Artist Spotlight: Margaret Bauer

In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re recognizing some of the great female artists and designers who have contributed to the stamp creation process. This is the third in an occasional series of interviews.

Margaret Bauer is passionate about art and design. She spent 12 years in the Publishing Office of the National Gallery of Art, and in 2007, opened her own studio in Washington, D.C. She has designed a handful of stamps for the Postal Service. Her most recent projects were the Romare Bearden Forever® stamps and the Pioneers of American Industrial Design Forever® stamps, which were released in 2011.
I caught up with Bauer this week.

Growing up, were you interested in art?

Yes. I took afterschool art classes, and in school it was always the class where I felt most at home. We lived in New York City when I was young and we often went to museums. Also, my dad loved architecture and so looking at buildings and thinking about form was something I was exposed to.

How did you become interested in graphic design?

I took my first graphic design class my senior year in college and that’s how I learned that there was such a thing as graphic design—which was different than advertising or from being an “artist.” I immediately fell in love with it because it spoke to both my creative instincts and my sense of the meticulous.

Do you have a favorite art museum?

The Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice is terrific, as is the Beyeler Foundation in Basel, but I suppose if I had to pick a favorite, it would still be the National Gallery of Art in Washington. It is really and truly a national treasure, and having worked there for 12 years, it has a special place in my heart.

How did you first get involved with the Postal Service?

Art Director Derry Noyes asked me to work with her on the Georgia O’Keeffe stamp in 1995, and the collaboration took off from there. Since then we’ve worked together on Teddy Bears, Modern American Architecture, Industrial Design, and Romare Bearden.

Do you enjoy working on stamps?

Stamps are incredibly fun to work on for many reasons. I had a teacher that described stamp design as “poster design in miniature.” A lot of the same issues come into play—issues of readability and strong visuals. There’s not a lot of real estate to work with so the typography has to be carefully considered, and issues of scale and balance are important. I particularly enjoy working on sheets of stamps because then you are thinking about the composition of the sheet as a whole in addition to the design of each individual stamp. And of course it is thrilling to get a letter in the mail with a tiny piece of your creative effort stuck in the corner.

The Pioneers of American Industrial Design stamps seemed unique—what was it like working on those?

The Industrial Design stamps were sort of an extension of the Masterworks of Modern American Architecture sheet—both focused on the idea of “American Design.” At least, that’s how Derry and I conceived of them. So, the design objective was to use the basic format and palette that we used for the Architecture stamps, but rework it to fit the subject at hand, such that they might feel like part of a series and yet be unique enough to stand on their own. The difficulty came in trying to give commonplace objects a sense of presence and in finding a balance between something playful and something serious.

Do you have a favorite stamp project that you’ve worked on?

I most enjoyed working on the Architecture stamps because they were the first sheet of 12 I ever worked on and because the subject matter was unbeatable. Also, I was intrigued by the challenge of the project: how to treat the buildings in a way that wasn’t static; how to show the details of these huge structures; how to make something cohesive out of images that were so diverse. Deciding to show dramatic details, to reproduce all the photography in black and white and contrast that with colorful but very structured typography, and to stagger the stamps on the sheet are some of the solutions we came up with.

Are you working on anything specific right now that you’d like to mention?

I am predominantly a book designer, working mostly on large exhibition catalogues for museums. Right now I am designing a book for MoMA and one for the Princeton University Museum of Art.

Wildlife in the Nature of America Stamp Series

In the spirit of National Wildlife Week, I’ve been thinking about the very popular Nature of America stamp series, which ran for 12 years, from 1999 to 2010. The series was meant to teach about the beauty and complexity of major plant and animal communities in the United States. Each sumptuous pane of ten stamps featured original artwork by John D. Dawson:

The 12th and last pane in the series focused on the Hawaiian rain forest. The setting for the pane is a rain forest on Hawaiʻi’s largest island, also named Hawaiʻi. As is typical, the leaves and branches of mature ʻōhiʻa lehua trees dominate the forest canopy. Below, the lush understory is dense with ferns and saplings, as well as flowering trees and shrubs that add bright touches to the countless shades of green. Colorful blossoms attract honeycreepers such as the scarlet ʻiʻiwi, whose long, curved bill allows it to reach the nectar of tubular hāhā flowers. An ʻamakihi sips the nectar of red ʻōhiʻa lehua blossoms, while an ʻākepa glides toward the same tree, where it will glean insects from leaf buds. A Hawaiian thrush known as the ʻōmaʻo prefers fruits and berries.

