by Tina Manzer
In 1973, Aaron Leventhal’s mom Jacqueline was the best kind of person – a creative teacher. A photographer who taught art in San Francisco, she was tickled one day to receive fan mail complimenting her new exhibit of photos. What delighted her most were the rubber stamp images decorating the letter. It changed her life.
Hero Arts, the rubber stamp company she founded, turned 45 this year. Its line of handmade woodblock rubber stamps, Clear Design stamps, inks, embossing powders and paper comprise the best-selling stamp line in the $2 billion card-making and scrapbooking industry.
“Hero Arts began in the bathroom of our upstairs apartment,” explains company CEO Aaron Leventhal, Jackie’s son, who was 7 at the time. “It had the only three-prong power outlet in the house so that’s where we put our rubber-stamp press.”
The small home vulcanizer churned out stamps that Jackie sold at craft shows. A young author saw them and asked Jackie to illustrate a children’s book. A Girl Called Hero was published with stamped images, which inspired the company’s name. Hero Arts Rubber Stamps Inc. was incorporated in 1981, and quickly became a force in the fledgling stamp movement. Many stamp businesses started in the Bay Area about the same time Jackie’s did, including All Night Media, Rubberstampede, and PSX.
Soon the industry graduated from craft fairs to gift shows, and local retail stores gave way to international wholesale distribution. In the early 2000s, the craft called “scrapbooking” exploded, and turned the cottage craft industry into a major market.
At the 2019 CREATIVATION trade show, the annual event of the Association of Creative Industries, Hero Arts did something unprecedented. Aaron Leventhal initiated an exhibit partnership with nine other vendors – nine competitors – and launched a Stamping Village on the show floor. “We came together to form this awesome community,” says Kimberly Saldana, Hero Arts’ vice president of sales, “then we all invited our retail customers to come in and play. It couldn’t have been done without all of us working together.
“We understand that crafters use products from a variety of vendors; that’s why we’re getting everyone together so we can collaborate and grow together,” she adds. “The Stamping Village is expanding; we’re adding on new members. It takes time and energy but it’s worth it.”
Aaron says, “Hero Arts was started at our home and was built on the idea of family. Our customers are family. Our retail outlets, employees and vendors are family. The idea of quality original design and innovation all flow from the idea that Hero Arts sees its products and market through this filter of family.”
Ninety percent of Hero Arts’ products are made in the U.S. “We hand-cut our rubber and the wood is maple, really top-of-the-line,” explains Kimberly. “We’re also proud to be sustainable and eco-friendly.”
Over the years, the company has eliminated all toxins, chemicals and solvents from its manufacturing processes. It’s an EPA Green Power partner, offsetting 100-percent of its energy usage with sustainable power. Support comes from local wind and solar projects thanks to a partnership with Arcadia Power, a National Clean Energy partner.
A custom-built factory in Oakland features industry-grade machinery for cutting, shaping and sanding cabinet-grade honey-white maple into blocks, used as mounts for the stamps, says Hero Arts’ website. World War II-era vulcanizers press sheets of 100-percent natural rubber, leaving deeply-etched impressions that are perfect for stamping. Then, the finished rubber and cut blocks are taken to Hero Arts’ Richmond location where they hand- or machine-cut the rubber, mount it to the blocks, and index them with a label.
Products are sold to the education market, craft market and fine-art market (“We have a line of reactive inks that artists love,” says Kimberly.) They’re in the catalogs of Lakeshore and School Specialty; and in retail stores “our products sell really nicely on their own.
“When we went to our first ECRM show last year, people who hadn’t bought from us in years were really surprised to see how beautiful our products had become, and how nice our packaging looks,” Kimberly adds. “It looks really nice on a catalog page!”
The company’s photopolymer clear stamps – the ones stampers can see through to help them position the stamp just right – are outselling wooden stamps right now, but the education market really likes the feel of wood. “We have a teacher line of stamps that say, “Parent Signature,” “Great Work!” “Needs Improvement,” and more. Teachers like the way our stamp sets look sitting on their desks, and they’re easy to use and right at their fingertips.”
Rubber stamping is simple; it’s an accessible art and that’s the beauty of it. It’s perfect for children and creative adults who can’t paint or draw. The stamp and ink (and other mediums) transfer the image for them. It requires few tools and the ones it does won’t break the bank.
Jackie taught her students the art of rubber stamping, and children as young as 4 enjoy the process of making images on paper. Today, Hero Arts offers a line of ink pads called Just for Kids and Scented Just for Kids, for use with stamps and stencils. They’re water based, nontoxic and FD&C approved.