A versatile wordsmith, works from an abstract artist and two iconic symbols appear on stamps issued in April by the U.S. Postal Service.
A Forever stamp honoring multitalented writer Shel Silverstein – who drew adult cartoons, penned essays and poems, wrote hit songs and created children’s literature – kicked off the month. A single stamp, which shows Silverstein’s artwork, also honors the writer’s loved (and hated) children’s story, “The Giving Tree.”
The iconic American barn is shown in different styles and seasons on four Presorted Standard (bulk mail) stamps that also show the American flag painted on their sides.
Native American artist George Morrison is celebrated with five Forever first-class stamps that show details from his abstract paintings, the types of works that helped propel succeeding generations of Native artists into modernism.
Before we get to the new stamps, I need to make a correction from the April issue of this column, which included information about the high value $8.95 Monument Valley Priority Mail stamp. I noted that there would be prestamped envelopes with the same image. This was my mistake. There are no such envelopes as discovered and noted by Timothy Carroll in an email to me.
When he tried to order prestamped Priority Mail envelopes, “I was told these are NOT available any longer, due to lack of interest from previous sales of last year’s variety,” wrote Carroll. “I think this is newsworthy. The end of an era for this type of U.S. postal stationery.”
I checked with William Gicker, director of Stamp Services for the U.S. Postal Services, who confirmed Timothy’s discovery. Gicker wrote, “Yes, because of low usage it was determined that the pre-stamped Priority Mail Envelope would not remain in production and was discontinued January 2022.”
Here’s a look at the April releases:
Shel Silverstein – The Giving Tree
More information and details about the single Shel Silverstein stamp is available here.
Perhaps this simple-looking stamp – which shows a small boy catching an apple dropped from an out-of-frame tree – is the U.S. Postal Service’s answer to critics who complain monotonously about a U.S. stamp program filled with the normalcy of flowers, cute animals and cartoons (most of which I appreciate).
Here’s a stamp – based on Shel Silverstein’s children’s book, The Giving Tree – that they can get really sink their teeth into. Simply, it’s a somewhat controversial book and there is much more material about Silverstein and his works than we can possibly discuss in this column.
First, the basics.
The stamp honors the versatile Silverstein (1930-1999), an author and poet (for both adult and children), essayist, cartoonist, songwriter and playwright, along with what his likely his best-known picture book. His works run the gamut from sweet and playful with a lot of quirkiness (to me, a cross between Dr. Seuss and Roald Dahl) to sophisticated, Bohemian and raunchy. Silverstein’s successes run from whacky (but often meaningful) children’s poetry – Where the Sidewalk Ends (1974) and A Light in the Attic (1981) – to adult cartoons in Playboy magazine and a bunch of hit songs.
The first-class domestic mail stamp is sold in panes of 20 printed on the Muller A76 press by Ashton Potter USA and features Silverstein’s original artwork. Derry Noyes was art director. (Some critics have complained that the tree – one of two main characters in the story – should have been shown on the stamp more than an apple from one of her limbs.)
The stamp enjoyed a formal first day ceremony on April 8 at one of the author’s own schools – Darwin Elementary in Chicago, the official first day city.
“[Silverstein] could be silly or serious — and anything in between,” said Judy de Torok, the Postal Service’s vice president of corporate affairs and dedicating official. “With his witty rhymes and whimsical, nonsensical verse, it was clear that he loved to play with language. It was also clear that his many readers — young and old alike — loved him for his clever word play. His books are bestsellers, with more than 20 million copies sold in more than 47 languages.”
Silverstein was born into a Jewish family on September 25, 1930, in Chicago and grew up in the Logan Square neighborhood. He attended the University of Illinois, from which he was expelled. He was attending the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts when he was drafted into the U.S. Army, serving in Japan and Korea. He started cartooning as a youngster and found a publisher in the service, with his work appearing in Pacific Stars and Stripes. He returned to his hometown after service, got work selling hot dogs at local ballparks and sent out works, which were soon appearing in magazines like Look, Sports Illustrated and Playboy, for which he also started writing a series called “Shel Silverstein visits …”
During this time, Silverstein connected with the music industry and crafted a varied catalog of songs for a range of performers. Some of his hits include “A Boy Named Sue” (Johnny Cash), “Cover of the Rolling Stone” (Dr. Hook), “The Unicorn” (Irish Rovers) and “My Heart was the Last One to Know” (Kris Kristofferson). Others who sang his songs include Marianne Faithfull, Bobby Bare, the New Christy Minstrels and Loretta Lynn.
