 by designing her own line called Bookmark cards, Jenkins hired distributors. A card on a rack at the airport in Dallas caught a Leanin’ Tree employee’s eye. That card prompted the company to find Jenkins through the Internet, to sign a contract with her, and to buy her company in 2013.
For the past several years, Jenkins has also licensed her designs with Ganz, a leading manufacturer and wholesaler in the U.S. gift market. Her designs have been featured on items such as mugs, wine glasses, and glass trays. Ganz items with Jenkins’ designs are found in 15,000 stores across the country.
Jenkins has been successful in venturing beyond greeting cards and gift items to posters and wall art. She won the 2009 Bozeman Sweet Pea Poster Contest and has designed several posters for events held in Butte, such as the Folk Festival, Christmas Stroll, Farmers’ Market, and the Dust to Dazzle event. Each year she designs a poster for the annual Cowboy Poetry gathering in Lewistown. Recently an exhibition of her posters highlighting Butte events was held at the Uptown Café in Butte.
This year she will be a featured artist at the juried Western Design Conference (WDC) that celebrates museum-quality, one-of-a-kind functional Western art capturing the spirit of the West. Held annually in Jackson, Wyo., WDC brings together artists, scholars, collectors, interior designers, architects, and fashion designers with a passion for Western design.
When Jenkins isn’t at the computer creating collages for different projects, she, her husband, and son, Jerry, are restoring the Collins mansion that was built in 1891 for T. E. Collins, a statewide banker, politician, and real estate mogul. When their efforts are complete, they plan to share the home by giving community tours, with proceeds benefiting local museums and charities.
For now, Jenkins knows that there are jingles out there to adapt and cards to design for public enjoyment. Even though she is nearing retirement age, the thought of slowing down doesn’t enter her mind. She has too many ideas that she wants to foster into existence both at the Collins Mansion and through creating distinct designs.