American Stamps. American Stories.

Who says that art must be large to be meaningful? If every work of art tells a story, every work of art on a US postage stamp tells a very big story about America, our history, our culture, our natural environment, and our interests — on the smallest of scale. Stamps are much more than a visible proof of postage, they represent a microcosm of our shared American identity and act, as poet William Butler Yeats once wrote, “as silent ambassadors of national taste.”

In celebration of the art and impact of the postage stamp, NOVA invited United States Postal Service art director, Antonio Alcalá, to create an exhibition about stamp design for the new gallery on their Alexandria Campus. The result: “American Stamps. American Stories,” written and designed by Studio A and Journey Group and featuring stamps by Alcalá and his fellow USPS art directors Greg Breeding, Ethel Kessler, and Derry Noyes. Throughout the exhibit, artwork and text combine to tell the story of the postage stamp design process, highlighting how important design principles help produce successful and meaningful designs.

As part of its salute to this small-scale art, NOVA hosted a Designers Talk titled “American Stories, American Stamps and the Branding of America.” The event was part of DC Design Week, which is produced yearly by AIGA, the professional association for design, in partnership with local organizations who promote values of community, connectivity, and diversity.

In addition to touring the artwork and attending the designer’s talk, visitors to the exhibition put themselves in the picture with a selfie wall with a LOVE stamp background. “It’s a fun way of reminding people that stamps are, after all, the story of all of us,” says Lisa Hill, Associate Professor of Graphic Design at NOVA.

Very few works of art have as much impact and large-scale visibility as a small postage stamp. Every year talented artists bring their skills to designing these sentinels of American life and times and shared cultural enthusiasms. “The Emancipation Proclamation helped pave the way to freedom for millions of enslaved people. Harvey Milk was one of the first openly gay men to hold public office. The solar eclipse that occurred last summer was the first of its kind to sweep across our country in nearly 100 years. All these important moments were documented and celebrated in stamp art,” says Hill. “In the exhibition, ‘American Stamps. American Stories,’ visitors discover how designers have taken the people and phenomena that loom large in our lives and reimagined them on the tiniest canvases — postage stamps!”

NOVA students, faculty, staff and talk attendees were invited to use their own artistic talents and submit a stamp design (or multiple stamp designs) to display at the exhibition.

“Stamp design presents a real challenge to an artist and to those in government who are in charge of determining what will go on these tiny canvases,” says Hill. “Postage stamps can depict an incredibly wide range of topics and we encouraged people to think on these terms as they were designing: Whom or what should the country honor? What important event should be commemorated? What is my American story? We got a great response and some terrific designs.”

A stamp artist must combine a focus on big ideas with meticulous attention to tiniest of detail because when it comes to art on a postage stamp, size matters. “Size is one of the most important considerations when creating a postage stamp. As they work, an artist must always keep in mind that their design should translate easily into a very small space.”

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