Silverstein took many years to find a publisher for The Giving Tree before Ursula Nordstrom at Harper & Row took a chance on it (with some tweaks; she wanted smoother illustrations) in October 1964. Since the first run of 5,000 to 7,500 copies, the book has since been translated into numerous languages and sold more than 11 million copies.
The story is thoughtful and sad, despite the word “happy” appearing in it many times. It examines the friendship between a motherly tree and a boy. As the child grows older, the tree gives him its shade, apples, branches and trunk. The story ends with the boy returning as a frail old man to rest against the tree’s stump.
Some say the bestselling tale, accompanied by the author’s elegantly simple black-and-white illustrations, is one of selflessness; others say it is equally about selfishness, maybe even specifically that of men.
Although the book has consistently finished on lists of “bests” from educators, critics and literati, it carries with it a firm number of detractors. Among those is author and editor Anna Holmes, who in 2019 wrote half of a “Bookends” review for the New York Times, from which I offer an excerpt:
“I never liked Shel Silverstein’s spare, twee little book, not the first time I read it, back in the late 1970s, or the second time, in the mid-1980s, or the third time, just a few weeks ago, in preparation for this column.
“I’m not alone … A passionate and very vocal minority of reviewers on sites like Amazon and Goodreads seems to find the story an affront not just to literature but to humanity itself.
“… to those who would say that Silverstein’s book is a moving, sentimental depiction of the unyielding love of a parent for a child, I’d say, Learn better parenting skills.”
The other half of that “Bookends” column features author Rivka Galchen, a recipient of a William J. Saroyan International Prize for Fiction, who counters with the following about the tale that is fewer than 650 words:
“In interviews, Shel Silverstein explained that it took him years to find a publisher for ‘The Giving Tree’ — that it had been important to him that he keep what he called the sad ending.
“‘The Giving Tree’ is in part a disturbing tale of unconditional love, in part a tender tale of the monsters that we are. When I read the book again these 30-some years later, my only brief reservation — that it should somehow have been funny, that funny might have saved it from its destiny of weird co-optings — faded.”
Unlike Silverstein, I don’t want this ending on a sad note so, instead, I hand the final remarks to artist and author Dmitry Samarov, who was a featured speaker at the first day ceremony.
“I was 7 years old when my family moved to this country from the Soviet Union, so I didn’t grow up with Silverstein’s pictures and words,” Samarov said in a news release. “Nevertheless, I was predisposed to appreciate Silverstein’s type of poetry because in the Soviet Union many of the best writers found their only means of expression through children’s literature. His wit, playfulness and melancholy were felt instantly familiar — as if I’d always known them.”
Silverstein died from a heart attack in 1999 at his home in Key West, Florida. His diverse body of work remains beloved by adults and children alike. And now, we can share that work with a postage stamp.
Flags on Barns
More information about purchasing the Flags on Barns stamps is available via the U.S. Postal Services Stamp Fulfillment Division at (844) 737-7826.
Two iconic symbols – the U.S. flag and rural barns – come together on a set of four new non-denominated stamps priced at the Presorted Standard Rate (10 cents at the time of issue). These stamps are normally used by bulk mailers with nonprofit status, so cannot be used by the average sender.
The Flags on Barns stamps feature colorful pencil and watercolor illustrations based on works by Stephanie Bower, of Seattle, Washington. The barns are set in landscapes inspired by the seasons and different regions of the United States. Antonio Alcalá was the art director.
The stamps were issued nationally April 14 and carry a first day of issue postmark of Halifax, Pennsylvania. No national first day ceremony was planned in Halifax, a rural borough of 841 incorporated in 1785 in Dauphin County on the banks of the Susquehanna River, 18 miles north of Harrisburg in southeastern Pennsylvania.
Jim McKean, a spokesperson for the U.S. Postal Service, offered the following by email when asked about choosing Halifax as a first day location: “When researching locations for stamp first day of issue events the Postal Service takes into consideration several factors including: ties between the stamp subject and the location, suitability of available locations for a first day of issue celebration, and availability of nearby post offices. In the case of the Flags on Barns stamps issue location, Halifax was picked due to a nearby example of a painted barn.”
