WEIRTON - It all started with an errant snapshot.
Dr. John Capito of Weirton wasn't a Christmas card enthusiast, but that all changed when his oldest son, Johnny, was born.
John Capito and his wife, Darlene, were enthusiastic about another holiday - Halloween - and for Johnny's first Halloween, the couple went all out in their decorating and costumes, going with a family theme. John Capito dressed as King Richard, Dar as Robin Hood and little Johnny was Friar Tuck.
The Dr. John Capito family of Weirton has been doing thematic cards for more than 20 years. Titled “Merry Christmas from Weirton, W.Va.,” this card is one of several on display at the Summit Gallery in downtown Weirton. The cards are conceived and designed by Dr. John Capito of Weirton and are examples of pop art.
"He had a little silver bowl on his head," she said. "And a little robe."
A family member took a quick snapshot of the three of them, and John Capito proposed it be made into a Christmas card. Dar was more hesitant.
"I was shy about putting myself out there," she said.
However, John Capito persisted, and she agreed to allow the photo to be sent out to around 15 of his friends. Dar sent out a more traditional card, featuring a photo of their new baby.
"He sent it out to a few friends, and they liked it," she said. "I sent the family the card with the baby on it."
The next Halloween, John Capito dressed as Inspector Clouseau, Dar as Kato and Johnny as the Pink Panther. Again, they took a picture and sent out a Christmas card to a small group of friends while a more generic card was sent out to the bulk of the family's card mailing list.
A few years later, their younger son, Joseph, was born. That year, the family dressed as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. They also decided to send the family Halloween portrait to their entire mailing list.
"We went to Boo at the Zoo (at Oglebay Good Zoo) dressed as the turtles," said Dar.
Fast forward more than 20 years, and the Capito family Christmas cards are hanging on the walls of the Summit Gallery in downtown Weirton, hailed as pop art, and the family orders approximately 1,200 cards each year for their mailing list of more than 500 and for John Capito's patients.
Since that point, the Capito's cards have become more elaborate, incorporating a theme, costumes and photo effects. John Capito is assisted in creating the cards by Weirton photographer Bill Zablackas, who takes the photos and adds special effects.
Although John Capito had little interest in Christmas cards when they first married, Dar noted it was a family tradition - Capito has nine brothers and sisters, and the annual family portrait and Christmas card was a tradition.
"People would tell my father, 'I'm looking forward to seeing the new edition,'" he said. "A lot of family members we didn't see too often, they saw us grow up through that."
John Capito begins brainstorming for the Christmas card in January, considering and rejecting ideas and discussing them with his wife and sons.
"People are always asking what the next card will be," said Dar. "One lady is making a scrapbook, and some people put them out every Christmas and other people hang them up on their refrigerators for months."
John Capito sketches out the card, leaving no detail to chance. In fact, his vision for the cards is so clear that often it takes longer for the family members to change in and out of their costumes than it does to shoot the photograph.
"He knows exactly what he wants, where he wants everyone to stand, what he wants for props," said Dar. "One year, we were carolers, and we went down to a costume shop and rented old-time clothes to wear."
Another year, the family borrowed some vintage Salvation Army uniforms and instruments and Zablackas took their photo, superimposing their image in front of an old-fashioned drug store.
"I was a little shy about it at first," said Dar. "But it's been fun."
Most recently, the family has gone with a "comic book" motif, and Zablackas has taken the photos and transformed them into comic strip panels. This requires more poses and dialogue, and John Capito noted his son assists him with scripting the cards.
"I like to do something Christmas-y or current events," he said, noting the 2012 card, distributed during an election year and titled "I Concede," featured John Capito giving a "concession" speech and revealing this would be the family's last Christmas card.
"People were calling us and asking, 'you're not really going to stop doing Christmas cards, are you?'" said Dar.
Throughout it all, both sons have been enthusiastic participants and their family cards positively received by their peers.
"I think if we started it when they were in high school, it wouldn't have gone over as well," Dar said. "But we've always done it, and their friends are just used to it."
Johnny, a recent college graduate, and Joe, a West Virginia University student, continue to pose for the annual family card, and their parents said they would continue to meet public demand by producing them as long as their sons are willing - and able - participants.
"As long as we can get together with the boys to do it," said Dar. "They're getting older now, and they might move out of the area, it might get difficult to get together, but as long as we can, we'll do it."
"When we first started, they were little," said John Capito. "It's getting harder to get everyone together. I guess we'll keep going, it just depends on where they are. As long as we can keep it up and the boys want to do it."
In fact, anticipating the young men's busy schedules, the family has already shot cards for the next several years.
"We came in, and he had sheets (of paper) on the wall, showing each picture, and we just went through nine of them," said Johnny.
He added he enjoys the annual shoots and would like to someday produce his own unique family Christmas cards when he marries and has children.
"It's kind of weird, seeing Joey change so much (through the years)," he said. "I didn't change much, but he did."
Each card requires three panels, so the Capitos have the next two years' worth of cards already finished.
John Capito said he never regarded the cards as art, simply as a hobby, but a friend connected with the Hancock County Arts Council asked if a committee could come look at the cards. He agreed, and, after reviewing them, the council asked if the poster-sized versions the family hung in the finished basement could be on display at the fall installation.
"He was thrilled about it," said Dar of John Capito.
The interest in his father's cards has inspired Johnny to make one of his father's dreams a reality - he plans to edit a coffee table book of unique Christmas cards, generated by individuals and groups. He is soliciting cards at his website, youroriginalchristmascards.com and has a Facebook page which can be found by searching "Your Original Christmas Cards." He also is accepting Christmas cards by mail at P.O. Box 2077, Weirton, WV 26062 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
He would like to include a reproduction of the card and a short story about the card - the conception, shooting or just an amusing aside.
John Capito noted they had already reached out to two physicians' group in the Pittsburgh area that are known for their original Christmas cards.
The first run of books would be small, but if there was demand for them, they would be made available to the public, said Johnny.
"Life is too short to do everything like everyone else does," said John Capito. "You do something a little bit different, that makes life interesting."
(Wallace-Minger can be contacted at email@example.com.)