Small insects and spiders are difficult to spot among the thick vegetation of an actual rain forest, but a few are visible near the bottom and center of the painting. A Koele Mountain damselfly, for example, can be glimpsed clinging to a plant stem as a Kamehameha butterfly lays eggs on the leaves of a māmaki, its primary host plant. In its natural habitat, the cricket at lower left would more likely be heard rather than seen, chirping and trilling from one of its many hiding places. Among the smallest creatures is the happyface spider, shown in extreme close-up at lower right in the painting. Named for a facelike pattern on its body, this spider is less than a quarter of an inch in size (not counting the legs).

The scene on the pane is completely imaginary. Such a dense grouping was necessary in order to show as many plants and animals as possible in the stamp pane format. Even so, every species depicted could be encountered in a Hawaiian rain forest.

Previous panes in the Nature of America series were Sonoran Desert (1999), Pacific Coast Rain Forest (2000), Great Plains Prairie (2001), Longleaf Pine Forest (2002), Arctic Tundra (2003), Pacific Coral Reef (2004), Northeast Deciduous Forest (2005), Southern Florida Wetland (2006), Alpine Tundra (2007), Great Lakes Dunes (2008), and Kelp Forest (2009). You can read all about them, and the history of the series, on Beyond the Perf. And check out the underwater dedication ceremony for the Kelp Forest pane. The kids sound like they had a great time!

Dolphins Make a Splash for National Wildlife Week

We are really loving National Wildlife Week around here! Today we’re focusing on the bottlenose dolphin, a marine mammal noted for its high intelligence and playful behavior. Found mainly in temperate and tropical waters, bottlenose dolphins live in groups ranging in size from two to several hundred. They can often be seen from shore and by boaters and appear to engage in play with other dolphins. Their mostly gray bodies are large and stout, with short, broad snouts. The corners of their mouths curve up, giving the appearance of a permanent smile (so cute!).

This stamp features an illustration by Nancy Stahl of a bottlenose dolphin leaping from the water. Stahl has created illustrations for several stamps, including the Dragonfly (2008) and Florida Panther (2007). She used several photographs of bottlenose dolphins as reference for the art.

The Dolphin stamp was first issued in 2009 and reprinted in 2011 (you can still order it online).

Artist Spotlight: Suzanne Kleinwaks

In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re recognizing some of the great female artists and designers who have contributed to the stamp creation process. This is the second in an occasional series of interviews.

In the ten years since she graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Washington University in St. Louis, graphic designer Suzanne Kleinwaks has come a long way. Last year, she opened her own design firm, Suzanne Kleinwaks Design. Through her company, the Baltimore native has created designs for the World Food Program USA, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (Office on Women’s Health), and the Cancer Support Community.

Her first project for the U.S. Postal Service, the Hanukkah Forever® stamp, was released in 2011. (Ethel Kessler was the project’s art director. Kleinwaks was the designer and typographer.) Recently, Kleinwaks caught up with me via email.

Growing up, were you interested in art?

Yes, I have always been artistically inclined. My parents were supportive of my talents and helped create opportunities for me to develop, such as art summer programs and extracurricular programs. I explored many facets of art through school and these programs—painting, photography, sculpting…I got to try out a lot of mediums. I did not explore designing on the computer, however, until I got to college.

So how did you become interested in graphic design?