The pressure sensitive stamps are being produced in coils of 3,000 and 10,000 printed by Ashton Potter. Plate numbers – the letter “P” followed by five single digits – appear in the bottom margin on every 24th stamp. The “P” is shorthand for Ashton Potter, with the digits representing one of the five colors used to print the stamps: cyan, magenta, yellow, black and Pantone Matching System 7 C cool gray.
As a service to collectors, the Postal Service’s National Fulfillment Center is offering collectors the stamp in strips of 25 and 500 with at least one plate number. The product numbers for the strips of 25 are No. 751103, from the roll of 3,000; No. 761203, from the roll of 10,000. There is no obvious face difference between the types of coils as the USPS lists the stamp and image sizes as identical.
The “PRESORTED STANDARD” inscription in the bottom margin of each stamp indicates that a permit is required to use them on mail, according to a story appearing in March in Linn’s Stamp News that explains the process. Collectors can use these and other service-inscribed stamps on regular mail by completing USPS Form 3615, Mailing Permit Application and Customer Profile, the article explains. The completed form must be submitted at your local post office. Mail franked with service-inscribed stamps must be presented at the counter for postmarking and processing.
Stephanie Bower – Stamp Artist
How do you define yourself professionally?
I am an architectural illustrator with a background as a licensed architect. I also taught drawing in university-level architecture and interior design programs for about 30 years, and I’ve authored two best-selling books on sketching with a third due for publication in September 2022. I travel and teach urban sketching workshops around the world.
When did you start working on these stamps?
I was first contacted to work on these stamps early in 2019.
How did you get linked up with the Postal Service for this project?
Art Director Antonio Alcalá said that he had a team combing the internet for a possible illustrator. They came across my sketches on Instagram and apparently, the team selected my work. Antonio then contacted me directly. It’s funny, at first he sent me an email, and I thought it was spam — there is no way that someone would be contacting me about a project like this! But when I saw his name again on my phone as it rang the next day, I jumped to pick it up.
Are these your first stamps?
How was the project described to you?
Antonio said that lots of people go into the post office and simply ask for stamps with a U.S. flag on them. He thought it would be good to give them something more by combining flags and barns, two American icons. At first, I was to do two stamps, then after seeing my rough sketches, it was decided that I should do a set of four.
These barns are in four different seasons? I clearly see winter, fall; and I assume the barn with grass is spring…the last one with high grass is summer, yes?
Once the decision was made to do four stamps, it was an easy jump to visualize the four seasons, and then four seasons representing different parts of the country. The first is spring in the tulip fields of the Skagit Valley in Washington state, close to where I live. The second is a hot, dry Summer in some place like Texas or Wyoming. The third is fall as the leaves are changing somewhere in New England. And winter is somewhere on a snowy farm in the Midwest.
Are these watercolors?
They are indeed watercolors on watercolor paper. I sent the originals to the art director for reproduction, and my understanding is that they will be stored somewhere in the Smithsonian. I cannot tell you what a humbling honor this is.
How did the process work?
I started out by searching through images from my memory, my own photos and the internet. Being an architectural illustrator was helpful, as I could combine and invent different elements of the barns and the settings and put them together in a way that would tell a story. I did my best to show the different seasons while still keeping a limited color palette that would allow the different images to work together as a collection. It was also challenging to get the right angle of the building. It had to be frontal enough to show the flag without too much foreshortening. If you look closely, I hint at more of the landscape in the distance; more tulip fields, rolling hills, cattle in the fields.
I know the artwork for stamp production has to be relatively small. What is the basic size of these originals and was that any kind of challenge for your process?
Each original image is about 7.5 inches wide by 5.5 inches high. I was provided with a template that gave me the correct proportions for each stamp, so it was predetermined that they would be landscape format. The size was not the challenge. The challenge for me was how close we had to be to the barns in order to see the flags. Most of my work has lots of landscape with small buildings, but these needed to be large buildings with very little landscape. It was very hard!
Are the styles of the barns specific to any regions of the country?
Yes, I did my best to show barns that were typical for each part of the country that was represented.
What kind of decisions did you make at the start (anything specific with seasons, landscape, lighting?)
The first decision was seasons, and that was driven by what color I would show for each – spring green, summer yellows and browns, fall reds and yellows, and white and cool blue winter. As far as lighting, I wanted to show a dramatic orange sunset on the plains for the summer view, gray skies for winter.
