Stamp with artworks are the mini-curatorial work of Derry Noyes, a longtime art director for the USPS. For nearly 40 years, she’s created tributes to some of the biggest names in art and design: Alexander Calder, Georgia O’Keeffe, Isamu Noguchi, Ellsworth Kelly, Charles and Ray Eames… and there list goes on and on.
The Citizen Stamp Advisory Committee (CSAC) is a 12-person panel composed of historians, educators, designers, and others who determine the subjects for each year’s crop of stamps. According to Noyes who served on the board first, is to,
“Pick a broad spectrum that reflects American history, pop culture, people, events—to try to get a good balance for each year.”
Some are harder sells than others to the CSAC, but new stamps released last year of Ellsworth Kelly’s work (above) sailed right through,
“This art is so well-suited for stamps. It reduces down beautifully. The simplicity of the forms and the bright colors and the crispness of it all, it’s just made for stamp size.
When you reduce art down, it can get very muddled, sort of fussy. It doesn’t look well at a tiny size, whereas it looks great as a poster.
Your eye gets better and better at figuring out what is going to work and what isn’t at this little one-inch scale.”
One piece of the stamp-making process that’s gotten much trickier over the years is getting legal approval to use particular images. But his particular set was helped along by the late artist’s husband and director of the Ellsworth Kelly Foundation, photographer Jack Shear, who was able to grant them the permissions needed.
“It’s unusual, now, to have 10 different stamps pass through all the legal hurdles that we have. We didn’t have to go through the layers and layers of different estates and different families.”
Noyes has also been involved in a range of projects, besides fine art over the years, directing series on endangered species, children’s book characters, American ballet, and lacemaking.
“To be given subjects that you know absolutely nothing about is fun, because you delve into finding out about people that you never would have been exploring otherwise. And that’s sort of a lesson in American history in a funny way. I’ve learned a lot of history by designing stamps over the years.”
Her father, Eliot Noyes, was a well-known modernist architect and industrial designer who ran in the same circles as Calder, Marcel Breuer, and Philip Johnson and as a child, Noyes met Calder. His sculpture Black Beast stood in her family’s courtyard and Charles and Ray Eames were close family friends. Noyes even worked on a stamp commemorating her father’s work, as part of a series honoring pioneers of American industrial design.
“That’s actually been the total plus of this job for me—the timing of these things, and being able to work on something that has such a personal connection. It’s still fun working on the ones you have absolutely no connection to, but that was just an added delight.”
Letter-writing and snail mail in general has waned over the years. But, Noyes says,
“We are still at it. There are enough people out there using the mail that we’ll keep making these little pieces of art.”