Art director Ethel Kessler was on a mission when she began work on Latin Music Legends. “My goal was that when you see the stamp, you hear the music,” she says.
To illustrate five icons of Latin sound, Kessler turned to a master of visual rhythm: Mexican-born artist and musician Rafael Lopez. The pair had collaborated on two previous stamps: Let’s Dance/Bailemos, Merengue (2005) and Mendez v. Westminster (2007). And coincidentally, each is quite the Latin dancer.
While Lopez’s work is vibrant, graphic, and beautifully expressive, it is not typically representational. In fact, he draws inspiration from primitive art, cave paintings, and Mexican myths.
However, Lopez did have at least one significant portrait in his portfolio. His “Voz Unida” painting was selected as an official poster for the Obama-Biden campaign — and it caught Kessler’s eye.
“What was really great about it was that it wasn’t strictly a portrait," she recounts. "There’s a more flat, graphic background with the portrait coming out of it, and that’s exactly what I envisioned for Latin Music Legends.”
From the outset, Kessler and Lopez agreed that static poses would not work.
“In most portraits, people are not really doing what they do," Lopez explains. "They’re sitting in a chair looking very elegant and formal. But these people are sweating, they’re closing their eyes, and they’re belting out these tunes. Latin music is all about moving and dancing and feeling that beat.”
To capture the essence of each performer, Lopez often combined elements from multiple references. For example, the portrait of Celia Cruz combines a body from a 1960s photograph, a face from one taken in the 1970s, and a feathered headdress from a 1990s shot.
Lopez had to be inventive when references were scarce, as in the case of Carlos Gardel.
“I couldn’t find a photo of him playing the guitar at the perfect angle, so I asked my wife to take a photo of me playing the guitar," Lopez laughingly confesses. "Basically, what you see in the stamp is my guitar and hands with a photo of Gardel.”
Compared to what he calls the “sophisticated” look of other stamp portraits, Lopez describes his images as “raw” and attributes his bold use of color to his cultural heritage.
“I think it comes from living in Mexico for so long," he says. "Everywhere you walk there are big, bright colors bombarding your irises. It just permeates you and you keep it in your subconscious. Every time I try to do something subtle I think, I’m dying to put a bright purple in there. I need a nice little green. It just comes out of me.”
That outpouring of color combines with texture and pattern in Latin Music Legends to create a rich visual dance. Red, green, pink, purple, and yellow themes convey five unique personalities and musical styles.
“In the Tito Puente stamp you can see that the guy was hot,” Kessler says. “He’s banging away on those timbales and you can see the residue.
“And when I look at Carmen Miranda,” she chuckles, “I hear boom-chica-chica-boom-chica-chica-boom.”
Red-hot percussion, syncopated samba, lush Tejano ballads, slow smoky tango, blazing Caribbean salsa — you can feel each beat in Lopez’s designs.
As Ethel Kessler hoped, when you see the stamps, you can’t help but hear the music.
"Nuestra Voz" Obama poster: © Rafael Lopez
Celia Cruz Photo: ©JDEV/jpistudios.com
Gardel Photo: José María Silva/Archivo General de la Nación.
Photograph of Rafael Lopez: © Candice Lopez
Tito Puente licensed by the Ernest Puente Trust.
Selena licensed by Q Productions, Inc., Corpus Christi, Texas
The name, image and likeness of Celia Cruz licensed by the Celia Cruz Knight Estate, Miami, Florida.