WASHINGTON – From the sultry blond glow of Marilyn Monroe to the simplicity of a saluting Boy Scout,the artwork to be featured in a new Smithsonian exhibit is on a smaller scale than most.
The exhibit’s artists,commissioned by the United States Postal Service,were under orders to keep their work small — no more than five times the size of a postage stamp. Now these original designs for stamps are going on display.
The Art of the Stamp,a collection of the original art for 100 of the U.S. Postal Service's most well known stamps,opens in the National Postal Museum July 30. Its debut will be marked by a gala that also celebrates the museum's 10th anniversary.
The exhibit features two Norman Rockwell drawings,including the Boy Scout from 1960,and artist Michael Deas' portrait of Audrey Hepburn used for one of the post office's newest stamps.
The paintings and drawings are smaller than in a normal exhibit because reducing large paintings to stamp size eliminates too much detail,said Terry McCaffrey,manager of stamp development for the postal service.
In some ways,the size limitation makes the stamps more impressive,he said.
McCaffrey called Deas' portrait illustrating the smoldering gaze of James Dean “a masterpiece in miniature.”
“You could enlarge it to poster size and still see all the details,” including the whisker stubble on Dean's jaw,McCaffrey said.
The exhibit also features the art for the Elvis stamp,issued in 1993,which museum director Allen Kane acknowledged as his favorite.
The stamp,which features a young,smiling Elvis crooning into a microphone,generated more than $36 million for the post office after about 1.2 million people voted for the design through the mail.
“Elvis is still the king – of stamps,” McCaffrey said.
The stamp,designed by artist Michael Stulzman,also moved the post office in a new artistic direction.
“Elvis changed things for us,” McCaffrey said,noting the subsequent switch to contemporary art for stamps. “Now we see Bugs Bunny stamps.”
The post office archives contain more than 3,000 pieces of original art. “Winnowing them down was an arduous task,” McCaffrey said.
The exhibit contains the work of about 60 artists and designers in media ranging from oils to colored pencils.
Deas,who designed the art for the Monroe,Hepburn and Dean stamps,among others,said he began painting for stamps after receiving a call from one of the post office's art directors. Although his first set of stamps was never published,Deas got the opportunity to paint the portrait of Tennessee Williams used in the mid-1990s.
He said the most challenging part of creating stamp art is to “make the image powerful,even though it is only as big as your thumb.”
(Information about the exhibit and reproductions of the postage stamp art are on the National Postal Museum’s Web site at www.postalmuseum.si.edu/press/aotsinfo.html)