Sylvia Harris takes off her glasses and leans down, inches from the color proof of a stamp pane, inspecting every detail. She’s seen this design before and she’ll see it again. Long before any stamp is put to work in the mail or welcomed into an enthusiast’s collection, it is scrutinized by an accomplished team of designers and community leaders.
Harris, a member of the Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee since 2001, serves on the design subcommittee, one of two working teams within CSAC that help determine the direction of the stamp program.
Quarterly CSAC meetings begin early on this Thursday morning — its 12 members joining with postal staff, researchers and the four art directors responsible for developing and executing stamp designs. The group meets as a whole for most of the first morning to hear from postal officials and to discuss upcoming trends.
They also broadly discuss subject matter, such as how to commemorate the Olympic Games — a matter of no small interest to Olympic swimming champion and CSAC member Donna de Varona. After this brainstorming time, the meeting breaks up into its working subcommittees, dedicated to evaluating stamp design and to considering subjects for future stamps.
In the design meetings, committee members consider projects one at a time. With Harris standing behind them, subcommittee chair Jessica Helfand and B. Martin Pedersen huddle over a proposed stamp design, flanked by Joan Mondale. Mondale’s long-standing devotion to the arts earned her the nickname “Joan of Art” when she served as the wife of the former Vice President of the United States. The other three subcommittee members are accomplished design professionals.
Stamp art directors take turns on the other side of the table, spreading out work for discussion. Since a typical stamp takes about 18 months from concept approval to production, designs appear before the committee in stages of development ranging from source images to rough sketches to finished artwork.
As the design group considers the details, the subject subcommittee meets in an adjacent room to broadly determine stamp subjects several years into the future. This group (currently eight members) represents a cross section of community leaders with diverse interests and backgrounds. Its mandate is to assess suggestions from the public — there can be as many as 50,000 per year — as well as develop their own ideas for possible subjects.
“The goal is always to produce stamps with broad, inspiring themes,” says William Gicker, creative director for the stamp program. But the public often suggests stamp subjects — such as specific organizations, issues of local interest or even events such as national disasters — that lie outside of the pre-defined criteria for new stamps. In fact, these criteria help filter public suggestions before they reach the committee.
For example, persons cannot be considered for stamps until five years after their death, so individuals proposed by the public are not presented to the committee until they are, in Gicker’s words, “sufficiently dead.” (The only exceptions to the rule are U.S. presidents, who are eligible on the first anniversary of their birth after they have passed away. Since that gap of time cannot be predicted, presidential stamps are often under development while a former president is still alive.)
In the subject meetings, it’s good to have an advocate. As the group works its way through a thick notebook of proposals, subcommittee chair I. Michael Heyman keeps the process moving. Some subject ideas are dealt with quickly, while others take much longer, informed by the perspective of academics such as Heyman or Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, or voices within CSAC from the worlds of sports or entertainment.
Most difficult are the social-awareness stamps, such as those highlighting adoption or Alzheimer’s disease, acknowledges Terry McCaffrey, manager of stamp development for the Postal Service. “In one case, we went through 40 different concepts before we finally found what we wanted. The hard part is, how do you portray a complex subject in 1 x 1½ inches?”
Since idea and execution come together in the final stamp, all decisions are expressions of the full committee. On Friday morning, the group comes together again as a whole to review the recommendations of each subcommittee and conduct final votes.
Members of CSAC are, as a rule, busy people with many commitments. Yet they are willing to faithfully serve for years, to help decide what artwork will fill tiny rectangles. Their eagerness testifies to the continuing role of stamps in our nation as both pervasive commodities and as meaningful accents in America’s cultural self-portrait.