Is there anything else interesting you would like to add about the artwork, process or stamps?
Indeed there is. My dad was a HUGE life-long, avid stamp collector, as were my grandmother and godmother. Sadly, he passed away before I got this commission, but I know that he would be absolutely bursting with pride. And every time I talked to my mom for three years, she asked about the stamps. Unfortunately, she passed away only about three weeks before their issue, but I know they would both be so proud and honored, as am I.
More information and details about the George Morrison stamps is available here.
Vibrant artworks showing abstract landscapes by modernist artist George Morrison (1919-2000) appear on five first-class Forever stamps issued April 22.
The stamps were issued with a first day ceremony in Grand Portage, Minnesota, where the artist kept his home and studio, dubbed Red Rock.
The works are not labeled on the stamps, which show the following (from the top of the pane): “Sun and River” (1949); “Phenomena Against the Crimson: Lake Superior Landscape” (1985); “Lake Superior Landscape” (1981); “Spirit Path, New Day, Red Rock Variation: Lake Superior Landscape” (1990); and Untitled (1991).
The selvage features a photograph of Morrison at Red Rock, his home and studio, that was taken by Marlene Wisuri in 1993.
A founding figure of Native American modernism, Morrison challenged prevailing ideas of what Native American art should be, arguing that an artist’s identity can exist independently from the nature of the art he creates. Antonio Alcalá served as art director and designer for this stamp pane.
The first day ceremony with several speakers was held at the Grand Portage National Monument.
Morrison challenged prevailing ideas of what Native American art should be, arguing that an artist’s identity can exist independently from the nature of the art he creates, the Postal Service said. He is best known for his abstract landscape paintings and monumental wood collages, which draw on childhood memory and reflect a deep and abiding connection with the natural world.
“He was … a careful craftsman who understood the principles of art, the specifics of his materials, and how to convey spirit — of nature, of memory, of the psyche, of home and of culture and context. George Morrison was a genius,” said W. Jackson Rushing, co-author of a book about the artist.
Many of Morrison’s works feature a prominent horizon line, inspired consciously and subconsciously by his childhood on the shore of Lake Superior. Representing the space where sky and water meet, the horizon line also marks the boundary between known and unknown, a mystery that Morrison repeatedly explored, even as he continued to refine his modernist vision.
Morrison “was born in a Native American fishing village along the North Shore of Lake Superior in 1919, but [his] art career took him around the world,” wrote Dan Kraker in a story published Nov. 17, 2021, in the Sahan Journal, a nonprofit digital newsroom dedicated to reporting for immigrants and communities of color in Minnesota. “Morrison is regarded as one of the greatest American abstract expressionist painters, a contemporary and friend of artists like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning during the modern art movement that flourished in New York after World War II.
“It is just so exciting to have this work find a really broad audience,” said Makholm, who is co-author with W. Jackson Rushing of Modern Spirit: The Art of George Morrison (2013), published by the University of Oklahoma Press.
Morrison’s signature horizon line “was a real symbolic motif that resonated with how we look at life,” Makholm told the Journal. “You know that it’s out there, but [you’re always] striving to something that you can never really reach.”
Rushing said he helped choose the artwork for the stamps and is pleased with the result. “Because of their scale, [Morrison’s] wood collages and the totems might have been difficult to reproduce at stamp scale. Relatively speaking, the original stamps selected are like bijou, small, elegant, desirable.”
The following is from an email Q-and-A with Rushing. The interview has been edited for space.
Rushing earned a Ph.D. in art history at the University of Texas in Austin, his hometown. He served as director of the School of Art at the University of Houston, associate dean of aesthetic studies at the University of Texas at Dallas, and from 2008 to 2021 was the Eugene B. Adkins Presidential Professor of Art History at the University of Oklahoma, where he held the Carver Chair in Native American Art. A former fellow of the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment of the Humanities, he retired in 2021. His teaching and publications focused on modern and contemporary art, especially “modernist primitivism.”
W. Jackson Rushing – Author, Art Professor
When and why did you start working on the book?
I began working on an exhibition and book in 2009. Kristin Makholm, who was at that time the executive director of the Minnesota Museum of American Art in St. Paul, knew of my interest in George Morrison and modern Native American art. I was already acquainted with Morrison, admired his work immensely, and knew that the museum had a strong collection of his work and that Kristin and I would be good partners.