When it came to figuring what I would want to study in college, I knew I wanted to do something in the creative field. I started doing research on the communication aspects of art and design and decided to go that route. I ultimately attended Washington University in St. Louis where I got a BFA in visual communications. The more I have grown in my career, I am confident I made the best choice for myself—I love the challenge that comes with combining problem-solving and creativity.

How did you get involved with the Hanukkah stamp project?

Ethel Kessler and I had worked together, so she was very familiar with my work. When this opportunity came up, she asked if I was interested and I was thrilled!

What was your inspiration for this particular design?

I researched and explored a lot about Hanukkah and related imagery. When Ethel and I got down to deciding the focus, we decided that we wanted the stamp to reflect the joy of the holiday—hence the use of bright colors and movement. The cut-paper feel and colors mimic the movement of the dreidel—a children’s holiday game.

Was it pretty cool to mail your holiday cards and gifts with a stamp you designed?

It was awesome! I remember the first piece of mail that came in with it—I saved the envelope.

Did you enjoy working on this stamp?

I really enjoyed it. It’s fascinating to work on something that needs to communicate a big idea at such a small scale. It’s similar to logo design in that way (which I do a lot of in my business) because it needs to be able communicate your message clearly at a small size (or in the case of logos, multiple sizes and situations).

Artist Spotlight: Nancy Stahl

In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re recognizing some of the great female artists who have contributed to the stamp creation process. This is the first in an occasional series of interviews.

For the past decade, Nancy Stahl has helped create artwork for the Postal Service. The Long Island native’s recent projects include the Save Vanishing Species semipostal (2011)—which features a portrait of an Amur tiger cub—the Bobcat one-cent stamp (2012), and the Holy Family Forever® stamp (2012).

Recently, Stahl, who works from her studio in New York City, caught up with me via email.

How old were you when you became interested in illustration? And what interested you about it?

I planned to be an illustrator from the moment I knew there was such a thing. I remember a friend telling me she posed for a neighbor who was an illustrator some time in middle school. Seventh grade, I’d guess. I’d been drawing since I was old enough to grab a crayon. I was the one who drew the card for the kid who was out sick in class, or for the teacher’s birthday. My drawings were up on the bulletin board for the class photo. It was inevitable.

As an illustrator, who are your influences?

I have to be careful, I’m such a Zelig…I sometimes purposely keep myself from looking at other illustrators too closely out of fear that I’ll want to imitate them. In the past, I’ve been drawn to the poster artists of the ’30s and ’40s, but I’m getting away from that and trying for something more personal.

What specifically about USPS projects interests you?

The wide audience, instant recognition, the fact that stamps can be our country’s icons in a minor way and collectors will keep my images around for a very long time. I also like doing work that is very simple (not that drawing them is easy by any means… it’s often very difficult to have something read the way you want at a small size)—distilling something to its core is a great mental exercise.

You’ve worked on several stamps featuring wildlife. Have you always loved animals?

Well, it wasn’t so much my love of animals that made that happen, although it’s fine with me. Animals are what I was assigned by the USPS. I’m a city dweller. Dogs and cats and the occasional trip to the Bronx Zoo is about as close as I get to animals. But I do appreciate their beauty and am very concerned with the encroachment on their habitats.

Drawing animals is the next best thing to drawing people.

Do you have a favorite stamp you’ve illustrated? And if so, why?

I suppose I’d say the Florida Panther (2007) [left]. He came out very well. The sultry look in his eyes is pretty provocative for a postage stamp. Snowy Egret (2003) is right up there, too as it was my longest running stamp and the first in what turned out to be a series of sorts.

Which of your stamps has received the most feedback?

Every stamp has it’s niche group in addition to collectors and general stamp consumers. The cat lovers have gone for my tiger on the recent Save Vanishing Species stamp. The knitting community took notice of my knitted Christmas stamps a few years ago. It’s hard to tell which has resulted in more attention. Sometimes I’m involved and aware of the reactions and sometimes not.

At the moment, are you working on anything specific?

I am currently working on a block of four stamps. As well as a couple of book covers and some self-generated projects.