Can you give us a bit of a nickel tour on what regular folks should know or understand about Morrison’s art?
Morrison was born deep in the woodlands, near the shores of Lake Superior, just a stone’s throw from Canada, in an impoverished indigenous (Chippewa) community. He suffered with severe health problems in his youth and didn’t begin to speak English until he started grade school. Most all the cards were stacked against him and the likelihood that he would become an internationally renowned artist who would receive dozens of awards and prizes was just about nil.
But his high school teachers saw his talent as did his tribe (Grand Portage Band of Chippewa also known as Ojibway or Anishinabe); together they managed to get him enrolled in what became known as the Minnesota College of Art and Design, where he excelled and his teachers there supported him as well.
From 1943 to 1946 he studied at the Art Student’s League in New York City. He was influenced by Expressionism, Cubism and Surrealism and his drawings and paintings were featured in a solo exhibition in NYC in 1948. Morrison never attempted to make “Indian art,” although from the beginning critics read Native content in his work, which was seen in dozens of exhibitions in American museums and galleries and he received a Fulbright in 1952 that enabled him to study and exhibit in France.
While teaching at the Dayton Art Institute in 1960 he began making large scale abstract expressionist paintings. He worked spontaneously, without preliminary sketches. From 1963 to 1970 he taught at the Rhode Island School of Design, before he heard a clarion call to return to his home country, where he taught at the University of Minnesota and contributed to urban Indian culture. A younger generation embraced him as a modernist, one who gradually explored the idea that he might, in fact, be producing Indian art. In the decades that followed he continued to paint works both large and small that revealed an almost mystical response to the natural world. Highlights included the Horizon series, ravishingly beautiful abstract images that embody the contemplation of the weather, the changing of the seasons, and the mystery of art.
Can you explain in brief this interesting horizon point the artist used? Did he use it on all his pieces?
No, the horizon line was not used on all of his pieces, but many of them to be sure. Morrison’s horizon line, which first appeared in his work in the 1940s, is simultaneously a critical formal element, a symbol, and the artist’s logo. The persistence of the horizon line in his work establishes a dialog between phenomenon and noumenon as a leitmotif of his mature aesthetic: the horizon is frequently visible from the shore, but we cannot, in fact, go there. It is thus a concept, not a destination.
What were some of the artist’s most important messages he tried to convey with his works?
He believed in the healing powers of nature and the redemptive qualities of art. . . . he was interested in the majesty and mystery of art. He said, “I seek the power of the rock, the magic of the water, the religion of the tree, the color of the wind, and the enigma of the horizon.”
Ms. Makholm told me you met Mr. Morrison. Can you tell us about that … was it just one meeting because of the book? Or other circumstances?
I met George Morrison in 1991 at a symposium/exhibition at the Heard Museum in Phoenix. I had known of his work since 1982. In Phoenix, he was on a panel, of which I was the host/chair. We had good conversations and my understanding of his work deepened. Unfortunately, it was the only time I met him in person. In the nine years that followed before his death we spoke on the phone several times.
What did you take away from your interaction with the artist?
George was modest and easy to talk to. He was serious about his art and so much went into its creation: anthropology and art; other cultures and their rituals; studying the stars; jazz, philosophy and poetry.
Are there any particular pieces of Mr. Morrison’s that you particularly admire?
Well, that list is very long, but the short list would have to include an Untitled work on paper (1995) in the collection of his second wife, the artist Hazel Belvo; one of the Horizon paintings: “Faraway Parade: Red Rock Variation: Lake Superior Landscape” (1990, acrylic on canvas on wood); “Lake Superior Landscape” (1981 acrylic on canvas) in a private collection; and a sculpture, “Cumulated Landscape” (wood, 1976).
Do you have a feel if the artist looked at any particular work as his most important?
We never discussed the work in quite that way. I expect he felt the most important piece was the one he was creating in that moment. The abstract wood collage sculptures certainly loom large in the history of modern art and I know he was proud of those.
Is there anything else interesting you would like to share about the artist or the stamps?
I think the USPS certainly got the timing right. That is, there’s a good deal of interest circulating about (post)modern Native art in virtually all media and Morrison’s achievements have fueled a younger generation of artists, including Andrea Carlson, Julie Buffalohead, Star Walling Bull and the late Jim Denomie.